When I was a kid, I used to feel I’d been born a century or two late. In the second-to-last decade of the 20th century, things seemed to be going downhill fast. AIDS was terrifying the nation. Scientists were just beginning to realize how much we’d messed up the planet. Cars were lackluster barges (except for that Lamborghini Countach). Phones still had cords, or at least had to stay in the house. Pac-Man was fun to play on the computer for a short time, but I had to write my friends physical letters.
Turning Back the Clock
I wanted to rewind the clock a couple centuries.
The dawn of the 19th or 20th centuries would have been so much more exciting. Westward expansion in the 1800s captivated my imagination. I dreamed of exploring untouched, unpopulated, un-polluted and un-warmed wilderness. It was a time when a man could make his own world. Tame the wilderness. Conquer evil.
And who wouldn’t want to experience the optimism of the early 1900s? We had finally overcome agricultural slavery and didn’t have to spend all our time growing and gathering food. Anyone, not just crazy explorers, could travel the world. We could build anything, even unsinkable ships.
It would have been a lot easier to be a Christian back then, too. The first and second Great Awakenings had prepared the soil for a time of fertile growth. Missionaries traveled to the furthest reaches, and back home, churches were growing, not closing. Theologians optimistically reasoned that the world would just get better until Christ returned. That was before the first and second World Wars.
Back in my generation, things don’t looks so favorable. I’m among the firstborn of the Millennial generation. Thankfully Y2K didn’t prevent my graduating high school that spring, but the dawn of the 21st century has been pretty cloudy. And the storm clouds seem to be forming directly over the church.
The Church Facing the 21st Century
I recently taught a class called “The Church Facing the 21st Century.” I searched to find a textbook that didn’t read like a tabloid of everything that’s wrong with the church. I wanted some of the optimism of earlier centuries, but it’s hard to muster these days.
I ended up with a book by D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, in which Carson explores a fundamental worldview shift in our culture. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, society focused on tolerating one another by having civil debates about what is absolute truth and moral good. Tolerance used to mean accepting that others have a right to different beliefs. Western culture has shifted in the 21st century, and now doubts that absolute truth is even a category. The new tolerance, as Carson calls it, now means accepting others different beliefs as right.
This subtle shift of a few words has devastating consequences for a Christian worldview, which is founded on a definition of truth. Now our culture doesn’t care about moral good, but instead elevates tolerating everything as the utmost good. But, as Carson points out, this is a fundamental contradiction and the new tolerance becomes devastatingly intolerant of truth claims like Christianity.
We see this in our everyday life, where we’re pressured to privatize our faith. It’s fine, our culture says, to have your faith, but don’t tell me about it and don’t let it influence your politics or social action. Don’t tell me I’m wrong, and you’re wrong to insist that there is a wrong (don’t mind the contradiction).
Separation of church and state used to protect the church from the state, now it’s twisted to protect the state from any church influence. But justice and civil order require religious influence, because there must be something beyond the state that maintains justice (hence the motto ‘under God’). Otherwise, politics just becomes whatever the majority decides, and the minority has no greater power to appeal to. Such democracy becomes the tyranny of the many. It’s fundamentally intolerant in the name of tolerance for all.
We see and feel this most intensely in our current debate over homosexuality. My class also read a book by Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality. It’s easy to sum up that book. The Bible says homosexual practice is immoral, and yes, that means God’s against gay marriage.
But I don’t have to tell you that it’s not so easy to stand for that in our culture. And what perhaps disturbs me most is the amount of social media posts by my Christian friends who too quickly compromise biblical truth in the name of tolerance. Stop and think! I want to yell. That is not the kind of tolerance we want to stand for. Stand for love, yes. And justice. But not sin disguised as a human right. We can be tolerant and loving without saying sin is a right. That’s what the Gospel is all about.
Times Have Changed, But Humans Haven’t—And God Hasn’t Changed Either!
Recent news stories make it clear; this isn’t going to be a pretty disagreement between the church and culture. And maybe that is why I’m longing for a previous century. But those centuries were full of storms too. The freedom of the 1800s was only for the majority, and of course, the 1900’s unsinkable ship sunk. Times have changed, but humans haven’t. We’re the same arrogant, sinful and intolerant creatures we’ve always been.
Thankfully, God hasn’t changed either, and isn’t surprised by the ‘new’ permutations of sin in our world.
So despite the leaky roof, I’ll take shelter from the coming storm in the church building. It is going to be a rough century, and lighting from above or torches from the mobs might burn the building down. But so what?
There is still room for optimism. Not because we can doubt the forecast, but because we don’t have to fear it. D.A. Carson maintains this optimism in his conclusion. Though persecution will probably come, he says, “We would gladly bear it, and learn a little better how to do evangelism in our prisons.”
Or as Jesus said:
“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26-28 ESV).
Join the Conversation
As you see the coming storm of potential persecution, how does Christ’s shelter strengthen you to keep the faith?