The Culture Wars: Never As Bad As It Seems and Never As Good As It Seems

I’ve been hearing some evangelical leaders lately talking about how the evangelical churches in the United States have lost the culture wars. What’s the reasoning behind this? As far as I could tell, it was based on the current poll results for certain attitudes.

Yet it was less than a decade ago that I listened to a program from a major evangelical ministry broadcasting a celebration on how the culture wars were won. What was the reasoning behind this? As far as I could tell, it was based on the current poll results for certain attitudes.

I think that both perspectives are simply naïve, and they take poll results too seriously. From what I can see from the scriptures, though, and the mandates of Jesus in the New Testament for the church, there’s nothing that I can see with him giving the church a mandate to win or lose any kinds of culture wars. Rather, his mandates have more to do with the ministry of evangelism and disciplemaking throughout the entire world (Matthew 28:81-20, Luke 24:46-49, Matthew 9:35-38), and, while all this does have cultural implications, I don’t think that it can be boiled down to a war that can be won or lost with a national culture at large. Rather, there will definitely be battles with civil and religious laws and rulers as the church seeks to continue with its ministry of evangelism and disciplemaking, such as in Acts 4:1-32. And, as the idol makers found out in Acts 19, and the Roman empire found out in the second century, the more Christians there are in a culture, the more it impacts negatively those who had been making their living from oppression, superstition, idolatry and depravity.But all this doesn’t really add up to culture wars that can be won or lost, and especially not upon the results of polls of the general population and evangelical churchgoers. I do think that the results of the polls add up to more wise and diligent work in the areas of evangelism and disciplemaking more than anything.

Ultimately, though, the church will always need to have a real concern for any kind of attempts at governmental control and interference with beliefs and practice. This has been true of the church for ages past; usually the concern has been over governmental authorities that attempt to compel some kind of obedience in some way that compromises obedience to the God of the Bible.  This usually comes out of a greater environment where there is some kind of legal or extralegal coercion of strongly held beliefs and personal rights of conscience. Much more often than not, Christians have opposed such coercion of strongly held beliefs as a matter of unjust rulers and unjust laws.  This is why Paul gave these directions to Timothy, and through him to the entire church of Jesus Christ in all places and in all times, to make these requests part of our public gatherings for worship, prayer and scriptural instruction. Let’s never neglect this at any time in any place for any reason. Pastors, and especially senior pastors, please simply follow scripture in making this a regular and consistent part of public worship services.

“I urge, therefore, first of all, that prayer requests, prayers, intercession, thanksgiving, be made for all people, for kings and everyone in authority, so that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives in all reverence and solemnity. For this is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who wants all people to be save and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

(I Timothy 2:1-4)

Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’?

Several years ago, I heard the late Charles Colson, on his radio program Breakpoint, tell of two young women who left the evangelical fold for Wicca for several years. When they returned back to Christ, it was with the realization that they had come face to face with the demonic in all its evil, and the realization that they would be marked with the horror of that possibly for the rest of their earthly lives.

As I remember, these two young women had been seduced away from their profession of faith in Christ by a strategy that has been fairly common for the past two thousand years. It was also well known in the early church from the time of the apostle Paul onward. In those days there were false teachers and false believers who would attempt to draw believers away from the gospel which came from Jesus himself through the apostles into a mish-mash of pagan religious and philosophical ideas, pagan religious and occult practices and pagan sexual practices. They would usually use the hook that they had secret knowledge that the apostles did not, and that they could lead these believers that they had targeted into realms of knowledge beyond what they had received from the apostles. Even more, they would sneeringly denigrate the knowledge, the  education and the qualifications of the apostles as second rate at best while they sought to draw them away from the foundation of their faith in Christ.

Here are some places where Paul himself spoke about this tendency:

“I beg you then, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who are causing divisions and stumbling blocks contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them, because such people are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ but their own appetite, and through chatting up which sounds compassionate and flattery they lead astray the naïve” (Romans 1617-18). 

“I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God, since I arranged the marriage of you, as a pure virgin to a husband, to present you to Christ. But I fear that somehow, just as the serpent led Eve astray by his wiliness, your mindset might be defiled away from the simplicity and purity which is in Christ, since if anyone comes and preaches to you another Jesus which you had not had preached to you before, or you receive another spirit which you had not received before or another gospel which you had not received before, you are putting up with it well enough! . . . For such people are false apostles, dishonest workmen, who are giving the appearances of messengers of Christ – and no wonder, since Satan himself presents himself  with the appearance of an angel of light. It is no biggie, then, that if Satan’s servants present themselves with the appearance of servants of what is right. The final consequence to them will be according to what they have done” (II Corinthians 10:2-4, 11:13-15).

Watch out that there is no one who drags you along through ‘philosophy’ and empty deceit which are simply handed off from other people, and which does not have its source in Christ . . .” (Colossians 2:8 ).

“Timothy, keep that which was entrusted to you, and turn away from the harmful, empty talk and mere contradictions of so-called ‘knowledge.’ Some who have been talking that up have lost their way about the faith . . .” (I Timothy 6:20-21).

“But know this, that in the last days difficult times will come, since people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, narcissistic, slanderous, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, irreverent, lacking in natural attachment to others, merciless, malicious gossips, without self control, vicious, unable to accept what is good, treacherous, reckless, bloated with hot air, obsessed with what they want rather than enamored of God, and having a semblance of religiosity while they deny its power; turn away from such people. For these are the kind of people who go to people’s homes and captivate immature women who are wrapped up in their own sins and who are dragged around by their own impulsiveness, and who are always learning about something though never coming to a genuine realization of the truth. This is the way in which Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, and these same people oppose the truth – people who are warped in their minds and wasted as far as the faith. But they will not go on any further, but their ignorance will become plain to everyone, as was the ignorance of Jannes and Jambres was” (II Timothy 3:1-9).

There’s more, of course. The letter of II Peter and Jude were written specifically to warn against false teaching, and throughout I John and Revelation 1-2. The pattern is that with a sneering attitude toward fellow believers and a pretense of greater knowledge that is more in tune and in fashion with what smart people believe in the current culture, they attempt to seduce professed believers in Christ away from core evangelical beliefs and practice. They attempt to excite a kind of naïve spiritual curiosity into pagan and occult beliefs and practices and draw professed believers into alternative pagan forms of spirituality – and from someone who was once there almost forty years ago, I can tell you that a naïve curiosity into spiritual and religious things can be deadly for the one who holds it. But coming back to describing this pattern — usually this also means a gradual shift away from Biblical standards sexual morality as well. Some may not entirely leave off the claim of knowing and following Christ, though, but they fall into syncretism, where they mix more and more pagan beliefs and spirituality with less and less sound Biblical and apostolic belief. What this may end up as is simply a belief that it was simply a personal ‘spiritual experience’ when they prayed the prayer to receive Jesus, and not a life changing expressi0n of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, Lord, Master and Savior, and in the God of the Bible as the only true God. I actually fear that many in evangelical churches are this way – and there are some polls which bear this out – where they have mixed a past experience and profession of faith in Christ with some very pagan and pseudoscientific beliefs.

This was pretty much the pattern of Gnosticism as it developed late in the second century A.D. under such weasels as Marcion and Valentinus. There were some elements in the culture which had always been used to draw Christians away from the faith – many drawn from NeoPlatonism, which was the leading intellectual fashion of the day, but some also from pagan religion. These elements are correctly called pre-Gnostic and proto-Gnostic (see the work of my college history professor Edwin Yamauchi, PreChristian Gnosticism), since they lack the extensive and highly developed myths which put Jesus of Nazareth as a savior figure alongside a number of other figures who were either either entirely mythological or semi-historical at best. They claimed that these elaborate myths and pagan occult and sexual practices were part of a secret knowledge which made those who followed them superior to those ignorant, second rate Christians who did not follow this. In apostolic terms, this was part of the one-two punch – governmental, political, legal and social persecution and false teaching – which was directed toward the church during the first four centuries after Christ and many times and places since then.

While the attacks of false teaching on the Christian faith then, during the first four centuries of the church, were that it was ignorant and unphilosophical, since the 1500s these kinds of attacks  on Christianity have cropped as charges that it is ignorant and unscientific. Here is an emphasis that I think too many professed believers have missed: Every challenge to our faith like this calls for discernment, intellectual resilience and intellectual integrity. The need for every believer is first to challenge the challenge at its very root. Often these kinds of challenges are little more than an appeal to a supposed authority and the supposed fashion of supposed intellectual elite. It may be no more than trying to mock and ridicule Christians to cave into what they assert that smart people believe.

Here is something that I wrote elsewhere on this subject:

For some years now I have been a member of Mensa and have been privileged to associate with some of the smartest, most educated and most influential people in the world. I’m not saying this to assert any kind of superiority over anyone but to make this point: There is absolutely no consensus or fashion on what smart people say or believe. In fact, many of them can be pretty ignorant outside their areas of specialization, and the most humble among them do admit that. So the point is this: never, ever compromise your core beliefs because someone tries to lead you to believe that your core beliefs are at variance with what smart people say or believe. There is a huge variety and diversity in what the vast number of smart people over this planet say and believe, and you can almost always find a few smart people to agree with what you believe or to sneer at what you believe. Any appeal to the authority of a supposed intellectual elite of smart people needs to be seen for the cheap trick that it is.

So, I will bring it back to what I wrote earlier: the need for the believer is to challenge the challenge, and not to give easy credence to the challenge. Give the burden of proof to the challenge first. It is a part of intellectual honesty for a person challenging someone else’s core beliefs to give strong evidence for the truth of the challenge, and not merely make unsupported assertions. And this is the case where there is the charge is about some core element of Christian belief and practice is lacking in or contrary to scientific proof, and especially where these assertions come from the social sciences. In this case, the point needs to be made, as it has often been made in the past, that science does not prove anything absolutely. The methodology of investigation, the scientific method, is itself not self validating; in other words, no one could, by the scientific method, validate the scientific method. Rather, in the philosophy of science, the scientific method is to falsify plausible hypotheses based on observation of material reality. But the opposite of currently falsified is not true, but currently unfalsified. Even more, there are methods of controls, peer review and replication which are used within the scientific community to validate the falsification or not. Still more, over the years, then, scientific hypotheses and theories are regularly brought under additional scrutiny, so that the validity of theories and hypotheses is continually under question and therefore not absolutely final. My point here is that any challenges to any core tenet of Christian belief and practice that claims to be from science needs to be ferreted out at its source, and this source will often be found not to be science but scientism, which is a practically religious and absolutist belief in what they assert are the unassailable findings of scientific inquiry.

Along with this, the Christian needs to make sure that he or she challenges any pejorative stereotypes of fellow believers that anyone tries to use to shame them away from the faith. In our day, this may be a stereotype of Christians as prejudiced, bigoted or hateful. First of all, this is a classic example of a cheap trick called the straw man or the ad hominem argument. The truth is that there are bad examples of prejudiced, hateful and bigoted people of every intellectual persuasion and religious belief, and I don’t think that the critics can themselves claim to be completely free themselves from prejudice, bigotry or hate. Their own use of this pejorative stereotype, this straw man and ad hominem argument, demonstrates that they are in fact standing in a deep cesspool of anti Christian bigotry. On the one hand, that there might be bad examples of Christians who have hatred or bigotry is simply proof of the common humanity of Christians, not disproof of any core belief or practice of Christianity. In fact I would strongly warn anyone that would attempt to differentiate himself or herself from fellow believers on the basis of “I’m not as hateful and bigoted as you say they are,” to make sure that they do not find themselves standing on the side of people whom scripture would call, “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18-19).

But even more, it needs to be said that no Christian is ever called to validate the slander of the ungodly against fellow Christians. I’m not speaking here of a simple acknowledgement of there being bad examples of hateful or bigoted Christians, but rather an over the top emotional overreaction against fellow believers that results in a severe rejection of fellow evangelicals and an attempt to distance themselves against other genuine believers in Christ, based upon acceptance of this false image, and say, “I’m not like them.” That is never the call of Jesus. Rather, we are called in every age and place of this earth to stand with fellow believers, not to distance from them or differentiate from them because someone is smearing them with an unpopular stereotype. In the early church under the Roman empire believers in Christ were often slandered by the pagans around them as baby killers, cannibals and promiscuous, yet they stood together and loved each other despite the slander of pagans. So, what scripture calls for is that we stand together in this world against the pagan slander that we are hateful and bigoted in the face of this culture rather than agreeing with the pagan slanders against fellow believers in Christ. Rather, this what scripture calls us to do: “Only conduct yourselves worthily of the gospel of Christ . . . that you stand in one spirit, with one soul striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not being intimidated in anything by your opposition (which is to them an evidence of destruction, but to you of salvation, and this is from God), because it is given to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him . . .” (Philippians 1:27-29).

So then, in every age and every place Christians always have to be prepared to be unpopular and to be slandered, and Christians in North America can expect nothing better as part of the price and privilege of following Jesus. This may mean that we have to have to forgo positions and opportunities, even change our jobs or professions to avoid compromise with the culture if that culture is calling us to be unfaithful to Christ. If it comes to the point where a government has started to go against Christians, to try to force them to compromise their core beliefs, the choice has  still remains they need to stand firm in Christ. Believers have in every age had to reply, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). In some cases, where they were even a part of such a government, they had to leave their positions and seek employment outside that government. Even more often fellow believers faced fines, imprisonment and death. The prophecy of Jesus, though, is that Christians will become universally unpopular before he returns: “ . . . and you will be hated by everyone on account of my name, but the person who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). If we find Christians in our culture that wilt when they face a false charge of being hateful and bigoted, then most certainly we need to be concerned on whether we will be ever endure through the final woes upon this earth. “Take concern for yourselves that your hearts not be weighed down with partying and drinking and the cares of this life, and that day may come upon you suddenly as a snare, since it will come upon everyone living on the face of the earth. Watch and pray in every time that you might be able to escape all these things which are to happen, and to stand before  the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36). (Note to pastors: when was the last time you preached on this passage? Here’s one for you if you’re stumped on what to preach on next Sunday.)

Yet still, we also need to remember that one of the pressure points against the church, as it has been in almost every culture at every time, has been Biblical sexual morality. I don’t fear that this will not be popular in the culture at large; in fact, I know that it will never be either popular or often validated by the culture at large. For myself, I know that when I first came to Christ that I had no idea that following Christ meant following his Word in regard to sexual morality as well and no personal standards that were even close to the standards of the Old and New Testaments. Before I came to Christ, I only knew that I liked, was attracted to and desired women a awful lot, and that there were a number of beautiful young women in my age group that had my complete attention. Like C.S. Lewis once wrote about his own turning toward Biblical sexual morality after his own conversion, it took me some time to gain any inhibitions. It was only a matter of time in his Word before his standards became my standards, and he began to change my desires toward marriage as defined by Jesus in  Mark 10:6-8. So the point is that understanding and following Biblical sexual morality among those who are professed believers in Christ is very often matter of disciplemaking, and teaching believers “ . . . to obey everything that I have commanded you . . .” (Matthew 28:19-20) is so often so against the flow of the culture. In some cases it may take some time after someone comes to Christ to deal with the whole message of the Bible, rightly interpreted as the Word of God, not just the parts that do not challenge me and do not force me to my knees before him to claim him as Lord of all my desires. But I must say that there is some false teaching going around, in YouTube videos for example, that people are listening that pretty much amount to twisting of the clear teaching of the whole scriptures on the subject. I’ve spent about 35 years or so in reading and studying the scriptures, often in the original languages, and what I know of these false teachings is that they selectively cite only certain scriptures and twist the plain linguistic meaning and historical situation of the ones that they do cite. The Bible challenges the sexual tendencies in our day in pretty much at least as much as it challenged the very same sexual tendencies in ancient Canaan, Greece and Rome, and believers then understood Biblical standards to be what believers have understood them to be for hundreds of years.

Moreover, there are many within the evangelical church who seem to be woefully ignorant of the tremendous spiritual danger and disaster in ‘alternative’ spirituality. To go into the occult is to run toward the demonic. I know. I was there once. ‘Nuf said.

Last, we can never underestimate the value of a stable walk with Christ in whatever culture in which we live. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, as you are being rooted and built up in him and being strengthened in the faith as you were taught, as you are overflowing with gratitude” (Colossians 2:6-7).