Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors

What should Christian public engagement look like as we move into this era? So far in this series, I’ve laid out some of the challenges facing mainstream Christianity, and why it’s no surprise that some on the right argue that a more combative stance is needed to push back against harmful ideologies and practices. in the society.

Some Christians seem to believe that confrontational or combative approaches to public theology are inherently sub-Christian. This is not the case. Christianity has a long history of people willing to speak truth to power, to challenge the reigning ideologies of the times in the name of Christ the King.

Too often, the negative label of “Christians at Culture Wars” is applied only to Christians who oppose common leftist ideologies. When left-wing Christians challenge politicians or pastors who support sinful beliefs or behaviors common to the right, they are described as “prophetic” and “courageous.” It is unfair. Culture war requires two sides, and one can be a culture warrior on the left just as easily as a warrior on the right.

But, speaking of being ‘prophetic’, sometimes we think that courage and daring consist in bragging, in ‘destroying’ the opposition, in ‘owning the libs’ or in mocking the ‘crackpots’ we find us on the other side of the aisle. No. It takes little courage to be bold in opposing those your closest friends, family members, or online followers expect you to oppose. What takes courage is to police your own side, to expose the problems not only in “the culture” but in your own underculture, to go against the consensus of your own tribe and against the people you usually enjoy favor with. Compromise always involves surrender, but surrender can occur in more than one direction.

It seems likely that we will see a return to something akin to the old culture war mentality among young evangelicals in the years to come. Rather than rejecting this option, I think it is better to encourage and caution young evangelicals who are enthusiastic about this mode of public engagement.

The reality of Christian warfare

First, let’s drop the idea that war has no place in Christianity. I remember stifling my laughter when, about 15 years ago, progressive Christians were protesting the “unbiblical” martial imagery of many Christians and churches. Aiming at the Conservatives, they were shooting at the Bible.

The language of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus blessed peacemakers and called us to turn the other cheek, yet he said he came to bring division, not unity. It was the sword that separated the son from the father and the daughter from the mother. The apostle Paul used martial imagery, like the other apostles. We are on a spiritual battlefield. The response to such circumstances is for the church to be, dare I say, militant. Downplaying the stakes does not do justice to the Bible itself.

In this battle, Christianity is “offended” – not in a way that implies we should seek to be offensive, to take it as a badge of honor when others are offended. No, talking about Christianity “in offense” is just another way of describing the picture Jesus gave us when he said the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Jesus’ statement imagines the church moving outward, plundering hell and pushing back the forces of darkness. Passivity has no place in the Great Commission.

The danger of misidentifying the enemy

But the danger for Christians who apply New Testament war motives to political engagement is that we can easily misidentify the enemy. The apostle Paul makes it clear that we are not wrestling against flesh and blood. It is the church that advances in battle against the powers and principalities that hold people captive, against the forces of evil that wreak havoc in our world, the supernatural realities that the Bible describes as present and persistent.

We must distinguish the snake from its prey. This is why we seek to convert our adversaries, no own Where destroy their. We seek their rescue, not their ruin. As we have seen, “seduction” is not a strategy of cultural engagement, as if we can win cultural arguments simply by being “nice”, but let’s not forget, we are deeply invested in the conquest of our adversaries. As Augustine taught, we stand versus the world For the good of the world.

The challenge for cultural actors is that we minimize the versus– we become so focused on working for the good of the world that we adopt a conciliatory and affirmative posture which never comes up against a hard line of antithesis, and so we avoid any contradictory position towards the world. The challenge for culture warriors is that we get so caught up in the drama of standing up to what is wrong that we are gripped with contempt and resentment, and forget who we are fighting for. In the scriptural imagination, our fight is for our adversaries, or at least, for the people who will be harmed by what our adversaries are proposing.

Those who engage in culture can easily overlook the reality of spiritual warfare and eternal stakes. But culture warriors can lose sight of this spiritual battleground, just in a different way – by reducing the cosmic image of powers and principalities to temporary, earthly policies and positions (and the people who hold them). . Jesus is clear: even if our neighbors become our enemies, we must love our enemies, pray for them and do them good. This is the Christian way. Contempt must be killed.

No wonder we need the armor of God. An army that remains behind its walls hardly needs this kind of protection. Paul’s metaphor assumes that Christians will take a public and firm stand in the world so that we can fight differently from the world, as shining warriors who pierce the darkness, whose victory is always in the form of a cross because the soldiers of Christ must be known for their unselfish love. .

The hollowing out of the soul

Another precaution for culture warriors is the ability to fortify the outer facade of Christian faithfulness while being hollowed out within. Despite my concerns about Rod Dreher’s Benedict option, I appreciate his insight that we can’t give the world what we don’t have. We cannot achieve a culture if we have not built our own culture.

When the apostle Peter wrote a letter of encouragement and exhortation to distressed Christians – believers who lived on the margins of society, slandered and falsely accused, some imprisoned and a handful of martyrs – he reminded them of their status of “strangers and temporary residents” and then called them “to abstain from carnal desires which make war upon you” (1 Peter 2:11, CSB). Peter’s attention was not on the battle waged against them by disbelieving authorities; it started with the daily struggle that was going on in their hearts. In other words, Peter seemed less concerned about what unbelievers might do to Christians physically than about what sin would do to them spiritually.

Here is the lesson for us: By focusing all of our attention on threats external to Christianity, we can miss the real and persistent internal threats that annihilate our witness. Yes, transgender ideology can be an external threat to the religious freedom of Christian organizations, but the use of pornography in our congregations is certainly the most widespread and pervasive tragedy today.

The decline in church membership and attendance over the past 50 years can be attributed to cultural trends that make it harder to be a Christian, but this view would only make sense. some of decline. The internal rotting of our churches has contributed as much to our decline as any external government pressure. The internal challenges we face are just as deadly as the external threats. Don’t miss the chilling prospect of Christians who could win a culture war and lose their souls.

The danger of friendly fire

I must point out another challenge that the neo-religious right must consider: the possibility of friendly fire. Anyone who’s ever been to war knows that one of the most common dangers is friendly fire – being wounded or killed by someone on your side. The fog of war makes it easy for allies to be treated as enemies.

Culture Wars are impossible without friendly fire and casualties among allies. And I fear we are already seeing this development among those pushing for a return to the culture war mentality. We shoot our brothers and sisters.

Frequently, casualties of friendly fire do not arise because of differences in doctrine, but because of matters of wisdom and discernment. Because some churches and leaders take a different approach to cultural engagement, we may doubt their doctrinal correctness, attribute to them pernicious motives, or label them as compromising or cowardly.

It is far too easy for Christians, devoted to a just cause, to divert their attention from the battlefield to the barracks and seek to eliminate all those who do not fight for the cause in the same way. Like disciples ready to call fire from heaven on a village, many who are caught up in the culture war are too quick to call fire on their brothers and sisters who may see and interpret the situation differently.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultural engagement. Christians with different political calculations, with different regional sensitivities, temperaments or experiences, may choose different courses of action. The debate over the best course of action is good and necessary. But culture warriors and culture doers must be careful not to unfairly criticize or belittle siblings whose different choices are not at odds with denominational loyalty but stem from prudential judgments about how best to be. faithful in the public square.

In the next column, I want to explore this idea further. Different parts of the body can have different roles to play. The local church is the most important Christian association, but it is by no means the only one. In the different spheres of culture, we need informal organizations and networks of people to function to their strengths, and they need to be mutually reinforcing. We need the whole body of Christ, with different congregations with different skills, gifts, and passions, doing whatever it takes to faithfully serve Christ and show the world the beauty of the gospel.


This is the seventh column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles emailed, along with a curated list of useful books, podcasts, and links I find online, enter your address.

1. The return of the culture wars
2. The tearing of condemnatory civility
3. Navigating the (new?) negative world
4. Didn’t I grow up in the negative world?
5. We need to complicate the negative world
6. Contextualizing Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and caution for culture warriors
8. Truthful witness in the public square
9. Five quick takes for new culture wars

Helen D. Jessen