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Contextualizing In and Not Of

August 25, 2008
S. Michael Craven
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Responding to the conclusion of my series In Defense of Marriage, there were some who expressed concern that I was advocating capitulation or withdrawal from the culture, which, of course, I am not. I appreciated the thoughtfulness with which many of you responded and the gracious manner in which you expressed your disagreements. This is healthy and—let’s be honest—we’re not dealing with essential doctrines of the Christian faith, so there should be room for disagreement, debate, and discussion. That is precisely what I hope to encourage. Otherwise, we can remain blindly entrenched in old patterns of thinking and conduct that render the church and its message irrelevant as the culture around us changes. The faithful Christian will always wrestle with the execution of his calling in a changing cultural context (see 1 Cor. 9:22).

Let me say up front, I offer no absolutes on this point. Hopefully you’ll see mine as a thoughtful opinion, but again, I am not dealing with Christian orthodoxy as much as I am methodology. More specifically, I am grappling with the church’s posture when addressing difficult moral and social issues in a post-Christian cultural context.

As one who lives on the forefront of pressing Christ in the culture, I am wrestling with my own understanding as I seek to balance challenging the moribund morality of the culture with proclaiming the gospel. (I believe this, too, is healthy.) I simply think we need to carefully reconsider our approach to these moral and social issues, given our rapidly changing context. So I search the Scriptures, putting aside my own cultural assumptions, biases, and opinions. I know better than to trust in my own understanding. Believe me, my nature is to go to war (teeth, hair, eyeballs!), but I know better than to put confidence in the flesh and rely upon my nature.

One problem, as I see it, is that we tend to look to the past—namely our American past. We long for the time when America was nobler and its citizenry more virtuous. It is from there we seek to reclaim what is being lost: the glory days of our founding, for example, when people weren’t as selfish and narcissistic, when morality was not mocked, and civility was the norm. Debates over homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and the like would have been inconceivable. However, we should also be careful not to romanticize the past into something it wasn’t.

Nonetheless, this attempt to restore what once was fails to consider the unprecedented post-Christendom reality of today. The cultural hegemony of the last 1600 years that the church once enjoyed is no longer present anywhere in the West. This twenty-first century condition presents never before seen challenges to the American church that demand serious thought. In light of this, we are moving toward similarities with the church in China more so than the church of eighteenth-century America. I think this is the first paradigm that must be overcome.

Our tendency, it seems, is to recall the prior social and cultural impact of Christianity and the profoundly positive influence it has had on the formation of the nation, our government, culture, and society. Even when the church was weak, the social and cultural consensus, or worldview, was still largely Christian up until the Enlightenment. This does not mean that everyone in America was individually Christian; they weren’t. But Christianity was the consensus worldview. However, this was prior to Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and others, not to mention modernity, the sexual revolution, rampant consumerism, and postmodernism.

Ideologically speaking, the world was a very different place from the one that confronts us today, and these factors must be considered when trying to understand how to effectively engage the culture. Although this past influence is undeniable, it occurred under very different circumstances and thus the manner and means by which former Christians engaged culture may not be relevant to today. While knowing this historic influence is important to knowing where we came from, I would argue it offers little in the way of where we are going and how the Christian community is to live in these emerging conditions. The cultural changes that now confront us are not abstract and minor; they are very real and monumental. I fear we have been slow to either recognize or accept this fact.  

Under Christendom, the church held a position of cultural and social authority, which went largely unquestioned. But over time this has changed. Our culture no longer labors under a Christian worldview. Pluralism, radical individualism, relativism, multiculturalism, and the like have destroyed any notion of a single overarching truth available for discovery. The church has no authority in the culture; we’re not welcome in the public square and more and more we are finding Christian ideas barred from our most influential cultural institutions. However, we tend to speak and act as if we still posses this authority, as if the people to whom we’re speaking still believe in truth—and this, it appears, has proven harmful to the mission of the church. Our “conquering spirit” materializes and the love of Christ is obscured, at best, and at worst, we are seen as anything but Christlike.

The fundamental question is this: is the “problem” in America spiritual or political? Of course, the answer is spiritual—so why do we continue to put so much stock in political solutions? It may be that the political route appeals to our desire for power and control. However, as Christians, we must remember that power and control are left to God; we trust in Him to dispense these according to His good will and pleasure. This does not mean that we become passive and withdraw from society, politics, and cultural engagement. Again, the issue is one of posture and method. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between the methods of the world and those of the kingdom of God. Throughout, Jesus is addressing the attitude and disposition of those who would follow Him. As followers of Jesus, we function in almost complete contradiction to what the world understands and expects. Jesus exalts the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus forbids retaliation, calling on those who are oppressed to “not resist the one who is evil,” and to love our enemies.

The church is not a revolutionary instrument (this would be the extreme politicization of Christianity) but a transformative instrument that draws its strength from the Living God. We trust in Him, giving thanks in all things, including persecution. First Peter is filled with statements that challenge the church to this effect. In fact, when chapter three speaks of “the end of all things” being near, Peter encourages the church to be “clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” He doesn’t say organize and fight. He doesn’t even say resist. Instead he goes on to say, “Above all, love each other deeply…offer hospitality…without grumbling…serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in various forms.” He is describing the contradictory kingdom life of the church. He follows this with his passage on “rejoicing in suffering.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop sharing Christian truth with those we meet. We most certainly do. But this is different than politicizing Christian values and trying to press them through collective political coercion.

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Nic Gathers  

August 25, 2008 8:16 AM

Excellent thoughts; as a pastor I do agree.

Response from : Greg Williams  

August 25, 2008 8:38 AM

Thanks again for Scriptural Truth and your objective handling of it!

I'm sure you've just received the newest research from Barna as it speaks to much of what you've written about in this article. Also, I have a couple of books to recommend in case you haven't read them, "The Truth War" by John McArthur and "Standing Firm in the Great Apostasy" by Steve Gallagher of Pure Life Ministries. Both speak to this issue.

One final comment - you do such a great job of espousing Biblical Truth that it may behoove you and your readers (of which I'm obviously one) to describe or at least share about the difference between the Truth being compromised within the Church, first and foremost, and how it is being totally ignored in culture (your series on the Church in post-Christendom)!

My contention is that most of the western culture Church has compromised Christ and His Truth in espousing worldly definitions, and subsequent actions, such as Love, Lordship, Authority, discipline, humility, integrity, tolerance, diversity, Peace, Joy, etc. (all now defined and "preached" using worldly, postmodern definitions either explicitly in the teachings or implicitly by allowing those in their 'flocks' to define them according to their own Humanistic, relativistic ideology as they've been conditioned to do). In so doing, the Church and its impotent leaders, in many cases, have not only left the "disciples" (although I hesitate to use that term as very little true discipling is taking place) impotent and therefore totally unable and ill-equipped to espouse and stand for the Truth in the Gospel armor against our real enemy or to take every thought captive in order to be able to expose and demolish foolish arguments and pretensions, much less tear down the strongholds that these deceptions lead to in personal life, marriage/family, corporate life and our nation/govt.

Thanks again for all you do and for the great dialogue and God bless in Christ!

In His service


Response from : Ben Faust  

August 25, 2008 9:41 AM

Great thoughts. If I'm missing the point, you can disregard this comment, but are you discouraging pressing for political issues such as the protection of the definition of marriage? If we stand by and don't do our part to slow the moral demise of our country by holding up the banner of truth, we shouldn't be surprised when we wake up one day to a country in which Bibles are illegal and we are arrested or executed for sharing the Gospel. At least for a little while longer, we do have a voice in the direction of this country, and if we do not use this gift God has given us to retain as much of a Godly standard as possible, shame on us.

Response from : Ron Newcomb  

August 25, 2008 9:48 AM

Michael has earlier pointed to the condition of Rome as it declined into debauchery and noted that it was marriage, promoted by the Church which staved off total declination of that society for several hundred years.
Note that it was the moral system that survived and not the debauchery, and not the culture that embraced the debauchery, Rome fell, but Christianity survived.
Truth lives on even if people do not believe it, it is still true. Objective truth cannot be long hidden, it tends to find its way into the open.
Our principle problem is that the church has been compromised both by immorality and by eastern mysticism both of which are invading the church at unprecedented speed.
Immorality, be it on your home computer or being tempted by the immorality it promotes, can lead to direct moral failing, and a man’s morality tends to dictate his theology, that is, your view of God will change because of your own sin. Then mysticism compromises the impact of truth by questioning what is true and what is not, actually disclaiming the reality of objective truth. Without objective truth anything can be “true to you and not true to me” (an absurd idea).
Once swallowed, this pill causes total disintegration of the church. How? If the Bible is not objectively true, then why would you follow what it tells you when abstinence is hard, as is faithfulness to a spouse, or even to your job or anything else? Why bother doing hard things if there is no truth behind the discipline? If there is no end worth achieving?
If, however, there is objective truth, then we do have something to possess of extreme value that others lack. That possession brings peace and happiness, the very false promise proffered by worldliness.

Response from : Cole Whitney  

August 25, 2008 10:26 AM


For all the years I've known you, never once did I imagine you were suggesting the church "circle the wagons." Rather, you've always in my experience searched for a method for the church to be more effective. However, I have a question to your point about the church in America moving toward similarities with the church in China. Does Jesus forbid retaliation in all cases?

Please understand my heart. We are to love God and others, especially our enemies to bring Glory to God. But, God does raise warriors for a purpose.

Are there cases where retaliation against tyranny can be justified in the case of a church in a state like that of China?

The Bible gives an approach regarding Christ's Guidelines for Resistance to Tyranny (page 30 America's Providential History (Beliles, McDowell).

First is "Protest or Legal action" as in Acts 16. Second is "Flight" as in Mt. 10:23. Finally, Force in self-defense as in Luke 22:36,38. Note, this verse must be taken into context. One of Jesus' followers cut off the ear of an armed soldier in the garden without Jesus' approval. Jesus healed the man and told the man to put the sword away. Jesus knew he was the object, not his followers. There was no immediate threat to His followers.

In summary, love includes protection according to 1 Cor 13. Human rights come from God, not man. God does raise warriors for the purpose of protecting the weak and oppressed, e.g., David. God is a warrior and we are made in his image. Jesus did clear the temple using force.

I don't mean to pick on your words, but you've struck a cord. You frequently do in me.

God bless you,


Are there not cases where wickedness is so common and destruction so imminent that force in self-defense is justified, even required to honor God?

Response from : Jeffrey Breon  

August 25, 2008 11:06 AM

Thanks for another thought provoking series of articles! I am deeply encouraged by what I read in these articles... it spurs me on toward love and growth in my spirit. I am wrestling with my understanding of what "church" really is and find your articles help me to work out these spiritual issues in my heart with the Lord! Keep up the good work...


Response from : Lillian  

August 25, 2008 11:50 AM

I am an old lady remembering the days long past and how much people,places and things have changed for the worse. It is sad to me.Indeed the article made me a tad depressed. I know the only Hope is Jesus Christ.

Response from : stephen peele  

August 25, 2008 11:58 AM

My goodness, the idea that we change society by allowing the changes to happen inside of us is a revolutionary thought and one that God has me teaching my congregation regularly. The politicizing of Christian faith has in fact convinced us that that is our power base. It never was and always has been the Spirit of God in the hearts and minds of believers. I see us needing desperately to return to that and stop thinking about forcing the world to adopt what we simply need to walk out with authenticity. We pray for the global body of believers that they would seek Him first and let all the things we need come to us!!

Response from : Yvonne Knickerbocker  

August 25, 2008 3:28 PM

Excellent points! Very well expressed and written.
Thank you.

Response from : Jen Lee  

August 25, 2008 11:23 PM

Very well written on the issue. Thank You !

Response from : Ken Quick  

August 27, 2008 1:51 PM

Excellent article series as usual Michael.

I want to put forth the view that the best way to influence our culture/society/countries is to be diligent Christians in our families. Canada and the USA are in the deplorable state they are in due to the failure of men to lead and teach their families as God has commanded us to. Men have been sinfully negligent in this responsibility for decades, and we are living the result. If I as a man teach my wife and my children the "ways of the Lord" diligently (e.g. through daily family devotions/worship) and not rely on "Sunday school" et al, then God will honour that. It is not too late if we repent and take up our callings to lead our homes. It goes without saying that membership in and honouring the Lord's Day in a doctrinally sound congregation is a must, as we must be "renewed in our minds by the washing of the Word" (i.e. receiving sound exposition of the Word weekly). Since atheists/liberals et al are having no children or one child on average in our countries, and reformed Christians are having 3-6, it is only a matter of time before once again the vast majority of our respective countries population will be Bible believing Christians. Only then can we expect the civil laws and culture to once again line up with what God commands in His Word. This is how God worked in the past (e.g. Roman empire; Geneva in Calvin's time etc.).
We need to stop looking for politics, movements, programs etc. to "save" us, and look to God to bless us individually, as families and as nations as we conform ourselves to His Word by His grace. Even the atheists/liberals realize this, and that is why they know they must corrupt our children by controlling their indoctrination into the religion of secularism in the schools if their ideals are to survive current demographic trends. Just my two cents worth.

Response from : Zeke  

August 27, 2008 3:20 PM


There was never a golden age in Christianity, especially in America. I find it laughable and sad that some Christians in America want to return to the good Ole days of racial segregation and bigotry.

The world was never meant to be a better place. Christians were to be a better people and lead others to the best place, Heaven.


I respectfully disagree. God's word can be lived out in and under any political climate. It just so happens that we are fortunate to live in a political climate that allows anyone to believe in and worship anything. If Jesus can execute his Heavenly mission under Roman occupation, surely Christians living in America can do the same. The weapon to use is not political coercion, but living the word. America is not the church, government is not GOD, and politics do not feed the soul.

Homosexuals that want to marry are way less than a percentile. Even in Europe, where gay marriage have been legal for years there are few SSMs.

IMO, most people know that SSM is not what marriage is suppose to be like. But the legacy of racism, bigotry, hatred, and human rights violations that were committed by the so called Christian West, in history, causes most people living in the west not to make moral judgment.

Most Christians in America of previous generations have not lived up to the idea of Jesus. This is why our communities are stratified by economics, race, education, and social affiliation. I ask anyone is this Christlike? Is this what heaven will look like? The Church in America have to get the plank out of its own eye first. To be fair, some churches have or are doing so. But most have not or are not.

Debating SSM is a non starter. The SSM movement welcomes the hostilities. It gives them political clout, civil rights argument. Please do not interpret me as supporting SSM, I don't. I just believe that the approaches used by some are not in the spirit of love. Unbelievers expect others to be hostile to their beliefs. This why most of their arguments are uncivil and close minded. However, love, that is agape, bewilders them, and sears there minds like burning coals.



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