When Christianity and Culture Collide

For the first 200 years of the United States’ existence, the Bible was generally viewed by the majority of citizens as the primary basis for determining morality. But over roughly the last 50 or so years, Americans have seen some cultural norms move away from long-held biblical standards. In a pluralistic society, we should not be surprised that cultural standards change over time, depending on which group forms the majority. As a result, on some issues – e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, premarital sex – those who hold biblical standards now seem to be in the minority.

So, how should we Christians respond when the culture doesn’t agree with us? C. S. Lewis argues that Christians should not expect or force non-Christians to live according to Christian principles. Writing in the 1950s about divorce in England, he said:

A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself, you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. … My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.[1]

Carey Nieuwhof says it this way: “What’s the logic behind judging people who don’t follow Jesus for behaving like people who don’t follow Jesus?” [2]

What If Chocolate Was Outlawed?

Imagine if the “shoe was on the other foot.” Let’s say an extremely conservative religious group was able to pass laws that made it illegal to do things that at least some (and perhaps many) groups of Christians find acceptable and enjoyable – perhaps they outlaw movies, or card games, or ice cream, or wine, or eating chocolate, or being overweight, or motorcycles, or having more than two children, etc.  I imagine that most Christians would object to those laws, since one particular group’s beliefs would be forced on those who don’t believe similarly.

If we shouldn’t expect non-Christian individuals to abide by Christian morals, then by extension we should also not expect the culture or government to always align with Christian values and morals. In fact, for much of the two millennia since Jesus was on earth, Christian morals have not been the global norm, and Christians have often been seen as counter-cultural.

I am not saying that Christians must simply “go with the flow” and never oppose anything that the government deems legal. Acts that are legal can still be immoral. It is our right, as citizens of a democracy, to champion laws that we favor and oppose those we consider immoral. There may even be occasions when civil disobedience is the appropriate response. For example, though killing Jews was legal in Germany during World War II, and slavery was legal in the U.S. in the 1800s, both clearly warranted opposition because they treated humans—created by God in his image—as less than human. Many people today feel the same way about abortion:  it deserves opposition (even though it is legal) because it treats humans in the womb as less than human.

They Will Know Us By Our Love

Paul instructs us that it’s not a Christian’s job to judge / condemn non-Christians (see 1 Cor. 5:9-13). And as Carey Nieuwhof observes, “Judgment is a terrible evangelism strategy.”

But it is the job of those in the Church to humbly hold fellow-Christians accountable to the standards we preach. When we display genuine Christian love toward each other, when we consistently live by biblical standards, and when we take care of the widows, orphans, poor and disenfranchised in our congregations, non-Christians may begin to ask about this Jesus we follow.

Josh McDowell says we Christians must boldly love others as we humbly proclaim truth. He observes that we frequently get this backwards: we arrogantly shout truth, and those we address get no sense that we love them. [3]

 
CHCC Truth Love.jpg
 

McDowell defines Christian love as this: “Making the health, happiness, and spiritual growth of another person as important to you as your own.” He goes on to say:

  • We must aggressively live in love, with this mindset: “You are my brother or sister, worthy of my loving acceptance and respect as an unimaginably valuable human being created in the image of God.”
  • Love also requires that we humbly stand for the truth, with this mindset: “Because I love you, I will humbly point to the truth about anything that threatens your happiness, health, and spiritual well-being.”

One caveat:  No matter how boldly we love others, some people only sense "love" when their behavior is condoned or endorsed. Simply to disagree with them is seen as unloving. But this is an inaccurate definition of love. All parents understand that at times, because they love their child, they must disagree with (rather than endorse) the child's behavior, even as the child screams "You don't love me!" McDowell explains that if we truly love someone, we cannot idly watch them destroy their life; “live and let live” is an expression of indifference, not love.

Followers of Jesus, we must love and build relationships with people, especially those with whom we disagree. We need to accept people where they’re at, not judge them or demand that they behave according to Christian standards. Then, when we speak about important issues of life, our words will be heard as humble truth from someone who loves the hearers.

Conclusion

Christians need to remain involved in our culture’s discussions about morals. But when we speak, we must demonstrate the love of Jesus to those with whom we disagree. We must learn to disagree in an agreeable manner, i.e. to boldly love others as we humbly speak truth. We must display graciousness and a winsome manner.

Those we disagree with should find interaction with us so enjoyable, genuine, and helpful that the next time they have a question about Christian beliefs, they seek us out for another round of discussion.

 

For Further Reading:

3 Ways Christians Turn People Off from Church

Footnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 122.

[2] Carey Nieuwhof, Some Advice on Same-Sex Marriage for U.S. Church Leaders from a Canadian.  Accessed 7-10-15.

[3] Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler, The New Tolerance (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1998).