Trinity Western University’s surrender of its morality code, even though a private and entirely voluntary institution, reviewed by this writer in an article last month, should cause us to consider where traditional Christians are at this point in the cultural struggle against their beliefs and practices, and how they should respond.
The twenty-first century has hardly been kind to conservatives. After the expectation of a post-ideological “end of history,” we find in our current society more intense ideological conflict than at any time in the past. While twentieth century conflict focused on economic doctrine and problems, conflict in the twenty-first century, at least in the West, has focused on culture. Economics never leaves the political scene, and surely was the main focus in 2008-2009, but it is not what fuels the intense political conflict today.
What fuels the intense conflict is the repudiation of traditional Christianity, which has been the basis of American society and Western civilization, in reality and practical life, if not always in law. The conflict is so intense because it cuts to the heart of ultimate commitments. We see the conflict over liberty of conscience because it is ultimate personal commitments that are being attacked. While the real conflict is theological, its presenting issue is sexual morality. What has enabled the enemies of traditional Christianity, commonly called the cultural left, to gain the upper hand is the presentation of homosexuals as a class of oppressed people. Equally intense, but much more difficult to make a practical issue, is the commitment to universalism (or “inclusivism” for purposes of practical issues in the wider society outside Christian communities) – the claim that gospel is about salvation from suffering, not the wrath of God. And so people and societies need therapy, not repentance.
What makes the culture war possible as the focus of political conflict is the relative affluence that has prevailed in the West for decades. People as a whole no longer need to spend the great bulk of their time and energy on physical survival. This enables the claim that the point of life is enjoyment, not duty. The call of the old revivalist (and really all pre-enlightenment Christianity) to “get right with God” can easily be made to seem the unnecessary burden of dubious religious beliefs, and Christian sexual morality – so central to the call to repentance – at best one life alternative among many, and cruel if advanced as a standard applying for everyone. Not only are the old religious and moral absolutes not considered binding, but their opposites – namely peace of mind regardless of ultimate religious truth and the gratifications available in sexual license – are now seen as goods in themselves, and their denial immoral.
It is the very comfort of life that is making and increasingly will make Christian life difficult, and faithfulness to God’s Word, the Bible, increasingly easy to abandon in the coming years, perhaps even in the very near future. The kind of intellectual and moral attacks on Christian life that Christians in this country have known in the recent past could once be dealt with by Biblical admonitions, especially the admonition to bring all of life under Christ’s lordship, a large apologetic literature, faithful churches, and the protection of a regime of religious freedom.
The lordship of Christ is always our overriding consideration, and it has to be decisive whether we live in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the United States. But the oppressed Christians of the first two countries may not have apologetic literature, the fellowship of other faithful Christians, or any degree of legal protection for their faith. They must rely entirely on the faith that God has given them, and their desire, also God given, to be faithful.
The end of majority approval in society for exclusive Christianity, absolute morality, traditional moral standards, and in particular sexual morality, may soon make life very difficult for traditional Christians, who will not only not have the protection of state, but the support of institutions such as churches, employing organizations, political parties, and other private associations which formerly reinforced or at least defended the individual’s right of conscience. One need only consider the numerous conquests of the cultural left in the past twenty years to the sexual revolution. For example, state laws protecting marriage, conscience, the military (now de-Christianized by Obama’s policies and accepting of the new sexual ethic), the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, adoption agencies, and increasingly, large corporations.
The rub in Christian life comes when we are told we must violate the moral law God has given in Scripture, and refusal to do so is contrary to the established rules of the state, or the organization of which we are a part, and against science, reason, and the public good. Against all this, Christians can only appear obstinate, but obedience to God against all of these claims is clearly what he requires (Acts 5:29).
This happens for both Christian organizations and individuals. Adoption agencies have declined to violate their beliefs and closed, Trinity Western University chose to compromise. What would have happened in California if bill SB1146 had passed in its original form (requiring Christian schools to give up sexual and religious standards) and if all litigation against it had failed is unknowable, but many Christian schools would have been affected. How many would have been faithful and closed their doors is dubious – the investment of much love and work and money would come to an end, but closing those institutions would be the only faithful (i.e., sinless) choice.
An added, and serious, problem as far as defending liberty of conscience is concerned is the loss of ecclesiastical support. Our most important duty is to God, and yet it is easier for the wider world to understand if we can defend our duty in terms of the doctrines of churches. After years of resistance, mainline Protestant churches have largely accepted the sexual revolution, the Catholic Church may be moving toward practical if not full doctrinal acceptance, and an “Evangelical Left” champions sexual liberation. The traditional Christian is increasingly left with simply the Bible and his or her conscience. Yet this is all Christians in North Korea or Saudi Arabia have.
Crucial in one’s defense of conscience against sinful requirements without significant institutional or social support will be knowledge of Scripture, conviction by the gift of faith that it is God speaking, and in particular, the clear distinction between moral and ceremonial law. God’s commandments may not be enumerated in one category or the other, but discerning the difference is not hard. It is commandments concerning our relation to God and neighbor which are binding, not those that concern the religious ceremony of the old covenant. Jesus explains this difference in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark. Paul gives similar vice lists in his epistles (I Cor. 6:9-11; I Tim. 1:9-10). It was pride and outward adherence to ceremonial requirements that Jesus condemned, not the requirement to obey moral commands. Such faith and obedience is painful, but it is the narrow gate to life (Matt. 7:13-14).
And it cannot be emphasized too strongly that we cannot compromise in our obedience to God, regardless of legal or social penalties. This is no more than Scripture requires, and the obedience that true disciples have given. They would not bow to idols or burn incense to the emperor under pain of the most extreme penalties. Christian history is littered with the testimony of those who sacrificed their lives or submitted to the most excruciated torture not to conform to what they believed was false religion or false Christianity. We can hardly disobey God by acquiescing to state or organizational requirements to facilitate sinful activity because of hurt feelings and far milder penalties. Our great treasure is God, and his sure promises.Google+