In a few days 1987 will end, much to the relief of many in the church. Indeed, we have taken our lumps this year, and unless we face up to our failure to impact society and our undermining the moral thrust of the gospel, 1988 will be another year of embarrassment and setbacks.
Entering The Public Square
Church history buffs will recall a previous period of turmoil early in the twentieth century. It was then that liberal Christianity took control of the mainline Protestant churches as well as many of the moral and religious leadership positions in our nation. Evangelicals licked their wounds and withdrew to focus on personal holiness and an exclusive concern for personal salvation. As a result, the evangelical movement as a whole (there were a few glorious exceptions) lost contact with the world it was trying to win.
Shortly after the Second World War many evangelicals came to see the futility of that kind of separation. They began once again to move back into the “public square.” Unfortunately, we have not yet fully learned how to break out of our minority pockets to become salt and light to a rapidly decaying culture. At times, it seems the more public we have become, the more ridiculous we have looked. Forays into the highly visible medium of television as well as evangelist M. G. “Pat” Robertson’s bid for the Republican nomination for President have led many evangelicals to question seriously whether or not it would be better to concentrate our moral and spiritual energies on personal holiness and a less-public profile.
Such fear-inspired questions must be met with a resounding No! It would seem perfectly obvious that if we hide from our culture and our society we will lose any opportunity to win our generation to Christ. The essence of the gospel message is a call to trust, and people do not trust those whom they do not know.
Scripture reminds us again and again that we are citizens of two kingdoms. To desert our responsibilities as citizens of our earthly kingdom is to betray our nation and become disobedient to God. With national elections approaching next year, it is especially crucial that evangelicals not back off from their civic duties.
The question, then, is not, Should we? but, How do we become an active agent of redemption within our culture? One of the great desiderata of the evangelical movement is what might be called a theology of Christianity in a pluralistic society. Evangelicals are a minority in the United States, but they may well be the largest single cohesive group in the body politic. If American evangelicals will remain faithful to their God-given responsibilities as citizens, they could easily regain an influential role in our society. But they can do so only through a well-formed political philosophy based on biblical teaching as it relates to responsible Christian citizenship, clearly communicated to all citizens.
Among other things, such a philosophy will include a valid commitment to human freedom, a devotion to justice for all irrespective of race, creed, sex, or age, and a strategy that will encourage cooperation on selected moral issues even with those who disagree radically with our most fundamental Christian convictions. Until our voice is clear and united on these components of a Christian public philosophy, evangelicals will continue to be frustrated in their efforts to be taken seriously.
The second peril we face in the coming year is the danger of blunting the moral thrust of the gospel. Too many evangelicals have opted for a spineless Christianity that accepts the clichés and theological tenets of biblical Christianity without its moral imperatives. They want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled “cheap grace.” They want the comforts and securities of biblical Christianity with no moral requirements laid upon their lives: Grace without price, grace without demands!
But the human soul abhors such a moral vacuum. As professing Christians lose the stringent moral demands of the gospel, they slowly begin accepting the values of the culture around them. And like the frog in a tank of water heated only one degree an hour, they never realize what is taking place until it is too late.
The transformation is most noticeable when one views the way dominant cultural values—materialism, hedonism, and personal security—have penetrated evangelical churches. Such contemporary “idols” are utterly antithetical to the values of the Bible.
Evangelicals sing: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / that were a present far too small; / Love so amazing, so divine, / demands my soul, my life, my all.” But our checkbooks show the commitment of our hearts.
Evangelicals sing: “Earthly pleasures vainly call me; I would be like Jesus.” But our cluttered “toy chests” reveal a penchant for temporal rather than spiritual wealth.
We sing: “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.” But missionary candidates must wait too long to raise support, and Christian colleges and other worthy ministries like Campus Crusade and Youth for Christ lack funds necessary to adequately prepare the next generation’s leaders.
The slide of evangelicals into the value system of the culture represents the most terrifying peril facing the church of today. It is not a new peril. But it strikes today’s church with new and devastating vigor. It may well be an unavoidable by-product of the church’s success of the last two decades. In recent years, evangelicals have certainly found greater acceptance in the world, and their leaders have attained a power and influence scarcely dreamed of a few decades ago. Yet such acceptance comes from buying into the world’s values, resulting in only limited, finite authority.
This truncated “Christianity” is a major heresy, and like all heresies, it must be weighed in the light of God’s Word and excised from the body if evangelical Christianity is to survive.
As Helpless Babes
And we will survive if we see ourselves from the perspective of the manger. Christmas reminds us once again of the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Unlike what we would naturally expect of one who is God, he did not choose to grasp for himself all that would normally and rightfully be appropriate for the King of kings. Nor did he set pleasure as his life’s goal. Rather, he chose, for our sake, to become incarnate as a helpless babe, lived his life as a servant of all, and eventually chose to die that he might secure life for us who did not deserve it.
The story of the incarnate God whom we celebrate at Christmas is the very antithesis of the most prized values of the world. And it serves as a paradigm for us today—a model etched in sharpest contrast to the glittering image of power and success that characterizes this age.
As we live the story, we will rise above the harm of the past year.
By Kenneth S. Kantzer.
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