My spirit is shell-shocked. My heart is grieved.
Perhaps there is also some frustration and even some anger, but mostly there is grief. My grief is due to the most recent installment of the American culture wars which have been raging for some time, polar wars between conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, faith and unbelief. We stare across the battle lines in disbelief, from whichever side we’re on, disbelief that our opponents could possibly have done or said or believed that. My grief comes not from the fact that we disagree, or even that we disagree so passionately. Passion is one of our great qualities as Americans. What grieves me is that our disagreements so often cause us to demonize and demoralize our opponents, and sadly, this has been done by both camps of the culture wars.
Recently, Christians have been labeled as hateful bigots for holding to a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic based on Biblical teaching. (And yes, this sexual ethic is found in the Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus.) On the one hand, the accusations of hate and bigotry seem like nothing more than a rhetorical strategy for shaming people out of an “outdated” Christian ethic. Who wants to be labeled as a hate-monger or bigot? On the other hand, there seem to be many people for whom these labels are more than a strategy. They honestly believe these things about Christians. Hence, my grief.
If I’m honest, I have to admit that having my heart and motives judged based on my beliefs also makes me a little angry. It’s quite unfair to be grouped in with the likes of Fred Phelps (of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church) when I and many other Christians genuinely strive to love and respect all people in our day-to-day lives, regardless of their age, gender, race, politics, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Yet while I might respond in anger to labels, I do not want to respond in anger to people, even those people who see me as their enemy.
I know that I’m not the only one who doesn't want to be labeled, Christian or non-Christian. I know that we all struggle with the best way to navigate the mine fields of the culture wars. But I’d like to offer the following to Christians in particular as we respond to cultural attacks. These are thoughts, not pre-packaged solutions, but I hope they might be helpful.
Many of our Christian ethics are accepted, even applauded, by our culture. Most Americans agree that we should love our neighbors. Most generally agree that we should be forgiving. However, there will always be Biblical ethics that go against the grain in any culture, although which ones people find offensive will vary from culture to culture. So Christians shouldn’t be surprised that we are hated or labeled as hateful when we hold firmly to the whole Biblical ethic and not only to those portions that are culturally in season. We should expect hostility from those opposed to the Biblical ethic because, in a person's natural state, the mind “is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). Be that as it may, Christians are never permitted to “repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling” (1 Pet. 3:9). Rather, we are to “bless, for to this you were called.” To offer blessing in exchange for cursing is the Biblical ethic, even if it rubs us the wrong way.
It never fails that whenever Christians stand for the whole Biblical ethic, we will be labeled as hypocrites for not living up to our own ethic in various ways. Suddenly, those who reject the Bible become Biblical scholars as they pull texts out of context and catapult them across the battle line like flaming cannonballs. Two things need to be said here. First, many of these types of accusations are due to a misunderstanding of the texts used in these accusations of hypocrisy. (Tim Keller provides a much needed explanation of this here.) Second, Christians are Christians precisely because we know we can’t live up to the whole Biblical ethic. I don’t know of a single Christian who would say that they live the Christian life perfectly. This is the very fact that pointed us to our need for a Savior, and this is why we are trusting in Jesus Christ to be that Savior, the same Jesus that did live the perfect life and who gives us His righteousness when we give up on trusting in our own. Since none of us, Christians or non-Christians, live up to God's laws, what is the difference between the two groups? The major difference is that 1. Christians acknowledge their failures and trust Jesus for forgiveness, and 2. (this is a big one) Christians turn from their sins as best they can and seek to live lives in accordance with the life and teachings of Jesus. This turning is called repentance, which leads me to my next point.
Something else needs to be said about the all-too-frequent accusations of hypocrisy – sometimes they are true. We sometimes proclaim love, but do not love. We sometimes promote life, but do not value all life. We sometimes protect a sexual ethic, but are not sexually pure. Rather than bristling at any and all criticism from our cultural detractors, perhaps we should often examine our hearts to discern if there might be any truth to their accusations. When we are in the wrong, we should be quick to acknowledge our wrong and seek to realign ourselves with the whole Biblical ethic. In other words, we should be slow to anger, slow to defend, and quick to repent. In His mercy, God can use many things to grant us repentance, even our critics.
Draw Near to Jesus
Ultimately, like anything else in this beautiful but broken world, there is only one response to the culture wars – we must draw near to Jesus. When we are hated, when we are called bigots, when we are mocked, when we are misunderstood, when we are misrepresented, we must draw near to Jesus, who experienced all these things and more, who turned the other cheek, who said “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). We must draw near to Jesus. When we fail to live the whole Biblical ethic, when we play the role of hypocrite, when we return reviling for reviling, when we forget that our war is "not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12), we must draw near to Jesus, who is the perfect standard for every ethic, yet who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15), who “for our sake” was made “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Jesus is the only one who has ever come “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Grace and truth.Truth and grace. We need both. We need the grace of God, both for ourselves and to extend to others, especially our enemies. We also need the truth of God – we must stand firm in God’s truth, not only to defend it, but to live it ourselves. Here we find a helpful guide in responding to the culture wars: Does my response represent the truth of the whole Bible? Does my response represent God’s grace? If you aren’t sure, don’t worry. The minefields of war are not easy to navigate. There are some things only the Lord can judge:
He shall judge between the nations,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.