The ‘Just Be Positive’ message: are we substituting God’s grace with our own?
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
How should Christians live “in a culture which often either ignores faith or aggressively opposes it? What are Christians to do in… an environment, where traditional attitudes to morality are suddenly becoming extreme and unacceptable?” These questions were asked at a recent symposium hosted by an organisation called Threads UK, part of the Evangelical Alliance. According to the report in Christian Today, the main speaker, David Kinnaman, gave some examples of a ‘new morality’ based around a cult of the Self that has taken hold in our culture. He went on to give some suggestions as to how to live effectively as Christians. Firstly, he said, don’t offer any public critique of the new morality, or try to change culture in any way that appears like the Church telling others what to do. Secondly, be a “faithful presence” (ie just be where you are as a Christian, without necessarily saying anything about your faith), and a ‘positive’ influence, offering hope instead of despair. According to the report, in the discussion which followed, this mission strategy was largely supported by those present.
A similar strategy appears to be supported by Archbishop Justin Welby, as shown by his recent sermon to the global Mothers Union at their 140th anniversary celebration. He acknowledged the reality of rapid cultural shifts in relation to the family, mentioning changing attitudes to same sex relationships, cohabitation and divorce. But he did not attempt to explain the reasons for these trends, critique them, or promote a biblical model for family life: a father and a mother who are committed in love to each other and who pass on their values to their children. Instead, according to the Archbishop, the Mothers’ Union should accept the reality of different types of household arrangements, and offer help and hope to them.
We’ve all heard the arguments which advocate a ‘positive’ approach to living and witnessing in contemporary Western culture: “Christians should not just be known for what they are against…create, don’t complain…don’t curse the darkness but light a candle”. The ‘be positive’ approach is partly reacting against a grumpy, ultra-conservative legalism and opposition to change, and a despairing withdrawal into a ghetto, neither of which are helpful. It focuses on some key Gospel emphases: prayer, evangelism, and compassionate community service, and is born out of a genuine desire to improve the poor image of the church which is an obstacle to mission. It is not advocating a liberal capitulation to culture, like some Anglican Bishops and theologians who say that the ideas behind the moral and sexual revolution are actually from God and should be embraced (for example, Paul Bayes, Alan Wilson, Barry Morgan, Adrian Thatcher).
But as a biblically orthodox Anglican response to living in contemporary Western culture, is this adequate? Here are some reasons why just being ‘positive’ is defective:
- It often appears to be more embarrassed by Christian righteousness than grieved by cultural ungodliness. If being ‘positive’ means saying nothing about (for example) sexual immorality, but criticizing Christians who bravely oppose it, then we are not following the Psalmist who said: “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed” (Psalm 119:136).
- Jesus did not command his disciples to just be a ‘faithful presence’ but to “go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey”. Part of the church’s reflection on its place in the community and nation involves working out how to teach obedience to the ways of Christ. Should it just be to the church members? Jesus’ words and the history of Christian mission suggests that it is more than this, and certainly the Church of England and Anglicanism around the world has always believed that its intentional teaching and discipling role extends to community and nation building, not just pastoring the gathered congregation.
- We know that many of the cultural leaders in the moral revolution have a horror of the Church being a kind of ‘moral policeman’, and secularists as a whole want to remove the influence of religion from public life altogether. Does this mean that Christians should oblige by steering clear of anything that looks like an effort to critique society’s values and try to change them for the better? Should we restrict ourselves in terms of our ‘public face’ to inoffensive social action and evangelism? The danger with this is twofold: the church fails to take a stand against evil, corruption and injustice outside its walls, and it becomes afraid to teach clearly about controversial issues to its own members. Meanwhile, Islamists and secularists are not shy about overtly trying to shape culture according to their values.
- It’s sometimes assumed that what puts people off the church is the ‘thou shalt not’ message about sex outside of marriage. All the church has to do, then, is to apologise for its treatment of gay, divorced, cohabiting people, give no moral guidance on these issues and try and steer the conversation towards God’s love, options for our spirituality, and our good works. But this is quite simply a non-Gospel. Both Jesus (eg Matthew 15:19) and Paul (eg Romans 1:21-27) use sexual immorality as perhaps the most obvious visible sign (among many others) of a heart in rebellion against God, the answer to which is repentance, faith and forgiveness. A church which downplays the seriousness of sexual and other sin is covering up the fatal problem of heart-sickness, rebellion and judgement, and so covers up God’s solution of grace in Christ, substituting it with our own.
- The simplistic ‘be positive’ message relies too much on the biblical model of Jesus in first century Palestine, and does not pay enough attention to other historical eras. Jesus appeared not to criticize the secular Roman authorities, but was constantly warning against the Pharisees with their strict moral teaching undergirded with hypocrisy and lack of love and grace. It’s very easy to apply this model today and see the evangelical cultural critics as modern day Pharisees. But while the Gospels continue to speak timelessly of the ministry of Christ to our human condition, the context of Christians in the West today is more similar to other biblical periods. For example, Judah in the late monarchy required the ministry of prophets, warning the leaders of God’s people of compromise and apostasy bringing God’s judgement. Or the time of the early church, when Paul led the apostles in working out how to take the Gospel to a pagan Gentile audience, and faced conflict from religious and civil authorities on the way. Or perhaps the exile in Babylon and the diaspora into the Roman empire – the need to form distinctive, counter-cultural communities, preserving the vision and values of God’s rule, and influencing society from below.
The church must beware of being driven by fear of journalists and loud social media voices. They love to portray a simple narrative of nasty, bigoted conservative Christians vs. nice, loving, liberal ones. Will sending the message that ‘Christians are nice’ enable the salvation of sinners or the transformation of culture? It would be good if we were known for believing what the Bible teaches, acting on it, and being ready to explain our hope, even if it’s not always popular.
See also: Revelation 4: A warning to the compromising church, by David Robertson, Christian Today
and Atheism, the State and early Christians: lessons for today, by Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch