How do you expect unbelieving friends, family, and neighbors to react to your faith? Many of the best evangelists expect to win them to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve found I often expect hostility. And that’s probably a product of growing up in a churchgoing but not evangelical home, and then attending college where my beliefs were clearly marginal. It comes more naturally for me, then, to live my faith as a countercultural act. Even so, I admire other Christians who more naturally advocate for our faith as a public good.
You may have heard Tim Keller say, “We must be a counterculture for the common good.” That statement can be found in The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry in section three on contextualization, which asks, “How should we relate to the culture around us?” The counterculture for the common good brings together biblical expectations that we often pit against each other. We must stand apart from the world, for the sake of the world.
I love this line from our theological vision, which derives from 1 Peter 2:12. TGC affirms, “We are neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic about our cultural influence, for we know that, as we walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents, we will receive persecution even while having social impact.” In other words, some will hate us because of Jesus, even as we make a difference in this world for his sake.
To learn more about contextualization I’ve invited Darryl Williamson to join me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. He is the lead pastor of Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Florida, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast and check out other episodes in the series Why We Need Theological Vision.
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Collin Hansen: How do you expect unbelieving friends, family, and neighbors to react to your faith? Many of the best evangelists expect to win them over to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve found that I often expect hostility. And that’s probably a product of growing up in a church-going but not an evangelical home and then attending college where my beliefs were clearly not popular and marginal. It comes more naturally for me then to live my faith as a countercultural act. Even so, I admire other Christians who more naturally advocate for our faith as a public good. We may have heard Tim Keller say, “We must be a counterculture for the common good.” That statement can be found in “The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry” in section three on contextualization, which asks this question.
“How should we relate to the culture around us? The counterculture for the common good brings together biblical expectations that we often pit against each other, so we must stand apart from the world for the sake of the world.” Well, I love this line from our theological vision. It’s derived from 1 Peter 2:12. TGC affirms, “We are neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic about our cultural influence for we know that as we walk in the steps of the one who laid down his life for his opponents, we will receive persecution even while having social impact.” In other words, some will hate us because of Jesus, even as we make a difference in this world for his sake.
Well, to learn more about contextualization and a number of other things, I’ve invited Darryl Williamson to join me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast. He is the lead pastor of Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Florida and a council member of The Gospel Coalition. Darryl, thank you for joining me.
Darryl Williamson: Thank you for having me, Collin. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Hansen: All right. Let’s jump right in. I’ll start with a basic question, Darryl Williamson. What does it mean for us as individual Christians and in our churches to contextualize?
Williamson: Well, excellent question, brother. I think this is certainly something that we’re all wrestling with. The way we’ve kind of talked about this in our church and the way we talk about it amongst our leadership is that we see really two approaches to contextualization. And so, I think the most common way we think of it is we think about, you know, like, a translation approach where you kind of map gospel truths into terms familiar with the targeted culture, right? So, you kind of think about the gospel as concepts or ideas to be communicated. So, how do I kind of make this gospel principle, this gospel truth, connect with the culture that I’m trying to bring it to? And so, there’s all kinds of attempts to, you know, think through terms. Does this culture understand or have sensitivity to the idea of sin, things like that.
The other approach, and I find myself emphasizing this one, and both of are essential, is what we could call the redemptive approach or what some folks call the anthropological approach. And so, what we mean by that is, well, how does the gospel address the needs or problems of the targeted culture? Now, I think the assumption here is that because we understand the problem of sin, not just abstractly or philosophically, but also experientially, we know that sin is running amok in every culture that we’re trying to bring the gospel to. We know that. And so, if we can find ways to highlight and identify, every culture has a whole series of internal tensions. There are things that are going wrong. There is an attempt to get past certain things if you think about, like, trying to do missions to, like, cultures where there is abject violence. And so, perhaps those things are a given, but there’s still a deep problem.
And so, what we want to do in this case is to really show how the gospel, both its message and its presence, actually can redemptively transform a culture. So, I wanna be clear, brother, that both of these are necessary. And so, both of these are a big part of how we pursue evangelization. So, we wanna be clear that the Gospel speaks to the universal human problem of sin and guilt before God. So, we need to communicate that, that no culture is exempted from that. And we know, again, that there are a lot of folks who, even though they struggle with the whole idea of sin, that we need to help them to understand that sin is real. So, for example, if you think about, like, for example, the killing of children at Sandy Hook, that’s a good way for folks to feel the reality of sin.
So, I can kind of reference that and say, “Listen, you know, sin is a real thing.” But I also want to have the Gospel speak to the redemptive power of or to showcase the power of the gospel to change people, to change behavior, to change hurtful cultural traditions and things like that. Just a real quick example on that, brother. We’ve planted five churches by God’s grace in Liberia. So, we have one in Monrovia and four in the inland of Liberia. And, of course, that culture has gone through a tremendous, a very traumatic civil war. And what we’ve seen is that in our churches, that many of the folks who were on opposite sides of the conflict are now in our churches. And so, as a matter of how we do gospel ministry and how our churches there do discipleship, there’s a tremendous emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation and, of course, when necessary, reparations. But the bottom line is brother, is that contextualization is both of these things, communicating principals and also incarnating the gospel ultimately through discipleship for a specific place and time.
Hansen: That’s helpful, Darryl. I don’t think I’ve exactly heard it that way before. And I think the issue that I’m gonna talk about next probably falls more in that translation category, maybe not the transformation category. But TGC’s theological vision of ministry says. “We do not see our corporate worship services as the primary connecting point with those outside.” Well, I’m just wondering, Darryl, as a pastor, why shouldn’t a church expect the worship service to be that main point of contact?
Williamson: Yeah, brother. I love this statement from our Theological Vision of Ministry because, one, I think it’s convicting. It’s also provocative. So, it’s convicting to us, I think, because truth be told, that Christians, especially Christians in our country, the worship service is the main event. And so, we spend all of our energy, we spend all of our focus, our biggest sense of satisfaction is achieved in the worship service. We like worship and we should like worship. But worship is not something that unbelievers do by definition, right? So, that’s not who they are. So, we want them to become worshipers. And so, worship is not really built to connect with outsiders. Now, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be mindful of the reality that outsiders are gonna come into our worship and we should be mindful of that and be prepared in some way to connect with them there.
But worship should be about the community of God’s people coming together, gazing at Him in song, praise, and prayer, and also hearing from Him in preaching and also in song and, of course, at the Lord’s table. But I think, you know, fundamentally, we need to push out from the worship gathering where outsiders are, and frankly, we ourselves are. And so, it’s just where we are in the workplace and things like that. And so, I think it’s very clear to me that if we’re gonna have a kind of gospel connection, then we’re gonna need to get out there and engage with people where they are. So, we need to reorient, kind of change the ballast of our mission focus, and not just try to contextualize on Sunday and think about how are we gonna reach, you know, seekers and things like that. Praise God and we wanna do that. But here’s the bottom line, brother. If we’re trying to fish in our worship services, we’re gonna typically catch believers who are looking for churches. And if we wanna catch outsiders, then we need to really be outside.
Hansen: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that a group of pastors have adopted this theological vision with a very high view of the local church, but without a sense that the local church is the only place of activity for God’s people, that there’s a really high value throughout the theological vision and among TGC on the church scattered. And that’s one reason why one of the kind of primary aspects that I know, Darryl, you’ve worked a lot with us on has been on the integration of faith and work, one of those five principles that we uphold on gospel-centered ministry. Here’s a question I’ve been wanting somebody to answer for a long time, all right? So, I’m wondering this. Should the powers of this world, the politicians, the business owners, the media influencers, should they be worried about Christians?
I think this came up to me reading a book recently about paganism and Christianity and how much of a threat Christians were to the ancient Roman empire. And I’m thinking, Darryl, you know, and the New Testament record seems kind of mixed and I don’t know what to make of this. That’s why I’m asking you. So, soliciting from the apostle Paul and his inspired words, we’re supposed to be good citizens who obey the government. We see that in Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2:2, and elsewhere, and also supposed to obey our employers, 1 Peter 2:18 among others. But then you have the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19 because Paul preached against idols. And the people who were making idols, silversmiths, were upset at him. So, Darryl, are we the best citizens or the most dangerous ones?
Williamson: That’s a great question, brother. Yes. Both. Absolutely. So, yes, the Lord intends for us to be the best citizens. And so, I think, and there are a lot of passages that I think help us to see that. You mentioned Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2:2. I think one that comes to mind for me is I think it’s 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12. Paul says something like, “And to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you.” And then he says, “Do this so your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” And so, there is a clear sense that we are meant to be attractive, that the display of godly character though is not enough. I wanna be very clear brother. I’m just gonna say as an aside that how I live is not enough by itself to lead someone to Christ. It is not the gospel, per se.
So, I’ve got to share the gospel if the gospel is gonna be believed, right? So, this is, like, you know, Romans 10 makes this very clear. But we also wanna be clear that our godly character makes a profound statement about who the Lord is and who we are as his people. It’s weighty. It’s compelling. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our godly conduct is similar to the miraculous works of the apostles, right? And so, I think it authenticates the message of the gospel. So, good character always attracts and bad character, we should feel this, always repulses. And so, I think the gospel is a very well contextualized when we live i’s power, right? So, when we are showcasing the reality, something actually went down in our hearts and among us and people can see that and experience that, not just them looking in the windows at our church to see us singing and loving each other there.
But how we conduct ourselves out in the marketplace is a profound way that we can show that the Spirit of God lives in us and among us. And so, it’s very important that we are, in fact, the best citizens. But there’s no doubt also the Spirit-filled sanctified disciples are a threat to the culture. And so, we wanna be very careful that we don’t imply that we are at war with the culture because we’re not. We’re not attacking the culture. We’re not condemning the culture per se, as much as we highlight the redemptive needs or the culture or the risks that the culture poses to the saints. And we need to call those things out. But it’s not like we are, as you know, Christian soldiers out trying to advance against the culture. So, that’s not what we mean by being a threat. But I think what we mean, brother, is that the church should be a radical contrast to the culture in that because of that Christians are somewhat subversive to the culture, and in particular, in the marketplace, so I think citizenship generally too, but especially in the marketplace.
So, for example, as you know, I’ve worked for years in business and in software and technology. And one of the things that I believe is that is that it’s important that Christians, as they work with their colleagues, that they kind of guard against any attempt to compromise a bit on business ethics to win clients or maximize profits. So, we, in our workplaces, in our businesses, with our employers, we argue against all kinds of unethical shortcuts. We speak against that. And so, in fact, I would say that how we pursue ethics and salesmanship is one of the best ways that Christians can distinguish themselves in business, not just even for our coworkers, but also for our clients and for our customers. So, as we bring our products or services to them, when we are honest and open about our inadequacies, we don’t do this well, but we do that well. And so, it is a recognition that by being transparent, I feel confident enough in what the Lord has called me to do in this business that I can be open with you, potential customer, about where I am and I believe that transparency will help forge a meaningful business relationship.
And not everybody does that. And, in fact, I will say that in some cases it’s a threat. So, if you’re working in a company that has a sales message that, you know, flirts with, you know, the truth and kind of like is right on the edge of what is and what’s not, they’re not gonna like your influence. They’re going to push back against you. They’re going to wonder if you understand what they’re about, especially if they’re simply motivated by the dollars. And so, I think it’s important that we don’t allow those risks. It can cost us jobs. It can, in many cases, cost us respect. I think people respect the kind of, you know, gritty, whatever-it-takes attitude. “if I gotta spin, I’ll spin.” I think this is especially true like in politics. Aren’t we all longing for a truth-telling politician who believes enough in his or her positions to tell the truth? But, yeah, brother, the bottom line is that we should be excellent citizens recognizing though, at the same time, that we’ll be a bit subversive along the way.
Hansen: Absolutely. Well, let me follow up on that about a specific situation, including one in the workplace, where we’re trying to find this balance that we continually see throughout this theological vision of ministry, of engagement with the culture, the counterculture for the common good. How do you know when you need to pull away, as a Christian, from a situation that threatens your soul or the spiritual well-being of a loved one who is in your care? So, I’ll just give a couple examples that are pretty common for people who are listening here. For example, you could easily see how loving your neighbor is for the common good. It might lead you to enroll your children in public schools. But at the same time, you might incur risks such as ungodly influence, a lack of safety or even poor instruction for your kids. And it’s similar.
I had somebody write me the other day about a situation in the workplace after hours. This was a Christian who was saying, you know, “I mean, I understand most of my Christian colleagues, they just wanna go home. They wanna be with their family. They wanna be with their church friends. They don’t wanna spend time with their colleagues who need Jesus.” And that’s good for evangelistic reasons, seeking the common good as well. But then at the same time, in some of those situations, you might be tempted to sinful behaviors. So, I’m just wondering what are some ways that we can know whether we have properly contextualized in those situations?
Williamson: Yeah. I think that’s a great question because I think we are certainly prone to insulate ourselves from the culture. And, you know, I think you alluded to the fact that there are understandable reasons for that. So, I think it’s a great question. The answer I think though, it’s not easy. Just a quick anecdote. When my daughter was in elementary school years ago, one of her teachers pulled my wife and I aside encouraged us to put her in a private school for middle school. And he talked about how the girls in our central city neighborhood typically totally changed for the worst as they arrived in middle school. And so, we put her in a private Christian school for grades 6 through 10. And we think it was wise. We think that she was better for it. But what was interesting is that in our attempt to insulate, she became exposed to a lot of kids, a lot of her friends, in fact, who struggled with drug addiction. And then when we put her back in public school for Grades 11 and 12, she thrived there spiritually like never before. And so, there really are no guarantees.
In fact, she decided to go to the University of Miami for college. And I did not want her to go to that sin city. And she just had a meteoric spiritual time there, found a great church, It was an amazing time for her. And so, I think that we have to know the actual situation and know ourselves. So, what are the real risks here? And I wanna make sure that I understand, “Can I or can my family handle this situation or context?” I alluded earlier to working as a software executive in the past. And I spent more than a few happy hour times with clients and coworkers and I felt no…and by that I mean hanging out with them, being out there with them. And I felt no feeling of risk or guilt. I wasn’t worried about being drawn in and drinking a lot or something like that. And I never felt any sense of risk there. And I think interestingly enough, even in those moments, clients and coworkers simply saw me as a pastor first. And so, you gotta know yourself in a situation.
There’s no way to contextualize this issue without contextualizing it to yourself. And I think Paul makes that very clear in his conversations about the weak and the strong. So, I need to know my weakness or also understand my strength. In fact, I would go so far as to say that missionaries are strong Christians. So, the missions movement is predicated on strong Christians, Christians who can move out into a culture and not going to be overly-compromised by the culture. I guess that risk is always there to some to some point. But I need to understand if I need my guardrails up personally or now I can afford to bring my guardrails down.
Now, let me speak to a real common scenario, if I can just continue to give some examples here. And the most obvious one is entertainment. And, of course, entertainment is of great contextual value. If you think about being able to reference like the latest TV series or film in communicating the gospel or addressing or understanding the redemptive needs of the culture, you can’t be entertainment. And one of the examples that comes to mind, of course, is HBO’s show, “Game of Thrones.” That’s probably the best example of that, right?
Hansen: Oh, you went there. You went there.
Williamson: And to be clear, that series is full of indecency. It’s all kinds of whacked-out crazy stuff going on there. And I actually… I tried to watch it, as many of the young people in my church were imploring me to do it. And so, like about six months ago I started watching it. And as I stopped after the infamous red wedding episode, if you know anything about “Game of Thrones,” I just convinced them that it had demonic influences, so, I stopped. But I do think that a series like “Game of Thrones” is trying to say something about the problem of evil. And even though their answer is not a Christian answer and even though I think that, you know, people, in fact, I would say not just Christians, but even non-Christians had a negative reaction to the ending of that series. And I think that shows that people in our culture are longing today for some kind of redemptive victory. And they’re disappointed when they don’t get it. And so, now that opens the door to the gospel.
And so, if we can share the gospel in a non-abstract way and show how Jesus speaks to this longing that everyone has for redemption and deliverance, and we can show the power that delivers in our lives and churches and in our, you know, gospel communities, then yeah, I think people will be drawn to Christ by that witness. And so, I think fundamentally, just the answer kinda your core question, I think that proximity to culture opens the door to a resonating gospel presentation. I think it does. I think we see that in Acts 17 with Paul in Athens. But by all means, we need to be wise. We understand what our limits are. I have parental control settings on my cable TV at home and we don’t have minor children. We don’t have minors in the home. And so, I think it’s helpful to understand what those limits are.
But we want to appreciate that yes, proximity for missions is essential and we’re not going to reach the culture on our terms strictly. We’re gonna have to get in there where they are. Jesus did that. Of course, he was accused of being the friend of sinners and we could probably afford to have some that accusation against us as well.
Hansen: An article that I’d recommend, just to follow up here, we did a piece on comparing “Game of Thrones” to “Lord of the Rings” and their sort of contrasting views of evil and how each of those line up with Christianity. And I’ve not watched “Game of Thrones,” and it was still helpful for me. And it gave me a perspective of being able to talk with somebody about it and to be able to draw out some of those contrasting views of good and evil in there. I think, Darryl, you know where I’m going with this question, but if not, you just make sure to ask and I’ll try to make it more clear. But sometimes the churches that worry me the most are the churches that don’t realize they’re contextualized, especially if those churches are ones that mirror the majority culture. So, I’m asking what steps can those churches take to assess where they’ve over-adapted to the culture, which is one of the warnings that we give in this theological vision of ministry is to not over adapt?
Williamson: Amen, brother. That’s a very interesting question and it’s a very pertinent question for evangelicals, for us, because we don’t realize how over-adapted we are on to American patriotic conservatism. And we’re very much over-adapted to that. In fact, I think you told me about the book by Sean Michael Lucas about the convergence of Christian faith with southern culture and how it can become almost impossible to distinguish the two. And so, I think that’s really a big challenge for us. And I think that we know we are in trouble when we can’t separate Christian or Biblical principles from cultural preferences and standards. And so, I think when those two things all get mixed in together and we’re saying cultural things and we think we’re saying Christian things, we are in a bad place. And I think there are two things. There are a lot of things that we can do, but two things I think stand out to guard against this. One is that we have to labor to be clear about biblical, social, and cultural principles. Now, that includes personal mores. I think on a personal side, we have more clarity, and largely because of, you know, you think about the pietistic movements that we’ve had in the church, this is real sense that we all showed a lot of guilt for the things that we do personally. And so, whether we’ve, you know, lied or whatever it is that we’ve done personally, we feel that conviction very easily. I think where we struggle, where we don’t necessarily have clear biblical, social, and cultural principles is around social ethics. But we need both of these to be solidly under our feet. I think, for example, that there should be a lot more references to Old Testament, to ancient Israel, legal and social-cultural life as we think about how to do ethics, like how to live righteously in our culture. I think if we were to survey more about the things that the Lord took Israel to task for, and so where did He find them lacking, I think that would give us a clear sense of what it means to live in a culture as a member of the people of God. So I think that, first, we need that clarity.
But I think the other thing is that we need to be suspicious when we take any social-cultural values and declare them as if they’re biblical. And so, one that kind of comes to mind, a survey that come to mind, but one that’s kind of a light one, kind of an easy and fun one, it’s courtship and marriage. I mean, I’m struck by this as I think about the anti-dating movement. It strikes me as to how quickly we ascribe those practices as biblical. Even though courtship, as we understand that in our day, doesn’t remotely exist in Scripture. I mean, it’s really more about like arranged marriages. So it’s amazing that we can take those kinds of things and stand them up as being biblical, and I think that created a lot of legalism. And so it’s important that when we have a kind of cultural trend that we can take a step back from it and look at it objectively and try to find, okay, what are the principles that we’re wrestling with and realize that this is not a biblical imperative, it’s just our attempt to try to work out the best way to be Christ-like in our culture. And if we can do that, we can recognize the need for fluidity, for change, and I think fundamentally not being judgmental as well. And so those are some examples that jump out to me.
Hansen: Here’s what I will often use when I’m teaching a church about culture and contextualization. I’ll say, “At what age in your church must a married woman begin to have children?” Every church has a number, and it changes depending on where you are geographically, where you are economically, where you are racially. But the commonality with all those places is that it’s held as a certain, sort of, unspoken mark of godliness. So I use it as an example to say, “Isn’t it interesting how, from church to church, it’s equated with the godly life, but it changes from church to church and culture to culture?”
Williamson: Amen, brother, amen. Yeah, that is very interesting. You know, I think, just as much as we are right to value family, to value marriage, and obviously children, I don’t know if we’ve always appreciated the kind of counter-cultural marriage destabilizing, family-shaking power of discipleship and following Jesus. And that the Lord Himself used language to show us, not just the contrast, but the tension between our natural affinity for our families, and what it means to follow him. What’s interesting to me is that has never emerged in Christian culture in our country. I mean, so we find ourselves laboring to create space for singles to find relevance in our church and to feel like they’re a part, not feel like they’re alienated or second-class, you know, kingdom citizens. Yet we see Jesus, and of course Paul too, but we see Jesus, really embracing the whole idea of singleness. He talks about those who become eunuchs for the kingdom.
So there’s this profound biblical statement about how we should relate to family, how we should relate to our sexuality, and not just in terms of being heterosexual and married, but just simply prioritizing kingdom in discipleship over these good, natural things that God has given us. And that has completely escaped Christian culture. I don’t know any church, any like Christianized society that has had this kind of emphasis that Jesus has given and that Paul gives as well, to actually imprint itself on their cultural experience. It just doesn’t happen. As much as we, you know, kind of understand that, obviously, our natural needs and the culture is gonna have an imprint on the church and impact our behavior and pattern, here’s this blatant, this explicit, this earth-shattering, like, choice and profile of decision-making that we just simply ignore or look at as it’s some kind of novelty, is fascinating.
Hansen: Yeah. Well, man, much more I could say about that but I want to make sure I include two more questions. I’m gonna go…
Williamson: Sure thing.
Hansen: They’re related and they’re pretty well-tied to where you took part of this last question, especially at the beginning, but TGC’s Theological Vision of Ministry was adopted in 2007. I read through it continually because so much of my job is to uphold this in our publishing and it’s sometimes a little bit challenging because people don’t really… They impute certain meanings to TGC or certain expectations to us that are not necessarily laid out or explicitly contrary to what we’ve said. So in our minds, everybody go back to 2007 and read this warning from The Gospel Coalition Theological Vision for Ministry. “If we seek service rather than power, we may have significant cultural impact, but if we seek direct power and social control, we will ironically be assimilated into the very idolatries of wealth, status, and power we seek to change.” So let’s lob a little softball your way, Darryl. How have you seen this dynamic play out for evangelicals in the last 12 years?
Williamson: Yeah, this is definitely a softball, brother. There’s no doubt, brother, that evangelical involvement in the political sphere has largely been a witnessing disaster for us. It has not gone well in terms of our light shining brightly. And, of course, some that is inherent in politics. It’s, by nature, is a game of extreme language and, of course, eventual compromise. And so you’ve got this kind of like, I’m out here on the edges and then, you know, we’re having to make concessions and, typically, not just practical concessions, but principal concessions to actually get things done. And so, on both sides, that can kind of, you know, dim our light. And I think since we’ve been, you know, largely perceived as judgmental, loud-mouths, I think that the culture has certainly caricatured us and it has not helped with the 2016 election has kind of really exacerbated that. But I think the piece that, in the statement from our vision, that’s really compelling is that as evangelical Christians we’re not known for our service today, not really. We’re more known for our attitudes and positions.
So if you think about the early church, in particular the church in the Roman Empire, it was known for its love and its service to the poor, and to the sick, and to abandoned babies. So that’s what they were known for. And because it’s what they were known for, they had a tremendous impact on the culture. They were known in the culture or their impact was achieved by caring for people? And yes, if we did that more, our lights would shine much brighter. You know, one of the examples, and I hope this isn’t too controversial for our conversation here, but as I think about the immigration issue. There are ways for us to say hardly anything about immigration and act very redemptively to those who are caught up in this issue, in this tension. So we can minister to those families. Our churches can be places where they can be embraced. We can invest our time, energy, and money into them, and at the same time recognize that if legal proceedings take them out of this country, that we can love them in that and encourage them in that and remind them that the same God who is here is also back in their home country. But I think we’d be so much more impactful, brother, yes indeed, if we were serving more as opposed to strategizing or lobbying or defending even what our federal government does.
Hansen: Yeah, I’ve said this in a few other public forums, but I think the most controversial thing we’ve published at TGC was related to President Trump’s ban on refugees from Islamic countries, primarily Islamic countries. We were not trying to take a political stance on that, there’s a good place for Christians to be engaged in that political debate, but we weren’t trying to do that. We were just trying to say, “Look, here’s the situation, and from an evangelistic perspective what an unprecedented opportunity for us to reach these people, many of them coming from the 10/40 Window into our backyards.” And I’ve just never seen anything like that negative response we got because people could see the issue only in a political lens related to cultural control and power. From their view it was, these people are only here to kill us, and if we don’t kill them first, you know, we’re not gonna be safe. It was difficult to kind of face, and I haven’t been the same since, realizing how over-adapted we are as evangelicals, not each one of us individually, but it’s just such a challenge for us in an environment that is so overwhelmingly political, where the term evangelical has become virtually synonymous with a certain political agenda, or, at least, not even in so much issues as a certain party, and that becomes the standard-bearer for that party.
But I think it’s related then, Darryl, to the last question I wanted to ask. There’s a lot of language in our theological vision on this point about exile, and specifically coming from Jeremiah 29. You talked about how much it would help us to be able to derive a lot of our ethics from the Old Testament, and this would be an example of TGC trying to do that. So a lot of language about our position, and it’s picked up as we know in 1 Peter as well, the elect exiles of the dispersion, but there’s a lot of language about the exile. I’m wondering, help us to understand what that looks like today because it was Trevin Wax who put this so well, and I’ve used this so many times after he wrote it for our site years ago. He says, “You can tell a lot about a church and a Christian if they see the United States as Israel or as Babylon.” I wonder, from that exilic perspective that we articulate in our theological vision, how would you help people to work through that, the implications for our contextualization, today?
Williamson: Yeah, I think that’s very good. I think that really is… That is kind of the core issue, isn’t it? There’s certainly those folks who want, as we think about, you know, the U.S. as, say, being Babylon, for example, who wants to use that as kind of a platform to condemn or talk about the hopelessness of this nation and why we should not be trying to act in a redemptive way other than simply to bring the message of the gospel. The Babylon label of reference is helpful. I think if we consider Israel literally being in exile, they were literally there, and if you think about the examples, obviously, of Daniel and his three friends is that they were fully, functionally assimilated into the society. So they had been educated and they were serving, and not only were they educated and did they serve but they excelled. So there’s every sense in which they were ascendant in the leadership hierarchy of Babylon, and of course that went on, of course, even as the Persians came in eventually, as well. So we see that there was a sense that they functionally embraced where they were, they did not see themselves as exiles, as being somehow withdrawn from the nation of culture where they were.
The Lord was very clear through Jeremiah that Israel, those who were being brought into exile, should seek the welfare of their new home in exile. So there’s a sense in which then, that we as those who are in exile, are called in to serve, if God has so gifted us, to excel and to pursue the God-ordained interest of our culture. That means whether we’re serving in government, we’re serving in business, or we’re serving in entertainment, in all of those things, we should act in the interest of our culture, of our nation in this case. But, like our friends, Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is they were ethically outside the culture. And so they did not compromise when the culture presented these requirements to stand opposite to either prioritizing Yahweh as Lord or simply doing things through diet and stuff like that that would have conflicted with their consciences. They maintained their conviction, they didn’t compromise without withdrawing from their functional responsibility to the culture. And so I think it’s important that we… I think in that sense it’s probably better for us to think of the U.S. as Babylon, but not so that we can condemn the U.S., but so we can clarify our right relationship as exiles in this nation. And so that we’re pursuing our interest, we have a redemptive, you know, salt-like impact in this culture, we’re committed, we’re learning about it. We don’t have to, you know, to withdraw from it, go off into some kind of like islands or something like that, we’re here. But we’re here both for the kingdom and also for the good of the culture as well.
Now I’ll say one other quick thing, which I know we’ve kind of talked about before. There is this tension always between, kind of, our being here now and our being called into the eschaton, right? So both of these two things are at odds with each other in our minds, but they’re not at odds with each other, really, in scripture, not if we see ourselves as exiles. Because when we realize that all that we do here, and we do here, here in the U.S. or if I live in the UK or in the Cameroon or wherever, all my conduct, all of my redemptive work here as a citizen of the kingdom and also a citizen of my culture, follows me into the kingdom. And so when the parousia happens, when Christ comes back, all of my kingdom living here, and all of my redemptive efforts to serve and be Christ incarnate here now, all that stuff trucks right behind me into the kingdom. And I think we need more…we need to focus on the literal relationship between our eternal kingdom life and our current life in this age, in this fallen age. I think if we were to draw a more direct connection between those things, I think we’d have greater clarity as to what it means for us to be exiles now, and have an impact, that gospel-redemptive impact, on our culture.
Hansen: My guest today on The Gospel Coalition Podcast has been Darryl Williamson, lead pastor of Living Faith Bible Fellowship in Tampa, Florida and a Council member for the Gospel Coalition. Darryl, thanks for the conversation.
Williamson: Collin, thank you, brother, for the conversation. I enjoyed it. It’s always a good time.