Being a follower of Jesus seems like an easy enough way to live. How difficult is it, for example, to obey the Great Commandment and simply love your neighbor as yourself? We know the answer to that. Fortunately, a life devoted to Christ and his mission does not find its foundation in expressions of mere sentimentality. If it did, love would be more accurately defined as impatient and inhumane because feelings are remarkably undependable. If you doubt this, consider your own experiences with the difficult people with which God has blessed your life. A prerequisite for fulfilling our part of 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter,” is in knowing that love transcends our fleeting emotions. When ripped away from the command to love God with our entire being, the command to love our neighbor loses its significance.
The feeling of love, whatever that is, does not consistently challenge us to pay proper attention to the less-than-pleasant members of our families, the cranky neighbors that would rather you live in another town, the bloggers that trample inerrancy or the talk show hosts that know little of that which they try to defend. A commitment to love even our enemies is necessary to prophetically engage our world with kindness and a gospel-driven generosity. Love enacted upon in real time—not just contemplated within our minds—is an aspect of being conformed to the image of Christ. It means actively extinguishing the urge to revert to the ways of the sinful man or woman we were before our lives were transformed by the gospel, before weknew the love of God. It requires us to demonstrate the love of Christ even to those with which we disagree in the midst of the culture wars. I’m pretty sure we’re called to err on the side of gentleness and respect.
‘Love’ is not often used as a launch pad to discuss the culture wars and the problem of Christians conceding “holy ground” to secularism but I think it’s a helpful place to begin. The alternative to being conformed to the ways of the world is to ensure we are conformed to image of Christ, and what we know of Christ is that his incarnation was purposed for the love of others. His ministry culminated in sacrificing himself, meeting the demands of justice while applying mercy and is a sacrificial model we are called to imitate (Eph 5:1).
D. A. Carson writes that “when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture.” Apart from the gospel, the surrounding culture has no means of truly grasping God’s love. And how would they if it isn’t soundly presented? Clues to God’s character are often injected into the cultural dialogue vis-à-vis natural arguments in defense of the unborn, marriage and the family. But what culture needs is not an approach to knowing God’s truths apart from his love, but a deliberate approach that establishes the foundations of our ethical positions as firmly rooted in him.
It is on this basis that Scripture reminds us—even commands us—how to live to the glory of God. In the first verses of Romans 12, the apostle Paul writes that we are “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…,” leading us to discern the will of God will look like in our every day lives. When the way we think and communicate is guided not by the latest cultural movements, selfish motivations, or covert outreach ops, the manner in which we engage culture and avoid conformity is able to be seen as shaped by something outside and independent of ourselves. The world around us may not like it, may not agree with it, and definitely will not approve, but they will see us fixated on the gospel.
Only after we develop a gospel perspective can we truly engage the issues that are defined as the culture wars. Engaging these issues means engaging people, and we must not eliminate from this the work of making disciples. If we think of cultural engagement as creating culture rather than correcting culture, our voices change. Obviously I don’t mean they literally change, but our urgency about the health of culture is rooted in an urgency for the souls of individuals. And as more commit their lives to being conformed to Christ’s image, sanctification and cultural revival can finally occur. None of this will happen without teaching Christianity; without the gospel and the love of God in the forefront of our work.
In the public square, there’s a winner/loser mentality that overshadows the work of the church. As another voice in the cultural dialogue, we risk the temptation of setting the gospel aside, replacing it with cultural quick fixes. We leave our hopes for cultural change at the feet of our President and Congressional representatives. We lean on the political pundits to make the best arguments and we fail to see elections for what they really are—reflections of a society’s spiritual health.
Evangelical Christianity, in her desire to be relevant as a means of transforming society, often finds herself adopting society’s methods and morality. If we offer political concessions such as adapting our pro-life stance to accommodate certain exceptions or put our stamp of approval on the use of reproductive technologies that ultimately confuse the nature of family and exploit participants in the process, then how can the world see Christianity? Loving our neighbor should not and does not entail compromising our views on human dignity as rooted in the image of God. Loving our neighbor means standing on the solid foundation of scripture and conforming to God’s mission for a decidedly gospel-driven voice communicated with intensity, fervency, yet unmistakably with love. Conforming to culture is not even an option, but teaching Christianity is the ministry to which we’ve been called.