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American paganism provides chance for cultural engagement, Mitchell says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–An America which yawns at alleged presidential womanizing, permits state-sanctioned physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, foments generations of racial discrimination and is plagued with the death of schoolchildren felled by their classmates’ gunfire suffers from the same paganism the Apostle Paul found in first-century Athens, an ethics professor preached April 7 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
But such paganism is no reason for Christians to curse the darkness and seek monastic protection from the evils of the world, C. Ben Mitchell said. Nor should believers merely complain about rampant idolatry and sin in America.
Instead, Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Seminary, urged Christians to look to Paul’s preaching at Mars Hill for both the message and method of cultural engagement.
Mitchell, who also serves as consultant on biomedical and life issues to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, preached from Acts 17:16-34, comparing the Athenian captivation with idolatry and pagan philosophy with a contemporary American culture numbed by godless naturalism, materialism and self-infatuation. Contrary to those who pronounce that all is well in America, Mitchell said the culture has “lost its way” by ditching objective moral standards.
While the culture slides into moral chaos, the church has “lost her moral voice” at a time when answers to the questions being asked by society can be answered meaningfully only by God’s revelation in Scripture, Mitchell said. As evidence for the church’s moral decline, he cited a recent theological society meeting agenda which offered workshops on such topics as sisterhood among lesbian psychiatric patients and the relationship between southern evangelical culture and the gay drag scene in Atlanta.
Despite such unsettling trends, this is not the time for evangelicals to throw up their hands in frustration, Mitchell warned. Instead, the church “must recover the truth” and take it to the marketplace of ideas outside the church walls, just as the Apostle Paul did among the pagan relics of Athens.
Mitchell called on evangelicals to recognize the horror with which the apostle viewed the paganism of Athens.
“Paul was so jealous for the glory of God, so jealous for the honor of God, that he could not bear to see that glory given to another,” Mitchell said. “As we confront a culture that is wholly given over to idolatry, have we been seized as Paul had been seized? Has holy anger been provoked in us, not at persons, not at their idolatry, but … that someone besides the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Most High God, is getting glory?”
Mitchell said that just as Paul did not retreat in revulsion from the cultural decay around him, but used it as a platform for preaching the gospel, evangelicals must seize the opportunity to trumpet the gospel of Christ to a world hostile to the claims of Christ. He pointed to Paul’s strategy of beginning his message in the synagogues as an example for evangelical efforts.
“He spoke to those Jews and God-fearing Greeks who shared basically a theistic worldview, who understood something about a God who has a will, who has revealed that will in sacred Scripture,” he said. “I would argue that one of our chief responsibilities and tasks in our generation is to speak to those who share our worldview, or at least who say that they share our worldview, and to reintroduce them to the worldview of the Bible.”
Evangelicals must also note, Mitchell counseled, that Paul did not limit his influence to the religious, but carried his message, without watering down the content, to the bustling masses of the secular marketplace.
“Notice he didn’t invite them to come to the Bible Dome for a special meeting about being a good father or how to use the Internet effectively,” he said. “He engaged the people where they were.”
The content of Paul’s message to the gathering crowd of pagans also should be instructive for modern evangelicals attempting to transform 20th-century America with the gospel of Christ, Mitchell said. After pointing out the temple “To the Unknown God” constructed by the Athenians, Paul began his preaching with the declaration of God as Creator of the universe who sustains all things with his own power and who stands in judgment of his creation.
“He is not trying to convince them that God is Creator,” Mitchell noted. “He asserts it. That assertion resonates deep within the breast of every human being. We may work to deny it and we may devise theories to refute it, but somewhere deep within the heart of every human person there is an awareness that they did not make themselves, but that they are themselves made.”
Mitchell said that when preaching to unbelievers evangelicals must mimic the centrality of Paul’s bold assertion of Jesus as resurrected from the dead as a demonstration of the power of God and the truth of his gospel.
“If you can understand and fathom and grasp by faith that God has raised Jesus from the dead, then you won’t have a problem with anything else that Paul said,” Mitchell said.
Likewise, evangelicals in modern America must expect the kinds of responses received by Paul at Mars Hill, Mitchell said. Some scoffed and walked away, but others expressed interest in hearing more about the gospel and some came to saving faith in the resurrected Christ.
“The glorious hope of engaging the culture with the gospel is that some will believe!” Mitchell proclaimed. “And such were some of you. God came to you in your ignorance and idolatry. God came to me in my ignorance and idolatry. God came to me when I was embracing idols that were not gods, but that I had made myself. God came to me. And he showed us his only begotten Son, full of grace and truth, and he showed us that yonder on Golgotha’s hill his Son was hung on that cross to die for sinners.
“We have seen his beauty, his glory. We have seen the resurrected Christ,” Mitchell said. “We must engage the culture with the beauty and glory of the Son who has risen from the dead … and some will believe.”

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  • Russell D. Moore