Unfortunately, contemporary American culture is increasingly anti-Christian. How should Christians respond to a rapidly changing American culture? Do we resign ourselves to pessimism, convinced that many of the moral foundations upon which our society once stood have collapsed and are now irrevocable? Or do we reassure ourselves with optimism, confident that we can still win the culture war if we’ll just unite together spiritually, personally, politically, and philosophically? Most likely neither pessimism nor optimism is the answer. Instead, realism is.
The Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor 570 U.S. (2013) (Docket No. 12-307)[5-4] challenges Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA): “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
The majority opinion of the Court held, “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The Constitution’s guarantee of equality must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group. In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, [d]iscriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.” The Supreme Court accused Christians who believe the “narrow” teaching of the Bible relative to marriage as bigoted.
Persecution is Worldwide
Of course, such anti-Christian sentiments are obviously not limited to America. Across the world, followers of Christ live in settings that are hostile to Christianity (many of them far more hostile than the United States). After all, Christianity was born into a culture of vehement opposition over two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, and faced tremendous persecution throughout Judea and at the hands of the Romans. The total number of Christians martyred in the early church is unknown. It has been calculated that between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution.
Sadly, the plight of Christians is worse today. According to Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today (January 11, 2017), for the third year in a row, the modern persecution of Christians worldwide has hit an all time high. Interestingly, the primary cause—Islamic extremism—is being eclipsed by a brand of ethnic nationalism. Principally, this is a form of nationalism wherein the nation is defined in terms of a shared heritage, which usually includes a shared language, a common religious faith, and a common ethnic ancestry. Weber notes in his article the 2017 World Watch List released by Open Doors. In 25 years of “chronicling and ranking” the political and societal restrictions on religious freedom experienced by Christians worldwide, Open Doors researchers identified 2016 as the “worst year yet.”
How should followers of Christ today live in an America or any other culture that is intentionally and increasingly anti-Christian? It seems that every professing Christian in any such culture has two clear options: retreat or risk persecution. Sure, we can retreat. But we’d be denying Christ. Peter chose this option (Mark 14:66-72). Certainly, most Christians won’t reject Christ outright and not all at once. Instead, our retreat can be slow and subtle. I see this happening in America today through “progressive” faith, “inclusive” belief, “open” minds, and “ecumenical” churches. This involves trading God’s truth for the changing opinions of the world. The signs of such retreat are already apparent here in America.
Christians might not retreat from Christ; however, they may very well retreat from society. In the face of increasing anti-Christian sentiment and social pressure, many Christians who hold a steadfast belief in the Bible may choose to hide in the comfortable confines of privatized faith. We might stand up and speak with strong conviction—but many do so in the privacy of our homes or at church. We remain silent at work or in our university classes or other public settings. When the conversation at the coffee shop switches to the topic of gender dysphoria or same-sex marriage, or the language becomes rather course, Christians often sheepishly, almost apologetically, stumble through a vague notion of what the Bible teaches, or probably more likely, might say nothing at all.
Worse, when our boss asks what we believe and we realize that our job may be in jeopardy based on how we answer, we might find ourselves masking, or at least minimizing, our faith. On a smaller scale, I recently started a new job in retail. I completed an “availability” form indicating I was not able to work after 5:00 pm on Wednesday or before 1:00 pm on Sunday in order to attend church services. The store general manager insisted that I change my availability to all hours on those days and initial the changes in order to get hired. I gave in.
The Gospel and Culture
Clearly, the Gospel is the lifeblood of Christianity, and it provides the very foundation for countering culture. When we truly believe the Gospel, it goes from mere head knowledge to something that lives in our heart. We begin to realize the Gospel not only compels Christians to confront social issues in the culture around us; the Gospel actually creates confrontation with the culture around and within us. Of course, it is increasingly common for biblical views on social issues to be labeled insulting. Today it’s considered insulting and “backward” to an ever-expanding number of people to say a woman who is emotionally and sexually attracted to another woman should not express love for her in marriage. It doesn’t take long for a Christian to be backed into a theological corner, not wanting to be offensive yet wondering how to respond.
Culture now impacts the church. Ryan Bell, a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, published an online article on CNN.com titled “Why You Don’t Need God.” You can read the article in its entirely by clicking here. Bell is a writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a year-long journey to explore the limits of theism and the growing landscape of atheism in America. Bell writes, “I had been a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for 19 years. I resigned from my pastoral position the year before, but now I stepped away from my faith altogether. It was gut-wrenching, but I couldn’t see any other way to find peace and clarity. I encountered major theological differences with my denomination and evangelical Christianity in general, including the way it marginalizes women and LGBT people.”
For many, the Gospel’s offense starts with the very first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). Genesis was written in Hebrew and provided the people a foundation for their faith. Certainly, Genesis was not meant to be an exhaustive blow-by-blow account of how God created the heavens and the earth. Frankly, such an account would have caused the Bible to be far too large a tome.
For many, the initial antagonism of the Gospel is that there is a God—a supreme being by, through, and for whom all things began. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28, RSV). Paul clearly stated that natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, “…for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Consider the confrontation created by the reality of God in each of our lives. Because God is our Creator, we belong to him. The one who created us owns us. Honestly, does that not send a jolt through most of us? A tendency of rebellion? Nobody owns me! So we are not the masters of our own fate; the captains of our own souls.
Our Natural Reaction to God
God placed man in the midst of the Garden of Eden and granted him authority over all as keeper of the garden, charging him with naming the animals. The garden was established by God especially for man, planted in a full-grown state. God had just one command. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16b, 17).
Zodhiates and Baker (1997) notes that there may be purposes for the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that are not clearly explained in Scripture. They do believe, however, that it functioned as a test of obedience. Adam and Eve had to choose whether to obey God or break His commandment. When they actually ate the forbidden fruit, the consequences of their actions became self-evident. They found themselves in a different relationship to God because of sin. Actually, access to such knowledge was to be based solely upon a proper relationship with God. The real questions which faced Adam and Eve are the same ones that face us today: Which path should be chosen? What kind of relationship do we want with God?
The serpent was crafty to say the least. He said to Eve, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Eve said God allowed consuming anything in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She said God warned them, “…or you will surely die.” The serpent said, “You will not surely die… for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-6, NIV). I find the serpent’s ruse to be fascinating given he—as Lucifer—was cast down from heaven because of pride originating from his desire to be God instead of a servant of God. Although he was the highest of all the angels, he wanted more. He literally wanted to rule the universe.
Why do we run from God? John 3:20 says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (NIV). The reason most people run from God is because of their love for the flesh; their tendency to live in sin. This is unfortunately not the only reason: Many run from God because of bitterness. This is often due to a tragic event, such as the loss of a loved one. We tend to place God on trial when adversity strikes. The worse the troubles, the deeper our bitterness. But it is sin that is to blame. Nothing is as God planned. From the time of the Fall, all has fallen askew of what God intended.
Nothing New Under the Sun
When we understand this first sin, we realize that the moral relativism of the twenty-first century is nothing new. Whenever we attempt to usurp (or eliminate) God, we lose objectivity for determining what is good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Today’s militant atheists are noted for claiming that morality is merely a biological adaptation in the same manner as hands and feet, teeth and hair. Dawkins (1995) writes, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, not any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, And we dance to its music.”
Of course, the doctrine of the Fall offers an explanation of the imperfection of this world and God Himself, its perfect Creator. This concept does not sit well with many philosophies. Nor does it win any merit with atheists. Launder and Rowlands (2001) are rather vitriolic in their comments in Original Sin: “The term comes from Christianity’s belief that Adam, the first human created by their god, ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, and forever after, all humans have been born guilty of the crime that Adam committed. Original sin refers not just to this particular belief, but to all beliefs that man is born evil.” They argue that this belief is based “on the fallacious view that value is intrinsic.” But we’re not talking about a work of art where the value—the beauty, if you will—is in the beholder. To state that morality or ethics is based solely on interpretation is to suborn moral relativism.
Why is This So?
The Gospel answers that although God created us in His image, we have rebelled against Him in our independence. Though it looks different in each of our lives, we all are just like the man and woman in the Garden. We think, Even if God says not to do something, I’m going to do it anyway. In essence, we’re saying, “God’s not Lord over me, and God doesn’t know best for me. No! I define what’s right and wrong, good and evil.” In other words, morality is relative. This shifts our morality from the objective truth God has given us in His Word to the subjective notions we create in our minds. Even when we don’t realize the implications of our ideas, we inescapably come to one conclusion: whatever seems right to me or feels right to me is what’s right. This amounts to one thing: It’s all about me!
This is why the Bible diagnoses the human condition simply by saying, “All have turned aside, together they have all gone wrong; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12, RSV). Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners” (MSG). Some will argue that Christians are placing “ancestral guilt” on each successive generation. It’s not about being held accountable for what others did before us. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (NIV) [Italics mine].
We turn from worshiping God to to worshiping self. We probably would never put it that way. Most people don’t publicly profess, “I worship myself. I am my own god.” The dictionary does contain hundreds of words that start with self: self-esteem, self-confidence, self-advertisement, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-motivation, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, and the like. Are these concepts bad in their own right? No. That’s not the point. I can tell you this, however: I struggled with active addiction for over forty years. Nothing I did—no self effort of any kind—set me free. When I left rehab, I thought, Oh, now I understand. I got this! Trust me, whenever an addict says, “I got this,” he or she is in denial. No human power can relieve an alcoholic or addict of their addiction. For me, there was only one true higher power, Jesus Christ, who broke the chains of addiction over my life. And even that took me letting go of self and letting God set me free.
Twenty-First Century Ambassadors
Representing the truth of the Gospel in the new millennium requires three basic skills. First, we need to grasp the basics of the message of Jesus Christ. We must fully grasp the central message of God’s kingdom and understand how to respond to the obstacles we’re bound to encounter. This is not simply a matter of memorizing Scripture to through at the “unbelievers.” Second, we need the kind of wisdom that makes our testimony clear, bold, and persuasive. In other words, the tools of a diplomat rather than the weapons of a warrior. Tactics rather than brute force.
Finally, our character can make or break our mission. My pastor once said, “The number one attraction to Christianity is other Christians; unfortunately, the number one detractor to Christianity is other Christians.” Knowledge and wisdom are packaged in a person. If we do not embody the virtues and grace of Christ, we will simply undermine our testimony. We’ll taint the message of the Gospel. It would be better that we kept silent than bring shame or doubt or controversy to the very thing that has the power to deliver us from a life of sin and death.
Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Zodhiates, S., and Baker, W. (1997). Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.