With secularism continually on the rise, Christians who hold to traditional views of the authority of Scripture, human sexuality, abortion, and other hotly debated issues of life and religion, are at an increasing loss for how to stand up firmly for what they believe to be the truth — about God, his character, and his purposes for humankind. This is further complicated by the fact that many active members of the Church themselves are inclined toward more “progressive” views concerning contemporary issues. A recent Barna survey revealed that approximately 60% of young (18-29) Roman Catholics (a denomination with perhaps the most conservative views on human sexuality) believe the Church’s teachings on abortion and sexuality to be “outdated.” Not to mention the “Emergent Church” types, as well as a multitude of Mainline Protestants, who are predominantly liberal in their beliefs about the nature of Scripture and moral theology. These groups, no doubt, feel the pressure of a “forward-moving” culture and find it difficult or impossible to adhere to conservative doctrines and dogmas that arise from a traditional view of the faith and of Scripture. For many, to hold such positions feels tantamount to walking around a crowded city street clad in a white t-shirt with bold black letters that read “INTOLERANT” or “FUNDAMENTALIST” or …. well, you fill in the blank.
There are a whole host of reasons that modern secular culture has gained so much traction — even within the Church — but the reality is stark. Traditional Christians (Conservative Christians? Bible-believing Christians? All of the above carry equally negative connotations today) are a shrinking minority (at least in the U.S.) who find themselves, on the one hand, faithfully committed to the authority of Holy Writ and the God revealed within, and on the other hand, frustrated with questions about how to exist and evangelize within a culture that is fundamentally opposed to their belief system. The reactions this frustration generates in Christians vary.
Many are carried away by the strong undercurrent of cultural shifts rooted in skepticism about the Bible. A God who commands humans to live in a certain way, has expectations for how sexual relationships should function based on his design, and expects sinful behavior to be repented of and abandoned, is a control freak or a tyrant. Belief in such a Being is antiquated and must be discarded. Such a God stands in the way of human flourishing and self-actualization; he is nothing more than an ideological remnant of the unenlightened past. Persons within the Church who more or less share this view, but desire to retain the label “Christian” tend to call the authority of Scripture into question, or, in true Jeffersonian fashion, simply cut out (or ignore) the parts they cannot stomach.
Another way Christians often react is with a me-against-the-world mentality. While the desire to stand for the Gospel is admirable, the way it is gone about is not always so gracious. Behavior can range from smugness about one’s beliefs to demeaning overreactions to verbal or even physical violence. Chances are that none of the above will ever do much good to a non-believer. Unfortunately, the cause of Christ is sometimes smothered by its defenders’ pride, arrogance, or violence. Such an approach is not driven by genuine Christian love. John Wesley once remarked, “Sour godliness is the Devil’s religion.” If I have not love, I am but a clanging cymbal.
So what is the way forward for those of us today who consider ourselves Catholic Christians with a “biblical” worldview? Obviously, neither of the above reactions are helpful. But there are also “in-betweens” like avoidance, passive-aggressive “evangelism” (“Oh, you like Jesus? Did you know Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible?”), or an absolute quietism about faith — with which Screwtape would be most pleased. These too are always temptations, but options never afforded by Holy Scripture.
Keeping godly love in mind, we do need to consider the biblical witness for proclaiming the truth about God in Christ. In all of my searches, I have found very few passages that are concerned with the comfort and well-being of a disciple of Christ when it comes to evangelism. On the contrary, the authors of Scripture (not to mention Jesus himself) are pretty clear that believing and proclaiming the gospel is going to involve suffering and persecution. Consider just several of these:
“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
The list goes on and on. But before we head out with a martyr’s zeal for evangelism, we must remember this: The testimony of Scripture is equally emphatic on all of this being done with love, gentleness, patience, and compassion. In our culture, that means a lot of coffee cup conversations, relationship-building, and a willingness to selflessly serve those who do not (and who will perhaps always refuse to) see the world through the lens of God’s redemptive purposes revealed in Scripture. We have much to learn from how St. Paul winsomely gains the attention of a pagan audience at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He is generous and meets the people where they are spiritually, while insisting that God has revealed himself in Christ and “commands all people everywhere to repent” because God is going to judge the world in righteousness through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:22-31). Now, I can’t time travel back to the first century to say for sure, but my sense is that Paul preached the gospel with a lot of patience. A lot. This is the Paul who became “all things to all people…for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). Paul is at once both audacious and sensitive to his context. How can we embody such a balance between boldness and love? And how will we become all things to all people for the sake of the gospel?
Betwixt compromise and incivility lies a path that, when tread carefully, just might bear fruit for the gospel. Or it may get us riddled with insults and persecution. In fact, both results are promised by the biblical witness.
– C. MacMillan ’16