Do we always have to fight to be faithful?
There are four basic responses available to Christians and churches in the face of cultural opposition. We can lie down and so surrender our stand and our faith. We can lean into the opposition by being vocal about our beliefs, willing to “take it on the chin.” We can lay low by taking great caution in airing those parts of our beliefs that the culture finds offensive. Or we get leave. Get out of Dodge.
It is always sin to lie down. It is never sin to lean in, though sometimes it is not wise. And sometimes it is wise to lay low or even to leave, though occasionally these amount to sinful lying down.
One of the greater challenge for Christians throughout history has been determining when to lean in and when to lay low or to leave, as well as when laying low or leaving amounts to sinful lying down.
Lying down comes in two basic forms: explicit and implicit. And both forms are sinful. “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). The Christian lapsi in the early church who offered incense to Caesar, thereby affirming Caesar’s supremacy over Jesus, explicitly denounced him. So did the Japanese converts in seventeenth-century Japan who denounced Christ by stepping on a bronze-plated image.
Christians and churches who continue to maintain the Christian name, but let outside authorities dictate which beliefs are acceptable, have implicitly laid down. One thinks of the Nazi-submitting German Evangelical Church. Karl Barth’s Barmen Declaration, which declared that Jesus and not the Führer was the head of the church, offered a good picture to the contrary.
Perhaps somewhere in between the implicit and explicit acts of lying down—and surely just as sinfully culpable—are Enlightenment-era liberal Christians who deny doctrines central to the gospel (such as the resurrection) and adopt a more culturally respectable form of Christianity.
Leaning in can also take two forms: active and passive. Evangelism is the most concrete form of “actively” leaning in. Evangelism walks a person straight into opposition.
So it was when Jesus declared that the kingdom had arrived in him, or when Paul showed up in synagogues or the Areopagus. Surely one of the most jaw-dropping biblical examples of actively leaning was Paul returning to Lystra immediately after they stoned him!
There is a secondary sense in which battling for biblical righteousness or justice can be viewed as a form of active leaning-in, even if the name of Jesus is not explicit. William Wilberforce’s quest for biblical justice against the slave-trade might count as such an example, even if the quest was not specifically tied to the name of Christ. Churches or Christian leaders today that stand up for a biblical view of marriage might be regarded as leaning in in this secondary sense.
Martyrdom is the most concrete form of “passively” leaning in. A Christian is asked to deny, to denounce, to tear, to step, to betray, to offer up—all upon threat of pain, imprisonment, or death. But his or her posture is to stand still. He or she refuses to do what’s asked. Then the lions come. Or the flames burn. Or the sword swings.
So it was with everyone from Polycarp to John and Betty Stam. And countless others.
It is hard to imagine a situation in which leaning into cultural opposition by standing up for the name of Christ or for biblical justice is sin. In fact, I cannot think of one: real or hypothetical.
“I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame” (Ps. 119:46).