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SBC Life Articles

Transforming Culture Through Moral Confrontation


Ours is an extraordinarily pluralistic culture. Throughout the strata of American life are innumerable sub-cultures. Not only do the panoply of religions, from Anglicanism to Zoroastrianism, exist side-by-side, but I even spotted a bumper sticker recently proclaiming the credo, "Born-again Pagan." The driver may have been an evangelical who was rejoicing in the grace of God in Christ, but I suspect he had something else in mind. Dotting the American landscape, especially in the looming urban centers, are sub-cultures of every fashion imaginable — body piercers, transgendered persons, psychic friends, cyberspace junkies — you name it and there's a sub-culture for it.

The Moral and Cultural Morass

On the back of our dollar bill is the once familiar Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). A reminder that America once was viewed as the great melting-pot culture, the phrase seems almost quaint today. In fact, some observers worry that we have so over-emphasized the pluribus that we are in danger of losing the unum. Carl F. H. Henry, the dean of evangelical theology, has recently responded with a volume entitled, Has Democracy Had Its Day? and cultural commentator Os Guinness has rightly asked "whether America's political and economic order is capable of nourishing the freedom, responsibility and civility that Americans require to sustain democracy." The late Christopher Lasch expressed grave concerns about the "impending collapse of the social order" in his final volume, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

Can our constitutional democracy sustain the kind of pluralism our culture is experiencing? Is our American Constitution, shaped by a theistic world view which recognized inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, able to hold up under the weight of so many competing, and even contradictory, world views? Are we headed for a cultural implosion? Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the fact remains that Christians have been given a mandate not to embrace culture as we find it, but to transform it.

Cultural pluralism is neither new nor necessarily evil. Regardless of the idealized memories of the past, American culture has always been diverse. Sub-cultures have existed at least since the arrival of that small band of European émigrés, the Pilgrims. This kind of pluralism is what Alister McGrath calls "descriptive pluralism." "That's just the way it is," someone might say. But our experience is markedly different today. No longer is America a melting-pot, a place where all peoples assemble under the banner of the inalienable rights granted by the Creator. A new ideology has taken hold. A new Zeitgeist seems to prevail. "Ideological pluralism" is the regnant world view. Now, as McGrath says, "normative claims to truth are to be censored as imperialistic and divisive. … Claims by any one group or individual to have exclusive hold on 'truth' are thus treated as the intellectual equivalent of fascism." If evangelicals claim to know "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," they are branded as arrogant. If one dares to embrace orthodoxy, she is labeled a dinosaur, or worse, an intolerant bigot. If we argue that some behaviors are "right" and others are "wrong," we are described contemptuously as "doctrinal absolutists."

Transforming Culture

How can Christians maintain a transforming presence in a culture dominated by ideological pluralism? How can culture be transformed through moral confrontation? First, we must recall with Herbert Schlossberg and Marvin Olasky that, "American Christianity is at a turning point. We face perhaps the greatest challenge — and the greatest opportunity — since the founding of our country. The challenge we face is the tidal wave of militant anti-Christian belief engulfing society and the chaos it leaves in its wake: the AIDS epidemic, the dissolution of the family, the abortion holocaust, growing economic weakness, the crisis of judge-made law, teen pregnancy, widespread financial fraud. … Frequently proposed 'solutions' (for example 'safe sex' and school based clinics) and ideological fixes (liberal statism, atheistic libertarianism, radical feminism …) are proven failures or disasters waiting to happen. … It is becoming painfully apparent that anti-Christian humanism, the guiding force of our society for the last three decades, does not work. The world is in crisis and people want answers." The impending failure of ideological pluralism (and it will fail) demands that evangelicals be prepared "to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet. 3:15). We must be ready, willing, and able to confront the moral and cultural morass.

Jesus the Comforter

The harbinger of Jesus shows us one way we must confront the anything-goes morality of our culture. A voice crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist was unafraid to stand toe-to-toe with the civil ruler. John soundly denounced Herod for his adultery (Matt. 14:4) and ultimately sacrificed his own life by attempting to defend the sanctity of marriage. Sadly, there are few evangelicals today who speak boldly and prophetically against the barbarians at the gate. Those who do often end up like John.

No less confrontational was Jesus Himself. The Jesus of the New Covenant has many facets. He is "gentle Jesus meek and mild" but He is also "lion of the tribe of Judah." In the Sermon on the Mount, He confronted the moral decline of His culture. His words, "You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …" challenged the religious and cultural sentiments of His day. And His confrontation of cultural religiosity was daunting as He prescribed "woe" upon the self-righteous (Matt. 23). Furthermore, one cannot read the Gospels and not be moved by the transforming power of the Christ through His redemptive ministries of healing and care for the sick and culturally despised. Cultural transformation requires courage, forthrightness, and redemptive ministry.

Taking Captive Every Thought

Forced to defend his ministry, the Apostle Paul states as clearly as anyone in Scripture the mandate of the body of Christ to transform culture. "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Clearly, our battle is not against flesh and blood, and our weapons are not worldly weapons. We are to seize "thoughts" and "pretensions" and bring them into captivity to Christ.

As Harry Blaimires has so aptly put it, we must learn to think "Christianly" and not just about theology, but about every aspect of life and about every discipline and sphere of human experience. Even comic strips can be used to speak to transform the culture. Palm Sunday of 1996, cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id," prepared two strips with winsome and witty Christian messages. Even though the Los Angeles Times balked at the cartoon and other newspapers, suspending their self-proclaimed "tolerance" of diversity, have stopped running Mr. Hart's strip altogether, Johnny Hart is using his gifts for the glory of God and capturing thoughts and minds.

Moral Confrontation

A few concluding suggestions are in order. First, since we are to be imitators of Christ, we do well to follow His example of moral confrontation. He was harshest toward the hypocritical religious leaders of His day. Likewise, we need to be painfully self-reflective. David C. Wells has given evangelicals a wonderful model of theological and moral self-reflection in his twin volumes, No Place for Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? and God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. Not for the faint of heart, Wells perceptively confronts the evangelical status quo (which someone has said is Latin for "the mess we're in").

Second, evangelical moral confrontation sometimes should follow the model of John the Baptist. On the moral issues of our day — abortion, homosexuality, social injustice, euthanasia, etc. — we need to forthrightly address policy-makers and legislator, contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints and occupying our place at the table of public discourse, despite attempts to silence or marginalize us. Furthermore, we should be careful not to speak in the language of moral compromise. Rather, we must be translators of the Christian moral tradition, bringing biblical morality to bear on the issues of the hour.

Third, our "voice" must be accompanied by personal and churchly integrity. It is not sufficient to say the right things, we also must be the right kind of people, joining redemptive ministry with articulate argument. Says Charles Colson, "Orthodoxy often requires us to be hard precisely where the world is soft, and soft where the world is hard. It means condemning the homosexual lifestyle and being labeled bigots. It means caring for AIDS patients though many think us fools. It means respecting the rule of law though our culture is increasingly lawless. It means visiting prisoners who offend the law though our culture would prefer to forget them. In every way that matters, Christianity is an affront to the world; it is countercultural."

Finally, our Lord transformed culture eternally through careful and faithful enunciation of the Word of His Father, by challenging the vain religiosity of His culture, and through redemptive ministry. The mandate for evangelicals on the threshold of the Third Millennium is "Go and do likewise."

From The Tie, Summer 96

    About the Author

  • C. Ben Mitchell
    C. Ben Mitchell is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., as well as research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.Read All by C. Ben Mitchell ›