Engaging The Culture: Beating The Secularists At Their Own Game?

In a recent essay, Rebecca McLaughlin calls for Christians to stop retreating and to “go on the offensive.” She makes some valuable observations. She is right to note that, though Christianity seems to be in trouble in the West, globally it is flourishing. The African Christian leaders regularly and rightly correct leaders and communions in Europe and the USA. Though Mao thought that the Cultural Revolution would destroy Christianity in China it has flourished despite (and perhaps because of) persecution. She’s right that Late Modern secularism is nihilistic and self-defeating. As we watch the LGBTQIA movement(s) fragment and turn on each other (e.g., the Q wing of the movement wants to subsume the others and the L wing is unhappy with the T faction) we should remember that there is a Christian way of understanding the world, which provides coherence, order, and meaning to life in this world. Further, she’s right that there is empirical evidence to support the notion that such a Christian understanding of the world has positive consequences for daily life. She is quite right to note the diversity inherent to historic Christianity. After all, the Christian religion, considered as a distinct historical phenomenon, began in the Mediterranean, spread to North Africa, to Europe, and eventually across the globe. Christ truly is calling his people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Her fourth point, however, deserves further reflection. She writes

Likewise, when it comes to other areas of cultural engagement, we need to let our most credible voices speak. In a world where Christians are seen as homophobic bigots, we need to get behind the biblically faithful, same-sex-attracted Christians God has raised up to speak for and to his church.

Here McLaughlin seeks to defend Christianity against the argument that it is inherently homophobic by pointing to those who are admitted same-sex attracted (SSA) but who confess the Christian faith and who have visible positions either in churches or in the broader Evangelical world.

Were the message of the leading SSA evangelicals that of Paul, “such were some of you” (1 Cor 6:11) we should all say “Amen!” This is not quite the message of SSA evangelicals. Indeed, the message from SSA evangelicals can be very difficult for outsiders to decode. On the on hand some leading SSA evangelicals have been clear that same-sex attraction is, in and of itself, sinful. They have been clear that same-sex sex is sinful—which is good since the Apostle Paul is very clear about this in Romans 1:26–27 that homosexual and lesbian sex is contrary to the creational (natural) order and contrary to the moral law of God.

Yet, the message has not always been so clear. A number of issues cropped up last summer in connection with the Revoice Conference last summer. There it was much less clear that homosexuality is sin or that SSA is sinful. There was much more rhetoric about affirming homosexuals and their sexuality than there was about the grace of God in renewing human hearts, in leading sinners (all of us) to see the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for the Savior.

Since the Revoice Conference we have seen the publication of a site called “Living Out,” which, of course, is intentionally provocative since “coming out” is the expression used to describe the process of homosexual (Gay, Lesbian) folk announcing their sexual orientation and identity to their families. Even more provocatively, Living Out has published an “audit” to help churches determine how “biblically inclusive” their congregation is. Some of the audit is properly challenging but some of the audit is biblically and theologically dubious, e.g., “Same-sex sexual relationships are never mentioned in isolation from other sinful patterns…”. This test rests on the assumption that sexual sins are essentially no different from any other sins. This is a false assumption. Scripture explicitly distinguishes sexual sins from other sins. We may debate the rhetoric, i.e., how we talk about sexual sin. It is not the unforgivable sin and in that regard it is pedagogically useful to follow the biblical pattern of including it with other sins but Scripture also sets it apart as in Romans 1 or in 1 Corinthians 6. One of the audit standards says, “A godly Christian’s sexual orientation would never prevent them from exercising their spiritual gifts or serving in leadership in your church.” We must first agree as to the definition of godly and then relate that to sexual orientation. It is one thing for a Christian to admit that he has an ongoing sexual attraction for people of the same sex. A Christian would be penitent and would seek to die to that desire and to be made new in Christ. It is quite another thing to concede that “Gay Christianity” is normal and that “Gay Christians” are qualified to serve in leadership positions. This is not self-evident and it has not been regarded as “orthopraxy” (correct practice) in the history of the church.

There is more that could be said but this should be enough for the reader to see some of the difficulties inherent in this new approach to sexuality and to apologetics in the church. The early Christian response to pagan criticisms was not to put forward those who identified themselves according to their sinful proclivities. An important part of the early Christian apologetic was their resolute adherence to God’s moral law, not in order to be saved but because they had been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Justin Martyr (c. AD 150) openly invited the pagan, secular authorities to investigate Christian congregations saying that they would find nothing offensive and if they did, the Christians would punish their own members more severely than the pagans would.

McLaughlin is right: Christians are not bigots. We invite sinners of all sorts to join us sinners redeemed by God’s free favor in Christ. We are all dead in sins by nature and we all desperately need the renewing favor of Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit within us to bring us gradually, graciously into conformity with our risen Savior. This is the message of 1 Corinthians 6:9–11:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (NASB).

The Corinthian congregation was composed of all sorts of gross sinners but the apostle was clear that their grossly immoral life was part of their past. It is not that Christians are perfectly sanctified or perfectionist in our theology. We are not. People who continue impenitently (without genuine sorrow for sin, without struggling against it) to live as they did before they made profession, they are not Christians. They will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

This is not works theology (salvation through works). Paul says, “you were washed.” He says, “you were sanctified.” We were justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). These are things that God has done for us and that he is doing in us by his free favor purchased for us by Christ.

God freely saves helpless sinners. He also freely sanctifies them. That is our new identity. One could no more call himself a “Gay Christian” or a “Trans Christian” or a “Queer Christian” than he could call himself a “Thief Christian” or a “Fornicating Christian” or an “Idolater Christian.” These are mutually exclusive identities.

By all means let us defend the faith with all the appropriate tools in our toolbox but let us not invent tools that do not belong to Christians. There are limits in the tools of spiritual warfare. Let us be instructed by the way the apostles defended the faith and the way the early Christians defended the faith. Our goal is to be found faithful and to trust the Spirit to make use of our witness. When we trust him for the outcome we are less likely to be tempted to take up instruments of spiritual warfare that are not ours to take.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido
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