Christian Concern conference: A call to cultural leadership
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
For two days towards the end of January, a group of pastors and mission practitioners met at a Hertfordshire Hotel to listen and discuss, as a case for public Christian social and political engagement in the nation was carefully outlined. The conference title: “Cultural Leadership Symposium” summarized the message – a call to the church to be part of leading a new culture rather than retreat from society or following its norms.
Andrea Williams from Christian Concern began with a typically challenging snapshot of the effects of what she called a ‘cultural revolution’ in Britain over the last 50 years. Some statistics: today almost 50% of all children are born out of wedlock, compared with less than 5% in 1965. While the population is now at least 10 million more than 50 years ago, there are over 100,000 fewer marriages per year. There are now half as many divorces as there are marriages, compared with less than 10% in 1965. Each of these divorces represents pain and sadness in individuals and families.
As a society we appear to be in denial about the collapse of marital faithfulness as we are about abortion: more than 200,000 babies are killed in the womb each year, a holocaust aided by the deception of the medical profession. Again, each abortion has pastoral consequences, but many churches appear afraid to address the issue. Christian Concern has been involved in the legal defense of whistleblowers who have been punished for highlighting further flagrant abuse of abortion, for example female infanticide in the womb. The group has also campaigned for the right to demonstrate and/or offer counselling to women outside abortion clinics.
Because as a society we have deemed the incipient person in the womb not to really constitute human life, we have agreed to experimentation on embryos, and the development of surrogacy. Just as the originally strict conditions for abortion have been set aside, so the initial requirement for IVF only being available for married couples has long been waived. But we are also moving towards seeing a life which suffers, particularly in old age, as no longer valid, and so we have seen increasing efforts to legalise euthanasia. Andrea gave a prophetic warning: “the generation which kills its children will be killed by its children”.
The focus then moved to issues of sexuality and marriage. What the Bible describes as sexual immorality is now the norm in society and increasingly in the church, which has been largely silent in the public square for fear of being thought old fashioned or ‘hateful’. The well organized gay lobby has succeeded in redefining marriage and family as part of an agenda to destroy Judaeo Christian ethics and understandings of what it means to be human. Churches now equivocate, with the C of E leadership apparently more keen to make alliances with Stonewall and apologise for ‘homophobia’ than to explain and defend the doctrine of marriage. Churches have also largely abandoned the once flourishing ministry of helping people move away from homosexuality under pressure from a gay-affirming culture.
Andrea finished with a brief summary of some of the cases CC has taken on in its role of defending religious freedom, including those who have been disciplined or even dismissed at work for their Christian witness.
The main programme over the two days featured three main speakers giving two presentations each.
Joe Boot is originally from Bristol and now lives in Toronto. As pastor of Westminster Chapel he has led a church in remarkable growth, establishing a school and a theological think tank. He now travels regularly to the UK, to lead Christian Concern’s Wilberforce Institute and to teach on how the Gospel relates to culture. In his first talk he began with Acts 17:1-9, where Paul is in the dock accused of causing disruption because of his teaching that there is “another king, called Jesus”. The Greeks and Romans had a polytheistic worldview: behind their remarkably advanced (to our eyes) political and civil organization they worshipped many gods, and even Caesar and the State were invested with divine status. As long as primary allegiance was given to the highest power, people were free to practice their personal and family rituals with local deities and occult powers. The preaching of the Gospel cut through this, insisting that “Jesus is Lord”, and that so-called ‘gods’ are nothing. The authority and salvific power attributed to Caesar and the State were directly challenged simply by the Christian message, and so from early on believers were persecuted and martyred not for revolutionary action (they were obedient citizens) but for what they believed and said.
According to Joe Boot we have a similar situation today. In the West, citizens are free to worship their gods privately, but what used to be a broadly Christian public space, in which it was recognized that God is supreme over the State, has now been replaced with a quasi ‘neutral’ space where the State has ultimate authority. A new philosophy, which has been described as ‘cultural Marxism’, has rapidly made inroads into public consciousness through media, law, education; its aim is to strengthen the power of the State by relegating religion to a matter of private piety, and by weakening independent civil society, of which the foundation is the family. As Christians our role today is not, as is sometimes caricatured, to reestablish a ‘golden age of Christendom’, but to recover the vision of Christ as Lord in all areas of life; to challenge the new idolatries and ideas which damage human flourishing, and to establish again a Christian culture.
Joe explained that culture is the growth of the complex web of society around its core beliefs. We must expose the myth that secular culture is neutral – instead it is, like Graeco-Roman society, “state-sponsored polytheism”. We have allowed the State to redefine reality – this is the outworking of the original temptation in Genesis 3:5 “you will be like God”. To bring about change by proclaiming Christ in the public square will bring suffering, but it is possible to infiltrate the institutions as the secularists have done – even when Paul was in prison he let it be known that there were believers “in Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22).
In his second talk, Dr Boot invited us to develop a broader understanding of the Gospel. Many Christians have unconsciously colluded in the narrative of the world belonging to secular power, and so the Gospel has been reduced to a message of private salvation, forgiveness of sins, personal relationship with Christ and hope of eternal life. Worse, the Christ whom we worship can be distorted into an image of our own idealized self rather than the ruler of the universe. Rather, Christ is the one in whom all things hold together, the one reconciling the universe to God. Just as the story of the fall shows how all of creation has become alienated, and how human beings have separated God from other areas of life producing a ‘multiverse’, so the story of salvation is one of God bringing everything back under one head, and in Christ restoring humanity to our position of dominion, beginning with the church whose task is to work humbly as servants of the King in cultural redemption.
We also heard significant presentations from Jeffrey Ventrella, Barrister and Christian apologist from the United States, and Jonathan Burnside, Professor of Biblical Law from Bristol University. Burnside argued that Christians have bought into the myth of a ‘neutral’ secular culture and so have allowed Christian principles to be eroded. The only way we can discover the basis for a truly just and God-honouring society is to study Old Testament law, which Jesus himself honoured and came to illustrate and fulfil in himself and in the new society he came to inaugurate. The law was given not for tribal pride or legalism (as interpreted by Pharisees and others down the ages), but for freedom, right living, and flourishing. As Christians engage in cultural critique and putting forward positive alternatives, we need to be guided by the principles of the Torah, focused on Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Dr Burnside gave some examples of how to interpret and apply passages in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The laws underpin a vision of a society of personal freedom and responsibility, strong family structure, wide distribution of power, care for the weak, a sustainable environment, and social harmony. Study of these principles can give churches more of a holistic vision for mission and community leadership.
Dr Ventrella continued the theme of politics and the Gospel. A skim through the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel shows the incarnation and ministry of Jesus in a cultural and political context where the rightful King of David’s line claims allegiance along with other rulers. There are many examples in the Bible of prophets and others called by God confront political authorities and address social and political issues. Sadly though many churches today either do not address these issues at all for fear of dividing congregations (or because of a narrow interpretation of ‘the Gospel’), or they simply parrot the opinions of secular commentators. Instead Christians are called to work for the good of the ‘city’ in which they find themselves, and to stand against evil when necessary.
In Genesis 1:26-27, God gave his ‘cultural mandate’ to humanity. But because of the Fall, as interpreted by Paul in Romans 1:18 and following, humans have a tendency to suppress the truth about God, to exchange this truth for the lie that they can be gods, to worship the creation instead of the creator, which leads to ungodly practices; this idolatry and immorality then is approved by the socio-cultural structures of government and society. But the enduring power of such human power structures is not inevitable. Just as the biblical prophecies of Daniel show the rise and fall of empires, and in our recent history we have seen the collapse of communism, so the current domination of our culture by secular humanism will not last forever. But the church must play its part: not retreating into a ‘holy huddle’ against culture, nor cravenly accommodating to it, but working for its transformation. Jesus’ parables of seeds and yeast show the secret working of the Kingdom, but also there is a place for activism, for ‘taking every thought captive’ and ‘reasoning in the market places’ ie challenging and correcting wrong thinking in the public space. With this will come suffering as we follow Christ, but through this he will bring renewal and redemption.
In the discussion which followed, some of the participants admitted to being from church traditions of narrow, pietistic ‘soterianism’ (only preaching individual salvation). I am aware of a widespread fear among church leaders of upsetting potential disciples or attracting disapproval of secular authorities by publicly challenging wrong ideas, for example about sex and marriage. But I confess I didn’t realize that some churches are apparently so afraid of the ‘social Gospel’ that they don’t just preach salvation by grace as opposed to good works, they deliberately don’t do any good works in the community! By contrast a church which has grasped ‘cultural leadership’ will be experiencing God’s empowering Spirit work outwards through the Body as the Gospel of salvation by grace is preached, church members lead in good works in the community, and false ideologies are exposed and challenged.
Andrew Marsh from Christian Concern wrapped up the two day symposium by presenting a model, and asking some questions. The model showed four strands or pillars supporting an action plan or strategy for Christian cultural transformation:
- an agreement on biblical basis for cultural engagement
- an agreed diagnosis of what is wrong with the culture
- a shared understanding of how culture can be changed
- a shared vision for how we would like society to look
The questions, which produced quite a bit of discussion, were: what is the priority in terms of the area of greatest need in the culture? and: what are the biggest gaps between where the church is and where it should be in terms of cultural engagement? There were a number of suggestions but no clear agreed answer to these questions! Andrew concluded with a call to the church to
- stand firm for the truth and against error
- stand up with wisdom and courage for Jesus Christ in public life
- stand together, especially when Christians are persecuted for their faith.
All those who attended this conference are very grateful to Christian Concern for the organization and generous hospitality, and to the speakers for their input.