What should Christian public engagement look like as we move forward in this era? So far in this series, I’ve laid out some of the challenges facing traditional Christianity, and why it’s no surprise that some on the right claim a more combative posture is necessary for pushing back against harmful ideologies and practices in society.
Some Christians seem to believe that confrontational or combative approaches to public theology are inherently sub-Christian. This is not the case. Christianity has a long history of people willing to speak truth to power, to call into question the reigning ideologies of the day in the name of Christ the King.
Too often, the negative label of “culture-warring Christians” gets applied solely to Christians who oppose ideologies common on the left. When left-leaning Christians call out politicians or pastors who support sinful beliefs or behaviors common to the right, they get described as “prophetic” and “courageous.” This is unfair. Culture warring requires two sides, and one can be a left-wing culture warrior just as easily as a right-wing one.
But, speaking of being “prophetic,” sometimes, we think courage and boldness consist in bloviating bluster, “destroying” the opposition, “owning the libs,” or mocking the “nutcases” we find on the other side of the aisle. No. It takes little courage to be bold in opposing those whom your closest friends, family members, or online followers would expect you to oppose. What takes courage is to police your own side, to call out the problems not only in “the culture” but in your particular subculture, to buck the consensus of your own tribe and go against the people whose favor you usually enjoy. Compromise always involves capitulation, but capitulation can happen in more than one direction.
It seems likely that we will see a return to something akin to the older culture-war mentality among younger evangelicals in the years to come. Rather than rule that option out of bounds, I think it better to offer some encouragement and caution for younger evangelicals who are enthusiastic about this mode of public engagement.
The Reality of Christian Warfare
First, let’s dispense with the idea that warfare has no place in Christianity. I remember restraining my laughter when, 15 years ago or so, progressive Christians were protesting the “unbiblical” martial imagery of many Christians and churches. In taking aim at conservatives, they were shooting the Bible.
The language of spiritual warfare is pervasive in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus blessed the peacemakers and called us to turn the other cheek, and yet he said he came to bring division, not unity. His was the sword that separated son from father, and daughter from mother. The apostle Paul used martial imagery, as did the other apostles. We are on a spiritual battlefield. The response to such circumstances is for the church to be, dare I say, militant. Downplaying the stakes fails to do justice to the Bible itself.
In this battle, Christianity is “on offense”—not in a way that implies we should seek to be offensive, to take it as a badge of honor when others are offended. No, to speak of Christianity “on offense” is simply another way of describing the image Jesus gave us when he said that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Jesus’s statement imagines the church moving outward, plundering hell, and pushing back the forces of darkness. Passivity has no place in the Great Commission.
The Danger of Misidentifying the Enemy
But the danger for Christians who apply the New Testament’s warfare motifs to political engagement is that we can easily misidentify the enemy. The apostle Paul makes clear we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. It’s the church moving forward into battle against the powers and principalities that hold people captive—against the evil forces that wreak havoc in our world, the supernatural realities the Bible describes as present and persistent.
We must distinguish the serpent from his prey. This is why we seek to convert our opponents, not own or destroy them. We seek their rescue, not their ruin. As we’ve seen, “winsomeness” is not a strategy for cultural engagement, as if we could win cultural arguments simply by being “nice,” but lest we forget, we are deeply invested in winning over our opponents. As Augustine taught, we stand against the world for the good of the world.
The challenge for culture engagers is that we downplay the against—we become so focused on working for the good of the world that we adopt a conciliatory, affirmative posture that never runs into a hard line of antithesis, and thus we avoid any adversarial stance toward the world. The challenge for culture warriors is that we get so wrapped up in the drama of standing against what’s wrong that we are seized by contempt and resentment, and we forget who we are fighting for. In the Scriptural imagination, our fight is for our opponents, or at very least, for the people who will be harmed by what our opponents propose.
Culture engagers can easily neglect the reality of the spiritual warfare and eternal stakes. But culture warriors can lose sight of that spiritual battlefield, just in a different way—by reducing the cosmic picture of powers and principalities to temporary, earthly policies and positions (and the people who hold them). Jesus is clear: even if our neighbors become our enemies, we are to love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to them. This is the Christian way. Contempt must be killed.
No wonder we need the armor of God. An army that stays behind its walls has little need for that kind of protection. Paul’s metaphor assumes Christians will take a public and firm stand in the world so we can battle in ways unlike the world, as shining warriors who pierce the darkness, whose victory is always cross-shaped because Christ’s soldiers must be known for self-giving love.
The Hollowing Out of the Soul
Another caution for culture warriors is the possibility of fortifying the outer facade of Christian faithfulness while being hollowed out on the inside. Despite my concerns with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, I appreciate his insight that we cannot offer to the world what we do not possess. We cannot reach a culture if we have not built a culture of our own.
When the apostle Peter wrote a letter of encouragement and exhortation to Christians in distress—believers who lived on the margins of society, maligned and falsely accused, some imprisoned and a handful martyred—he reminded them of their status as “strangers and temporary residents” and then called them “to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you” (1 Pet. 2:11, CSB). Peter’s focus wasn’t on the battle being waged against them by unbelieving authorities; he started with the daily struggle going on in their hearts. In other words, Peter appeared less concerned about what unbelievers might do to the Christians physically than about what sin would do them spiritually.
Here’s the lesson for us: by focusing all our attention on the external threats to Christianity, we can miss the real and persisting internal threats that wreck our witness. Yes, transgender ideology may be an external threat to the religious freedom of Christian organizations, but surely pornography use in our congregations is the more pervasive and widespread tragedy of our day.
One can pin the decline of church membership and attendance in the past 50 years to cultural trends that make it more difficult to be a Christian, but this view would only make sense of some of the decline. The internal rot in our churches has contributed as much to our decline as any outward government pressure. The internal challenges we face are just as deadly as the external threats. Don’t miss the frightening prospect of Christians who might win a culture war and lose their souls.
The Danger of Friendly Fire
I must point out one more challenge for the neo–Religious Right to consider: the possibility of friendly fire. Anyone who has been in war before knows that one of the common dangers is friendly fire—to be wounded or killed by someone on your own side. The fog of war makes it easy for allies to be treated as enemies.
Culture wars are impossible without friendly fire and casualties among allies. And I fear we are already witnessing this development among those who push for a return to the culture-war mentality. We shoot our brothers and sisters.
Often, casualties from friendly fire do not occur because of differences in doctrine, but because of questions of wisdom and discernment. Because some churches and leaders adopt a different approach to cultural engagement, we may doubt their doctrinal soundness, ascribe pernicious motives to them, or label them compromisers or cowards.
It is far too easy for Christians, devoted to a righteous cause, to turn their attention from the battlefield to the barracks and seek to weed out anyone who doesn’t fight for the cause in the same way. Like the disciples ready to call down fire from heaven on a village, many who get caught up in the culture war too quickly call down fire on their brothers and sisters who may view and interpret the situation differently.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultural engagement. Christians with a different political calculus, with various regional sensibilities, temperaments, or experiences, may choose different courses of action. Debate over the best course of action is good and necessary. But culture warriors and culture engagers alike must be careful not to criticize unfairly or demean brothers and sisters whose different choices are not out of line with confessional faithfulness but flow from prudential judgments about how best to be faithful in the public square.
In the next column, I want to explore this idea further. Different parts of the body may have different roles to play. The local church is the most important among Christian associations but it’s by no means the only one. In the various spheres of culture, we need organizations and informal networks of people to operate in their strengths, and they need to mutually reinforce one another’s work. We need the whole body of Christ, with different congregations with different skills and gifts and passions, doing whatever it takes to serve Christ faithfully and show the world the beauty of the gospel.
This is the seventh column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.
1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars