Thursday, July 17, 2014

Slouching toward Capernaum

And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens?  No, you will go down to Hades.  For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.  But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you (Matthew 11:23-24).
Writing in the July/August issue of Liberty magazine, author Kevin Paulson says that the decline of Christianity in the increasingly secular West, even if true, is not likely to be permanent.
Predictions of the decline and fall of so-called “Christian America” have proliferated in the public media—both secular and otherwise—for the past several years.  In the spring of 2009 Newsweek’s cover article “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” was paralleled by a Christian commentator’s dour prediction of “the coming evangelical collapse.”  The latter article was both particularly insightful and dramatic in its forecast of diminishing biblical faith, the demise of thousands of ministries, millions leaving the evangelical fold, and denominations vanishing.
Paulson says that (though it may get worse before it gets better) the trend away from religion, like many societal trends, will see a pendulum-like reversal.
People with strong convictions of any kind often function best when believing themselves under siege.  So long as it is believed that contemporary trends and prevailing forces are inflicting notable harm on one’s cherished values, justification for one’s persistence in proffering and practicing an alternative is easily found.

This is even truer in the religious realm than in the secular.  During the great persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius in the third century A.D., the great Christian scholar Tertullian coined the memorable line that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church." Christendom has often flourished best in times of adversity, ostracism, and revilement.  Even the late U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy, running for his party’s presidential nomination in 1968, noted publicly—during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year—that Christians frequently found a more vibrant faith when confronted with official hostility and perilous circumstances.  (Not perhaps the wisest statement for an aspiring U.S. president at that time, to be sure, but one difficult to gainsay from a historical perspective.)
One reason why this matters is that, increasingly, conservative Christians are being told that our pro-marriage ("anti-gay," anti-promiscuity), and pro-life ("anti-abortion") stands are unpopular, especially with the millennial generation, and that to survive in this climate we need to "moderate" our positions—that is, to compromise or abandon traditional, biblical moral teaching.

I believe a key consideration is that we are, right now, on the cusp of a societal change in which Western society is throwing off the sexual morality under which it has lived for 1700 years.  With surprising uniformity, when young people who have rejected Christianity are asked to give a reason, their answers all have to do with rejecting some aspect of traditional Christian sexual morality.

Liberal religionists, especially in the old-line Christian denominations, have cited this trend in their attempts to revise the moral teaching of their churches to be more accommodating to contemporary secular sensibilities.

The key, as I said, is that we are on the cusp of this trend.  Right now, throwing off traditional morality looks like the way to greater freedom.  I believe that this trend, as with so many others, is subject to pendulum-like swings—and a look at history reinforces my conclusion.

Remember that Christianity came into ascendancy in the Graeco-Roman world whose immorality resembles the post-Christian secular mores of our own day:  Promiscuity, homosexuality, and abortion were all very common in those days.

Parenthetically, let me point out Acts 15, where the Council of Jerusalem had to decide the manner of admitting Gentile converts to the Church.  The Council issued a letter to the new Gentile Christians which concluded with the following admonition:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:  You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.  You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28-29)
Christians reading this passage today often find it odd that the Council had to admonish the new Gentile Christians to abstain from sexual immorality.  They were becoming Christians, of course they had to abstain from sexual immorality!  But we need to remember that the Church, heretofore consisting of Jewish followers of Jesus, had the background of the Law given to the Jewish people through Moses.  They and their forebears for two millennia had been taught that life was sacred.  Thus, for instance, abortion was unknown among the ancient Jews, while it was common among the Greeks and Romans of the same period.  Sexual relations outside of marriage and with members of the same sex were condemned unequivocally.

So the Jews who became the first followers of Jesus had already been instructed in the Torah and its moral teaching.  But for Greeks and Romans who became Christians, the cultural assumptions in which they had been brought up were entirely different.  Sexual immorality in Gentile society was almost as common as the air they breathed.  Hence the need for the Council of Jerusalem's admonition.

The new Christians would find themselves to be oddities in the Roman Empire.  They were hounded for their faith, persecuted and killed, often in the most gruesome of ways.  Yet, Christianity did not cease to exist because it was so out of step with the society of its day.  It did not die as a result of the persecution that was intended to exterminate it—it flourished!

For many in the Graeco-Roman world, the message of the Gospel was Good News indeed.  It was an escape from the mindless sensuality and depravity of the culture.  It was a worldview that brought order in the midst of chaos, dignity in place of degradation.  Far from seeing Christianity as bondage to a repressive morality, the Romans who accepted Christ saw his Way as the only true liberation.

So it will be again.  But this is a cycle that will take time to run its course.  We are only seeing the beginning of Western society's efforts to throw off Christianity.  It may take painful decades or even centuries for society to see that the radical autonomy, lawlessness, and sexual license they are experiencing is not the way of freedom but enslavement.  When that finally happens, they will, like the ancient Romans, turn to Christ.

The necessity of persevering while this cycle runs its course is a hard message to hear for comfortable, Western Christians who expect instant answers to prayer and victory in every conflict with evil—usually in the 60-minute space of a television drama.  We don't know what it is like to suffer the persecution that the early Christians faced, but we may find out.  Just as the Gnostics escaped persecution by accommodating themselves to Roman morality, some of our persecution may come from our nominal co-religionists who have, in fact, accepted the gospel of this age instead of the Gospel of Christ.

As the old country preacher said, "I've read the end of the Book, and I know who wins."  This much is true.  Jesus Christ himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  And, in the end, only those who enter through him will come to the Father (John 14:6).

In the meantime, for those Christians who may be called to face these tough times, I am reminded of the attitude of Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to death in the Coliseum, who wrote:
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake, if only you do not prevent it.  I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness.  Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God.  I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ. — Ignatius, Letter to the Romans
If that is to be us, are we willing?  Are we ready?

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