I rarely take a lunch break as I work from home. But I did yesterday. I attended a New Media Think Tank put on by people from Premier. The main theme was on how Christians should disagree agreeably online. I agreed with much of what was said, and there was some very interesting conversation. One thing that came up was how different it is to meet someone face to face and online. It is much easier to create a straw man of someone online.
As an example I met Simon Jenkins, who is the editor of Ship of Fools. Now it is fair to say (and this may surprise some of my British readers) that neither he nor I actually knew of each other specifically before we met yesterday. But, I did know of the Ship of Fools website, and some years ago something or other I read there offended me and so I stopped reading that, and have since thought of that site as being “opposed” to people like me. Simon, on the other hand, spoke publicly at the event in what I felt was a dismissive way about “Reformed Christians,” and spoke about various social issues (and hence doctrinal beliefs as these two aspects of our faith are of course entwined) saying basically something like “History is moving, the culture has changed, it is inevitable even people from your faith group will have to catch up.” Jenkins seemed genuinely surprised that I would be as offended as I was by such comments. Perhaps the first step of us being able to actually understand each other was realising that up to this point we haven’t, or at least, our ways of describing the other are like straw men that in themselves generate straw man. So, to me, Simon appeared to me to be dismissive of people like me, because of the way he described them, but actually in the flesh it was clear that was not the result he wanted to cause.
I may well have been slightly over-sensitive, but to be honest, the whole event made me feel ever so slightly out of place. It felt to me at least that people I love were being painted with a broad brush as “regressive,” “backward,” and even the word “sexist” got bandied around a bit. It felt like some people were making all kinds of assumptions about what “people like me” would think about issues like gender roles, and homosexuality, when the reality is there is these issues are far more nuanced than at first appear, and it is wrong to assume things about others. In fact, not for the first time, I felt that some there would see me and others I love and respect as little different from the Taliban!
I really struggle with the notion of the need for the church to simply follow the culture or risk being irrelevant. It is such a pragmatic argument, and it is one that is made a lot in the secular media: if only the church would simply “wise up” and “get with the program,” so it doesn’t seem as out of touch, the argument goes, then people would flock to it. It really saddens me to see other Christians joining the swelling ranks of those who angrily dismiss any dissenting opinions to the new secular orthodoxy! Why can’t we simply allow people to think differently and respect them?
I think there are two major problems, in any case, with the argument that we must go with the flow of every change in Society:
1. The Church’s role is not to be a blind follower of the majority opinion! Social change is inevitable. But the voice of the Church is not merely to echo that of the world. On some social issues in the past the Church has been at the vanguard, such as for example on the abolition of the slave-trade here in the UK. Of course, even on such issues that seem obvious now, there was vociferous debate within the Church at the time. Indeed subsequently, and to the shame of the Church at the time, in the American South, the Church as a whole was not at the forefront of pushing for the abolition of slavery itself.
On other issues the church has been a cautious break to “progress,” but has, over time, broadly accepted changes in Society. For example, when it comes to divorce, which was once vociferously opposed by Christians, the Church has largely accepted that Society requires readily available divorce, and no one I know of is advocating changes to the legal system to restrict divorce. Today, within most churches divorce is discouraged as less than ideal for a Christian, but divorcees are treated with grace. Other issues, like abortion are so passionately held in many Christian circles that it seems inconceivable that the Church will ever come to an easy accommodation with Society, however long we wait.
Fundamentally, however, the Church is meant to have a prophetic voice. It is vital therefore that we engage theologically before simply making changes to line us up with prevailing thinking. I may not agree with NT Wright on everything, but I did strongly agree with his statement towards the end of this video when he said, “The day the church ceases to be able to say we must obey God rather than human authority we cease to be the church.” (via Think Christian).
2. It doesn’t work!
As far as my understanding of church history in the last hundred years or so, there have been several attempts to make the Church more acceptable to society, and the conclusion is they have broadly failed. A reader on Facebook pointed out a very helpful article on this point from the Daily Telegraphwhich I think is well worth reading in it’s entirety. It is titled, “America’s liberal Christians might be progressive and inclusive, but they are also dying out”
I will give you a few excerpts here to whet your appetite:
” Conservatives might protest that the beauty of God is rooted not in relevance but timelessness.”
“Pentecostalism bucks the trend. Where it is ultra-orthodox, Christianity is actually flourishing.”
“Liberal Christianity is wracked with doubt, ducks strong conclusions and often seems to apologise for its own existence . . . By contrast, the conservative Christian product is a zinger. It screams loudly that it is the only way to Heaven, its Protestant services tend to be packed and charismatic, and its theology is straight-forward and uncompromising. . .
This is why conservative congregations grow while liberal ones dwindle.”