In Defense of Marriage: From ‘Culture War’ to Conversion
- Monday, August 25, 2008
When I began this series, I said the battle to define marriage is not over—and I’m still convinced that is true. However, the issue in America has clearly passed the eleventh hour and I fear the clock has already begun to toll. The outcome of California’s Proposition 8 this November, which seeks to amend the state constitution in order to establish that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”—thus reversing the state Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage in May—will figure prominently in the future of marriage in America. If the measure is defeated (and barring any intervention by God), I predict it will be nearly impossible to halt the homosexual movement and with it the radical redefinition of sexual morality.
This raises the important question of “What then?” How should the church respond in the wake of such profound moral and social revision? Should we continue to battle with homosexual activists? Will doing so distract us from our true calling and thus undermine the church’s mission and purpose? Should we persist in pressing the point even unto arrest and imprisonment? Is this how we are called to live in a pagan culture? These are the questions we must face. I wrestle with these, as I continue to address the church’s relationship to culture. I suggest that we all need to wrestle with these questions in an effort to find the most biblical answers, given our very real and possible future in America.
In his classic book Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr suggests that there are only a handful of postures the Christian can take toward culture. For example, we can emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture, what Niebuhr calls the Christ against culture position. This view sees the customs and advances of the day as inevitable affronts to Christ. Predictably, this position results in a withdrawal or separation from culture—a move that only renders Christianity less relevant and neglects to press Christ’s kingdom in the world. I certainly do not recommend this approach.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who feel there is a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture, in which Christ is equated with the apex of human achievement. Niebuhr labeled this the Christ of culture group. Far from simply identifying Christ with culture, it is more the alignment of certain aspects of culture with Christ—such as Western civilization, American nationalism, or conservative politics. With this position, Christ is recast in the guise of that culture’s predominant values. Rather than Christ standing over and against culture as judge and challenge, Christ is absorbed into the culture and appropriated for its ends. So you end up less with Christ than you do with culture. This appears to have been a dominant trend within the American church over the last fifty years, to the point that Christianity has been narrowed to the political realm as best seen in the “culture wars.”
This position has tended to neglect the whole missio Dei, or mission of God, in that it seeks primarily to promote and preserve certain values through civil or political means. While these values may be consistent with Christianity and their advocates may be well-meaning, there is no eternal value in morality apart from faith in Jesus Christ. The values of the Christian faith flow from conversion; they do not convert the lost. Furthermore, this response tends toward an “us versus them” mentality that all too easily operates “out of a conquering spirit or urge to control, vestiges of a former Christendom that no longer lives anywhere but in the impulses of our minds,” according to George Hunsberger (Hunsberger and Van Gelder, eds., The Church Between Gospel & Culture, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996] 290).
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