In the World and of the World: The Challenge of Western Culture for the Church

Secularism and the Political Illusion

Q: How do you inoculate someone against a disease?

A: You give them a weakened version of it, and they develop an immunity to the real thing.

Q: How do you inoculate a culture against Christianity?

A: ???

Worldview and the Church

Those of us who do worldview tend to focus on non-Christian worldviews, on the one hand, and on exploring the biblical worldview, on the other; we don’t spend as much time analyzing worldviews that are in place within the church. Yet, it is vitally important for us to take a clear-eyed view of the worldview of our churches if we are going to fulfill our God-given purpose.

How do you know your worldview? It isn’t necessarily what you think it is: we can easily fool ourselves when it comes to our deep set, fundamental commitments and motivations. Rather than what we think or profess, our worldview is most clearly revealed by what we do by default, that is, the habitual, unthinking actions that shape the majority of what we do in life. When looking at an institution like a church, its real worldview is not revealed in its doctrinal statement but in its ministry paradigms and the practices that are make up its normal operation.

The church’s worldview is always influenced by its culture. Presuppositions, priorities, practices, even principles of Scriptural interpretation are heavily influenced by the society in which the church exists. This is not always a bad thing, but ideas inconsistent with the Gospel can and often do creep into the church unrecognized. When this happens, we reverse Romans 12:2: we become conformed to the world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds, robbing us of our spiritual power and creating a weakened version of the Gospel incapable of speaking effectively into the society.

To what extent has the American church compromised with the world? The best guide is our common practices.

Secularism

Let’s start with a powerful influence in Western culture: secularism. The narrowest definition of secularism is the idea that government and religion should not influence each other; the state should be independent of the church and vice versa. From there, however, it is a small step to argue that religion should play no role in public life: if you want to be religious, that’s fine, but keep it to yourself. What you do in the privacy of your home is your affair, but do not bring it into the public square!

The Secularized Gospel

To see the influence of secularism in evangelical Christianity, consider how most evangelicals view salvation: it is about personal salvation, acquired by individuals in a personal relationship with Christ. It may involve personal morality. The core of our faith is thus personal and individualistic.

In other words, we’ve secularized the Gospel by reducing it to the private sphere. We have compartmentalized it, putting it in a box on the shelf labeled “religion” next to our “work” box, our “family” box, our “recreation” box, and so on.

The problem with compartmentalization is that Christianity should not be put into a box on the shelf. It should be the shelves that hold up all the other boxes and put them in order.

Christians historically have believed that the Gospel was the Good News that God had acted in history to deal with the effects of the Fall and to restore His rightful rule over the world. The effects of sin include such things as poverty, disease, ignorance, slavery, injustice, devaluing human lives, …. The list is endless. And so, Christians have worked hard over the centuries to alleviate these problems, including creating the first charitable institutions in history and working for institutional and structural changes in society, all as an expression of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Further, Christians had always recognized the social and familial aspects of the Gospel. Read the Gospels and the Book of Acts and notice how often families and social networks come to Christ together. Read the Epistles or Jesus’ Farewell Discourse or Acts and notice the emphasis on community life. Notice the first word of the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel is not about American individualism. People come to Christ best in community, and Christian life cannot be lived apart from community.

In the Global South, they understand that the Gospel is holistic, affecting the individual, family, community, and nation, and touching all areas of life. They also understand that the Gospel grows best in the context of relationships, not individualism. And the result is that Christianity is spreading faster and farther in the Global South than it ever has anywhere in history.

If we are going to be biblically faithful, the privatized Gospel has to go.

The Politicized Gospel

Of course, there are many evangelicals and other Christians who connect faith and politics. For mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals and Catholics, these are typically liberal political programs; for conservative evangelicals and Catholics, it is usually conservative political causes. The question here is what determines which issues we adopt? Do they come from our faith or from our politics?

For example, why is it that progressive Christians suddenly discover new social justice causes they had never seen before as soon as the left begins pushing them? If LGBTQIA issues are so obviously a matter of social justice from a Christian perspective, why did it take 2000 years and the cultural approval of them for the church to discover this?

Or why do so many conservative evangelicals rush to approve everything the Republicans or President Trump does? Why is it that we used to emphasize the importance of character and virtue in our leaders but ignore it now?

In both cases, we have become conformed to this world rather than letting ourselves be transformed by the Gospel. Our political parties set our agenda, and we move in lockstep with them, adjusting our faith to meet the demands of our politics rather than letting our political commitments grow out of our faith.

This does not mean that all the causes, left or right, are wrong. Racism and other issues raised by the left are affronts to the Gospel, as are abortion and other issues raised by the right. We need to stand above our political parties to stand for truth whichever side espouses it. As Sam Rodriguez puts it, we need to follow the Lamb’s agenda, not the Donkey’s or the Elephant’s. To quote Chuck Colson, ideology is the enemy of the Gospel, but in our politicized climate, ideology often trumps the Gospel for too many Christians.

The Political Illusion

A second question involves where we put out hope: in political action or in the Gospel? Remember, our worldview is revealed by our default actions and reactions to what is going on around us. If our default attitude is that society’s problems can be solved by politics or by who wins the next election, or that electing the wrong person or party will mean the end of the world, we have fallen for the Political Illusion, another version of the secularized Gospel. The solutions to our problems are fundamentally spiritual, not political, and if we lose sight of that, we have lost a critical piece of the biblical worldview. The same is true if we hate our political opponents, an attitude distressingly common in our culture and, unfortunately, among too many professing Christians.

Politics is important, but it is not ultimately important. Our values and priorities need to be those of God’s Kingdom, and we need to approach politics through that lens rather than adjust our moral and ethical stances to suit current political winds. And we need to deal with our political opponents not as enemies, but as people created in the image of God for whom Christ died.

Secularization is one way the culture has influenced the church, but it is not the only way. We turn to others in the next article.


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