The Christian life is full of seeming contradictions. We are to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-18). We are to be warriors for Christ armed with weapons of warfare (Ephesians 6:11-20). Yet we are also to turn the other cheek and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Jesus exhorts us to be meek (Matthew 5:5), yet Scripture also exhorts us to be strong in the Lord and the power of His might (Ephesians 6:10). John the Baptist was executed for condemning a political leader for his sin against a Holy God (Mark 6:18), yet Jesus was silent before Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:14). Jesus commanded his disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:38), yet also commanded his disciples, “No more of this!” when Peter used that sword at his arrest (Luke 22:51).
I call these “seeming contradiction” because I believe that a faithful and careful study of Scripture and understanding of the Holy Spirit and what God is doing in the world helps a person more fully understand how all of these things can be true at the same time. Biblical ethics & Christian living are nuanced, but they are not contradictory.
There is a theme that is common in all of the seeming contradictions above, a thread that winds its way through so much of the Christian life. That thread is the tension of how Christians are to engage with the fallen sin filled world around them. Throughout the last 2,000 years of Church history there has been great debate with entire movements developed taking different approaches to this tension. During the Monastic Period, the ideal life was often thought of as that of a Monk, completely cut off from the cares and concerns of this world. The Desert Monks went so far as to live in caves in the desert in order to live a life of holy obedience to God. They tried to remove themselves as much as humanly possible from the sin of this world, only to discover that their own sinful thoughts were with them even in the desert. Others like John Calvin, John Owen, and the early American Puritans & Huguenots, sought to create an entire new culture built upon the framework of Scripture. They built nations and institutions with the effort to create new culture, and transform that which was marred by sin to its purest God honoring form. Still others, like Thomas Aquinas, sought to find a happy blend of reliance upon the things of God as well as the things of culture. (In a now classic work titled Christ and Culture Richard Neihbur lays out five historic approaches to this tension).
While this might sound like a theological head game, the tension actually has very direct real world applications for every follower of Christ. Here are a few points of that tension that folks in the Church where I pastor wrestle with regularly:
- How do I handle a public school system that is so forcefully pushing a hyper-sexualized worldview on our children? Do I pull my kids out of public school? Do I try to change the public school from the inside out?
- How does my faith in Jesus and commitment to his word influence the way I think politically about a topic like abortion? Should Christians just stay out of the political arena, and if not how does our faith influence these types of conversations and decisions?
- What kind of charities should I give money to? Should I financially support charities that are doing good work but not in the name of Christ? Or should I limit my giving to only ministries that are rooted clearly on Jesus’ Lordship?
These three bullets only scratch the surface of the tension that exists at nearly every turn for a Christian who desires to be faithful to the Lordship of Christ and the mission he has invited us into.
To put my cards fully on the table, I believe that modern Western Christianity has become incredibly wimpy. Yes… wimpy. This wimpiness is a deadly plague among the Church. It is more formally referred to in super duper theological circles as Wimpellia Maximitus (copyright pending). We remember reading in our history books of great Christians like Martin Luther who famously looked his persecutors in the eye under threat of torture and death and said, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” That courageous conviction filled spirit is rare these days. Today, rather than embracing the tension and living boldly for Christ, we have dropped the tension altogether and huddled and cuddled each other in our safe places. The modern Church is hiding in plain sight. Jesus spoke of this plague in Matthew 5:13:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.Matthew 5:13 (ESV)
The point Jesus makes in Matthew 5:13 is that Christians, like salt, are to have a clear and compelling impact on society around them through their influence. And that if ever Christians stop having that kind of godly influence on society, where through their life the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven are not clearly advancing, then they have lost their saltiness. Calvin summarizes this well when he says,
“When Christ calls the apostles the salt of the earth, he means, that it is their office to salt the earth: because men have nothing in them but what is tasteless, till they have been seasoned with the salt of heavenly doctrine. After having reminded them to what they are called, he pronounces against them a heavy and dreadful judgment, if they do not fulfill their duty… This warning is useful, not only to ministers, but to the whole flock of Christ. Since it is the will of God that the earth shall be salted by his own word…“John Calvin
It is a sad reality that many Churches and many Christians have lost their saltiness. We have bought into the lie that secular society around us has trumpeted for many decades that Christianity is permissible as a private belief so long as one keeps that faith system out of the public square. We’ve given up so much ground in the culture shaping institutions that I think we’ve actually begun to believe the lie that Christians are not supposed to have a real influence on society and culture. According to the secularist there is a new definition of “Separation of Church & State” which says that a person’s Christian faith is to remain private and must not be brought out of the walls of the Church in any effort to influence politics, but we’ve taken that new definition even further and applied it to all of our cultural institutions. The Church bought the lie, and has largely (with the exception of a few prophetic voices), stayed hidden and quiet and “polite.” We’ve given up on the tension altogether. We’ve lost our saltiness.
Remembering What Is Truth
How do we regain saltiness? I honestly believe it begins with good theology, with right thinking about God and about life in Christ. I think many have been trained to believe that the basic premise of Christianity is ‘Get saved, stay quiet, and hunker down till Christ returns.’ You won’t find that in the Bible. Rather in the Bible what you will find is that once a person is saved by Christ, a burning hunger begins to build inside of them for the things of God. When you’ve tasted of the goodness of Jesus, one cannot help but want more. Consider some of the theological ideas below and how they might impact this tension of engaging culture.
If Jesus is truly the King of Kings (Revelation 19:16), then whether or not any king or earthly authority understands this reality, Jesus is their King and they only have authority because that authority has been stewarded to them by the true King, Jesus. If , “all authority in heaven and on Earth” truly has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18), then there is not one square inch of all humanity that followers of Jesus should not be eagerly declaring Christ’s and seeking to reform to the standard of His Word. If God’s Word truly is the plumb line of justice (Psalm 89:14), then Christians ought to declare that any variation of justice that contradicts God’s Word even in the slightest is incorrect and is in fact an injustice. If the Holy Spirit truly has endowed and filled believers (Ephesians 5:18), and we have truly have been commissioned to make war against the Gates of Hell (Matthew 16:18), and if we have been promised tremendous success as to the increase of his government and peace (Isaiah 9:7), and we have been given example after example by God of the type of bold faith God is looking for (Hebrews 12), then we must imitate those examples by truly living bold lives for Christ “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15).
As it turns out, the path to peace that Christ has planned, necessitates believers making war on everything that stands against His Kingdom. Not with violence or any other fleshly means, but yes – with the full force of the Holy Spirit and the power of Heavenly armies and actual bold action to stand in the gap and stand for Christ. Yes, we win this war with sacrificial Christ like love that truly prays for our enemies, that truly adopts orphans, that truly cares for widows, that truly shows up in the darkest places where everyone is afraid to go with hope and meals and resources and the Gospel – that’s Christian history! But Christians cannot be quiet as if we do not have a responsibility to Christ to be salt. The authorities in the disciples day wanted Peter to be quiet but he marched into the town square and made what was at that time a highly public and high politically controversial statement by saying, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” That one got him arrested because the political ideology of the day was, “Caesar is Lord! There is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.”
I confess that carrying this tension of engaging culture well as a Christian is not simple. I also confess that I feel I often get it wrong, and I am either overly bold in an unhelpful way, or overcome by Wimpellia Maximitus and don’t speak when I sense the Lord’s urging. But I know this for certain, I want God’s true Church to be salty once again. Lord help us carry the mantle passed down to us by the saints of generations past with us much courage and compassion as they did!