Beyond Culture Wars

Michael S. Horton
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

R. C. Sproul tells of the story of his letter to the best selling author of Lords of Discipline commending him on his style. The trend setting novelist replied from his flat in Rome informing Sproul that he had been the first Christian to compliment him on the novel. Raised in a fundamentalist home, this author told Sproul that the familiar circle from which he was raised now denounces him and proudly brands his literature satanic. The only time it seems that evangelicals get involved in main stream society is to register some complaint, some degree of hostility. And when our bright, energetic, talented thinkers, artists and workers go out into the world to fulfill their calling as a calling, they are often gunned down by the brethren for selling out to the world.

Fundamentalists have always been hostile to the outside world, but now they are highly politicized. Their anti-worldly stance which was once kept within the four walls of the church building is now seen in mass rallies in public places. U.S. Senate chaplain Richard Halverson, an evangelical himself, recently said, “All evangelicals care about is their own agenda. They will keep all the phone lines in Washington busy and many of the callers are downright nasty, yet when it comes to hundreds of other issues Congress faces, they never hear from Evangelicals.” The only time we get involved in education is to protest public education. The only time, it seems, we get involved in the arts is to protest the public funding of obscene art. While pro-life leaders often confuse the issue of abortion with getting little red riding hood taken out of the public libraries.

Before, we were hostile to the world but we were separated from it. Now we are still hostile, but very much involved. That’s why our involvement is so harsh, so strident, and often so very negative. Until we see our role in this world in a positive light we will continue to come off as those who can only judge instead of contribute. We engage in discussions of politics as a disgruntled minority demanding its rights, its piece of the pie, while very often we know little and care less about the deeper philosophical and cultural issues of our time.

Culture wars—that is what this situation is being called as American society polarizes into two camps, each employing the language of the battle field poised, to gain control of the nation’s public institutions. In this issue we will walk you through the culture wars debate, with some additional essays on evangelism and apologetics. You might ask what all this has to do with evangelism and apologetics? Everything! Ask the average person on the street what an evangelical is and you are likely to get stereotypical images, or portraits of TV evangelists, or particular political or ideological positions, but how likely are you to hear the “evangel,” the gospel as the singular proclamation of the evangelicals.

Christianity Is Not A Culture

The first problem with the church being identified with the culture wars is a pretty basic one: Christianity is not a culture. It is a faith wrapped around a person who had a real life, a life of significance because he was God incarnate and rose from the dead as he promised. It is a system of truth claims. The gospel has succeeded in a variety of cultures and has thrived among groups maintaining vastly different values and mores, and has been just as good at reconciling socialists to God as capitalists. This past January in the wake of the inaugural festivities President Clinton gathered a group of Southern Baptists ministers to pray with him in Little Rock They assured the evangelical community and the secular media as well that President Clinton was a sound, solid, Bible believing evangelical. Why? How did they know that? They said because he even cried during the singing of some of the hymns. While all this was going on I did an interview with a Christian station in the Bible Belt and Clinton’s Christian convictions seemed to be the chief interest of the callers. One caller said, “Isn’t that amazing! Can you believe all that? Did you hear that just the other day Jerry Falwell responded–and good for him–he responded, ‘You can’t tell whether a person is a Christian or not just because he cries at the hymns. I want to know what is his position on abortion!'” I replied to the caller, “No, you are both wrong. The question is what is his view of Christ. Who does he say he is?” Neither group seemed to get the point. One group is influenced by pietistic sentiment, the other by political ideology. Now one might argue that one’s position on abortion must be consistent with his profession of faith, and I do believe that every Christian ought to seek the end of this worldwide holocaust, but abortion is not in the Apostle’s Creed! It is not an article of Christian faith!

What we’ve done is we have substituted the gospel for moral, political, and sentimental tests. That’s why Pat Robertson can’t be called into question, in spite of his serious doctrinal errors, while Tony Campolo, who is a little left of center politically, can be put on a heresy trail for his political views by a group of parachurch ministries whose supposed purpose of existence is evangelism. Today the basis of unity is ideology, not doctrine. What defines us politically is one thing, what defines us as Christians is a totally different set of questions. It is not to say that public policy issues shouldn’t be important to a Christian. Quite the contrary, every Christian ought to be interested in public policy issues, but as citizens, not as the church making stands on what the gospel is. Yet to often in the past twenty years we have equated the gospel with a particular cultural agenda. Surely no one would say that the late Francis Schaffer shied away from public issues, but he warned, “Equating any other loyalty, whether it is political, national, or ethnic, with our loyalty to God is sin, and we better get our priorities straight now.” He says,

There is a tremendous pressure to lose the Reformation memory as the years pass and our first task is not to align our message with the middle class establishment only to have our children rebel against our faith because of our politics, but to recover the lost truth of our Reformation heritage.

This is why we must recover the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms as Luther and Calvin did so clearly four and a half centuries ago. There are two kings and two kingdoms, each ruling a distinct sphere. I remember one of the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (N.A.E.) when Clinton was elected said, “Now what is to become of the kingdom of God” as though Clinton had anything whatsoever to do with the kingdom of God, that is, as a public official. In the kingdom of culture, what Augustine called “the city of man,” there are rulers, there are laws, there are customs which are regulated by human wisdom. In the kingdom of Christ, or “the city of God,” there is one ruler, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he advances his kingdom, not through marketing, not through legislation or police force, but by the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of his holy sacraments. If we confuse these two kingdoms—and we have—we will no doubt confuse evangelism with cultural, moral, and political programs.

A Grand Obstruction

And that brings me to my second point: it is a grand obstruction for the people out there. What happens when we confuse evangelism with a particular social or political agenda? Well, we’ve seen it in history, haven’t we, in the crusades when evangelistic texts like “Go ye into the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all the nations…” was used as a justification for political expansion and the building up of an empire. When this confusion occurs it is very difficult to convince the South African victim of apartheid, or the Jewish victim of the holocaust, or those who suffered under the pro Czar Russian orthodox church, that Christianity is not a source of political oppression. And whether or not it is true or an unfair caricature by the secular press (I tend to think it is both), evangelical Christianity is now being widely perceived as one more dying gasp of one more ally of the status quo of middle American, white, middle class culture, unwilling to let go of its power. The issue is whether we confused culture values with the gospel, not whether those values are right or wrong. Billy Graham said,

It is an error to identify the gospel with any particular system or culture, that has been my own danger. When I go to preach the gospel I go as an ambassador for the Kingdom of God, not America. To tie the gospel to any political system, secular program, or society is wrong and will only serve to divert the gospel.

We have to ask ourselves whether the Gospel really is our main preoccupation these days. Just over a decade ago Jerry Falwell said, “The sad fact that is today the United States could only kill three to five percent of the Soviets.” That’s a great pro-life movement! That will really get the world out there to stand up and take notice of what the gospel can do. Meanwhile the same leader said, “We have to stay away from helping the poor because it is a complex issue.” The poor and unemployed had no reason to listen to our gospel with Falwell calling them “that lazy trifling bunch lined up in unemployment offices who would not work in a pie shop eating the holes out of doughnuts.” This same religious leader with argued during the 50’s that Christians ought not to stand up for the civil rights of the blacks. How can the gospel be advanced when it is perceived as a radical political and social agenda, when it always sides with a particular segment of society predictably, whether it is Jerry Falwell or Jesse Jackson?

I have always wondered why any homosexual would listen to us the way we talk about AIDS as the judgment of God. I have often reflected that it is a good thing that God does not hand out judgments for gossip and slander and greed and self-centeredness and self-righteousness or many of our evangelical churches would be empty. But there are other reaches of alienation. Gallup tells us that white evangelicals are more likely than any other group to object to having black or hispanic neighbors. Boy, that’s a gospel concern, isn’t it. That will sure help push the gospel along. Evangelicals just simply aren’t concerned about the gospel, the “evangel,” anymore. It’s about a culture. It’s about preserving traditional values for a certain segment of society. Francis Schaeffer was worried that evangelicalism would become so aligned with conservative middle class Americanism that any rejection of the establishment would entail a rejection of Christ, and that is exactly what happened in the sixties. God–all be it the unknown God of the pagans–fit in when Ike was president. After all, Eisenhower declared that “there can be no good government without religion, and I don’t care what religion it is.” But with the rejection of that particular cultural expression, and the growing diversity of the American population, there was not enough room for God. Why? Because we helped define God as a public mascot of society. As Os Guinness says, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” But the Holy Spirit will not honor any other gospel.

We have become the rock of offense rather than Christ. The irony is we have taken the offense out of the gospel–we don’t preach sin and grace anymore–and have taken it over for ourselves. We’re offensive for all the wrong reasons while we leave the gospel itself devoid of its power. The minorities, the feminists, the gays, and others who practice immoral lifestyles–people with whom we may not agree–will not give us a hearing at the end of the twentieth century. Not because we have preached the gospel and called them to repentance and they don’t like that, but because we have framed our communication with them in terms of a war for social, political, and cultural control. Contrary to the religious leaders of his day, Jesus was the friend of sinners. Prostitutes turned from their prostitution because, as Jesus said, “He who is forgiven much loves much.” The Holy Spirit will not convert a single soul through moral crusades. He will not convert a prostitute through Senate bill 242, or change the direction of the homosexual by prime-time denunciation from moralistic preachers. Yes, we are called to preach the good news and to call men and women to repentance, but that is not a political issue, that is not ultimate a moral issue, that is a gospel issue. Repentance can no more be coerced by the state than faith; both are the gracious gifts of God.

A Grand Offense

And finally it is a grand offense to God. At this year’s National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Los Angeles, the star of Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury, was asked to address the delegates, but the planners were going to cancel her appearance at the convention because in an upcoming movie she was to play a prostitute. That morning, the hosts of Good Morning America could not keep from making there comment, “Wow if that is not an irony! A convention of televangelists barring someone from their convention for playing immoral roles.” Recently I was asked to appear on a secular talk show with an ACLU lawyer to discuss the so-called “culture wars.” The host admitted I was her second pick since the pastor/church leader she had previously chosen had just been arrested for embezzlement. I also happen to know right now prominent Christian leaders who were writing books about traditional values while one left his wife for another woman, another one was having an affair, and another (a pro-life activist) was counseling his daughter to have an abortion. As we look across the Christian landscape right now I don’t know how we have the gall to muster together out of our hypocritical selves the fire in our belly to attack the world for being worldly! Gallup and Barna hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. The statistics are about neck and neck. That is why pollster Lou Harris reports, “After ten years of piety and ideology the American people have about had it with the approach of religious types.” When are we going to realize that God is looking in our direction with his charge, “Because of you my name is blasphemed among the gentiles.” How many evangelists will we have to see disgraced on national television for their own moral bankruptcy before we can say with the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.”

At the end of the day the culture wars are not only misguided theologically and biblically but even strategically. It is simply an illusion to think that there is any possibility of putting the lion back in the cage. Secularism is here for awhile and will only be turned back with better ideas. Secularism is the result of a vacuum which we created. Tim LaHaye and his battle for the mind asserted that secular humanism is moral, not theological, but that’s the root of the problem. That people like Tim LaHaye have thought that the problem is ultimately moral and not deeper, not theological. If you believe that our society’s greatest problem or any individual’s greatest problem is behavioral, you have a weak view of sin, and the consequent weak view of grace. If you view sin in terms of actions and not primarily in terms of conditions, you will see the answer primarily in the terms of moral reform, not in terms of throwing yourself on the mercy of God. That is why Charles Finney, who said, “A revival is the work of man not God; it’s simply the right use of means,” was also the father of the temperance movement. You don’t need a cross in this scenario, you need a kit to help you put your life back together or a law or a rule to govern your behavior so you don’t get out of hand. No, I must insist secular humanism is a theological issue and when we put it in its natural theological habitat a strange thing happens; we realize that we ourselves are the secular humanists. LaHaye observes that the chief mark of secular humanism is to place man at the center of existence. But that is exactly what I see being done in churches across America. Aren’t our testimonies designed to show people how God made me happy, how he satisfied me, how he worked for me? Aren’t our worship services for our tastes very often and not for God’s? Don’t we tell people that once they become Christians they too will experience the abundant life? What we should be telling people is that salvation isn’t a matter of God making sure we are happy with him, but his making sure he is happy with us, and that is why we have the cross at the middle of it all. But churches don’t center anymore on the old rugged cross, where God saved us from himself by putting his own son in our place to bear the wrath justly meant for us. No, that would make us unhappy, to talk about wrath and hell. More often church services center on us as if our happiness was the goal of the universe. But, Tim LaHaye, this is exactly what you call secular humanism. I am not the first to see this irony. Historians Hatch, Nolan & Marston write,

Humanism or faith in humanity has been mixed with virtually every American religious heritage including evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Most commonly, since the 19th Century many Americans, including many evangelical Christian Americans, have tended to believe in the essential goodness of humanity and the importance of believing in oneself, in self-help and the ability of a free people to solve their own problems.

Sounds like a litany of an average Christian book store these days. Further, the same people who protest the erosion of moral absolutes are often quite willing to accept the erosion of doctrinal absolutes. It is an amazing irony! I can be absolutely certain that God has a published position on the Panama Canal treaty but remain basically unsure about justification and election! If we are as apathetic about moral issues as we are about doctrinal issues, then we are really in trouble, then we are put in the dog house.


We propose a two-fold strategy. First, we will have to clear up this confusion about the gospel and cultural values. Being pro-choice I believe is morally wrong, but it is not heretical. God will never be anyone’s mascot and will never allow himself to be worshipped in either the carved image of the donkey or the elephant. We cannot impose our will on the American electorate anymore and we will have to stop it. We’ll have to stop shaking our fists at our neighbors. We must call the church to a cease-fire with the world over gays in the military and engage in spiritual warfare for their hearts and minds for the first time perhaps in forty years. Second, we’ll not only have to recover gospel proclamation, but we’ll have to learn how to interact positively again with our culture. When the church was facing a really hostile culture in the first century–a lot more hostile than ours–Paul instructed the early Christians to “Make it your ambition to lead a quite life to work well with your hands so that you may win the respect of outsiders and have enough to give those in need.”

In God’s charges against Israel recorded in Hosea, the moral breakdown is credited to the fact that God’s people had grown ignorant of the God they worshipped. Truth again lies slain in the streets, slain not by villainous secular humanists, but by self-congratulatory believers. A people without understanding will always come to ruin. Not a people without enough laws, not a people without enough police, not a people without enough rules, not a people without enough moral values, for ultimately a people’s morality is an expression of deeper convictions. But a people without understanding! T. S. Elliot once observed,

To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality for the general culture, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion. It is not enthusiasm but dogma that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

For those who will tear down the cardboard and tin shacks and go for the quality materials, building on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, there is hope for the future. For those who will lodge their anchor on this rock and know no other message than Christ and Him crucified, there is the promise, “I will go on building my church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.” “For what does it profit a man,” our Lord asked, “if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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