The greatest question of our time,” offered historian Will Durant, “is not communism versus individualism, not Europe versus America, not even East versus the West; it is whether men can live without God.” That question, it now appears, will be answered in our own time.
For centuries the Christian church has been the center of Western civilization. Western culture, government, law, and society were based on explicitly Christian principles. Concern for the individual, a commitment to human rights, and respect for the good, the beautiful, and the true—all of these grew out of Christian convictions and the influence of revealed religion.
All of these, we now hasten to add, are under serious attack. The very notion of right and wrong is now discarded by large sectors of American society. Where it is not discarded, it is often debased. Taking a page out of Alice in Wonderland, modern secularists simply declare wrong, right, and right, wrong.
Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood once described America as a “cut flower civilization.” Our culture, he argued, is cut off from its Christian roots like a flower cut at the stem. Though the flower will hold its beauty for a time, it is destined to wither and die.
When Trueblood spoke those words over two decades ago, the flower could still be seen with some color and signs of life. But the blossom has long since lost its vitality, and it is time for the fallen petals to be acknowledged.
“Deep springs of permanent truth will reveal the church to be a life-giving oasis amidst America’s moral desert.”
“When God is dead,” argued Dostoyevsky, “anything is permissible.” The permissiveness of modern American society can scarcely be exaggerated, but it can be traced directly to the fact that modern men and women act as if God does not exist or is powerless to accomplish his will.
The Christian church now finds itself facing a new reality. The church no longer represents the central core of Western culture. Though outposts of Christian influence remain, these are exceptions rather than the rule. For the most part, the church has been displaced by the reign of secularism.
The daily newspaper brings a constant barrage which confirms the current state of American society. This age is not the first to see unspeakable horror and evil, but it is the first to deny any consistent basis for identifying evil as evil or good as good.
The Church Must Be the Church
The faithful church is, for the most part, tolerated as one voice in the public arena, but only so long as it does not attempt to exercise any credible influence on the state of affairs. Should the church speak forcefully to an issue of public debate, it is castigated as coercive and out of date.
How does the church think of itself as it faces this new reality? During the 1980s, it was possible to think in ambitious terms about the church as the vanguard of a moral majority. That confidence has been seriously shaken by the events of the past decade.
Little progress toward the re-establishment of a moral center of gravity can be detected. Instead, the culture has moved swiftly toward a more complete abandonment of all moral conviction. The confessing church must now be willing to be a moral minority, if that is what the times demands. The church has no right to follow the secular siren call toward moral revisionism and politically correct positions on the issues of the day.
Whatever the issue, the church must speak as the church—that is, as the community of fallen but redeemed, who stand under divine authority. The concern of the church is not to know its own mind, but to know and follow the mind of God. The church’s convictions must not emerge from the ashes of our own fallen wisdom, but from the authoritative Word of God which reveals the wisdom of God and his commands.
The church, in short, must hold fast to the unfailing truth of God and his Word.
The Heretical Imperative
Peter Berger, who before his death was one of the most influential sociologists of our day, argued that the “heretical imperative” of the modern era is the imperative to choose. In Berger’s analysis, in the premodern era one did not need to choose one’s beliefs.
Instead, in the West, virtually everyone was born and baptized into the Roman Catholic church. In other words, identity was externally fixed for individuals. In the modern secular world, however, this is no longer the case. Choice is endemic in every area of life — we simply cannot avoid it. As a result, Berger concludes that in the modern age we must take responsibility for our identity. It is no longer given; it is self-determined.
In our culture, people who think them- selves autonomous will claim the right to define all meaning for themselves. Any truth claim they reject or resist is simply ruled out of bounds by society at large. We will make our own world of meaning and dare anyone to violate our autonomy.
“The confessing church must now be willing to be a moral minority, if that is what the times demand.”
This is why evangelism is often perceived as insensitive or even threatening in our culture. Evangelism demands that we press the authority of Scripture and the claims of Christ on sinners as we invite them to the free gift of salvation provided through Christ’s atoning work.
Will We Serve Lesser Gods?
The American church is faced with a new situation. This new context is as current as the morning newspaper and as old as those first Christian churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Laodicea, and Rome. Eternity will record whether or not the American church is willing to submit only to the authority of God; or whether the church will forfeit its calling in order to serve lesser gods.
The church must awaken to its status as a moral minority and hold fast to the gospel we have been entrusted to preach. In so doing, the deep springs of permanent truth will reveal the church to be a life-giving oasis amidst America’s moral desert. Given our present predicament, we are headed into a period when the acids of modernity will require the greatest level of conviction and the most stupendous level of clarity—a clarity that we will only have as we attest to the truth of God and his revelation.
In the end, the issue is always truth—truth revealed, truth obeyed, truth received, truth proclaimed. In an age of pervasive uncertainty and unsteadiness, the church must remain committed to God’s truth.
We will be in this battle until the end of time.