Secularists often do not understand the church. Much of that lack of understanding is the fault of the church herself however, it is also difficult for secularists to fully understand and accept the message and meaning of the church. Many secularists are happy to offer advice to the church on what she should believe and how she should act in the public square. They, and even a few churchgoers, would like to remake the church in their own image. Much of that image contains the liberal excesses of modernism, such as a loose form of sexual morality, and the comforts of postmodern relativism, such as cafeteria Christianity.
Sex and the Church
The common area of conflict between secularism and the church is the ongoing culture war that rages across the landscape of the west, particularly in the United States. With the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, many on both sides of the debate feel that the church has suffered a major defeat in the culture war and should either move on or recalibrate her role in the public square.
Many secularists believe the church has it wrong when it comes to sexuality. They think the church is obsessed with sex and that this obsession is obscuring her view of sex, namely that the church can’t see sex the same way they do. But this is reading the church wrong. If one goes to any evangelical church in North America today and carefully listens to what people are saying on a Sunday morning, the message from the pulpit or even home Bible studies, one rarely finds Christians making sex a topic of frequent discussion.
Many secularists claim that they only hear from the church on sexual issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But this is selective hearing. The church is talking about sex in the public square but only because society is talking about sex in the public square and far more frequently than the church. The church is merely responding and providing a Christian worldview on human sexuality.
If anything is obsessed with sex, it is the cultural institutions of the west. Hollywood and the entertainment industry churns out thousands of sexuality explicit and implicit media content every year. As they say, sex sells and for Hollywood it is a key source of revenue. Universities in North America have had sex on the academic agenda for decades. Not only are there various kinds of courses and programs dedicated to sexual issues, there is now open warfare on individuals and campus groups that dare to oppose the enlightened sexual ethic of the Academy. Not to mention the massive “hook up” culture that is standard practice in university residences, something that is torturing university administrators trying to define what rape and consent really mean.
I could continue with more examples of a sex saturated culture such as the heavy sexual themes on the covers of such august publications as Cosmopolitan magazine that grace the checkout counters of every grocery store but I think you get my point.
But all of the above are not the products of a church obsessed by sex but rather from a secular liberal mindset that is enraptured or, dare I say, enslaved, by sex.
The Fall of Christendom
New York Times writer David Brooks, in his essay The Next Culture War, claims that Christianity is in decline in the United States. Indeed, he might have added Canada and Europe as well. Mr. Books notes that fewer people are describing themselves as Christians, that church attendance is dropping and that young people are detaching themselves from religious institutions. More apparent indications that the church is losing the culture war.
However, I believe what Mr. Brooks and others are seeing is not the decline of Christianity but the decline of Christendom. By that, I mean a cultural expression of Christianity that looks like Christianity on the outside but inside is bereft of the true faith. For decades, it was cultural for most Americans to say they were Christian and go to church on Sundays because that was what everyone was saying and doing. To come out and say that you were an atheist or a nonchurch goer was to basically say that you were unAmerican or a communist. In parts of the U.S., many people would claim that they were born again and, for a time, it was fashionable to say so.
All of this was in fact Christendom and not true Christianity. Even though many Americans said they were Christian and went to church, most of them didn’t take the Bible seriously in their personal lives and most didn’t have a true relationship with Jesus Christ. The followers of Christendom went to church on Sunday but lived as practical secularists the rest of the week. They made the right Christian sounds but in reality their hearts were far from God.
With such a shaky foundation, Christendom was bound to collapse with secularism filling the void. In a real sense, Christianity in the United States is a minority faith and always has been. The number of actual disciples of Jesus Christ in the U.S. has always been below what the polls have been telling us for years. With the collapse of Christendom, that reality is becoming clearer. It is far easier today for pretend Christians to stop pretending.
A Prophetic Voice in the Public Square
In his essay, Mr. Brooks kindly advises social conservatives to change course in the current climate by putting aside their fight in the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution. He notes that many conservative commentators have vowed to keep fighting that particular war. Mr. Brooks is echoing what many are saying to Christians and social conservatives in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision on marriage: the sexual war is over, you lost, it’s time to move on.
However, this is a failure to recognize the nature of the calling that the church has been commissioned to exercise by her Lord. The church engages in the so-called cultural wars not to win those wars but to be faithful to her Master’s calling. In the early days of the church, the apostles Peter and John were ordered by the religious authorities of their time not to speak or teach about Jesus in the public square. But Peter and John replied:
“Judge for yourselves whether is it right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” – Acts 4:19-20
Peter and John’s statement summarizes the call of the church: to act as a prophetic voice in the public square and to clearly articulate the Christian worldview anchored in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the same call many faithful Christians are adhering to today, even in the wake of the latest setback against the sexual revolution. It is not a matter of winning a battle or war but being faithful to the call even in the mist of strident opposition. The Christian worldview has much to say on sexual morality and the church is being faithful to her Lord by articulating that worldview.
A similar situation existed in Germany in the 1930s when National Socialism swept the country. The culture war of that time had been fought and won quite easily. Many were saying that it was over and that it was time to move on. Unfortunately, many churches in Germany did just that. They moved on and looked the other way when it came to the implementation of Nazism. They lost their prophetic voice and decided to align themselves with the new order. Not all did and many German Christians risked and lost their lives in resisting the victors of that particular culture war. To them, it was not a matter of winning or losing but being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square.
We see the same thing today with Christians in Muslim nations who are resisting the persecutions and executions being inflicted upon them. They could easily say, its over, we lost, its time to move on and convert to Islam. But they do not because they are determined to remain faithful to their Lord and Saviour in the public square.
A New Culture War Proposal
Mr. Brooks proposes a change of course to social conservatives and the church:
“Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose. Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.”
Mr. Brooks then describes a society that is currently in social turmoil:
“We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.”
His description of the current state of society is an accurate one. This is a revolution that has destroyed common norms and rides on a secularism that lacks meaning and cultivates nihilism. This is the very revolution that Christians continue to rally against in the public square, something that Mr. Brooks is saying they should give up on!
From there, he proposes that:
“Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.”
Mr. Brooks proposal indicates that he has a high regard for his social conservative friends and recognizes that they possess the social and spiritual capital to tackle the great moral problems confronting our culture. This is in stark contrast to secular liberals who mostly see Christians as backward, a threat to progress and who should be shoved into their private faith closets for good.
What the Church Has Always Be Doing
However, what Mr. Brooks is proposing, the church is already doing and has done for centuries. Thousands of churches throughout the United States, Canada and the world are exercising their faith of selfless love in inner cities, the suburbs, in schools, hospitals and countless other places where people are hurting and in need of help. There are churches and Christian ministry organizations that are providing physical aid to countries all over the world. Christians are out there helping to nurture stable families, build community institutions, tackle economic joblessness and combat spiritual poverty, the things Mr. Brooks talks about in his essay.
For some reason he and others are not seeing the obvious. He says the culture war the church should be fighting is more Albert Schweitzer and less Franklin Graham. But the Franklin Graham he sees is the one on CNN from time to time, not the Franklin Graham who also founded Samaritan’s Purse, an organization that has been helping the poor and disadvantaged around the world for years.
Mr. Brooks says that social conservatives should be doing purposefully in public what they already do in private. However, the church has been doing all of these things purposefully in public for years but the secular media and their elites refuse to see and publicly acknowledge the work the church is doing in the world.
The church has much to offer this suffering world. By the empowerment of her Lord, she is able and willing to extend His love and grace to millions. The church does not do this perfectly but she has been doing it for two millennia. At the same time, she is also called by her Lord to speak a prophetic voice in the public square and this she will continue to do even if everyone else has “moved on”.
Mr. Brooks concludes his essay by saying:
“The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”
Mr. Brooks is quite right. However, the church is already doing this and doing it publicly. I would invite him to visit churches and Christian ministries in his city of Washington D.C. who are actively making a difference in the culture and see how the Christian faith and worldview are changing millions of people’s lives for the good.
2015 © Ed LeBlanc