Faithfulness In A New Public Square

For a while now, I have been telling anyone who cares to hear that several fundamental shifts are taking place in our culture. The differences that exist between Christians and non-Christians, and even sometimes between professing Christians, are no longer non-political or matters of amicable disagreement. We no longer have the shared values that have held our society together for over 200 years. It is like pillars collapsing under a structure. We see the floor collapsing, but if we are not aware of the deeper realities, we do not know why.

Teaching recently on current cultural matters, I used another image to help draw the distinction. What will the average Christian do if driving into a church parking lot on Sunday morning is like showing your passport at the border? Or, more accurately, when driving out is like going from your home country to a foreign land? Which kingdom, to use biblical language, will we associate with and live in?

Carl R. Trueman, the author of the important, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, wrote an article for Acton’s Religion & Liberty that talks about these new realities. I think he is worth quoting at length.

This first excerpt addresses the perspective that the church should not be pursuing the accolades of the rest of the world in the first place.

The first thing to note is that credibility with the world outside the church is not something to be desired in an unqualified manner. The New Testament makes it clear that the church is not a continuous part of the wider culture. The message of the cross is foolishness to Greeks and an offense to Jews, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians. That sets limits to the church’s plausibility in the wider culture and indicates that a church that is not at some level offensive to that wider culture is likely not articulating the gospel in a correct manner.

Then there is the new and overwhelming reality that everything is public and political. One of the consequences of this is that everything is openly contested and over-heated. It has become axiomatic that to disagree with someone, especially if they are propounding a progressive idea, is to hate them. “Disagreement = Hate” is the ubiquitous bumper sticker of our age.

And when the moral vision of society as a whole is shared broadly, religious differences can then be happily assigned to the pre-political realm, where they will cause little or no broader social tension.

This is not the situation today. The broad moral vision of America in 1900 has crumbled and been replaced by competing moral visions that have created a highly contested public square. Further, the politics has become increasingly psychologized in response to the rise of the therapeutic self for whom inner feelings are central to well-being. In this new world, the failure to affirm particular identities is seen as an act of oppression and even at times described using the language of violence.

This presents us with a significant challenge. When a shared moral vision is by in large gone from the public square, at least among those who are the loudest in it, what do we do next? Truman puts a fine point on this question later in the same article:

Christians are faced with a situation that has perhaps not been seen widely in the West since the fourth century: To be both a good church member and a good citizen has become increasingly difficult. Difficult choices will have to be made in the coming years.

After spending a couple of years with the writings of 20th century dissidents, and looking at Scripture with this in mind, I think there are at least a few things to keep in mind.

Do not live by lies. This keeps coming up because so much of what passes for “expert advice”, “science,” and elite peer pressure is simply lies. You don’t need to believe it just because they said it. God gave you a mind and the ability to think critically about issues. Refuse to believe lies. Don’t even act as if they are true. Don’t tell the professor what she needs to know on your paper to get a good grade. Tell the truth. The first thing a totalitarian ideology wants from you is your belief in whatever they assert. Don’t give it to them.

The first thing a totalitarian ideology wants from you is your belief in whatever they assert. Don’t give it to them.

Get to know the truth better. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). If you keep his word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32). We cannot coast along with culture and politics, believing it generally supports the Christian faith – or reality.

Recalibrate your sense of whose approval you need. As Trueman noted, a faithful church will run foul of a culture that is becoming more unfaithful all the time. When there is tension between the church and culture, that can be a signal the church is doing it the right way. When the culture is comfortable with the church, the church is probably on the wrong path. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, only living things can swim against the current. Dead things float along with it.

We are better together. If the research is accurate Christians have done two things in the last few years: left church and left core parts of Christian doctrine behind. I believe these outcomes are related. When Christians leave church, they remove the only regular and significant influence in their lives to help them resist the flow of culture. Then, over a short period of time, they will also drop parts of their Christian faith. This happens more than it doesn’t. If you have left church, go back. If your former church is dead or dying, don’t look for a flash-and-dash church, look for one that takes Scripture and faithfulness seriously.

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