This past week, I’ve come across various articles by Christians in response to America’s present cultural meltdown in which the authors are trying to bring some kind of balance to the discussion. Actually, many of them aren’t responding to the present situation so much as they are responding to fellow Christians who are speaking out. The general tone of these articles is one of immense pietism and the embrace of what has been called “radical two-kingdom” theology. While I agree that there needs to be balance brought to our discussions of present controversies, I don’t see much balance offered in these reactions.
I don’t make it a habit to respond to articles point-by-point and so this post will be one of those exceptions. An article which has drawn a great deal of attention is a blog post written by Carey Nieuwhof, a pastor based in Toronto, Canada. It’s another article offering advice to the church across our land. He offers a uniquely Canadian perspective on the same-sex “marriage” issue, being the pastor of a church in a nation which has already legalized these “marriages” for about a decade. To be sure, his is not the only Canadian perspective on the matter. Yet so far, his post has been shared on Facebook almost 150,000 times. I guess that’s considered “going viral.”
Whatever the case, I understand his pastoral concern in writing what he wrote as well as his perspective of living in a highly secularized nation which sees the legalization of same-sex “marriage” as old hat. His article, however, is indicative of what I see as a major problem in broader Evangelicalism. If the politicization of the pulpit was a huge problem in the last several decades (and it was), then we can safely say that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Much of the advice given by many Christians today consists of repeating the errors of the Anabaptists.
In his first point, Nieuwhof actually makes some valid points about Christianity being counter-cultural in every age. I tend to agree with him on this. The Word of God is our standard, not any given culture or time period. However, I would not throw cultural concerns out the window or say that Christians should not do their best to influence culture for the better. God is glorified when we represent salt and light to the dying world around us. He is also glorified when we declare the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things including music, entertainment, art, technology, business, medicine–and yes–civil government.
Biblical Christianity does not teach that we are to withdraw from the world, close ourselves off into enclaves, and live an otherwise marginalized existence on the societal fringe. The Protestant Reformers rejected the monastic life for a reason. We are not of the world, but we are nevertheless living in it. We may yet find ourselves on the cultural fringe, but it shouldn’t be because we pushed ourselves there. Silencing ourselves and not speaking directly to the culture will never give us safely in any age.
Nieuwhof’s second point is that we shouldn’t expect unbelievers to uphold Christian ethics. On the surface, this seems like a common sense statement. Certainly those outside of Christ will want nothing to do with His standards. They will always reject His Lordship over all things and live in rebellion against His created order. I agree that all of those points are true, but Nieuwhof is taking that statement much further by asserting that the rebelliousness of unbelievers is proof that we shouldn’t even bother to uphold God’s standards in public life. I couldn’t disagree more.
To be blunt, this perspective is indicative of a low view of God’s law. Evangelicalism has made it a point to downplay His precepts. It’s an understatement to say that antinomianism is rampant in the church today. This is rooted in worldliness, wanting to be accepted by the culture around us. It contradicts Nieuwhof’s earlier statement that we are to be counter-cultural. Just how are Christians supposed to be counter-cultural when we are told that we must carry God’s standards in a plain paper sack? James 4:4 warns us against this very thing.
Moreover, we need to think about the implications of this stance when it comes to evangelism. Many in the church are concerned about offending those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. Certainly we shouldn’t unnecessarily offend unbelievers, but we must remember that the Gospel itself is offensive to the world (1 Cor. 1:18). The things of God will always offend those who are unregenerate. The Law of God is openly mocked and ridiculed by those who don’t have ears to hear. Yet there is a necessity in openly proclaiming God’s law along with His gospel. When we remove the sharp edge of the Law, we make the Gospel far less sweet.
Understanding our sinfulness and hopelessness apart from Christ is what humbles us, driving us to the Cross. Any practice of the church which diminishes the Law of God will necessarily diminish evangelism.
Also, what about the fact that obedience to God’s law is essential to human flourishing? All sorts of non-Christian people groups have appreciation for simple acts of justice and fairness. That the world embraces any kind of ethics at all is a testimony to God’s common grace for humanity, both for believers and unbelievers alike. If we are truly to love our neighbor, then why wouldn’t we want our social institutions to reflect God’s wisdom and moral character? I would really like an answer to that question.
Nieuwhof’s third point is laced with truth, but he utters some very problematic statements. Certainly we can’t condemn one form of sin while ignoring others. That simple point is granted. However, he goes on to say that heterosexual fornication is just as sinful as homosexual acts. But is this true? I assert that it isn’t. The repeated statement that “God views all sin equally” is a lie. Yes, any form of sex outside of marriage is a sin. Yes, plenty of heterosexuals commit sexual sins. Yet of all the sexual sins we see condemned in Scripture, homosexual acts are especially condemned because they go against the very purpose of nature itself. Paul makes this point clearly in Romans 1:18-27.
A heterosexual couple is most definitely rebelling against God’s intended order and design for marriage by having sex before they are married. Yet they can rectify their situation by getting married and keeping their sexual desires within the bounds of marital union (1 Cor. 7:9). By contrast, the homosexual couple cannot do this. Their very desires go against God’s created order and such a union can never be rectified in any way. The only option for homosexuals is to repent of their homosexual behavior.
Nieuwhof goes to on say that we should assume that almost every unmarried individual in a given congregation is committing fornication. Even the married folks in the pews have problems with pornography, he says, and there are a whole host of other sins which Christians struggle with as such. I was rather taken aback by this statement if for no other reason than the fact that he speaks about sin itself in such a nonchalant way. The statement contains an aura of inevitability which makes one want to throw up is hands in resignation. If fornication is near universal among the unmarried within our congregations, then we should all grieve tremendously and seriously ponder whether any kind of discipleship is taking place at all. Perhaps this reveals more about Nieuwhof’s own ministry than he cared to admit.
Whatever the case, this too represents a false dichotomy. If we take his logic to its extension, then we cannot dare speak out against any kind of sinful practice unless we are completely spotless and without sin. I agree that we need to be consistent and that we must condemn sinful practices, whatever they are. The funny thing is, however, that the churches which preach against the sin of homosexual conduct are usually the same ones which openly preach against fornication. I’ve never heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 which didn’t also include a condemnation of fornication and adultery.
Nieuwhof’s fourth point is definitely interesting and worth pondering. I can agree with much on this point. Jesus did indeed say that His kingdom is not of this world. It’s also true that we should put our trust in God, not in the institutions of this world. But what was his point in bringing this up? If he’s trying to say that Christians should completely remove ourselves from participation in politics, then he’s completely wrong.
Political victory is not (and should not be) the goal of the church. Yet we still live in this world and our actions have consequences. When evil reigns within the realm of civil government (as it does right now), we would be sinning if we didn’t use the providential opportunities God has given us to remove said evil from our midst. Micah 6:8 calls us to carry out justice. Romans 13:1-7 further tells us that the civil state is ordained by God to mete out justice and punish those who do evil. By surrendering the realm of civil government to the pagans in our land, we are effectively denying the Lordship of Christ over all things.
I’m not advocating a merger between church and state. All I’m saying is that the state should act in accordance with the ethical standards revealed to us in the Word of God. Among Christians, such a statement should be completely non-controversial. This viewpoint rightly flows out of a healthy appreciation of God’s holiness. Any standard outside of Scripture is idolatry.
On his fifth and final point, Nieuwhof immerses himself in the cultural language of “don’t judge people.” He says that we can’t have a dialogue with the sexually immoral if we’re going to be honest and declare what Scripture says about their lifestyles. He’s saying that we can’t have a discussion with someone outside the church unless we commit to make no judgments whatsoever. Pray tell, what kind of dialogue are we hoping to have?
Here he falls into the same trap of reading Matthew 7:1 in isolation while ignoring (or otherwise misinterpreting) the rest of the passage. The statement “judge not” is itself a call to judgment. And the following verses are Christ’s instruction on how to properly make judgments.
In my final analysis, I don’t see how an article like this can possibly mesh with passages in Scripture like Psalm 119. We are called to love God’s law and delight in it. The Lord has set these things before us for our good. So when I see posts like Nieuwhof’s, I see a very low view of the Bible itself and especially God’s precepts. The world considers biblical truth to be a scandal, but we are not to be ashamed of it. Yes, we are not under the curse of the Law as Christians. I will gladly affirm that. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the Law for us, inside or outside of the church. Doing so promotes a form of confusion in which the Gospel is no longer precious to us.
I fear that many churches today are like the church at Corinth. We do well to remember the three uses of the Law, the third use being especially lacking among believers today. If we love the Lord Jesus, then we’ll keep His commandments (John 14:15). The thrice-holy God of the Bible will not be glorified by a visible church which has a lackluster attitude toward His precepts.