April 2007
CULTURE COMMENTARY

Quiet power

REAL CULTURAL CHANGE
COMES FROM INSIDE

One thing that became clear following the 2006 mid-term elections was that the evangelical left was determined to match the religious right Scripture for Scripture and voter guide for voter guide.

Both wings of the evangelical community have grave concerns about the condition of American culture, yet each approaches those concerns with different political solutions in hand.

However, conservative and liberal Christians must always remember that their core mission remains the preaching of the eternal Gospel. Otherwise both groups may find themselves living in a culture that doesn’t care what either says.

A church standing inside
A paradox of the Christian life is that believers live simultaneously in two distinct realms. On one hand, they are citizens of the kingdom of God (Heb. 12:22ff.) On the other hand, Christians live in a fallen world among other fallen people who busy themselves with the affairs of this life.

In the New Testament the concept of the “world” is not limited to the physical earth. Instead, the Greek word for world, kosmos, carries with it the idea of arrangement and adornment. It describes the manner in which the people of each generation fashion their culture, e.g., through family structures, economic systems, government, laws, art and music.

In turn, how men and women order their lives – creating a kosmos – is a reflection of something even deeper: their beliefs and values, often expressed through religion.

The church, then, is a community of believers who live their lives inside a kosmos, which can differ from region to region. As citizens of the kingdom of God, Christians are called to express one to the other – that is, they are to manifest the kingdom to the world. Even if they live in a pagan civilization, like the Roman Empire in the first century, Christians are to demonstrate to unbelievers what the kingdom of God is like, and call their neighbors to enter that kingdom through repentance and faith in Christ.

In this way, of course, Christians cause the power of the kingdom to permeate their world. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 13:33, when He said that “[t]he kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” 

In the U.S., of course, because Christians are also citizens of a republic – with the freedoms granted by that form of government – there is an additional step that can be taken. Not only is there the potential to express the kingdom to the world, but believers can express the kingdom in and through the world. That is to say, the truth of God can permeate the mores, customs, laws and institutions of the culture, simply because citizens of the Republic, including Christians, are allowed to participate in fashioning the kosmos.

Changing the kosmos
For many generations, Christianity did inform and infuse our culture. Marriage in America, for example, clearly reflected the Biblical principles regarding that institution. As a result, laws limited divorce, polygamy was legally proscribed, adultery was illegal, and so on.

But all that has changed dramatically in the last 40 years or so. Today, a growing spirit of secularization and moral relativism is driving a rejection of the Bible as a source of inspiration for the American kosmos.

In reality, then, the so-called “culture war” is a conflict over what set of values and beliefs (that is, what worldview) will form the foundation of our kosmos.   

So when Christians talk about “taking back the culture,” returning America to its Christian foundations, or even protecting traditional marriage, it is critical that they understand what such undertakings imply.

One cannot fundamentally change a kosmos for Christ merely by using worldly means such as politics. Political activity is, in fact, part of the kosmos, so it doesn’t drive the culture as much as reflect it.

Therefore, Christians must address the underlying cultural beliefs and values by setting forth a clear and complete explanation of the Biblical concepts regarding human existence.

A church standing outside
Of course, hearts which are in rebellion against God are likely to reject anything which has its roots in Scripture. This is why the preaching of the Gospel must remain the long-term strategy of the church. If hearts are not converted, all other attempts to influence our culture will ultimately fail.

That fact doesn’t invalidate working through politics and other kosmos-based strategies, but it does require a proper perspective. It means understanding that attempts to confront the secularization of our public schools, or corporate support for the gay agenda, or the trash produced by Hollywood, are limited in their ability to produce long-term change.

This also means that whatever a Christian’s political views, he must maintain a sense of detachment when interacting with the world, politically or otherwise.

The apostle Paul said that “those who use the world, [should do so] as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).

Thus Christians should be ready to lay down kosmos-based approaches to cultural change when they stop producing any benefit, remembering that spiritual strongholds are not torn down by worldly weapons (2 Cor. 10:4).

A sense of detachment is also important because the successful use of kosmos-based strategies carries with it at least three temptations.

First, the church might be enticed to pare back or even relinquish altogether its Gospel-oriented mission, simply because its worldly efforts appear to be bearing fruit.

This may, in fact, be the hardest lesson for conservative Christians to learn following the disappointing results of the 2006 elections. After the apparent triumph of the values voters in the 2004 elections, many Christians seemed assured that the country could now be revolutionized, since we had the “right people” in the White House and Congress.

But the kosmos had not changed at all, because hearts had not changed. Political winds within the culture simply shifted, and what many Christians considered the wrong party took power in Congress.

Second, any time the church earns a place at the table of political power, that place can be taken away by those who are the gatekeepers. In those moments, Christians might find themselves tempted to compromise the values of the kingdom of God in order to keep their political power.

The church must remember that it exists not only within the kosmos, but it has an existence outside – an existence that must be faithfully maintained. This is its prophetic role, in which the church stands ready as a witness against the wickedness and injustice of all political power. Of course, all political power means all – whether it is exercised by the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

This is why Christians should remember Paul’s words, and hold political power loosely enough that it can be surrendered when necessary, because when the church stands resolutely against sin, political power brokers will take notice. Can the church release its grip when the truth of God’s Word – as expressed in the lives of God’s people – is at stake?

Finally, the successful wielding of kosmos-based power can lead Christians to see a particular political viewpoint as equivalent to the values of the kingdom.

For example, in the phrase “conservative Christian” the word conservative is an adjective that helps describe a believer who holds to the inerrancy of Scripture and to orthodox doctrine.

But what are we to make of the phrase “Christian conservative,” in which the word conservative is a noun that helps define a believer’s political views? Is the kingdom of God only expressed by the particular political philosophy that is called “conservative?”

Certainly there is much within modern-day conservatism that reflects Biblical principles, but can it honestly be said that there is nothing Biblical within liberalism? While many Christians might disagree with the particular policy proposals of the Democratic Party, how can believers dismiss altogether that party’s desire to help the poor, for example, or complain when it appears that the rich are favored by government policies at the expense of the disadvantaged?

A “conservative Christian” might speak out on issues that would one day put him in the politically conservative camp, and the very next day in the liberal camp.

A spiritual revolution
Jim Elliot, one of the five young missionaries killed by Waodani tribesmen in Ecuador in 1956, said of the Christians of his day: “We are so utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a Power the 20th century does not reckon with. But we are harmless and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual pacifists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle to the death with principalities and powers in high places.”

Elliot, of course, was not speaking of flesh-and-blood authorities, but was instead referring to the demonic hierarchy that exercises its hegemony over the affairs of men.

These spiritual foes are not uprooted by voters who temporarily transfer earthly power from one political party to another, because both parties are part of the same corrupt kosmos.

What is needed is a spiritual revolution, which strikes at the heart of American culture – a kosmos consumed with materialism, rife with racial discord, brutalized by the slaughter of millions of unborn children, disintegrating because of familial breakdown, and polluted by the embrace of hedonistic perversion.

There is only one power that can save this nation from its fate, which looms over us and can be heard approaching as clearly as a dying man can hear his own death rattle when he breathes.

Elliot’s unreckonable “Power” is the Gospel – passionately preached by sincere and dedicated Christians who have, themselves, been converted by its power. It is surely our only hope.