Opposition to secular culture is a core part of Christianity, but we’ve conformed to the culture instead.
The Scriptural emphasis on suffering because of differences of belief is practically cover to cover. Paul said to Timothy “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12). Noah was ridiculed for building his ark, Elijah was threatened with capital punishment for his monotheism, and John the Baptist was beheaded for preaching scriptural sexual morality. Even Jesus said “don’t be surprised when they hate you, for they first hated me” (John 15:18).
But not everyone seems to agree. Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. would likely be one of those that disagree. Undertaking what is seen as a historic move for a Baptist church, they have appointed a lesbian couple as co-pastors at the church. They were affirmed earlier this month. At their confirmation, the couple said “We have found it so easy to fall in love with Calvary and its longstanding commitment to be a voice of justice and compassion for those who perpetually find the wholeness of their humanity disregarded and maligned.”
In other words, a significant goal of the couple will be to market their church to practicing homosexuals. As I’ve argued elsewhere (here and here), this is an indefensible theological position, that one can be a practicing homosexual and in a right relationship with God. But this isn’t just a problem of church practice; it’s a problem of church perspective.
The Guardian recently wrote a piece criticizing the results of what the call the “market-based” approach to Christianity. While I don’t necessarily agree with the whole editorial (they seem to be implicitly arguing against the autonomy of local churches), I did find this thought rather insightful: “A religion that is responsive to the pressures of the market will end up profoundly fractured, with each denomination finding most hateful to God the sins that least tempt its members, while those sins that are most popular become redefined and even sanctified.”
The perspective problem we have is that we approach the church as a business that needs to be successful, and we define success with numbers. For far too long, American churches have sought to fill pews with dynamic worship music and youth pizza parties, because we view filled pews and growing attendance numbers as success. When even those amenities aren’t enough because the culture finds Christian doctrine unpalatable, it’s not hard to see why churches stray into apostasy.
This is not to say that all churches who have particular kinds of worship music or do fun things with their youth will inevitably begin to change their doctrine on sexual immorality. Nor is this to say that all American churches have a pervasive problem in this area. Rather, it is an observation that church culture has become more and more migrated towards a customer-centered approach rather than a God-centered approach. The biblical church is focused on the needs of its members to the glory of God, not the wants of its members to the justification of its members’ desire for fun and inclusion at the cost of accountability. This is a problem that has grown over time because of this focus; these are not entirely separate issues.
The answer to this problem in church culture is quite simple, even if difficult to implement: we need to reorient ourselves around a scriptural focus on sanctification and suffering. The very meaning of sanctification is “set apart” – Christians cannot be set apart if Christianity is adapted to the secular culture. We know that the church is set apart (1 Corinthians 1:2), and we also know that Christians are expected to be different (John 17:14). Now this is not all encompassing; Christians should be different and should suffer for the right reasons. Taking a biblical stand on God’s teaching on sexuality, as well as emphasizing pursuing God in holiness rather than for fun and games, is certainly being different for the right reasons.
Ultimately, I believe that the American church is afraid. We’re afraid of ultimately facing persecution. We’re afraid right now of facing ostracization. We’re afraid that people will go elsewhere if we challenge them on their sin. But the early church was not taught to fear this conflict with secular culture’s ideology, and the consequences of that conflict. Rather, it was taught to embrace it. James told early Christians to “count it all joy” when trials come (James 1:2-5). The apostles rejoiced that they were “counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5). Christianity is and has always been about suffering. We need to be willing to prioritize truth and dedication to God, not the wants of members. As a last example of this, I appeal to Revelation. In the early part of Revelation, God critiques many of the early churches. In so doing, he lays out for us what success looks like. It has nothing to do with how big their meeting place is, how dynamic their speaker, how large their attendance numbers or outreach programs, or even how many preachers they support overseas. Instead, this is what success looks like for His church:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.'” (Rev 2:8-11)
Poverty, suffering, and standing firm in the faith. That’s what the most successful church in the book of Revelation looked like. Certainly, we should work hard to spread the word, to bring people into the fold of God, and to do so in a winsome way. We also need to adapt to the needs of our members, as long as we understand what those needs are biblically. But the sooner we adapt to God’s vision for Christianity, the church, and suffering, the more we can start to counteract the selfish model of the church that has captured far too many American churches today.
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on church issues and the intersection of Christianity and culture. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Christian Entertainment Reviews, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, parenting, and Batman.