I understand that my emergency topic has caused a little bit of concern. Maybe some have thought that I was about to utter a confession. I assure you that if this talk had been prepared and delivered last September (2015), 95 percent of you would have known to whom I was referring. It shows how quickly the news cycles spin things out and leave them in a dust heap in the rearview mirror. Because a bear six months ago, the nation was full of talk about the woman from Kentucky, and of course I’m referring to the county clerk there by the name of Kim Davis. Let me lead in prayer and then we’ll plunge right in.
Our Relation to Government
For those of you who don’t remember the name Kim Davis, let me fill you in a bit. I am using this case really as a kind of test case to get into some broader issues of how Christians should think about the culture. Kim Davis is a county clerk who spent five days in jail. After the SCOTUS decision, she refused to hand out marriage licenses to a homosexual couple. They came back with further requests and cameras, and pretty soon she was a national figure. When she was asked by what authority she declined to hand out these marriage licenses, she simply said, “God’s authority,” and she was speaking out of Christian convictions.
Well, to make a long story short, eventually she was ordered by the court to hand these things out and she refused, so she went to jail. It lasted only five days until a kind of compromise was reached. She would not hand any out herself, but she would not stop her two assistants from handing them out, even though her name was on them. Initially, she protested that even if her assistants handed them out, since her name was on the form, she would be compromised if they were handed out by an assistant. But she backed down from that stance. Eventually, the governor of Kentucky changed the form so that her name was not on it. And this raises an immense number of really interesting questions.
The biblical background for discussion of these things is the contrast in biblical passages that insist we should be submitting to the state in all kinds of ways, and also the kinds of passages that instead picture the state as an enemy of God. And the Bible is not short of both of them. In the New Testament alone, Romans 13:1–7 is doubtless the most commonly cited passage that talks about the state being the messenger of God and the Christian’s obligation to submit to it. But the same sort of thing is found in the writings of Peter. First Peter 2:13–14 says:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
On the other hand, Acts 5:29 finds the apostle saying, “We must obey God rather than man.” The Book of Revelation really works out of profound antithetical thinking. Either you have the mark of the beast on your forehead and you face the wrath of the lamb, or you have the mark of the lamb on your forehead and you face the wrath of the beast. You have somebody’s mark and you’re going to face the other one’s wrath. And there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of room for compromise in that kind of depiction. Or you can look to the Old Testament, of course, in places like Daniel 3.
But let us try to tease out, first of all, what we should be thinking about if we assume that Kim Davis did what was right, and then tease out what we might imagine if we suppose that Kim Davis was wrong. Then I have a few more complexities and then I’ll begin to create some theological reflections.
The Case of Kim Davis
As far as I know, she did not make the case that she was in line with Calvin’s lesser magistrate view, found in Institutes Volume 4, but she might have, and she was at least initially reflecting that view. A magistrate may disobey in order to keep others from sinning. You see, by handing out these marriage licenses, homosexuals are doing something that God forbids. So not only was she making her own moral stance by disobeying the commands of the state, but surely she was functioning as a lesser magistrate who disobeys the siren voice of the state in order to prevent people from sinning.
What then flows from such a stance? First, one advantage of that stance, of course, is that she stays on the job. The alternative to this is to resign. We’ll come to that option in a moment. But then if she stays on the job, she must necessarily bear the consequences, and for five days she did. If she had tested this all the way in the courts, it would’ve been interesting to see what might have happened. Both the Federal Civil Rights Act and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act have legal provisions for the restructuring of a person’s job where there is a matter of public conscience.
Nevertheless, if you are going to take that stance — and she would’ve been in jail for a lot longer until things had been tested out, and I’m not even sure how it would’ve come out, though let us suppose that it had a happy ending — we would’ve also wanted to see a Christian resisting with a certain kind of joy (Hebrews 10:34), not in floods of self-pity or the like, but with a certain kind of joy akin to what the apostles display in chapter five of Acts. They rejoice because they’re counted worthy to suffer for the name (Acts 5:41).
Discerning Where to Draw Lines
But we must at least ask a few questions. First, why does she draw the line at this particular sin? Suppose two people come in, heterosexual, and ask for a marriage license and she knows that one of them has been divorced on grounds that in her understanding of Scripture are not legitimate and not excusable and warrant no remarriage. Does she have the moral obligation in that case, since she is grounding herself in the authority of God, not to hand out marriage licenses then too? Or to put it more confrontationally, why does she pick this particular sin as opposed to another particular sin? And then one begins to ask, how much of her choice of sins to draw a line in the sand is culture driven?
Or let’s push another question. About the same time this was going on, there was an account of an American woman who became a Muslim. She was a flight attendant. And for a while, no problem, but as she got deeper into Islam, she became convinced not only that she couldn’t drink alcohol herself, but that she couldn’t distribute it on planes in her job as a flight attendant. It was shades of the lesser magistrate again. She didn’t want to be guilty of causing others to sin. She didn’t want to handle this stuff.
Things went reasonably well. She talked about it frankly with her employer, one of the major airline companies. Things went reasonably well as long as other flight attendants on board were willing to do all the alcohol distribution for her. But eventually, inevitably, one flight attendant objected, saying, “Why should I be doing twice as much work in distributing things just because she doesn’t want to? If she doesn’t feel that she can do this for conscience reasons then she should get another job.” The airline sided with the complaining flight attendant who was doing double duty and sacked the Muslim woman, and then the thing went to court.
Now, that too is an interesting question. What makes that one different from the case of Kim Davis? Anything? And if not, precisely where does one draw lines? That raises the question, how do we choose which hill to die on? Or is there some degree of flexibility that is involved? Is this eventually a case of “let each be fully persuaded in his own mind”? We’ll come toward that at the end. But if it is a hill to die on, then why did Kim Davis agree to the compromise that allowed her assistance to sort out the marriage license distribution?
And although the motivations, I’m sure, of the Christian governor — or the governor with Christian sympathies — in changing the form, subsequently were precisely bound up with trying to alleviate the problem, yet doesn’t it smack just a wee bit of casuistry? You then can’t appeal to Calvin’s lesser magistrate because whether your name is on it or not, if you’re distributing the form you are making it possible for certain people to sin. The issue is not just about your name, it’s the licensing of people to do something that God condemns and prohibits. And in any case, what happened pretty rapidly was that she became a political play thing. Mike Huckabee and, to the lesser extent, Ted Cruz, and others used this in ways that were not entirely decorous.
Acting for the Sake of Conscience
Let’s suppose instead she’d taken the other option. Suppose she had decided for conscience reasons to resign, saying, “I cannot distribute these marriage licenses for conscience’s sake. And I don’t see any way for me to get around this, not even by removing my name or laying the responsibility on my associates or assistants. I simply must resign.” What follows in that case? Well, on the plus side, she preserves her conscience. That’s no small thing. She preserves her conscience.
On the other hand, it’s at the price of losing her job, which is not simply a question of losing income but something bigger. It’s establishing a frame of reference in which if there is an element to a task in an ordered society where you have a problem of conscience, your only option is to retreat and withdraw. After all, there are strong medical voices now that are saying that no Christian who has a conscience on the matter of abortion should be permitted to become a doctor or a nurse. They would say that if you cannot contribute to abortion procedures, then you’re not qualified to be a doctor because that’s part of what you must do. So on conscience grounds, you decide not to be a doctor. Thus, you progressively remove Christians from every order of society that has any element in it that contradicts your Christian conscience.
The end of that particular course, of course, is to become Amish, or something equivalent thereof, because you can make the whole case sound a bit ridiculous. But if you are supporting the government and investing through banks and this or that corporation and so on, you do become complicit in a network society where if you invest in a corporation, which is also investing money in other corporations, who knows what your money is doing? There is no way of being entirely clean in all of these domains until you do become Amish.
Adding to the Complexity
Let me now make things a little more complicated. These are the easy things to tease out. Now try to make things a little more complicated. First, when Paul says he’s shockingly approving things about government in Romans 13, he’s not talking about the state of affairs after a national election. He’s talking about Nero. Now, of course, he doesn’t give Nero universal authority, but he is saying that the powers that be are ordained by God and are called by God to preserve good order, for sometimes, in fact, regularly, the overthrow of even a tyrannical regime ends in the kind of anarchy that is worse in terms of violence and suffering than what you have before. That brings us to the particular perplexities that arise out of the fact that we don’t live in the Roman Empire, we live in a democracy, a representative democracy, a republic.
And because we live in a democracy, therefore we have obligations to think about, pray about, and wrestle over what Paul never faced. Paul couldn’t hope for the next election cycle to see if they could change a few of the senators. So the authority to which he was urging submission was in fact a blood-thirsty, cruel despot. But nevertheless, he has such confidence in God’s sovereignty that he orders a principle submission, save implicitly in cases where it was simply not possible to do so, obeying God rather than human beings.
But supposing you live in a democracy, unless you withdraw entirely, you have some obligations when the constitution under which you live gives you rights as a citizen to make your case in the public arena, to argue your corner, to try to elect people that represent what you do more closely than other people and so forth. You have obligations, which raises some fundamentally interesting things about how you view those in authority.
On the one hand, you want to say they’re appointed by God. That’s the principle of Romans 13. They’re God’s messengers. On the other hand, the citizens voted them in and we can vote them out. Nobody could vote Nero out. That enables us after a while to develop a kind of mentality that is at least biblically dangerous. The wrong person gets in and we say, “Well, yeah, of course he’s in. It’s sort of sad at the moment, but we’ll vote him out next time. He’s not my president.” And someone could say, “Well, he’s the president.” And we could say, “Oh yeah, I suppose he is the president, but boy, I didn’t vote for him.” And thus we excuse ourselves by a kind of self-distancing because the means of appointment is not by the autocratic procedures of belonging to the Caesar family.
The Authority God Ordains
But supposing Mr. Trump or Mr. Sanders becomes president of these United States in a year’s time, we are obligated, as far as I can see, to say the powers that be are ordained by God. Now, that does not mean that everything they do is ordained by God. Powers, whether in the first century or the 21st century, can overstep what Scripture sanctions. Moreover, God can use the wrath of man to praise him. In that sense, Hitler is ordained by God. The mysteries of providence become very complex, but it means that our rhetoric of utter confrontation has to at least be mitigated, trimmed, carefully worded to allow space for God’s sovereignty to work out even in the midst of perhaps bringing judgment to this country, if the old adage is right that the people get the governors that they deserve.
But if we live in a democracy and have additional responsibilities regarding the people in authority because of it, inevitably that means that we are called, in some way, in some measure, to compromise. I have lived in and voted in three different countries. I have yet to vote for somebody concerning whom I had no questions whatsoever of the choices they would make. I suppose that makes me a rotten compromiser. Or does it mean instead that you make choices regarding what are, in your view, the least objectionable courses that are likely to ensue if person A as opposed to person B exercises authority? And even then, people have been known — this may come as a surprise to you — to change their stance once they get into office.
Moreover, it is simply not the case that all Christians will see in perfect agreement exactly what the most crucial issues are. For some Christians, the most crucial issues have to do with gun control. For others it’s homosexual marriage. For others, it’s how to treat the poor and how to build a strong economy again. For still others, it’s preserving the first amendment. Or for others, it’s a combination of them. But it’s not at all impossible for two or three equally devout, pious Bible-believing Christians to come to a slightly different array of which issues are most important and which ones you might be forced most to compromise on as you try to elect the least offensive, least ugly, least wicked sinner to high office. Suddenly, the entailments of living in a democracy mean that we have to think very carefully about a range of things that were not faced by the apostles.
A Degrading Culture
And then in the third place, we have lived under these tensions, of course, as long as the republic has existed. But they have become a lot worse because of the progressive drift of the republic away from Judeo-Christian heritage. Now, of course, the Judeo-Christian heritage can be exaggerated, but there’s enough to be said about it. People say, “The Judeo-Christian, deist heritage,” and you can start putting in footnotes and all the rest. But nevertheless, there was something of a consensus along certain lines that has now rapidly disappeared. You can see it on so many fronts.
When I first started doing university missions 35 years ago, if I were speaking with an atheist, almost certainly he or she was a Christian atheist. That is, the God they disbelieved in was the Christian God, which meant the categories were still on my turf. Nowadays, if you’re dealing with an atheist, there’s no telling what kind of God it is they’re denying. The degree of biblical illiteracy even in southern universities, let alone in the Pacific Northwest or the New England states, is just plain, flat out staggering.
Every once in a while I’m asked to do something on television, and I turn almost all of those things down. They just are too time-consuming for too little profit. You give two or three days to some shoot, and you’ve shot an hour and a half worth of material, and you get a six-second clip that makes you look like an idiot. You wonder, “How is this a good use of my time?” and so on. Life is complicated.
I was doing something a few years ago for the Discovery Channel and flew to another city and was there for two or three days. There were 30 or 40 people on the crew, with the sound people and the audio people and their associates and somebody looking after the wires and somebody rolling in the drums and the lights and all the rest. Over the course of that time, I think I talked to everybody on the crew. I may have missed somebody, but I don’t think so. And because it was a religious shoot, it was easy for me to bring up the topic and say, “This is a religious shoot. Have you ever done one of these before? What do you think about religion? What do you think about Christ? Here I’m talking about Christ, what do you make of him?”
And I found out that there wasn’t one person in the entire crew that knew the Bible had two testaments, not one. Well, one exception, there was one. That was the charming young woman who was tasked with interviewing me. She bounced up to me with enthusiasm and zeal, and told me that she had been reading the Bible now for six weeks and she figured she had a pretty good handle on it now. Boy was I impressed.
Drifting Away from Christian Morality
And that’s just typical nowadays. I mean, it’s easier to do university missions today than it was 20 years ago because the average secularist at the university nowadays doesn’t know enough Christianity to rebel against it. They’re just blank. They form their religious notions without much reference to anything distinctively Christian. But all of this is part of the indices that show how the nation has progressively moved away from whatever Judeo-Christian, deist roots that it once had.
As long as that’s the case, suddenly democracy, instead of being roughly a friend — the wisdom of the country at large will determine us and stop us from going too far astray — allows hundreds of millions of people to vote at once, which means you have hundreds of millions of people without any distinctive Christian contributions or commitments who are now voting for things that you find an abomination. We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction in which things are going.
In other words, we must stop thinking about democracy as a guarantor of godliness. We must stop thinking about democracy as an intrinsic good. Democracy is in some ways the best way of changing governments without bloodshed. You can throw the blighters out every few years without bloodshed. But I have some sympathy for what Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other kinds.” It’s really a reflection on the commitments of Lord Acton, who said:
All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Although, I did see a bumper sticker the other day that said, “All power corrupts but absolute power sounds like fun.” Well, it sounds like fun as long as I’ve got it, if you’ve got it, it doesn’t sound fun at all.
But all of these are different ways of saying the same thing: we’re sinners. And if you have a lot of sinners voting, then you have a lot of sinners voting. That’s what you have. It’s not for nothing that the founders of the nation were convinced that if you lost a broad sweeping moral consensus, then you would inevitably have more and more laws. You can have fewer laws. You can be a nation of fewer laws as long as there is moral consensus. If you lose the moral consensus, you’re going to have to have moral laws to keep people from tearing out each other’s throats. All of these things are part of the challenge of living in a democracy at this juncture.
A Decreasing Ability to Reason
Number four, there is, for complex reasons, a decreasing ability in society to reason clearly about many, many topics. We increasingly argue by shibboleth and anger. If you try to argue a certain case regarding, let’s say, homosexual marriage, then you are easily and quickly dismissed as a bigot. So, for example, in the Kim Davis matter, I started following the press: The Seattle Times, a lot of other major publications, The New York Times. One editorial insisted:
In a homophobic political stunt, poorly veiled as religious beliefs, Davis denied marriage licenses to LGBT couples.
Notice there was no engagement with her principle, no reflection on the First Amendment, but the whole thing was dismissed as a hate-filled political stunt, a homophobic political stunt. It’s so difficult to engage.
One editorial said, “Now that Kim Davis is safely in jail, let’s revisit the Hobby Lobby decision.” Another headline — this was The Seattle Times — read, “Religious Belief Looks a Lot Like Intolerance from Here.” And with this, we are face-to-face with what I’ve elsewhere called “the new intolerance”. The old intolerance argued that it was wise, it was helpful, to allow people to dissent from the accepted norms of society, partly because free discussion meant that there was more likelihood of coming to consensus and truth rather than by way of squelching alternative points of view, or because there was not enough evidence, it was thought to justify a particular course, therefore, let the disagreement roll on.
Voltaire is often credited with saying, “I may hate what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” There is no evidence that Voltaire ever said that, but it’s a pretty good line and it depicts the old tolerance. But in every case in the old tolerance, the virtue of tolerance was parasitic on a broader ethical moral schema.
That is to say, whether you’re talking about tolerance in the Roman government, or in the Hittite Empire, or in the High Middle Ages, there is already a schema that is largely accepted in society for what is right and wrong, and tolerance then becomes a matter of how much you can allow deviation, how much politically or judicially or even socially you can allow deviation from that accepted norm. In other words, you have to have the norm in the first place, and that’s why tolerance of the old sort was a parasitic virtue. It was parasitic on the givenness of whatever the norms were in that particular culture.
The New Tolerance
But the new tolerance is different. The new tolerance doesn’t want you to be able to say that something is wrong. New tolerance finds the thing to have been said by Voltaire, to be itself already bigoted — “I may hate what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If you hate what somebody’s saying, then surely you’re a bigoted person. The only thing that you’re allowed to hate is intolerance, as they define it, which shows that the whole system is, in some way or another, logically self-defeating.
Moreover, it becomes intellectually bankrupt because it becomes impossible to talk about ideas. They’re automatically blacklisted under the rubric “intolerant”. So instead of encouraging opinions and dissent and discussion and engagement, in fact, what it tends to do is flatten out and squash and hammer away anything that is outside the “plausibility structure”, to use Berger’s term, of what is currently going on in society.
Then worse, that form of tolerance gets elevated to the supreme virtue. Instead of being parasitic on a whole lot of other givens, it becomes the supreme virtue in itself, and then the whole thing falls apart for want of consistency. It becomes really quite ridiculous. But that’s the nature of the tolerance that we are facing within our society. So, whether in matters like that of Kim Davis, or other issues that you could list as easily as I, it’s harder and harder to have a civil, probing conversation about deep matters because the intolerance label is quickly fastened on anyone who disagrees with the cultural givens.
This is tied to something I’ve mentioned elsewhere. If you’ve heard me on this before, forgive the repetition. That is, Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, has given us some really important insight into the nature of this “age of authenticity”, as he calls it. You are authentic in this age of authenticity, if you are consistent with the choices that you yourself make.
If you live out your life consistently in line with the choices that you yourself make, then you are an authentic person. If instead, you succumb to the morality that you inherited from your parents, even though it’s not really yours, or to religious authority, or to government structure, or whatever it is — you fit in to get along with things, but it’s not really what you prefer, it’s not what you yourself choose, it’s what you have to sort of put up with — then you’re not living an authentic life. To live authentically is to make your own choices and stick with them. Even if they’re stupid choices in the eyes of some people, or even cruel choices, at least you’re living authentically.
Wrongheaded Definitions of Freedom
Now, what that does, of course, is give us definitions of freedom that are themselves highly problematic. It also means that no one has the real authority — they may have a defacto authority, but not a moral authority, not a genuine authority — to tell me to do anything at all. I have the freedom to do what I want.
The good that I achieve in life is bound up, not with how much I serve others, or how much I’ve obeyed God, or how much I’ve maintained the family tradition, or how much I’ve served my aged grandmother, or whatever; it’s bound up with how authentically I live. And that authenticity is bound up with the freedom of my choice to do what I jolly well please and to live my life in that fashion. That is widely viewed and praised in our media, our plays, our films, and so many things in this secular age. That too then is tied into the new intolerance. Those who want to trim any freedoms are themselves intolerant.
Implications for Engaging Culture
I’m going to skip a few more complications and come to some ways to think about these things in the future. I have been scrupulously careful not to give you any advice so far, and now I will offer some rather tentative advice.
1. Expose Self-Defeating Ideology
In no particular order of importance. Number one: all of us, I think, ought to do what we can to expose the built-in inadequacies of the new tolerance. The new tolerance is wicked and stupid. It is morally bankrupt. And in the kindest possible ways, we need to keep showing that the emperor has no clothes. I get a chance at this every once in a while. A lot of universities have slush funds somewhere that they use for allowing campus groups to invite speakers on campus. So the physics club might invite in somebody who’s working on quarks or string theory, and six people show up. His way is paid by the slush fund from the university, and the clubs all go away feeling they’ve done something distinctive.
Well, there have been some universities that have discovered that Christian groups can use these funds as well. There are licensed Christian groups on campus, and so they will invite somebody in, like Os Guinness, who can talk. It can’t be directly, immediately evangelistic or something like that, but he can give good telling, probing analyses of things that are going on in the cultural world and so forth. So the four or five times where I’ve done this, I’ve often chosen something to do with the new tolerance. And it’s almost as if I pushed a button. Hundreds show up. I’ve never had fewer than hundreds. Most recently in North Carolina, we had about 600 people there, and about 50 to 80 of them were dons. They were the academics, not just the undergraduates. This is a topic that everybody’s interested in.
It became obvious in the talk and then in the discussion afterwards that many had not considered that the stances that they were taking were themselves intrinsically intolerant to those who disagreed with their particular views of tolerance. It hadn’t even occurred to them. When it was spelled out, I tried to make it funny and amusing and insightful and probing and so on, and at the end I always end up by saying, “Now, let me give you my slant on this as a Christian too. You’re going to have to tolerate me for a few minutes.” And then I explain my particular slant on some of these things.
And afterwards, I have not ever found anybody really, really mad at me. They come up and say, “Well, how can we increase civility? What are we doing wrong?” In other words, I think there is an opportunity to engage on some fronts exposing this bankrupt, intellectually-incredible, morally-confused new tolerance. I think that there is a place for doing it. None of that is evangelism, but it is some culture engagement that probably needs to be taken a little more seriously.
2. Return to the Old Tolerance
That means, in the second place, that we must self-consciously return to the older tolerance. There’s no way we want to knock tolerance on its head. We just want to establish what kind of tolerance we’re talking about. And that means how we talk about one another and how we talk about others is important. We want to be able to preserve the right to say that something is right or wrong without becoming mean and nasty. We must be disciplined in our speech, not least in our blogs.
This is an age which is very suspicious of triumphalistic blogs. It’s a strange, strange world, in which on the one hand, a Trump can get a lot of traction, precisely because he is so outrageous, and in other parts of society, hate all the outrageousness of it too, and long for a civil politics that bespeaks a little more courtesy and respect.
I have a friend who, until recently, was pastor of a church in Virginia, a Reformed Baptist church. He’s now serving in Africa. But in his community, some years back, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi moved into the local synagogue, and my friend thought, “Well, two birds with one stone.” He went to him and he said, “Would you let me pay you for some courses on Hebrew? I’d love you to teach me a little more Hebrew. I read canonical Hebrew slowly, but I could do with a lot of help,” and he thought at the same time he would be able to share the gospel with him. So eventually they became friends. My friend’s Hebrew improved substantially. They had long, long talks about the gospel and Christ and how the canon is put together and things of that order.
Eventually then, they were both asked one evening to speak at a religion course at a local junior college. It was one of those sort of amorphous religion courses where all kinds of outsiders are brought in and said, “What do you think about something? What do you think about something?” So they were all in. And this particular night, the Orthodox Jew and my Reformed Baptist friend were giving their two-cents worth on a three-hour evening course on religion.
When they were driving home, the Rabbi was driving and he turned to my friend and he said, “You’re the only one of my friends who will tell me I’m wrong.” Randy said to him, “What do you mean?” He said, “All my other religious friends, mostly liberal Protestants, some liberal Catholics, are always trying to convince me that basically we’re all trying to say the same thing, but you keep telling me I’m wrong. And that because I’m wrong, this is so serious that I’m going to hell. You’re the only one of my friends that does that. Did you know that?” My friend said, “Yes, and I love you.” We are going to have to recapture the high ground of bold declaration of truth mingled with courtesy.
3. Shape Worldview According to the Whole Bible
Number three: we are going to have to learn to respond to a false worldview with more worldview-ish preaching and teaching. The model of Acts 17 is important. There’s a whole storyline that has to be constructed to make sense of who Christ is. Although the digital world wants us to answer only in one-liners, yet you cannot build a whole worldview on one-liners. You can reflect a worldview in one-liners, but it’s very hard to teach a worldview in one-liners.
For all that our gospel must be — keeping it central and arising out of exegesis — our exegesis itself must be painted on the broad canvas of the sweep of Scripture to form a worldview, in which alone it is possible to think about abortifacients and about homosexual marriage and the like. There’s no way dealing with that issue abstracted from a Christian frame of reference, that it’s easy to make much headway.
4. Do Not Be Surprised by Conflict
Number four: we must not be surprised by conflict. There are just so many texts that presuppose persecution. I’m going to be dealing with this a little bit more tomorrow.
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you (John 15:18).
Indeed, according to Philippians 1:29, God has graciously granted us both faith and opposition. Both have been granted by God as a privilege. And it doesn’t take much reading of the pastoral epistles to realize that opposition from the world is normative. It’s normal. We have lived really as an aberration from much of that kind of thing in much of the western world, and now that’s closing in on us again.
It has the salutary effect of removing quite a lot of nominal Christianity. But these things should not surprise us. They should increasingly be worn as badges of honor — that we would be rejoicing because we’re counted worthy to suffer for the Name. This is not a time for anger or self-pity, but for gratitude, for the triumph of the cross that has enabled us to see and the privilege of taking up our cross and following him.
5. Don’t Flinch at the Dogmatic Statements of Scripture
Number five: I want to suggest that in this frame of reference, it is very important not to flinch at the absolutes of Scripture. You know the kind of preaching that says, “Well, in our series in Matthew week, now come to this passage on hell. This is not a subject I like to talk about, but Jesus did teach it. I wish something else had been said here, but this is what was said so let’s be faithful to it and find out what scripture says.” What? Are you trying to be more holy than Jesus? More charitable than God? Do you have to apologize for the absolutes in God’s most holy word? “Well, yes, the Bible does say there is no other way, but there may on occasion be sufficient light from nature to let some people squeak in because God is very gracious.”
We are going to have to learn to teach and preach the absolutes of Scripture even when they are unpalatable, and as attractively as we can make them, but without any flinching or apologizing. If we’re embarrassed by something in the Bible, who is more likely to be wrong, we or God? So part of our obligation is to figure out, if we’re embarrassed, why we’re embarrassed and what is shaping us to be embarrassed by such things. Two more and I quit.
6. Let Each Be Persuaded in His Own Mind
Number six: these issues are very complex, and I suspect in the light of them that on specific details, whether Kim Davis handled this well or not, how she might have done it better and the like, I suspect that in the Christian environment we must acknowledge that some such decisions belong in the “Let each person be fully persuaded in his or her own mind” category. There are some of us — not least those of us who have strong confessional views — who want to make all our views equally strong. But the Apostle Paul can say, regarding the exclusive sufficiency of Christ in Galatians, if anyone preaches any other gospel, let him be damned (Galatians 1:8). But he can say, regarding days in Romans 14, whatever the precise days are that he’s referring to, “One views one day above another, another views all the day is the same, let each be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
You can’t imagine Paul saying, “One person views adultery as okay, the other views it as really quite despicable, let each be fully persuaded in their own mind.” There is a hierarchizing of moral values and of truth claims in Scripture. Paul does not say, “There’s a right and a wrong on this one and you don’t know enough.” What he openly says is, “Let each be fully persuaded in their own minds,” which presupposes there’s going to be division in the church on some of these issues.
Now, there’s a huge, central importance to “thinking the same thing” and “being of one mind and heart”, to use the expression found 10 times in Paul’s short letter to the Philippians. There’s an important emphasis on unity of mind with respect to doctrine. Yes, a huge emphasis. But there is a hierarchizing of beliefs in Scripture, and sometimes Christians are going to come out on slightly different angles with respect to gun laws or how to handle a county clerk’s job in Kentucky.
7. Hold Fast to the Priority of the Gospel
Finally, it’s desperately important, desperately important, not to get so bound up with the political implications of these matters, as complex and as important as they are, that we sacrifice the priority of gospel witness and gospel proclamation. Let me put it this way: you can’t win Muslims to Christ unless you love them. You can’t win gay people to Christ unless you love them. You can’t win people of the opposite political party unless you love them.
We are all morally obligated to make the gospel clear as a first priority, even as we also have citizenship responsibilities that might mean that we decide certain matters about how to deal with Islam in the political arena in a little different way than what we’re doing with our neighbor who is a Muslim. That means that when we’re arguing for a certain political action course, we must not so invest our energy, our heat, and our passion into such matters in order to preserve our understanding of what the republic should be, that we give the impression that the well-being of the republic is more important than the glory of Christ and the furthering of the gospel.
We must not do that. Otherwise, we contribute to the image of Christians as cranky, bad-tempered traditionalists who are simply trying to preserve their own power. The press won’t like to say it, but I want press people to know Christians whose very lives and witness and social relationships and speech and so on, even when they say true things that have a bearing in the political arena, are even more concerned for people’s eternal well-being under the shadow of the cross.