If you’re like me, at some point you’ve probably pulled up next to a car plastered with bumper stickers that promote false ideas, and been filled with disgust as you aggressively wish righteous judgment on the driver. Or, maybe you’ve been chatting casually with someone you just met at a community event and the conversation suddenly takes an unexpected turn, revealing a chasm between your scriptural values and their choices. Any previous sense of kinship evaporates; your smile freezes, your walls go up, and internal alarms sound the retreat. As followers of Jesus in a century that has seen cataclysmic erosion of foundational truth in our society, we are struggling to navigate this new territory, and in overwhelming numbers Christians are resorting to the most primal responses: fight or flight. Some of us do battle, and some just get out of there.
Consider for a moment a third option: the gospel, and acting it out in those moments. It sounds simplistic, and it is, by design according to 1 Corinthians 1 (God chose the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised things). But no matter how much our society sneers at it, the good news revealed to humankind through God’s Word and the person of Jesus Christ is the answer to all its ills. No matter what embarrassed retreat our culture tries to provoke in us by calling it uneducated, restrictive, archaic, sexist, and more, there is no shame in the beautiful, dynamic story of love and redemption that is woven richly through all Scripture.
Think of it: a Creator God, whose image we all bear; the glory-filled intention behind the universe; the Fall and its far-reaching talons explaining millennia of human struggle, heartbreak and pain; a God-given Law which foreshadows a Person; the culmination of all history in the birth and life of Yeshua—“Salvation”—Jesus, the anointed one, Emmanuel, the bringer of grace and truth, the healer of all suffering; His atoning death which cancels sin and transforms hearts; the resurrection which swallows death’s sting, the torn veil which gives us bold access to the throne of grace, and the life-giving breath of the Spirit which indwells us. As if that were not enough, this good news peels back the pages of the future to reveal to us that evil will be defeated, and God Himself will wipe our tears and make His home with us in a city of healing, light, and righteousness, where the curse is undone and all is made new.
This good news of Christ’s Kingdom is stunningly perfect. It is the power of God for salvation and the answer to every human need. It is our hope and confidence, our rock in the mire, our song in the night, our anchor in the storm. To the disciple of Jesus, it is everything! If the gospel is absorbed deeply into our hearts, it gives us courage. There is no other source that is equal to our present circumstances. And, according to Paul, this gospel is increasing. “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Colossians 1:6, NIV). Take heart, my friends: The story of God is moving forward inexorably!
But as evil grows worse and our dismay increases, many Christians are responding by fighting the so-called culture war, with its hallmarks of disdain, polarization, and enmity. This shift toward political engagement has seen Christians caught up in the race for power, sometimes even prioritizing political outcomes over Christian values or gospel advancement. Over-identification with the political culture war can also cause the Church to develop blind spots around issues that counter their political allegiances, but desperately need a gospel-enlightened presence. Some Christians choose flight instead, isolating themselves from any meaningful contact with unbelievers in carefully controlled Christian bubbles. Too disheartened, horrified, or confused to do anything but withdraw, they leave many in society without a lifeline. The culture war has certainly impacted our gospel courage!
Don’t get me wrong: the culture war has its place, as truth needs to be articulated in political, cultural, and educational arenas. Christians have a key role in this, and I don’t advocate withdrawing Christian perspectives from the court of American ideas. But I do have serious concerns about how the culture war has molded the mindset of the Church toward goals other than sharing Jesus. We seem to be floundering in our ability to both hear the heart issues at play in our culture, and speak the gospel of Jesus graciously into them because we are triggered by the need to “push back” in the culture war. The culture war necessarily focuses on truth and its repercussions, and while a vital component of the gospel, it is not enough. Jesus exuded grace and truth. The culture war is devoid of grace and does not lift up the person of Jesus, and thus it cannot give life or save anyone. The Church must approach our culture with the full gospel of grace and truth, because that’s who Jesus is, and what He did.
More than that, the culture war is not the primary calling of the Church or a very effective way of carrying it out. We are to make disciples, baptize them, and teach obedience (Matthew 28:18). For centuries, the Church has ridden the tide of history with an imperturbable focus on the gospel of Jesus and disciple-making, often in spite of surrounding cultures, powers, and nations. Living the gospel faithfully alongside the culture, preaching, explaining, and acting it out whenever we have opportunity, is how we speak into the culture the only answer that it needs: Jesus. We are His hands and feet to each generation, including this one. With this loyalty to the Bigger Story, the Church has weathered much change and plowed onward, whatever the political fray. This reflects well Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 1:27-28: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.” This confident, calm, intentional commitment to live the gospel alongside our culture is what seems to be slipping away, as an alarmed Church picks up political weapons and tries to “war according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10:3).
To be sure, there is a war, waged against strongholds with non-fleshly, eternal weapons, and we are to fight this good fight of faith through prayer and action. But to equate the spiritual warfare between God and His enemy described in Scripture with the Republican vs. Democrat war over American culture is a leap I’m not sure the Bible backs up.
So what can we do? My intention here is to exhort each one of us to examine in what ways we may be over-identifying with the culture war mindset, to understand how that might be impacting our interactions with our neighbors, and to renew our devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our only source of courage in this day and age, and living it out courageously wherever God has placed us is our calling. We must have courage from the gospel, and for the gospel. It is this world’s only hope.
To that end, here are three differences between the gospel mindset and the culture war mindset that may strengthen us in the gospel, and give us courage to live it in the fight-or-flight moments.
Culture war mindset:
Fearful, uncertain, worried about being misunderstood
Courageous love toward image-bearers
One successful tactic of the enemy these days has been to muddy the waters around words such as “love,” “acceptance,” “approval,” and “affirmation.” Because some loud voices insist they all go together and that to love someone you must approve and affirm them and anything else is hate, Christians find themselves timid to show love or acceptance, lest it be taken as approval or affirmation. This really worries some followers of Christ, particularly in their interactions with people who are not living out their God-given gender or sexual identity. “If I don’t say something, they’ll think I approve!” Some wonder how to communicate their disapproval in the first conversation with an individual living outside of God’s plan, while many Christians will just extricate themselves from the relationship before it comes to that.
That’s the culture war impacting our thinking. We become fearful and avoid, or feel compelled to draw lines and speak out, thinking we are failing God if we don’t take a stand. We focus on the truth that’s being contested in the culture war, and forget about the grace and love Jesus would also carry into the conversation. Instead, knowing that the love of the Heavenly Father accepts people as they are without including approval or affirmation, you can live that way toward others without having to explain it right away. Christians struggling with culture war fear get stuck withdrawing from or withholding love from those who need it most. Every person we encounter bears God’s image and as such is worthy of however much of God’s Love we can pour into them in the amount of time we have. It’s okay to love people courageously without having to explain or qualify what your love doesn’t include, until an established relationship might weather that clarification.
Culture war mindset:
Limit contact with the enemy. Isolate. Self-protect.
It is the sick who need a physician. (Mark 2:17)
In war, unless you’re in combat, you avoid your enemy and direct your resources into reinforcing your position. The problem here is that our war is against false ideas, while the people who hold them are not our enemies. Some of them, in fact, are the field we should be harvesting. “We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NLV). How can we make disciples if we are only fighting, avoiding, or self-protecting?
“It is the sick who need a physician,” Jesus said, as He approached the needy and initiated personal contact. He touched the lepers in their disease and spent time with tax-gatherers and prostitutes. I have heard the Church described as the “hospital for sinners,” where broken people are loved and healed into the Kingdom. However, some very hurting people today feel like untouchables to the Church, because our proclamations of truth during the culture war have left little opening for those suffering under the lies. We are seen as a political opponent instead of a hospital.
Just as He would stand firm for Biblical truth about gender, I am confident Jesus would spend time with those struggling with or in denial of their gender identity, speaking to them gently and with great understanding of their root needs. Thanks to lines drawn in the culture war, the Church seems confused about how to reconcile this clarity with this tender approachability. Many Christians are quick to make fun of the absurdity of the gender ideologies that have swept our country. “I identify as…” jokes abound. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but what about the people who are drowning in the lies? What are we doing to extend gospel grace to them? They need to hear the gospel message: “We are all broken; healing is available in Jesus!” They need the “sinners’ hospital,” but this place where healing is possible seems closed off to them, horrified or making jokes. We need the help of God to turn us from political perspectives to a gospel one, so we can share Christ with those who need His healing touch.
Physicians study disease and treatment for years to be able to rescue their patients, so they approach them not just with kindness and care, but with knowledge. While we want to be careful studying false ideas, there are Scripture-affirming Christian authors who have experienced or researched many issues of our day and written books that can help us come alongside the lost, ready to interact with a greater sense of understanding so we can share Christ in an informed way.
Culture war mindset:
Always be ready to confront sin and/or argue the issues.
Share Christ. Transformation can only come about through contact with Jesus.
In the culture war, our reflex is to push back when we encounter ideas that don’t align with truth. This isn’t wrong. And yet, remember that winning the heart of the person who holds those ideas is an even better outcome than dismantling their point of view. This requires treating opponents patiently and relationally, as the following passages describe, and not with the confrontation and arguing typical in our country right now.
“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, skillful in teaching, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).
And, remember, transformation of a person’s mind, heart, or choices is only possible through a personal encounter with Jesus and the work of His Spirit. Knowing Jesus precedes true heart change, and usually precedes even wanting to change or seeing the need for change. Sanctification comes after salvation, not before. But Christians today sometimes want to start by correcting wrong thinking (“Christians can’t be pro-choice,” “That’s not your God-given gender,” “Marriage is between one man and one woman,” etc.) and then follow up by pointing to Jesus. This cart-before-the-horse approach may satisfy an itch to speak out on polarizing issues, but that’s all that’s going to happen. No actual transformation is likely to occur.
If transformation is what’s needed, lead them to “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthains 11:3). And to do that, we probably need to start by building a relationship. Truth is far more effectively shared within a meaningful relationship, and relationship-building is a long game, so roll up your sleeves. It means investing love, time, and work, in patient hope that this connection you are building will someday lead them to Christ, either passively (through unspoken example) or actively (through explicit sharing). It may mean letting wrong thinking go unchallenged in the moment, not because it isn’t important or won’t be challenged eventually, but because you are playing for the long-term gains of Christ-inspired transformation, and you’re leaving it to Him to make the changes when the time is right.
In closing, I want to point out that God gifts us differently. Courage for the gospel can take many shapes, and those are often informed by our gifts. There is no one right way to do this, even though we often feel like there is and we are the ones who can’t do it well. Some are equipped with outspoken courage and can speak the gospel boldly and often. Some are equipped with a quiet courage that acts out the gospel gently in challenging, long-term relationships, winning only one or two lost sheep in a lifetime of labor. Gospel courage can look quite different in various people, and that richness and balance are an asset to our collective mission. Together, all of our lives lived for the gospel comprise a fuller picture for our fellow image-bearers and provide the aroma of Christ to a fallen world.
As evil grows worse, may we not be alarmed, and may our hearts instead be encouraged in the gospel. It is our hope and confidence, our rock in the mire, our song in the night, our anchor in the storm. And may we find courage to be that gospel to our neighbors, to live and breathe it in our communities, and keep the doors of the hospital open. The fields are white for harvest. May we see them with gospel-anointed eyes. ■