(Note: While this section of the site is populated with my thoughts on blog articles of other contemporary thinkers, I'm making an exception here and am posting a segment from my upcoming book, The Biblical Christian Worldview ~ 2017-20. There will probably be more of these before the book is eventually published.)
At the end of calendar year 2016, hope was an emotion experienced by tens of millions of Americans who felt they had been abandoned by the Washington DC elite. An outsider, Donald J. Trump, had been elected President of the United States, and with it came the hope that the elected officials of the federal government would again recognize that they are the representatives of the sovereign citizenry, not the sovereign themselves. The people had elected a bull about to enter the china shop. The china shop owners (the DC political and media elite) were livid, but maybe, just maybe, a competing power at least equal in force to them could reverse the damage that had been eroding the people's liberties and freedoms for over fifty years.
Biblical Christians have always looked to the Bible as their principal source of hope. The apostle Peter's first epistle was written specifically to "God's chosen people who are living as foreigners" in the world (then, the greater Roman Empire) (1 Peter 1:1 NLT). Today, Christians recognize that Peter is still speaking to them nearly 2000 years later. We are people in exile, passing through this world on our way home to Jesus in Heaven. And as exiles in this world, how should we engage this world (if at all)? In the United States, we live in a divided culture, a post-Christian secular world. As the late Charles Colson might ask, How Now Shall We Live?
After reminding us that we are foreigners in this world, Peter then describes our current situation:
It is by his [God's] great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation [hope], and we have a priceless inheritance - an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive your salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.
So be glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold - though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. (1 Peter 1: 3-7, NLT)
Living in this fallen world, it is not difficult to see the hardships and trials Christians endure all across the world. In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, poverty and/or totalitarian regimes produce hardships and trials for Christians that westerners, with their freedoms and wealth, can only imagine. Our trials in the United States are more subtle. As technological advances proliferate across every field of endeavor, more and more information and disinformation become available, and the truth becomes harder to discern. With a growing number of choices on how to live one's life, the enemy is challenging the Christian worldview with multiple secular worldviews that are value free. As a result, the church is having great difficulty responding to the onslaught of knowledge coming at it at break-neck speed.
Recognizing how the world can tempt us with secular, materialistic thoughts and things, Peter continues:
Dear friends, I warn you as temporary residents and foreigners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.
For the Lord's sake, submit to all human authority - whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. It is God's will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God's slaves, so don't use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect [honor] everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect [honor] the king. (1 Peter 2:11-17 NLT)
So, in answer to the question, 'how now shall we live?', Peter gives some explicit instructions. Respect and honor everyone, and love your fellow Christians. As always, fear (be in awe of) God, and respect and honor the king (those in charge of government). Another way of expressing these thoughts might be this: act toward others in such a way that we retain our Christian identity and, as best we can, live 'in' this world but not 'of' this world.
Gordon T. Smith, in his book, Wisdom from Babylon, developed a framework for thinking about this question: How shall we Christians engage tie world? It has helped me organize my thinking, and it sets the stage for meaningful dialogue between the competing worldviews of our culture.
He cites four distinct potential responses to secularity and our modern world. Christians can:
Go along to get along.
Retreat and enter a monastic disengagement from the world.
Fight the culture war by worldly standards.
Fight the culture world by spiritual standards (faithful engagement).
Go along to get along.
This of course is what the secularists want. If you wish to continue to believe in your 'outdated' religious beliefs you need to keep to yourself; you need to privatize your religion. Conduct your sacred service on Sunday mornings, then spend the rest of the week where one would have trouble telling you apart from your non-believing neighbors.
This is the easiest and least Christian approach. We realize and accept that we live in a pluralistic society, but by definition a pluralistic society allows all worldviews to have a seat at the public square debate. And no belief system should consider itself 'privileged,' including Christianity.
With this response, a Christian can still respect nonbelievers and all those in authority. He can still love his God and his fellow believers privately. But he cannot then claim that he lives 'in' the world but not 'of' the world, nor will anyone, outside of a Sunday morning perhaps, confuse him with a confessing Christian.
Retreat and enter a monastic disengagement from the world.
Retreating from society into one's own cocoon is not a good option for the Christian either. The bible is full of instruction for the believer to reach out to those in need and to be ambassadors for the Gospel message, no better illustrated by Jesus' great commission (Matthew 28: 18-20).
Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option) is one voice for adopting an approach of building a separate Chirstian society. Many of the more 'legalistic' church denominations also favor a retreat from and separation from our increasingly decadent culture. But one can never stray far from the truth when we study the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did not disengage, as did his German evangelical church, during the horrific years of World War II.
Ponder these words from Bonhoeffer:
No one is responsible for all of the injustice and suffering in the world, and no one wants to set himself up as the judge of the world. Psychologically, our lack of imagination, of sensitivity, and of mental alertness is balanced by a steady composure, an ability to go on working, and a great capacity for suffering. But from a Christian point of view, none of these excuses can obscure the fact that the most important factor, large-heartedness, is lacking...Christ, so the scripture tells us, bore the suffering of all humanity in his own body as if they were his own - a thought beyond our comprehension - accepting them of his own free will...
We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ's large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action...by the suffering of their brothers and sisters, for whose sake Christ suffered. (Italics mine)
Bonhoeffer begins by aptly describing human nature: we feel helpless when confronting evil in this world. We have the ability to carry on, but we lack the drive (Bonhoeffer's words: imagination, sensitivity, mental alertness) to take action.
Bonhoeffer made the conscious decision that the best way for him to exhibit his large-heartedness, his compassion for the Jews, was to join the underground fight to assassinate Hitler. Knowing full well that the odds were stacked against him and his coconspirators, he nevertheless pushed forward with his part of the plan because he determined there was no alternative. This was his way of taking his 'share in Christ's large-heartedness', his way of showing compassion for those who were suffering. This was his way of acknowledging the words of Peter: 'There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine.'
Fight the culture war by worldly standards.
We all here it and see it. It's called the 'culture war.' We see the values we once took for granted being turned upside down; what was once good is now evil, what was once evil is now good. We're in danger of completely losing what we once considered our 'Christian nation.'
However, there are several things we must understand. First and foremost is the fact that we never were a 'Christian nation', per se. Our founding fathers based our Constitution on Judeo-Christian principles, but they also went out of their way to make sure that any one religion would never become the 'national' religion. The concept of separation of church and state is often misconstrued, but it does mean that the state cannot control our religious institutions and our religious institutions cannot control the state.
We also need to understand that our founding fathers made a commitment to pluralism, meaning that there are multiple competing philosophies on how we are to live our lives, and we need to make room for all of them in our 'public square' debate. We are also a country of laws, meaning that once the debate has occurred and a law is enacted, it must be enforced.
What does it mean to fight the culture war by worldly standards? Let's again look at our Constitutional principles. Our founding fathers knew that mankind has fallen and, left to his own devices, would seek power over others just for the sake of having power. Our federal government was therefore structured so that making changes required a concerted effort to convince the citizenry that the purported change had value. Our bicameral legislature meant that two bodies, one directly representing the people (House of Representatives) and one representing the states (Senate) had to agree on the change. Once the legislature was in agreement, the executive branch had to also agree (signature of the President). And our court system became the final arbiter as to whether the proposed change was consistent with the provisions of the Constitution or not.
Since the country's founding, our elected officials (read: fallible humans) have looked for ways to make shortcuts in this system that could be so frustratingly slow. The question was asked, how far can we bend the laws without breaking them to achieve our goals? The answers are found in our political culture. What can our politicians 'get away with' and still be technically within the boundaries of the law?
Over the course of the last fifty years, one way our politicians stretched this slow system for enacting change was by deciding that the Constitution was a 'living document,' and the Supreme Court of the United States needed to determine what the founders would have thought if they were alive today and aware of how our society has evolved. The most egregious example of this was the decision known as Roe v. Wade, which granted a Constitutional right to abortion. Since the Constitution was silent on this issue, its resolution really belonged to the state legislatures, the peoples' elected representatives.
Another way our politicians have circumvented the process is to just not enforce certain laws. Many of our immigration laws are ignored in the handling of illegal border crossings on our southern border. This practice is infuriating to many, because it ultimately means we no longer are a country of laws.
A third example of how politicians circumvent the system is through what they call 'omnibus' legislation. Rather than debating and voting on issues separately, many issues are combined into one large fat bill at the end of a Congressional session. Our representatives are given practically no time to review the bill and make amendments, and failing to pass the bill would temporarily shut down the government and bring political fallout that a derelict media would not treat fairly.
As Christians, do we fight this culture war using the tactics of nonbelievers (the ways of the world)? The Washington elite firmly believe that the ends (their goals for each political issue) justify the means (the tactics they use to accomplish their goals). Virtuous behavior in politics has unfortunately been absent from political discourse for decades.
There are too many examples of non-virtuous behavior in politics to list them all, but let me share my favorite. During the presidential election of 2012, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada accused republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of not paying any federal income taxes for over ten years. He had no facts to back up his claim, nor any sources. He said all of this on the floor of the U.S. Senate where he had immunity from libelous speech. He said, let Romney prove that he paid taxes if that were the case (an effort to have Romney release his tax returns).
Five years later, the press interviewed Reid as he was retiring from the Senate. He was asked if he thought that perhaps his tactics with Romney and his taxes could be considered blatant 'McCarthyism'. Reid bristled and said you can call it any name you wish, but he (Romney) didn't win, did he? In this case, the ends justified the means.
Many of the goals of the elites are laudable. They advocate justice for everyone and appreciate that racial and ethnic dislocation can cause hurdles for minorities that are difficult to overcome. Christians must also fight for justice but realize that every problem in the world does not have a government solution. And as Gordon Smith so aptly states, Christinas 'need to choose [their] battles carefully and develop the political savvy to actually make a difference.' which is a good segue into:
Fight the culture war by spiritual standards (faithful engagement).
What do we mean by 'spiritual standards?' Are there rules of engagement a Christian should follow without exception? I think it is fair to start with the conclusion coming from Peter's first epistle: act toward others in such a way that we retain our Christian identity and, as best we can, live 'in' the world but not 'of' the world.
However, these are platitudes that don't give any specific direction. Did Dietrich Bonhoeffer retain his Christian identity when he agreed to participate in a plan to assassinate Hitler? Gordon Smith once again provides some direction when he suggests we contemplate these three concepts for Christians and the church:
First and foremost, the church must prioritize its mission of creating its own culture that answers to another power in another place. Christians are citizens of heaven first.
Secondly, Christians must be consciously aware of the lure of secular power to suck them in and have them compete using worldly tactics and thus blur the distinction between them and the nonbeliever.
Thirdly, there will always be a cost to this level of discipleship. Christian engagement in the secular world will always be fraught with land mines because the engagement is perceived as a threat by the world to their secular power.
I believe these concepts do help us understand the importance of our maintaining our identity as Christians and how difficult it will be to engage the world, but they still don't directly answer the question, how shall we Christians specifically engage the world?
To help with this, I'm drawn to the wisdom of Os Guinness and specifically to his book, Impossible People. In it, he states,
The courage to be distinctly Christian and therefore to live differently must be restored to the heart of the Christian faith, just as the equivalent has been the hallmark of the Jews and the secret of their remarkable survival down the centuries and across the continents...For Christians to be the same as everyone else is impossible. Impossible people are called to be different, and different they will be or they will not be Christians.
And what does it mean to be different? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, each Christian must have a profound knowledge of and experience with God.
A generation ago, reading the Bible in an English translation that was centuries old could be extraordinarily difficult. Today, with modern English translations and 'audible book' technology, the Christian has no excuse not to read and understand it, or to listen to it read and recorded by someone else. I am now in the habit of reading the bible in a year, every year. I am now eight years into this ritual, and God's word is opening up to me exponentially with each reading.
How do I know this? One aspect of getting to know God (as opposed to knowing about God through Bible study) is the quality (as well as quantity) of one's prayer life. Prayer is personal communication with God that is strengthened by our Biblical knowledge. God answers prayer through direct reference to his word. The more his word is ingrained in our hearts and minds, the easier it becomes to really know God.
And as our knowing God becomes central to our thinking, we realize that Jesus is inviting us to utilize his supernatural power as we confront the world today. The apostle Paul reminded us of our access to this power in his concluding statement in his letter to the Ephesians:
A final word. Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God's armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh and blood enemies, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in the dark world, and against evil spirits in heavenly places.
Therefore, put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. (Ephesians 6: 10-18, NLT)
This art of spiritual warfare is so powerful and available to all Christians through prayer. The world lashes out at Christians when they sincerely offer their 'thoughts and prayers,' but many times Jesus told us this would happen. Prayer is a powerful weapon.
Secondly, Guinness encourages the 'impossible' Christian to rigorously ponder and reflect upon the history of any and all new ideas he or she may hear about. There are the obvious initial questions that should be asked: What is being said? Is it true? What would be the consequences of embracing it? But what if questions still remain?
Researching the history of an idea, just as we explore the background of someone we might like to befriend, can lead us to make better decisions as our modern world presents us with many new ideas.
My favorite examples of this are any proposals for new federal government laws, regulations or programs touted to improve our lives. The Tenth Amendment to our Constitution reads as follows:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
From this, we can discern that keeping powers in government as close to the people as possible is a good idea. One good example concerns the idea of maintaining a minimum wage for workers. Which level of government is more suited to have jurisdiction? The cost of living in each state is vastly different, especially between the states at the edges of the cost-of-living spectrum. It is common sense that the states should have jurisdiction (as opposed to the federal government), but this common sense comes from a knowledge of our Constitution and why it was written as it is. And this knowledge comes from a conscious and concerted effort to understand the history of the idea.
Guinness identifies a third tool for the impossible Christian: 'cultural analysis.' It is a companion tool to the 'history of ideas,' but significantly different. Whereas ideas have consequences, the culture (or context) into which the ideas are placed is just as important for the Christian's ability to discern the best Christian course of action.
Let's again use our minimum wage example. Our contemporary culture values 'social justice,' but it has differing definitions of what social justice means. This is a topic that deserves its own chapter, but for now we can say that biblical social justice and modern secular social justice are distinctly different in their approaches, and understanding these differences helps in deciding one's position on the relative value of a minimum wage.
So how shall we Christians engage the world? Guinness has outlined the spiritual weapons and tools at our disposal. In our culture where God is shunned and the Christian roots of society have been severed, Christians need to defiantly and faithfully proclaim their worldview using these spiritual weapons and standards, no matter the cost. I cannot summarize this any better than Os Guinness does with these concluding words from Impossible People:
God may stretch out his restraining hand and hold us back from the consequences of our settled choices. In his mercy, he may revive his church, and the Christian faith may flourish once again and provide the working faith of the West, or he may not. That is not for us to know. But our faith in God must always be our defining trust and the compass for our way of life. Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God's impossible people. Let us then determine and resolve to be faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our own turn have served God's purpose in our generation. So help us God.
The earnest prayer of righteous people creates great power and produces wonderful results (James 5:16, NLT). Let us work together and earnestly pray to God for a new revival for his church in these United states of America. Let us work together and earnestly pray that our newly elected officials are guided by the Constitution still proclaiming Judeo-Christian values and do not use the ways of this world to circumvent its original meaning and effectiveness. And let us work together and earnestly pray that we can sort through the disinformation that permeates our culture so as to know how to act upon and react to the issues of our day. Let us have hope.
(Note: This book segment has endnotes citing specific books and references for the readers edification. These endnotes have been omitted here but will be included in the published finished book.)