Should Christians be Culture Warriors?

‘I was wrong’.  This is not a phrase I use a lot!  At least when it comes to major subjects.   Over the years I have been aware of significant changes in thinking that have had an enormous practical impact for me – baptism, Calvinism, the European Union, socialism, worship and environmentalism being the main ones I can think of.  Recently I have been forced to change my view on the question of culture wars.

I often used to say that I did not want to get involved in culture wars and that it would be a mistake for the Church to do so.  Recently I have been compelled to rethink.  The trouble is that the term ‘culture wars’ is itself a product of the culture wars.  Here in Australia, we look askance at some of the culture wars that are going on in the US, and most of us want nothing to do with them.  It is a negative term associated with white nationalism, Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson,  and suggests that Christians are some kind of political force whose mission in life is to combat the Left.  No thanks.  We want to influence the culture, to win the culture,  not to fight it.  Besides which if we engage in culture wars then won’t we alienate people from the Church and the message of the Gospel?  Doesn’t the Scripture itself tells us that our weapons are not the weapons of this world? 

I think those objections are valid – but like so much it all depends on what we mean.  What is culture?  I like this summary from the University of Boston: “Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.”  If that is the case, then surely Christians are interested in the way of life for an entire society – especially a society in which we live?

I’ve noticed that those who speak somewhat disparagingly of Christians being involved in the ‘culture wars’ are quite happy to speak of the culture wars of the past.  We rightly glory in the fight of Wilberforce and others in the supreme culture war of their day – the abolition of slavery.  So, what is the difference today?  Would we say that Wilberforce and those who supported and campaigned for him, were wasting their time with “culture wars”…?

There is something I would describe as ‘posh apologetics’.  There are those who like to talk about the culture to each other, because they are part of that culture and make their living from that culture.  They don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.  They are safe within it.  Of course, a general discussion of Christian ethics, a reflection on historical rights and wrongs, is fine.  Because that does not upset the powers that be today. Podcasts, books and inhouse messages are fine…as long as we don’t stray out of our comfort zone.   Anything that would get you cancelled – or that fails the Sydney Morning Herald test – must be frowned upon.  After all we must be ‘winsome’ and nice!  But I want to ask – who is going to speak on behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the dispossessed today?  Does the Church have no prophetic role in today’s society? – or is our public role just to consist of politely nodding along with the causes our society supports and keeping quiet about the ones they don’t?

Take the current major issue of the day – the culture wars surrounding gender and identity.  Who is it that suffers the most when children are taught the Hellish doctrines of Queer theory?   It is the children.  “If we truly love our neighbours, we will not withdraw from the public square, particularly if we understand the way in which “today’s uncontested folly becomes tomorrow’s accepted wisdom….Therefore we must not only pray fervently for our world but, as part of our prophetic task, take up our apologetic responsibility to expose the corrupt foundations and calamitous effects of contemporary gender ideology.” (from “How Should We Think about Gender and Identity? Questions for Restless Minds” by Robert S. Smith)

What about the death cult that seems to pervade so much of our ‘progressive’ elites?  Abortion on demand will result in the deaths of tens of thousands of our fellow humans.

 Should we keep silent about that?   What about the creeping, and now rushing, move towards euthanasia?  Those who sneered at the concept of the slippery slope should perhaps consider the proposal of the ACT government to allow euthanasia for 14 year olds.

How long before depression, poverty and suicidal thoughts become sufficient criteria for ‘the right to be killed’?

Should we keep quiet about poverty, family breakdown, racism, child trafficking,  drug abuse, domestic violence?  Or should we only select the ones that we will get credit for?     

Niebuhr was surely right when he warned in his classic Christ and Culture: “A spiritualised Jesus allows the kings of the world to run free without restraint from the church, and allows the church to run after the things of the world without the downdraft pressure of the return of the embodied Jesus” (cited in Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended, p.146)

One of the people who has helped my thinking on this is Lyle Shelton – and his book ‘I Kid You Not’  The best summary of this book is from Amazon “Lyle Shelton takes readers on a rare behind-the-scenes tour of culture wars. “I Kid You Not”, is because the Left has gotten away with things most Australians would find incredible, if only they knew.  Before #MeToo, Shelton fought the legalised sexual abuse of young women. On human rights for the unborn, his revelations of politicians turning a blind eye to the evil of eugenics is shocking. He details the bombing of the Australian Christian Lobby’s office and its poor handling by the Australian Federal Police. Chapters on “Safe Schools” and the 2017 marriage plebiscite are a sad tale of what could have been. Shelton ends with a compelling call for good people to rise and pay the price for a better future.”

The subtitle of this book is “Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture Wars”.  I’ve met Lyle.  He is one of the most misunderstood and maligned political figures in Australia – sadly far too many Christians have shared in that ignorance.  I would strongly recommend that every Christian interested in public life in Australia and beyond, should read this book – especially those who speak somewhat contemptuously of people involved in ‘the culture wars’.  I have to confess that I may have shared their viewpoint to some degree.  That was already beginning to change before I read I Kid You Not – but any vestiges I had of that viewpoint were blown away by reading this remarkable story.  Its 15 chapters are enlightening, encouraging and enlivening. 

Lyle Shelton, Rob and Claire Smith, Moira Deeming, John Anderson, Marytn Iles and other Australian Christians are putting up a valiant fight – it’s such a shame that sometimes they have to be more concerned about the arrows in their backs than the assaults from their enemies!  Without taking a party political stance or falling into the trap of equating the Kingdom of God with right or left wing politics, Christians need to proclaim the truth – even, or especially, when it hurts us. 

One of the great descriptions of the early church was that it sometimes caused riots – “these men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here”  (Acts 17:6) or as the KJV puts it ‘these men who have turned the world upside down’!  My fear is that in much of today’s church Paul, Luke and friends would be advised to tone it down and be much more winsome.  Causing riots is such a bad witness!  But then we can hardly turn our churches round one iota – never mind turn the world upside down!

This is not an argument for crudity, rudeness, power politics or evangelical virtue signalling.  But it is a cry for a prophetic voice to the nation.  For the sake of those who have no voice. And for the glory of the King of kings.

– David Robertson