We are living and ministering in an era of unprecedented change, especially regarding the definition of gender, sexuality, and marriage. These past two weeks, with all the attention on the transgender movement and then the oral arguments regarding same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court, I was reminded how swift the pace of moral change is.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched an evening news program on one of the major networks that featured a five-year-old girl who had decided to become a boy. The reporter interviewed the parents, who were going along with the girl’s wishes and attempting to change her into a boy. The reporter also interviewed experts who lauded this.
One thing was clear: This network presented no alternative viewpoint—no alternative perspective even slightly questioning the prudence of doing this to a five-year-old. This was simply an unmitigated celebration of the transgender movement, with no need for an alternative viewpoint—as if the topic was why you shouldn’t eat foods high in saturated fat—with no alternative perspective presented.
In the wake of this onslaught of media momentum for the same-sex marriage and transgender movement, some conservative evangelicals have concluded that we have “lost the culture war.” And they have decided that the best way to react is to withdraw from the public square, at least for a time, and build up the church’s internal resources.
James Davidson Hunter, the sociologist at the University of Virginia, is an example of this approach. He believes Christians should be “silent for a time” in the public square, concentrating on improving the internal resources of the church.
But is this the approach we should take? If conservative religious people are behind in the current battle for the hearts and minds of Americans regarding the definition of gender, marriage, and sexuality, is withdrawal a viable option?
I don’t think it is. It presents a false dichotomy, as if the only way for the church to build up its internal resources, re-learning its identity and mission (and there is no question that it needs to do this), is to withdraw from the public square.
Jesus’s teaching pushes us away from this false dichotomy. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in His high-priestly prayer in John 17:14-19:
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (NKJV).
In this passage, Jesus says this regarding our relationship with the world: We must withdraw from the world and permeate the world at the same time. We withdraw from the world in our values, attitudes, priorities, habits, and practices. But we permeate the world in our presence in and active engagement with the world.
Jesus takes us radically out of the world and puts us radically into the world at the same time! I can’t imagine how withdrawal can be justified biblically.
Christian witness cannot be artificially limited to just private, “spiritual” witness. What are we to tell Christian artists or scientists or judges or doctors or political leaders or psychologists? Must their witness in the world be limited to sharing the plan of salvation with individuals? Are we to tell them not to bear witness, in their spheres of influence, to how the law and gospel and kingdom of the Trinitarian God transform our lives together?
I think Jesus’s teachings lead us to avoid this false dichotomy. We dare not make an arbitrary decision to withhold our witness to the world in the public sphere—whether this be how doctors deal with abortion, or how judges or governmental leaders deal with same-sex marriage, or how psychologists deal with a transgender five-year-old, or how scientists deal with genetic engineering, or how artists deal with portraying the reality of God’s creation and the distortions fallen humanity brings to it.
Yes, we need to get serious about the need for the church to rediscover its biblical and historic identity—about orthodox faith and practice. This is going to mean calling a halt to our infatuation with popular culture and being accepted by that culture. As I said in a previous post, “the reason evangelical Christianity is losing influence over the moral direction of our culture is that it has lost its stark, prophetic difference from the world in its quest to attract the world by being as much like the popular culture as it can be.”
Yes, we need to ask serious questions about how the religious right has sometimes borne its witness in the public square in ineffective and even less-than-Christlike ways. But the answer is not to pendulum-swing to the opposite extreme from what we don’t like about some in the religious right, thus withdrawing from the public square in the various spheres of influence in which Christians engage.
Instead, we must be radically in the world, bearing witness to the transforming rule of Christ in every area of life. But we must also be radically not of the world, living out what it means to be Christ’s redeemed people, called out from the world, set apart for His holy purposes. This nuanced posture will bring kingdom transformation to the world around us.