The frontier between evangelical belief and culturally assumed ethics has been high in the headlines over the past weeks in the UK and Ireland. The referendum on the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution and the announcement by the Presbyterian Church of Ireland regarding same sex unions/church membership have powerfully highlighted just how much of a gulf is fixed between conservative Christians and the surrounding culture. These differences are merely superficial symptoms of radically different world views and the sense of consternation that fills the gap between them. In this article I want to highlight three significant areas of difference between Western mainstream culture and Christian worldview which are driving many of the disputes and differences which rise to the surface.
Three points of departure might be suggested:
1. The nature of authority: follow any prominent Twitter feed that happens to speak from an evangelical perspective and it will be quickly realised that the wider world cannot comprehend (or tolerate) the idea that Christians are under the authority of God’s Word in all matters of faith and practice. The concept that individuals and groups of people might be totally informed in their social and moral conclusions by an ancient book is utterly incomprehensible to many. Part of the problem here is arguably the manifestation of Islamic extremism in the West over the past two decades. To secular eyes, fundamental belief in any text equates to a dangerous willingness to promulgate one’s point of view via any means, including violence. This is an unjust generalisation regarding religious belief, of course, but it is how many hear us when we state that ‘the Bible says…’. Another contributory factor to this point of departure is that those who reject textual authority are often blind to their own sources of information, and to the trust that they place in them. All of us are leaning on some kind of authority, all of us are investing it with some kind of infallibility – evangelicals are simply candid and self-conscious in making claims for the Bible in this way.
How can this point of departure be addressed? In some ways it is easier to say how it cannot be. Believers must not compromise their commitment to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, we must forthrightly and confidently maintain our assertion that the sixty-six books of the Bible are breathed out by God. We must not bend the text to make it more culturally acceptable, but must prophetically speak what God has said, regardless of the esteem in which it is, or is not, held. Positively, though, we can be consistent in leaning our weight on the authority of Scripture. Those whom we engage with in our world are highly skilled at detecting contradiction and disparity in our approach to Scripture’s teaching. All Scripture is God-breathed, not just the parts that speak to our culture, and we need to model what a life looks like when it is submitted to the authority of what God says. This means that our career choices, our work ethics, our neighbourliness, our attitude to the local church, our sexual purity etc must all show that we are serious about applying Scripture to ourselves and not just to others.
2. The nature of God’s love: an oft-cited doctrine in favour of Christians altering their belief is that God loves everyone, whereas Christians speak in terms which are less than favourable about certain behaviours and attitudes. How can you worship a God of love, and yet make morally rigid assertions about the world?
Again, the sources of this thinking are multiple. On the one hand, Christians have been guilty of speaking the truth, but not in love. Believers have been more readily identified with the pointed finger and the slammed fist, than the inviting hand, and such a demeanour speaks a loveless attitude that has nothing to do with the Lord.
The deeper problem, however, is that our world has transposed divine love into a human key, their hermeneutic is according to zeitgeist rather than biblical rigour, and so the love of God must look like the image our culture has constructed of it. Under these terms love is unconditional acceptance with no demands for personal repentance or change. Love is a revolving door of divine acceptance, a kind of badge of endorsement, in which God affirms the individual exactly as they are. This is not love as the Bible defines it, and it is not God as the Bible declares him. God’s love is bigger and deeper and grander than a fuzzy sense of moral acquiescence on his part. God’s love is righteous, and rigorous and redemptive. The love of God does not leave us unregenerate, but leads us to repentance. It is a love which is principled by all that is in God, a love undiluted by the shades and shapes of the world it works in. God’s love is so great that he sent his Son to be our Saviour, his love is set in eternity and soaked in blood, it is a love of unthinkable cost and revolutionary power. It is a love which reaches out to us as we are, sinners and rebels, but does not leave us there. Anything else is not biblical love.
The best approach to this point of departure is to embody God’s love in our manner, and fix God’s love in our mind. God’s love will be shown in our gracious approachability, but also by our decided tenacity not to let God be insulted by any love lesser than that which he has demonstrated in Christ. We cannot expect that such a view of God’s love will be accepted, but we must see to it that God’s love is thus articulated.
3. The nature of immutability: this final departure point ties together that of Scriptural authority and divine love. What the world finds most difficult to accept from conservative evangelicals is the rootedness of their commitment to what God has said and how God loves. Conviction is a word which is largely absent from the lips of our world, at least in the sense of it being an ideal higher than human reason and yet fulfilling to it, of a belief which transcends personal or legislative adjustment, of an affirmation of a principle’s power to drive and direct decisions and behaviours. Politicians come to office espousing one view of the world, only to forsake it in favour of advantage. Advertising and media ride the wave of whichever view is dominant, without any concern to keep an epistemological anchor in place. People ‘move in their thinking’ over and over again, so that a life lived believing in one thing is a source of mystery and derision to many. History has become a phenomenon on which one can stand on a right or wrong side, but history as a continuity, as the expression of a purpose or principle higher than ‘right now’ is unthinkable to many.
As Christians, we assert the unchanging nature of divine truth, not because we want to bolster up the pillars of traditional beliefs, or societal values, but because we believe that an unchanging God has spoken unchangeable truth, regardless of the spirit of the age. We believe that God is eternal, his precepts are timeless, and our joy and duty is to accept what he has said as final and fixed. On this point no amount of cultural engagement or explication can eliminate the interface that such belief creates with the wider world. Here we can only pray that God’s truth, God’s divine decree will be heard with ears which are given the ability to hear and hearts which are given the ability to believe. Nothing short of a miracle can move a man or woman from believing that God can be changed by them, to the fact that they must be changed by God and conformed to his eternal will.
There are many other departure points which could be identified, and those highlighted above could be handled in much greater depth and detail. Assessing the views of those around us, and articulating our own must, however, be informed and governed by the fact that our differences with the world are not superficial but fundamental, and that the issues of the day are simply expressive of the issues of the mind and heart which belief or disbelief in the gospel of Christ bring.