You’ve been tasked with starting a new gospel mission among an increasingly skeptical people. It’s a daunting responsibility, the work of generations. To make matters worse, these people are somewhat familiar with your purpose, and they don’t like it. You might wish they were completely ignorant so you could start from scratch. Thankfully, at least, you’re not alone. Other believers in Jesus have been commissioned to join you in this task. Tossed into these rough waters, you will sink or swim together.
Some version of this scenario plays out regularly on mission fields in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But is the situation much different in Western Europe or the United States? Not if we have eyes to see. Christians in the West must adjust our attitudes and strategies. We will not do so, however, until we realize our calling as missionaries to our own culture. Only then will we see how New Testament books such as 1 Peter prepare us to joyfully endure hostility from the world, humbly seek unity inside the church, and eagerly share Christ with our neighbors.
Consider this question: Does the greater threat to the church in the West come from the inside or the outside? How you answer determines your prescription for what ails our age. I posed this question and others to Ross Douthat, an acclaimed op-ed columnist for The New York Times and author of the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
As Douthat observed in his 2012 book, the dominant form of Christianity in America today hardly resembles historic orthodoxy. Pundits may wring their hands over hard secularism and theological liberalism. But many more Americans prefer a syncretistic, Gnostic spirituality that merges Christian elements with what’s been dubbed “expressive individualism.” No authority—whether history or Scripture or parents or pastors—inhibits this personally tailored pursuit of self-fulfillment and search for identity.
Even many churches that claim to believe the Bible confuse this insidious message with Jesus’s call to discipleship. Thus many Christians see only the external threats in the form of political opponents and rogue judges. They respond by supporting strong-arm politicians and tactics as if the world’s methods could win our neighbors to the Word’s ways. Apparently many Christians believe the Religious Right was wrong only in its scruples.
So, could conservative Christians have done anything in the last several decades to avoid these setbacks?
“Most Western societies have ended up in a place where traditional Christianity is a lot weaker than it used to be, and ours took longer to get there, but it’s not surprising that’s where we’re headed,” Douthat told me.
Why? Because the church has been weakened from within—in part under pressure from outside attacks but mostly due to theological erosion. Revisit my opening scenario. Why should skepticism from the world surprise us? Why would a missionary rail against the neighbors he’s been sent to save? Jesus endured hostility and told us to expect it. So did Peter. And they did so joyfully.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Pet. 4:12–14)
You can rejoice amid various trials, Christian, because you’ve been born again to an inexpressible joy and living hope. You’ve been ransomed from “futile ways” by the “precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). The resurrection and ascension of Jesus anchor your faith and hope in God (1 Pet. 1:21). No matter what your neighbors say or do, you can love them with the power of the Spirit and testify to Christ. Either way, you are blessed.
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:13–17)
We follow a Savior who was rejected by his people. And because he was rejected, we are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). The world offers you no comparable titles. Why lust for fleeting popularity when you belong to a royal priesthood? Everything of everlasting value already belongs to you in Christ, and no one and nothing can take that away.
Don’t Settle for Esau’s Stew
Still, danger lurks. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan seeks to devour us by robbing us of this beautiful truth found in the gospel. He whispers in our ear, “Did God actually say?” As our trust in God’s Word wanes, temptation waxes. The things of God grow strangely dim as we prefer the world’s false promises to his glory and grace.
You can see, then, why the greatest threat to the church comes from the inside when we’re tempted to believe counterfeit gospels. Throughout the New Testament we see that such false teaching causes disastrous division. False teaching cannot deliver on its promises of peace with the world, and it confuses the world about the news we proclaim. False teaching turns the church against itself, brother against erstwhile brother.
Especially as external threats mount, Douthat encourages Christians to build strong, unified institutions that will guard this good deposit of the gospel. We must not trade the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for Esau’s stew. Neither, I would add, should we mistake Saul for David as we yearn for a deliverer from our enemies.
“If Charles Manson promises to appoint pro-life justices,” Douthat told me, “you still can’t vote for him for president.”
Somehow, though, even in our nightmare scenarios God plan will prevail. His good purposes cannot be thwarted.
“This is good news,” said Douthat, a Roman Catholic who grew up Pentecostal, about our legal and political challenges. “Religious institutions are being called to be more authentically religious, more autonomous and independent of the culture and the government, and in the long run that isn’t a bad thing to be. It’s just that the transition to getting there is going to be very, very bumpy.”
Seek Peace: But Where?
Throughout church history, external pressure has exacerbated internal divisions. That’s why we’re tempted to confuse the source of our suffering. We think the world’s opposition means we’ve done or believed something wrong. Not necessarily. In the New Testament, internal divisions are common and external opposition is normative. We’re told to seek peace in the church, not with the world. Only Jesus brings perfect justice and peace when he returns to rule (Rev. 22:12).
Douthat’s most haunting column wonders how the church’s enemies will handle the terms of our surrender in the culture wars. But I’m more concerned with how we’ll handle this setback in the church. Will we repent where necessary and confess that too often we’ve lusted after power, influence, and control at the expense of those who needed sacrificial love? Will we seek forgiveness from those who needed to hear from Jesus when instead we preached a gospel of markets and morals? Will we lament our lack of faith and plead with God for the global advance of his kingdom?
So far, not so good. Many evangelicals fight for smaller and smaller slices of territory with dirtier weapons. They do not learn the lessons of previous defeats and instead seem intent to make the post-war settlement that much less tolerable. They do not realize the game they’re playing is rigged. They lack faith, hope, and love that ought to issue from our worship of a risen and ascendant Savior.
“Every form of attempted pushback from religious conservatives, every attempt to carve out zones of protection, ends up looking like a huge tactical mistake, because it focuses the attention of media, activists, and celebrities,” Douthat said.
More than our tactics must change in this new era of religious intolerance. We need good news that makes us obedient to truth so we might love one another. Every other strategy will fail. Only the word of the Lord will endure.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Pet. 1:22–25)
Less Obvious Danger
The grass of our polarized politics will wither. The flower of the sexual revolution will fall. To be sure, these temptations will entice for a time. But the less obvious dangers may be most calamitous for future generations. Parents, in particular, must prepare to make hard decisions in order care for their children, even if other Christians don’t yet perceive the threat.
“As a parent I spend more time worrying about technology than about trends in American Christianity,” Douthat said.
The history books would be a lot less interesting and scary if we could always anticipate the biggest threat around the corner. Imagine if Congress had enacted financial reform of Wall Street before the crash of 1929. Imagine if Chamberlain had confronted Hitler at Munich in 1938.
With God’s Word, though, Christians don’t have to imagine the source of our greatest danger. We know what it is, and we know how it comes. So we must not preach another gospel except the one we have received (1 Cor. 15:1). The Spirit gives us eyes to see, and the Word gives us the message that gives life. Yes, for a little while we will suffer hostility from the world. But we’ll endure it together joyfully with love for even our worst enemies—if only we’ll humbly seek unity in the one true gospel of Jesus Christ.
Watch the whole 70-minute interview with Douthat or listen to the audio as I ask him about Donald Trump, Pope Francis, abortion, homosexuality, religious liberty, immigration, marriage, parenting, decadence, collegiate “safe spaces,” the future of Europe, and more.