Changing the World for Christ…and the Culture War in General.
Changing the World for Christ
Most readers of this blog know that I’ve spent much of the last decade involved in Christian higher education. I’ve always been interested in cultural engagement from the Church. I think that is just natural when you study art in NYC. You see strong western roots in Christianity but you also see the way that the current world has gone in a very different direction.
When I was in Louisiana, I headed the art department at a Southern Baptist College. There was a lot of talk at that institution about “Changing the World for Christ.” This was language I had been around for years so it seemed very natural to me. I believe in cultural engagement and I believe in Christ. I also believe that the world is not now what it should be.
The World Hates Us
But the more I was around this language, the more concerned I became about the focus. Part of my concern is hard to put my finger on. It is more the ethos that this focus engenders. It sets an adversarial tone with the world. A tone where we are going to step in and save the world from itself. There is some truth to this. There is a “World,” a system of belief that is against God. There is certainly, and biblically, a sense in which we cannot be friends with the World (James 4:4 & 1 John 2:15-17). Christ even states that the World hates him (John 7:7) and may end up hating us (John 15:18-19). Again there is truth to this.
The problem is that we both misuse and misunderstand what the above principles mean. I have seen over and over again Christians behave badly, sometimes very badly, then when they are called out for their behavior they fall back on the idea that the World will hate us. At the same time, scripture also teaches that we will be known by our love (John 13:35). If we are hated because we are behaving badly, because we are showing hate then the world is not hating us in the way that Jesus described. I have also seen Christians hated for standing for love and Truth. That is the way we are to be hated.
The Church is not the Church
Inherent in the us verses them idea above is that there is the Church and the World and the World hates the Church. Again, there is truth to this. But, when I was in Louisiana I took to saying, “The church is not the Church.” In scripture, the Church is those who are redeemed believers in Christ. In our culture, the Church is those people who spend Sunday mornings, at least some of them, in a particular building we call a church. There is certainly overlap in these two. But, I also believe there is a significant number who are a part or the cultural club called church but are not redeemed believers in Jesus.
What is the World?
We similarly are often not clear about what the World is. A large part of what Jesus called the world was the Jewish religious system. This was a system that had been established by God through supranatural intervention in history. But, that religious system had also lost the plot to the point where it didn’t recognize the messiah for whom it had been waiting.
Today, we tend to set our religious system only at odds with the secular perspective. But, I believe that the World includes portions of the cultural club we call church. For example, the organization of the religious right around the abortion issue has been demonstrated by Historian Randall Balmer to actually be rooted in racism. This is just one example of something that is considered the Church actually being a part of the World. I contend that a similar argument can be made for the hate supporting political ideologies today that are seen as being associated with the Church but are actually a part of the World.
Like the Judaism of Jesus’ day the Church is, at times, a religious system established by Christ through supranatural intervention in history which has lost the plot to the point that it does not recognize the messiah for which it is named.
The False Culture War
Too many in the Church have completely misunderstood the spiritual battle in which we are involved and it has lead to some serious problems. In war both sides often do terrible things. We kill the enemy, mistreat prisoners, and interrogate using enhanced methods to extract information. Even if we are the “good guys” we refuse Jewish refugees, we intern Japanese Americans, and we drop bombs.
We do those things because we view them as necessary to keep our lands from the enemy, an enemy that hates us and which we hate… at least for the duration of that war.
The spiritual war is mistaken to be a battle between the Church and the World for cultural territory. We win battles and gain territory and they lose territory or the reverse. In a situation like this, winning the territory becomes the most important thing. It becomes okay to employ the tactics of war: killing our enemy, enhanced interrogation, or subterfuge in the name of winning the battle and eventually the war.
The True Spiritual Battle
But, Christ came to earth to sacrifice his life because he loves the World (John 3:16).
The Spiritual Battle is not a war for cultural territory. It is a rescue mission where we lay our lives down for the World. If we seek to save our lives we lose them. If this battle was about cultural territory it would be over before it began. Satan is no match for God. But, it is a mission to save the lives, the souls of those in the World.
The irony of the World hating Jesus is that the World hates the one who laid down his life to save their souls. That should be the irony of the World hating us. They are hating those who love them, who sacrifice for them.
I fear though that too often the World hates us because we first hated them.