Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For Whose Name's Sake?: Thoughts on the Culture War

I'll lay my cards on the table: I'm not a big fan of the culture war.

Here are some reasons why:

1. Its expectation is foolish.
Whether you believe America was ever a "Christian nation" or not, it is theologically naive and demonstrably false to think laws or policies make anyone a Christian. You cannot create or recapture a people for Christ by illegalizing sin. (Which, by the way, is not to say that certain sins shouldn't be illegal. It is only to say that, for instance, outlawing gay marriage or repealing Roe v. Wade won't make anybody a Christian, much less make America "a Christian nation.")

2. Its medium is moralism, not gospel.
This is similar to my point above. It makes kingdom militancy about religion, not gospel. It seeks a Christian coercion of others toward better behavior, not an incarnational sharing with others of the better Way.

3. It is theologically naive.
It is the height of weirdness to expect people who don't know Jesus to act like they do.

4. It is often hypocritical.
It is the height of weirdness to expect people who don't know Jesus to act like they do especially when we can't get our own house in order. So long as large numbers of Christians continue contributing to the divorce statistics, the porn industry, and more acceptable sins like gluttony and gossip and greed, we have zero business telling the world how to act. Judgment begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Repent, Church!

5. It battles against flesh and blood.
We're not supposed to do that. (Eph. 6:12)

6. Its treasure is temporary.
I am not overly concerned with the culture war because it is a battle for something that doesn't last. Culture is temporary. I am far more interested in the transformation of peoples through the transformation of people than I am in the subduing of culture through the modification of behavior. Nobody ever got into heaven by acting better.

7. It makes idols of comfort and safety and propriety.
The culture war is largely driven by fear. We're afraid our public schools will ruin our children, we're afraid gay people will ruin our families. We're afraid a Democrat will ruin our country, we're afraid liberals will ruin our neighborhoods. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to protect our family, and safety of course is not a bad thing. But neither is it a biblical virtue. Ditto comfort. Or have you not read the New Testament? I'm just gonna put this out there, but maybe it's God's design for us as people and for Christians throughout all time to endure hardship, danger, persecution, and even death. Wanting not to suffer is human. Thinking we deserve not to is unChristian.

8. It has no root in Jesus' ministry.
Jesus knew heart change didn't come through political power, cultural pressure, or zealotry, so he was keenly disinterested in those things.

9. It mangles mission.
The culture war sets the Church above and against the world, rather than in but not of the world. It turns us into picketers and politicos. It makes us suspicious and speculative and sensationalist. It takes relationship completely out of the missional equation. It turns us from peaceful ambassadors for Christ into pontificating warriors for Christianity. It does not ask us to serve and sacrifice, which are non-negotiables for Christian mission, but to maneuver and argue.

In Romans 1:5, Paul writes:
Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

A few things:
Paul says we "call" people. This is the work of gospel proclamation, carried out in both word and deed.
Paul does mention "obedience," but this obedience is the kind that "comes from faith." Faith comes first, then obedience. It never ever ever ever works the other way.
Lastly, and most importantly:

10. The culture war is carried out for our name's sake, not Jesus'.
I am not a fan of gay marriage or Roe v. Wade, and even though I would vote to outlaw the former and repeal the latter, neither of those actions in themselves will make a single unbeliever say "How wonderful Christ is!"
The bitter truth is that the Christian culture war is not carried out for Jesus' glory and renown, but for ours. It makes "Judeo-Christian values" the end-game, the treasure of our mission. And that is idolatry. Nobody was ever legally or argumentatively or even culturally convinced to believe in Jesus. But millions have been loved and served and submitted to into believing.

Dying for somebody says a whole lot more than debating them.

I choose the gospel. Come hell or highwater, come a liberal administration in Washington for the rest of my life or actual suffering. My treasure is not Christianity, but Christ. My hope is not a Christian nation but a Christ-saturated universe. I trust not in princes but in the King of Kings. I choose war on hell and death through the liberating power of Jesus in the glorious gospel of the grace of God.
For the glory of God.


Matt Kelley said...

Good thoughts, Jared. If I may add one additional point:

The "culture war" assumes that we already understand the exact way God wants us to live in the world. I'm not that confident in my understanding of God's will for my own life, much less the life of the other six billion people on Earth. Maybe we should worry less about legislating our own imperfect understanding of morality and focus on growing together in our understanding of what it means to be followers of Jesus and being a missional community in Jesus' name.

Jared said...

Matt, thanks for the comment.

Have to push back a bit. I think the Bible is reasonably clear on what is "moral" and what is not.
My point in this post is not to say that morality is unclear or flexible -- is that what you're saying? please correct me if I'm misunderstanding -- but that calling people to morality is not the mission of the church. It is consequential to salvation.

Also, unless I'm misunderstanding your final point, I am not sure how believers and unbelievers can "grow together" as followers of Jesus in his name. Can you clarify?

Spike said...

I'm with you, Jared. The culture war is fought by politicos. Demographics make it a hard war to be won, anyway.

I worry more about the war for the "hearts and souls" of the body of Christ. It seems more and more of the church is compromising away the gospel, or at least giving it a back seat, and dooming a whole generation of new Christians. I wonder what percentage of the Body really depends on Christ anymore?

Jared said...

I'd hesitate to guess.

I hear ya. What's weird is that even the majority of the churches that claim to be more about "grace" than their fundamentalist or traditionalist forebears are just preaching moralism too. It's just more therapeutic and casual.
So bizarre.

I'm praying for gospel wakefulness in the church daily.

gospelmuse said...

Yep! You are correct, sir.

A number of good points.

So many concerns, so little gospel.

So many demands, so many distractions.

So busy, so restless.

Peace -

cailamurphy said...

Jared, thank you for this post. So often I feel VERY uncomfortable with the culture war, but I haven't been able to articulate why the way you have here. Favorite part: "It is the height of weirdness to expect people who don't know Jesus to act like they do." Second favorite: the culture war "makes us suspicious and speculative and sensationalist."
I'm curious: What do you think is the proper way for the church to engage culture? You've given the reasons you don't like the culture war. I'm interested in how you think the church should be acting. (Or maybe that's what your blog is all about?) I'd love to see a post on the 10 things you think Christians should be doing, up and against these 10 you listed here.
Thanks for your writing.

Jared said...

Hmm. I might have to tackle something like that; we'll see.

For the moment, though, I am answering some similar questions in the thread at, where I cross-posted this piece:

Brian said...

The thing is - at least here in the Christ-haunted south - I think that many church-goers would be just fine with better behaved pagans. Behavior and moralism is what gets taught in church so it would seem like an easy task to transfer that goal to the culture at large.

I have a friend who does Bioethics education and he looks at what he does as good stewardship(and a re-engagement of the culture that Fundamentalism tried to escape from over a century ago). I think that's a helpful perspective. Passing certain laws can also be seen as good stewardship - taking care of the creation or protecting the least among us. But its not to be confused with the Gospel.

Jared said...

here in the Christ-haunted south - I think that many church-goers would be just fine with better behaved pagans

I agree.
And in many cases, as the church goes about its business just mirroring the world, we are content to sort of meet the pagans halfway.

Anonymous said...

Good points.

But murdering people who live in the womb needs to be illegal. Not sure if that's what you meant by illegalizing sin, but it is sin, of the worst kind, and it needs to be illegal.

No, it won't make America a Christian nation again if we overturn Roe v. Wade, but it will make a huge difference to people who are waiting to be born.


Jared said...

Anonymous, as I indicated twice in the post and have written elsewhere, I agree that abortion should be illegal.

Anonymous said...


You are right; I ought to have read your post more carefully---

I guess this opens up a more complicated question though--

How to remain disengaged in the culture wars, which is defensible, (and you have done a good job of defending it)----

Whilst maintaining a Christian motivation toward changing the laws of our land so that they reflect God's justice, i.e., protecting the lives of the waiting-to-be-born----

Or, rescuing them from the slaughter, as mentioned in Proverbs 24:11.

What's your take on it---

P.S. Only anonymous because my google acct doesn't work for some reason. I'm Lesley.

Jared said...

It's probably different for different people, according to temperament, attitude, strengths and weaknesses, positions in society, etc. I don't know.

My approach is to, as Piper suggests, vote as if I'm not voting. :-)

I try to be as engaged as I can to the point at which I don't lose focus on or trust in Christ. For some that involves more involvement than it does for me; for others perhaps less. We can't provide a measure for each other except to point out that fear and worry are not spirits of the Lord. They are the affections of idolatry.

I think we can be involved and engaged, but we ought not to be involved and engaged as if whatever outcomes result can thwart the will of God or frustrate the kingdom of Jesus.

Ginny said...

Hi, my name is Ginny, and my friend Lesley referred me to your post. I really appreciate a lot of the points you've made. I hope you don't mind if I offer some of my own counter-arguments.

I agree that it is not at all productive for the Kingdom to make all the gays and abortionists out to be villains. There's no Biblical precedent for that. In fact, Christ would've dined w/those people. However, we are also called to be the light of the world, and the fact is that abortion isn't good for anyone, and neither is being gay. It's not helping them to appease or worse support them in these life choices. I know you said you disagree w/both of these things, but by not at least expressing our opposition (albeit in a kind, gentle way) to those who disagree with us, I don't believe we are serving as ambassadors for Christ. As a Christian I believe I need to stand up for what I know to be good for everyone, which is choosing not to kill babies, so that women and the men they're involved with don't have the weight of that on their souls throughout their lives, not to mention the babies that have been murdered and now have no chance at life. And I believe that God designed marriage in order for men and women to find completion in relationship w/each other (as Jesus said in Mark 10:6-8), so I'm not loving anyone by condoning their sin. In fact, I believe it to be a very unloving thing. And if I just sit back and allow the law to change in support of these things, then I'd feel as though I'm being complacent as our nation condones deeper and deeper darkness and injustice.

And as for being concerned about the effect culture can have on us, I don't believe that is a vapid concern. I became a Christian as an adult and I was raised in an extremely liberal environment (I don't know where you're from - someone alluded to the South - I was raised in a suburb of New York City). The fact that the adults around me condoned teenage sex and drinking sent a really confusing message to me about what is actually good and righteous, and I had many experiences I truly regretted later in life. Even just having access to cable TV as much as I did at a young age and supposedly innocent TV shows that took things like casual sex lightly, undoubtedly had a negative effect on my mind and my soul. Perhaps if you were raised in a more conservative environment you wouldn't be as sensitive to the negative effects of these things, but I want to make you aware it is no small deal. Jesus gave a really strong warning about allowing darkness to enter through our eyes (Matt 6:22-23) for a reason.

I do think there is a Biblical way to handle these convictions we have in the context of a culture that doesn't share them, and again it is not to attack people, verbally or physically. We can engage them in conversation shared in truth and love. Even challenging others on what they believe about abortion or gay marriage, while not being a direct exposition of the gospel, can be a step in their getting to know Jesus, as they learn about some of the things He taught. Conversations like these were integral to my own conversion experience.

Thanks again to creating a forum in which to have a healthy discussion.

Jonathan McIntosh said...

Great post.

"Dying for somebody says a whole lot more than debating them. I choose the gospel."