Should Christians Fear Being “On the Wrong Side of History?”
I cannot count the number of times I have heard people, including some Christians, say that Christians should adjust their view of sexuality (viz., become “welcoming and affirming” and support same-sex marriage) because, otherwise, they are going to turn out to be “on the wrong side of history.” That’s code for turning out to have been like our ancestors who defended slavery, oppression of women, and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Allegedly we Christians all dragged our feet on those movements for justice.
Personally, I identify with those Christians, many of them evangelicals, who were in the forefront of those movements in the nineteenth century. Anyone who doesn’t know about that history needs to read Timothy Smith and Donald W. Dayton—two evangelical scholars who retrieved that evangelical history. Start with Dayton’s Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage (retitled and reissued in a new edition with foreword by Jim Wallis [Baker, 2014]).
As I have urged here earlier, I think it is always good for everyone to ask “What will future generations think of us?” But I don’t think Christians should decide what positions to take on theological or ethical issues based primarily on the drift of culture. Being on the “right side of history” should not be a major concern. At least not on the same level of importance as truth. The drift of history does not decide truth.
Let’s take one example. Cultural history has led to a situation where divorce is as common as marriage (if not more common). Almost everyone, including most evangelicals, regard divorce as an option if not a liberation. Now, please, understand I am not talking about divorces caused by abuse. I’m talking about divorces justified by “irreconcilable differences”—a euphemism for “We just didn’t get along anymore” or “I needed to find myself” or “We stopped loving each other.” Divorce on demand.
What Christian church has any real problem with couples divorcing anymore? Often both individuals continue to attend the same church and nobody even asks “What happened?” It’s their decision. At most it’s “between them and God.”
We Christians have, by and large, gone along with history. We are now, with regard to divorce (and remarriage) “on the right side of history.” Good for us? I don’t think so.
I could name many other areas where we, American Christians, have by and large gone along with cultural history and adapted to it without critical reflection: materialism, nationalism, anti-intellectual pragmatism, pre-marital sex and cohabitation, alcohol consumption, etc., etc. Whether you agree with my examples is not the point. Who can deny that Christians by and large mirror the rest of society and its cultural norms about what behaviors are acceptable—even within the churches?
Being “on the right side of history” should not be our concern. Being righteous should be our concern and that should put us outside of history, in many cases, and ahead of history in other cases.
Now, just to ward off misunderstanding, I am not arguing for Christian withdrawal from culture and history. I tend to sympathize with the “Christ transforming culture” model, but I’m also realist. I don’t expect Christians to be successful in creating a culture that mirrors the values of the kingdom of God. Our first task in that regard should be to create churches that mirror the values of the kingdom of God. But, insofar as we find that we have cultural influence, we should attempt to establish justice and peace. But if history is drifting in another direction we shouldn’t give in and say “Well, we don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” There are times when we should say “Damn the drift of history. We are standing our ground.” Of course, that should be only when we are sure that we are on the right side of God as determined by God’s revelation of himself and his will in Jesus Christ and Scripture.