What if you could travel back in time a hundred years?
The early 1900s were a time when technology was progressing by leaps and bounds. The age of science and reason had stirred up a sense of optimism across North America. New methods of studying the Scriptures had become popular, with critical analysis now applied to the Bible.
Let’s say you dropped in on a meeting with a pastor and a theologian discussing how the gospel would best spread in the 20th century.
As you listen in, you hear the theologian say something like this:
“Christianity is in trouble. The Bible is full of supernatural events and miracles, and we can’t expect people in our scientific age to believe in these stories without question. The idea of the virgin birth is simply astounding to educated people in our time.”
The pastor responds:
“What are you saying? That we should abandon these truths? Christians have always believed these things.”
“No, no,” comes the reply. “I’m not saying we deny these miracle stories altogether. But surely we could downplay them. Why not avoid aspects of the faith that may embarrass educated Christians in our time?”
“Are you sure this would help our mission?” the pastor asks.
“I believe so,” says the theologian. “After all, the miracles aren’t the center of Christianity. What is truly breathtaking about our faith is its emphasis on bettering the world—the moral truths that show God as our father and all mankind as brothers. Let’s focus on the morality of Christianity, not the miracles. Otherwise, we are causing unnecessary offense and hindering our mission.”
Conversation That Made Sense
This conversation from a hundred years ago made sense to a lot of people. The Christians in that time wanted to reach as many people as possible. They wanted to faithfully embody the gospel. It makes sense that some would think the best way forward was to avoid the unpopular aspects of Christianity, such as its emphasis on the miraculous.
If I could travel back in time, I’d interrupt the conversation between the pastor and the theologian. I’d tell them:
“A hundred years from now, people will be talking about how the fastest-growing movement within Christianity is Pentecostalism—a movement of Christians who emphasize miracles and healings in the present. And the churches that downplayed or denied the supernatural claims of Christianity are now in a massive numerical freefall.”
I can imagine their surprise. You mean the groups that didn’t downplay but actually reveled in the supernatural grew the most? And the groups that downplayed the miracles have nearly disappeared?
It’s easy to think that the best way for Christianity to grow is to emphasize the palatable parts for a culture and avoid the offensive. But surely the last century shows us that the very claims that were most embarrassing to a scientific age became the most attractive elements of Christianity.
From Controversy Over Miracles to Morality
Today, pastors and theologians are in a similar conversation. Miracles aren’t under the spotlight. Christian morality is. The goodness and beauty of Christianity’s sexual ethic reserves sexual expression for a man and woman within the covenant of marriage, and says no to all other sexual behavior and lust, whether it be pornography, or sex before marriage, or adultery.
A hundred years ago, some said we should focus on morality apart from the miracles. Today, some say we should focus on miracles apart from Christian morality.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? I have single friends in their 30s and 40s who have chosen to live according to Jesus’s teaching and pursue chastity. They say people think they’re strange, backward, and repressed for their views. Sexual abstinence is harmful in the eyes of a society that sees sexual expression as the pinnacle of human flourishing.
Strategically, it would make sense to shift the Christian vision of sexuality and marriage, wouldn’t it? Why focus on these embarrassing aspects of our faith? Why not deny the historic Christian teaching (as many revisionist theologies do, to align with the ideology of the sexual revolution), or at least downplay these teachings (as many pragmatic ministries do, to keep people from turning away)? Wouldn’t that remove obstacles that hinder Christianity’s flourishing?
If the lesson from the last century is any indication, ground zero for explosive gospel witness is the place where we are most likely to run afoul of the cultural authorities.
Ground Zero for Explosive Gospel Witness
What if, a hundred years from now, the Christians who have exploded in growth and passion across the world are the ones that sought to reaffirm and embody the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and family? What if we are on the verge of a 21st century of attractive Christian witness because of our morality, not in spite of it?
One of the chapters in This Is Our Time is called “Sex Rebels” because it makes the case that Christians in our generation will be known for dissent. In the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual rebels were the hippies who wanted to throw off moral restraints in favor of “free love.” In the 21st century, the sexual rebels will be Christians who dissent from sexual revolution dogma.
But even in dissent, there’s no reason to be gloomy about the task we have before us. If we’re going to be outcasts and dissenters, let’s be the kind of rebels that don’t just expose the lies of the sexual revolution. Let’s answer the longings of our society by offering an entirely different vision of sex and marriage. Let’s declare what God is for. And let’s trust that a hundred years from now, the Christian truth will be as solid as ever, even if the cultural challenges have changed.