Changing the World for Christ
I’ve spent much of the last decade and a half involved in Christian higher education. I’ve always been interested in cultural engagement from the Church. Maybe that is just natural when one studies art in NYC. I saw the strong western roots in Christianity but I also saw 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 that 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 with 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 excuse the consequences with the explanation 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 versus them idea above is the belief 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 some of their Sunday mornings in a particular building we call a church. There is certainly overlap between these two. Yet, there is a significant number who are a part of 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 supernatural intervention in history. But, that religious system had also lost the plot. 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. Christian activism rooted in racism is just one example of something that is considered the Church but is actually a part of the World. I contend the same is true for the hate supporting political ideologies today that are seen as being associated with the Church (particularly the Evangelical 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 supernatural intervention in history that 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 led 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 too often mistaken to be a battle between the Church and the World for cultural territory. When we win battles and gain territory, they lose territory. The same is true in the inverse. 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. 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.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on October 8, 2018, and has been lightly edited and updated.