Sermon audio (11-9-08): The Blind Man Finally Sees The ongoing furor over Proposition 8 -- the successful California initiative banning same-sex marriage -- heats up the question of how churches should relate to society in general and governments in particular. The intensified hostility against evangelicals, pointedly expressed on picket lines and in court rooms, is focusing believers' minds up and down the state.
In our church, we have just finished studying the man born blind in John 9, the beggar who stood alone against the rulers. What are the potential applications of his example in today's California? Will Christians face persecution because of their stand on marriage? More broadly, how does the New Testament portray the relationship between 1st century Christians and the societies in which they lived?
Some not entirely random observations, starting with the broadest issue:
1. The culture portrayed in the New Testament was diverse, and idolatry and sexual immorality were mainstream, institutionalized fixtures.
Roman society had many gods, with cultic practices that varied from city to city. The idolatry permeated civic and social interactions, and no Christian could escape direct contact with it (1 Corinthians 8-10). Places such as Corinth and Ephesus were notorious, but not unusual, for their public sexuality. In 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt with the impact of this immorality on the church, issues like which sexual relationships were legal and illegal, and the common use of temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 6:12-20).
The New Testament commands Christians to look after their own purity in sex and worship. It nowhere commands them to legislate Jesus Christ as the official God of their cities, or to pass laws that reflect biblical standards. Cultural and economic upheaval is anticipated as more people follow Christ, but only as a secondary consequence of Christ's power, not as a result of direct agitation by Christians (Acts 19:21-41).
2. Christianity in the New Testament was an urban phenomenon. The apostles went from city to city, and the gospel thrived in the hustle of commerce and the competition among new ideas. Indeed, the fact that ethnic and religious identities were softened by so much cultural interaction was a major opening for the news that a Jew had died for the whole world.
3. We are living in the decaying civilization called Christendom, an accumulation of habits, institutions, and modes of thought rooted in Athens and Jerusalem. This era of decay is a monumental time in Western civilization, at the end of which a new collection of cultures will emerge with ethics, religions, and polities that are not entirely foreseeable now. In the sweep of human history, this process is normal. The Bible records many such shifts.
California is not at the leading edge of this transition. Europe is.
4. The end of Christendom is not something to celebrate.
The decay of old habits and institutions is destabilizing and even corrupting. The cynicism and decadence that we find everywhere now are signs of selfish and purposeless living, not signs of intellectual vitality. When a simple virtue like gratitude for our cultural inheritance is held up to scorn, we can be assured that other personal disciplines like courage, integrity, and fidelity have long since passed.
Declining to throw a party over the end of Christendom is not a sign of cultural arrogance. It is simple realism. All cultural decay, at all times, and in all places leads to moral confusion.
5. The fight to preserve Christendom is misguided.
Same-sex marriage is not the tipping point in the demise of Christendom. That point was passed long, long ago. (World War I might be a good candidate.) As much as we may mourn at the grave of our heritage, it is not a sign of health to try and dig up the corpse.
Again, Christians who mourn the loss of what was good in our inheritance are not wrong. But, as they mourn, they need to do the day's work. The end of governments founded on broadly Christian notions is an opportunity to change what Christendom built in error -- specifically, we can now detach the spiritual from the political.
6. Christianity can thrive in California.
Our context is more like the first century than the nineteenth, more like the societies in which Christian faith exploded than those in which it was dying. The predictions of the death of the faith in California are foolish. There is nothing happening now that hasn't constituted an opportunity for believers in the past. The faith may indeed die out here, but if it does, it will not be the result of unstoppable external forces. It will die because Christians stop believing.
7. Christians can now thrive if they will think of themselves more like the beggar in John 9 than the rulers.
Evangelicals project a sense of ownership in American society, ownership that is at best debatable and probably specious. Their populist calls to arms are all based on the planted axiom that the rightful authorities have been usurped. This is the wrong posture. We face a confident and established culture of secular priorities. The unbelievers rule. Let's be the beggars.
The beggar's individual integrity is more powerful than collective activism. His first-hand testimony about Jesus Christ is more potent than arguments about the shape of social institutions. And the beggar's suffering is for one cause and one only: the name of Jesus Christ.
I'll put it differently. When each Christian in California has the simplicity and tenacity for Christ that the man born blind had, we won't worry any longer about the death of our traditions. We will be at the beginning of a Christian counterculture.