Brittany Maynard ended her life last Saturday. The 29-year-old was terminally ill with brain cancer. She famously declared recently that she and her family had moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of that state’s right-to-die law.
Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced last Thursday, “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” In the U.S., 32 states have now legalized same-sex marriage, but only three have done so by popular vote. The other 29 overturned bans on same-sex marriage by court decision or the state legislature.
On Tuesday the nation heads to the voting booth. Some Christians and churches have been endorsing candidates and working hard for political agendas. Others have ignored the election entirely.
My interest today is not in debating the issues of euthanasia, homosexuality, and politics. Rather, it is in discussing ways Christians can respond to their fallen culture. When society or individuals make decisions that contradict God’s word and will, what should we do? How do we respond? How can we make a difference? As we continue our series on life’s ultimate questions, let’s ask today: What is our responsibility to our society?
What are our options?
Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture was published more than 60 years ago. It was my textbook in biblical ethics, and is still a classic in its field. Niebuhr sketches the five ways Christians can relate their faith to their society and culture. Let’s review them briefly.
One: Christ against culture. This model argues that we must reject the fallen world in every way, that we must have as little engagement with it as possible. We are to have nothing to do with the cultural issues of the day. However, the Incarnation seems to give the lie to this approach. If the physical world is inherently fallen, how could Jesus have remained sinless while inhabiting flesh?
Two: Christ of culture. This model attempts to integrate the world and the word of God, the culture and the Christian faith. It blurs the distinction between the two, and adopts the prevailing culture as the way to understand the faith. Whatever the culture adopts will be adopted by the faith as well. However, the Great Commission gives the lie to this approach. Why “go and make disciples of all nations” if the nations do not need to be evangelized and discipled?
Three: Christ above culture. This approach teaches that we live in two worlds, the spiritual and the secular, and we must give each its due. The one is not the other. The great problem with this approach is the sinfulness of humanity. This model does not do enough to transform the culture it seeks to help. It lives in Sunday and Monday without seeking to bring Sunday to Monday.
Four: Christ and culture in paradox. This approach rejects the third by arguing that culture is so inherently sinful as to be beyond saving. Yet it contradicts the first (Christ against culture) by arguing that we must try. We must preach grace to law, the gospel to the lost. We respond to the issues of our culture by preaching the gospel of salvation, for only when souls change can the world change. The problem with this approach is that it does not speak to issues the Bible itself addresses, such as the treatment of the poor. It is not a holistic worldview as are the Scriptures.
Five: Christ transforming culture. This model seeks to bring the biblical worldview to bear on every dimension of society for the purpose of redeeming the culture for the Kingdom. Unlike the first model, it does not ignore the culture; unlike the second, it does not adopt it; unlike the third, it does not separate the two realms; unlike the fourth, it seeks the salvation of souls but also the transformation of society. It would seek to apply biblical truth to cultural issues for the sake of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.
One challenge this model faces is the difficulty of keeping salvation issues primary. It is easier to deal with social issues as ends rather than as means to the end of eternal souls and significance.
Should the church be a political organization?
I am going to adopt the Christ transforming culture model for the remainder of this message. Most Christians would agree that the church is responsible to be salt and light in our world, to be God’s transforming agent in the fallen culture that is our missionary assignment. We’ll not be Amish, withdrawing from the culture, or adopt the classic liberal position that jettisons biblical truth for cultural relevance. We’ll not live in two worlds or confine our preaching to salvation alone. We’ll try to bring Jesus’ word and grace to bear on every issue we face, as he did.
The question is, how are we to do so? On one hand, churches in Europe have a long tradition of organizing political parties to further their aims. Most are called “Christian Democrat.” Such parties were founded in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after World War II. Similar parties have existed in Hungary and Poland. This approach has not been followed in the U.S., however.
Our history has seen Christians rather than churches or denominations creating political movements. The National Association of Evangelicals was formed in 1942 to oppose the secular shifts it perceived in American culture. It became active politically as a result of three Supreme Court decisions: in 1963, the Court banned Bible reading and public prayer in public schools; in 1971, it prevented public funds going to nonpublic schools; and in 1973, it ruled that the constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision whether or not to have an abortion. These decisions shocked conservative Christians.
As a result, the Moral Majority was formed by Jerry Falwell in 1979 to campaign on issues which conservative evangelicals cared about: outlawing abortion, opposing gay rights, and advancing their vision for family life. In 1980, Pat Robertson and Bill Bright sponsored the “Washington for Jesus” rally that brought half a million evangelicals to Washington, D.C. In 1988, Pat Robertson ran for the White House. The next year, he founded the Christian Coalition. The Council for National Policy, Legacy, and Renaissance Weekend are other networks for Christians who wish to engage actively in politics.
However, such political activism by Christians and churches does not seem to have advanced biblical morality in our culture. One could argue, of course, that we would be even worse without their influence. But most of these organizations have now ceased or are significantly less active than they were.
Instead, Christians are gathering for events and conferences intended to encourage them in staying biblical in an unbiblical day. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission sponsored a conference last week for three days in Nashville to consider the issue of homosexuality. They called on Baptists to hold the line biblically while offering God’s love to all.
Scripture commands us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). How do we do this?
How can we be salt and light?
First, we engage the culture. Salt is no good in a saltshaker. Light is no use under a basket. We are to take Christ to society, going to those who will not come to us.
In Matthew 4, Jesus called his first disciples to “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (v. 19). They had been fishermen—now they would fish for men. Why the analogy?
Fishermen know that they must go to the fish where they are rather than waiting for the fish to jump into their boat. They use the bait that attracts the fish, not the bait that is convenient to them. Not many of us would choose to dig worms out of the earth and impale them on a hook, but fishermen use the bait the fish will bite. They fish when the fish are active, not when they happen to want to fish. And they measure success not by the size of their boat but the size of their catch.
These factors all pertain to cultural transformation. Since lost people are not coming to us, we must go to them. The number of atheists and agnostics in America has quadrupled over the last 20 years. One in four Millennials (adults ages 18 to 29) has no religious commitment of any kind. Only one percent of college students go to church on Sunday. Clearly we must to go the fish, where they are, as they are. Our salt and light must go where they are needed most.
So see your job, your school, your neighborhood as your Kingdom assignment. Know that you are a missionary to your culture where you are. Bloom where you’re planted. Ask God to lead you where he is at work, to follow his Spirit as he is drawing people to Jesus. Know that he is already working in the hearts of people you know, and is ready to call you to your role in that ministry. Eternal salvation is not up to you—you cannot convict a single sinner of a single sin or save a single soul. But the Spirit wants to use your witness and compassion as he leads people to your Lord. Go where he leads.
Second, measure success by influence. Salt and light are measured by the taste and visibility they bring to the places they touch. The saltshaker is not as important as the taste of the salt. The candlestick is not as important as the candle’s light. Returning to Jesus’ analogy of fishing for men, the boat is not as important as the fish. Our culture measures us by what it can see—our popularity, possessions, and performance. God measures us by what he can see—changed lives, saved souls. Ask God every day to use you to influence those you know.
Last, lose yourself. The salt disappears as it works; the light is dissipated as it overcomes the dark. It’s not about you. God is the great I Am—we are the little I Am Not. Mother Teresa called herself a “tiny pencil in the hand of God.” Be that pencil, and know that God can make more of your life than you can. You cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.
Historian Will Durant once claimed, “The greatest question of our time is not communism versus individualism, not Europe versus America, not even East versus West; it is whether men can live without God.” That question is being answered in the affirmative by an increasingly secular society that is convinced the church is irrelevant if not dangerous. The gospel is marginalized; Christianity is lampooned; Jesus is ignored.
We are so confident in our provisions that we are ignoring our Provider. We are so committed to tolerance that we are rejecting the One who cannot tolerate our sin. It is vitally urgent that Christians be salt and light where they are, as they can, at any cost, to the glory of God and salvation of souls.
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once took a group of volunteers through an extensive training course lasting many weeks. When it was done he said to them, “I’m sorry our training took so long. If I could take you to hell for five minutes, none of what I’ve taught you would be necessary.”
A calendar once depicted General Booth in a boat, his hand out to a man drowning in the water. One of his grandchildren saw the painting and asked, “Is granddad helping that man, or shaking hands with him?”
What would our culture say you’re doing for them today?