One Good Result of A Culture Hostile to Christianity

Our world is changing. And it seems so at a rapid pace, demanding we take notice. Even the most isolated among us cannot help noticing. Some of the change we are seeing is due to the advances of technology. We used to get news when the paper came out or when the news came on TV. Now we get news of events a world away through social media with a rapidity we could not have imagined even a generation ago. And we are inundated with stories and ideas.

Another way our culture has changed is the values it holds dear. There was a time when what Christians held dear was the norm in our culture. The institution of the church was held dear and the very behaviors the church labeled as shameful were at least done in a way that honored such an opinion. But things have changed.

More and more of our culture is now hostile to Christianity and Christians themselves. We are marked as intolerant, homophobic, and a downright ignorant, superstitious people. There was a time when a celebrity could espouse his faith in God and be celebrated while the homosexual celebrity would have to keep his sexual preference under wraps. Now it is the reverse. Now a celebrity who comes out of the closet is celebrated for his or her courage and any celebrity who held anything close to an evangelical faith in Jesus would have to think twice before going public.

You might insist say these sins have always been there. True. But now they are far more accepted and far more mainstream. I live in Birmingham, Alabama – the buckle of the Bible Belt, where there are evangelical churches on every corner. And new ones springing up, it seems, every week. But even here, faith is more marginalized than it was even 10 years ago.

In my own workplace, gambling is a more acceptable topic than faith and church-talk. There is fervor and passion when my fellow employees talk about the evils of not having a casino nearby and reckless joy when discussing their winnings, losses and hopes of fortune. But when belief or participation in church-related activities comes up in conversation, it is done in hushed tones and the conversational equivalent of tumbleweed blows across the space between us all. It’s all been reversed since I was in the “secular” workplace over a decade ago.

And there is a lot of fear in our culture about this reversal. The fears are varied. But for the most part, the fear can be boiled down to one of being forced to change. The fear of not being able to have certain convictions without social, political, financial, or even criminal penalty is real. The church has been an accepted institution in our country since even before its birth. But is no more.

Why am I even pointing all this out? Because even though I hate to see sin applauded and accepted more and more and the church marginalized more and more, there is some good that can result from these changes. I think we will also be forced to do at least one thing we have not done all that well before now and it will result in much good.

We will be forced to really love. We, Christians will have to love each other. And we will have to love those who are hostile to us.

Nothing else will really be all that compelling. All the things we talk about and worry about will not impress the unbelieving world around us. They will not be impressed with our intelligence, theological acumen and worship music. Our views on sexuality, manhood & womanhood will draw yawns from all corners. And they do not, have not and will not care about what we think about leadership. All these subjects and many more we spend our efforts on will be of no consequence. Our evangelistic strategies will be seen as just another marketing strategy.

Yes, we will have to hold our convictions dear. But the only thing we will have to offer, that will impress upon the world that Jesus may be worth their attention, is our love. Everything else will fall flat.

And this is a really, really good. For this is the way it’s supposed to be.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:34,35

We use a lot of things to define us as followers of Jesus – evangelism, missions, quiet times, church attendance, sexual purity, abstention from alcohol and tobacco. But none of these are distinguished as having “love for one another” is.

“By having quiet times all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have quiet times.”

It sounds silly because there is nothing like it in the New Testament. But for some reason we have constructed a spirituality that is made of this. Some of these things may or may not be good ideas. But love stands apart as the one defining mark of those who are disciples of Jesus. Love is the only thing that has a chance of impressing upon the unbelieving world around us the grace to be had in Jesus.

What about our steadfast faith in the gospel and the hope of heaven in the face of suffering?

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:13

We should be talking about these things – where our faith lies and what our hope is in. They are very important. But Paul makes it clear love is the greatest of the three.

For years I wondered why love was distinguished this way. Faith seems so important. And hope? Its the one thing that keeps us going in the face of troubles. The answer may be before us now. Everything else is neither here nor there for everyone else. But love…love is something the world will respond to. All else they will be hostile towards. But if they can see us loving each other…

The hostility we are beginning to see towards our faith will force us to ask the question of ourselves, “Are we going to be a church of love for each other within and even to those hostile to us on the outside? Or are we going to be a church of warring against the changes only?

Christians are always looking for something really spiritual to do. So we make lists and before long these lists are laws we try to keep and try and get others to keep. But Paul said something that simplifies it all for us.

When Paul wrote to a group of Christians who were had a terrible theology of trying to buying God’s favor with their works, he also told them how to do all they needed to do. He said, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14 ESV)

So, maybe one result of this seemingly seismic cultural shift is that we, who follow Jesus, would be people of love and not merely people of spiritual exercises.

Truth and Love and How We Do Theological Disagreement

I still have not read Rob Bell’s new book. But I’ve read a few reviews of those who have. And it looks like he may in fact hold to some form of Universalism. (Update: I am in the middle of Love Wins and am no longer sure I would call his position Universalism. It is more like Lewis’ picture in The Last Battle.)

This is neither fascinating nor worrying for me. I am not worried he will lead too many people astray. Heck, I kinda assume that most of the people he pastored were believing in some type of Universalism anyway. I mean, this is nothing new…young hipsters having trouble with ‘eternal torment’ and all. It is troubling to think about.

What  fascinates and bothers me the most is how we talk about these things. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘me’ also.

I do believe it is loving in and of itself to talk about hell and warn people of God’s wrath against sin. And I agree, any lack of desire to be faithful in this as a pastor is derived from my own sin wanting to play nicely with the cultural milieu I find myself in. Maybe there are some people like talking a lot about Hell and how people are going there. Certainly there are. But we may also need to be careful of the tendency to downplay that element of the story. So I agree, hell is part of the gospel story and should not be mitigated.

But how we tell the story is also significant.

In a recent interview on MSNBC, Tim Keller alludes to this. Conservatives – theologically speaking – have a reputation for caring about the truth. Liberals on the other hand have a reputation for caring about kindness. Keller says Jesus does an attractive job of being both – the embodiment of speaking truth and being kind.

Usually the reply to such a statement is for someone to say, “It is loving and kind to be truthful with people about _______” Sure. But there is a reason why Paul called his people to speak the truth in love. Obviously there was the possibility of speaking the truth and not doing so in a loving way. The fact that this has to be pointed out – by Paul and by someone today – tells us something. It tells us we may be the kind of people who are prone to have truth so uppermost in our affections that we forget to be loving.

It makes sense that men and women of the faith would react to error with truth. But how many, when error raises it’s ugly head, see an opportunity to display lovingkindness to the world? I mean, if this is how we are supposed to be known as those who are his disciples, should it not be more of a concern to display the truth of the gospel of God’s love through love than through our our doctrinal convictions?

And I have doctrinal convictions that are not fuzzy. I love them and hold them dear. And would die for them and would debate them and grieve over the church’s loss of them. But Christians and non-Christians and those we might be unsure of will not be won over by our confidence in our convictions so much as their adornment in a love for men and women which reflects Christ love for those who were his enemies.

The cross is really a great place to see this truth and love on display. As he hangs there he is saying, “I am God. I am King. I am the Messiah. And I want you to be forgiven for what you do. That is why I hang here in shame and pain, enduring the ridicule.” If he were only about truth? Well, I think we can only assume, no cross.

The irony is we don’t want people to be fuzzy but clear on doctrine but we are libel to be very fuzzy in our love to them. But Paul is not only clear about the eternal fire but is also very clear on what love looks like. The unbeliever and the person we think may be drifting into doctrinal error will certainly question our love by our relentless pursuit of them to believe what we think to be true. But there has to be some kind of expression of love which they will recognize. We should be able to exhibit a love for each other and others that betrays to the world we are in fact disciples of Jesus.

I was actually talking about this very issue with a friend the other day. We were talking about a particular pastor’s response to Rob Bell. He called it “tough love.” I responded with something along the lines of “Funny, I don’t remember that being part of Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 13. But ‘patient love’ is.” I actually assume tough love is sometimes needed. But the problem is only a few people will look at tough love and call it so. But patience and kindness? Maybe we theological conservatives should work on those a little more.

It is true that Rob Bell’s Universalism – if that is what he holds to – will possibly lead people into error. Maybe. Probably. However, I am more sure of this – an evangelical subculture that cannot muster up lovingkindness in a way that mirrors Christ and is recognizable to those we remain at doctrinal odds with will do far more damage.