“Imagine if Christians took a year off from the culture wars and just did works of mercy in our communities,” a prominent pastor recently said. This is not a new sentiment. Evangelicals have been making such proposals for several years now, perhaps most eloquently articulated in James Davidson Hunter’s book To Change the World.
I’ve lived on both sides of the debate over the culture war. Most of my adult life has been in vocational Christian ministry, working in leadership for churches and Christian nonprofits. I’ve also served in political campaigns and worked for activist organizations. Most recently I was a pastor. Now I work for a public policy organization with a twofold mission of speaking for the church and speaking to the church.
I’ve wrestled with the many tensions of public theology in a religious, representative republic. When I pastored, I often cringed at the sharp and partisan rhetoric of the culture war, vexed by the many ways God’s people easily confused conservative talking points with biblical witness. I’ve also been on the other side, wishing pastors would more courageously prepare their people to live out the gospel in the public square.
In these roles I’ve discovered that we can’t escape the culture wars. That may not be what Christians want to hear, but it’s the reality of fully obeying the demands of the gospel in a fallen world. The shape of our witness may change, and the culture we serve may look different than it did a generation ago. But if we care about obeying all that Jesus commanded us, we will have to die to our desire to be liked and recommit to doing as the early church did, “obeying God rather than man.”
Why can’t we take a timeout or take a year off from the culture wars? In my experience I’ve found three reasons why the true gospel will always be at odds with any fallen culture.
Even if we committed to, as some ministry practitioners suggest, “only preach the gospel,” we still could not avoid areas of conflict with the larger culture. That is, if we preach the whole gospel and not a kind of easy-believism, cost-free message.
Consider why the early church was persecuted by Rome. They weren’t subjected to persecution because they were intolerant or because the Romans were especially mean. The first Christians were persecuted because of the message they proclaimed: there is another King and another kingdom. Caesar may be in power, but he’s not worthy of worship or adoration or sacrifice. Christ triumphs over Caesar and every other worldly ruler. This view offended the citizens who participated in emperor cult worship. What’s more, the early Christians refused to make sacrifices to gods they didn’t believe in. This resistance led to marginalization, separation, and eventually martyrdom for many.
The gospel message itself—this message of love, redemption, grace, and mercy—was the main reason the church was disliked. Christians did find favor in some parts of the empire and modeled both courage and civility. But even Christianity at its best could not escape the scorn and punishment of the larger world. Then, as now, genuine faith in Christ was seen as strange and dangerous.
Christians today shouldn’t seek martyrdom, nor should we go out of our way to offend. There is much we can learn from Jesus about living in the tension of grace and truth. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can avoid the cost of discipleship. The gospel itself is, at many points, at war with a fallen humanity.
Often when I hear people say we should take a break from the culture wars, I want to ask, “Which ones?” Every time Christians apply the gospel to their communities, they are, at some level, enaged in “culture warring.” They are bringing the kingdom of Christ to bear on the fallen world, corrupted by the enemy. It’s a battle of light against darkness.
The term “culture wars” typically evokes hotly contested issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. But to engage less controversial issues like human poverty, animal cruelty, and immigration reform does not make one less of a culture warrior.
Imagine if every Christian took a year off from fighting human trafficking or racial injustice. Imagine if every Christian stopped advocating for urban renewal and prison reform. Imagine if Christians silenced their voices against persecution of religious minorities or the economic injustice of payday lending.
This is what a real culture war timeout looks like. But what kind of gospel would this be? That gospel stays within the four walls of the church, doesn’t motivate God’s people to love their neighbors, to care about human flourishing, to embody the ethics of the kingdom. That half-gospel is not the triumphant, world-altering good news Jesus delivered.
The result of such a timeout would be catastrophic. How many lives, created in the image of God, would suffer? What’s more, we’ve seen that no amount of good works guarantees peace with the “prince and power of the air.” Louie Giglio proves that even heroic advocacy for victims of human trafficking is not enough social capital to escape the scorn of a countercultural biblical sexual ethic.
To be clear, there is room for Christians to mature in their engagement. We should consistently revaluate our presence, reexamine our posture, and refocus our efforts. But to withdrawal from society is to preach a gospel wholly different than the one revealed to us by Scripture.
As Americans, we have been given a unique opportunity to shape government and public policy. We have the freedom to choose our political leaders and influence the kind of policies they put in place. We have no choice but to steward this responsibility well. If we apply Romans 13 correctly, we accept that the God-given responsibility to rule well rests not only on the shoulders of our elected officials, but also on the citizens who elect them.
We’ve seen the danger of evangelicals too closely aligning themselves with political power, a syncretism of God and country that neither serves the country nor honors God. But the answer to a triumphalist view of politics is not withdrawal, but rather a kind of prophetic engagement.
We steward the power we’ve been given as Americans. God is going to hold us accountable, at the judgment seat, for the way we wielded that power. What’s more, to retreat from this stewardship, to not leverage our voice for the flourishing of our fellow man, is to fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we don’t see this quietist approach espoused anywhere in the New Testament. Paul, numerous times, leaned on his Roman citizenship to gain a more favorable hearing before his Roman rulers (Acts 21:3-5). Jesus rebuked the high priest for illegal physical abuse (John 18:23). Later Paul asked Timothy to pray for religious liberty (1 Tim. 2:2).
To abandon the public square reflects a poor view of God’s sovereignty over the earthly kingdoms. It’s a false division between the secular and sacred. And it’s a cruel surrender to the injustice of the enemies of God. We may not win every battle, and ultimately we fight not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness, and this battle has already been won by our victorious King.
But until Jesus consummates his kingdom in full, we courageously, compassionately, and civilly press the claims of Christ into the darkest corners of the world.
No, you can’t escape the culture wars, even if you wanted to.