The current debate about marriage powerfully illustrates the need to “make disciples of all nations.”
How do we disciple our nations? What tactics do we use to positively influence our culture for Christ? These are important questions, particularly for the church in the United States at this moment in history.
We live at a time when the influence of the church has receded—when the historic momentum of secular atheism seems to be ascendant in nearly every sphere of our culture.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the current fight over the meaning of marriage. Many of the loudest voices in our culture, aided by the mainstream media, tell us the fight is over, and traditional marriage has lost. Many in the church have succumbed to despair. They too believe the battle is over, and are throwing in the towel.
Yet some courageous souls refuse to give up. Among those are Princeton professor Robert George, and his gifted young mentee Ryan Anderson. Both are co-authors (along with Shirif Girgis) of the outstanding book, What is Marriage: Man and Woman: A Defense.
I recently read a speech by Anderson that I found to be profoundly encouraging and rich in wisdom, with many important lessons for how the church should go about engaging the culture in our current situation.
Quoting extensively from that speech, here are ten important lessons Anderson teaches us on how the church should disciple the nation:
Lesson 1 – Don’t retreat! Engage the culture with truth, and engage in love
Today, the church faces a great temptation to give up. There is a sense that the battle is lost, and we must retreat from engagement in our hopelessly secularized culture. In response, Anderson cries “No!” We must advance, not retreat. We must engage our culture with truth, and engage in love. And he certainly has!
“I have briefed over 50 members of Congress … I’ve lectured on college campuses … I’ve gone on TV for the first time. I’ve been called uneducated and un-American for the first time … I’ve debated marriage at a couple dozen colleges and law schools …including elite schools like Stanford and NYU.”
How did people respond to Anderson’s arguments? “I learned something from these experiences: that the argument for marriage hasn’t been heard and rejected; it simply hasn’t been heard.”
This is a damning, convicting statement. It speaks of a church in retreat, a church that has failed to hold up the Word of Truth in the midst of our culture. How thankful I am that people like Anderson are in the arena, engaging the culture—in the world, but not of the world—courageously speaking up for the truth. This is how nations are discipled.
He readily admits: “The world will not always want to hear the truth, but only the truth will set it free. We owe it to the world to share that freedom, God’s gift to us, in season and out, but always in love.”
How do we see our opponents? Anderson sees their need. They are blinded to their own bondage and only the truth will set them free. Do we love them enough to share the truth with them? Do we see them as enemies to be demeaned and defeated, or as image-bearers of God worthy of love and respect?
Lesson 2 – Don’t allow yourself to be discouraged into inaction
“People will tell us we’re deluded, that truth doesn’t exist, that God doesn’t exist—that we are on the wrong side of history… but history isn’t a blind force. We aren’t passive observers. History will be shaped by the actions of people like you and me, by our response to God’s call. And so it is not history that will judge us. We know that we will be judged instead by the Lord of history. … There is no right side or wrong side of history, but only of truth.”
Certainly, many tell the church today “you are on the wrong side of history” in its defense of biblical marriage. Anderson reminds us helpfully that the same was true in 1973 when the Supreme Court issued its infamous Roe v. Wade verdict legalizing abortion. “Public opinion was against [the pro-life cause] by a margin of 2:1. With each passing day, another pro-life public figure … evolved to embrace abortion on demand. The media kept insisting that all the young people were for abortion rights. Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being on the wrong side of history. The pro-lifers were aging; their children were increasingly against them.”
Fortunately, this wasn’t the end of the story, which leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 3 – Work hard!
Against these naysayers urging the church to give up:
“Courageous pro-lifers put their hand to the plow, and today we reap their fruits. My generation is more pro-life than my parents’ generation. A majority of Americans identify as pro-life, more today than at any other point. More state laws have been passed protecting unborn babies in the past decade than in the previous 30 years combined.”
Could we see this same progress in the battle to uphold marriage? Yes, I believe we can, but it will depend on what we do today. Will we be discouraged into inaction, or will we “put our hand to the plow” and engage in the long, difficult, and challenging work of pushing back against lies?
Lesson 4 – Christians from all walks of life need to be engaged
Anderson reminds us of how the pro-life cause turned the tide and began to push back:
“Academics wrote the books and articles making the scientific and philosophical case for life. Statesmen like Henry Hyde, Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan crafted policy and use the bully pulpit to advance the culture of life. Activists and lawyers got together; coalitions were formed and strategies devised. Witness to the truth was born.”
Discipling nations requires the whole church to be engaged, both “grass-tops” elites and “grass-roots” activists.
A couple of years ago, University of Virginia professor James Davidson Hunter argued in his book, To Change the World, that cultural transformation happens from the top down. It begins, he said, with the work of powerful, influential cultural elites. Others pushed back, arguing that culture changes from the ground up, with common people living out their faith in their spheres of influence, no matter how small. I found this debate to be unhelpful and fruitless. Culture change requires everyone—both the powerful and the common people alike. Grass-roots and grass-tops efforts are both needed, both important.
Lesson 5 – Never give up on the church
Anderson brought my attention to a fascinating bit of pro-life history. At the time of the Roe v. Wade decision the church was largely disengaged from the cause, and particularly the Protestant church. In fact, the Southern Baptists “were in favor of abortion rights and supported Roe,” reminds Anderson. But in time, “the Christian community woke up.”
Once again, the church is asleep. But we must not let that discourage us. Instead, we must do all we can to rouse her. We must never give up on the church. She may be unengaged, or even on the wrong side of the debate, but she remains the precious bride of Christ and we have no idea how God will work in His body over time. Today, the Southern Baptists “are at the forefront of the cause for life. This should caution us to not write off those who today, might be on the wrong side of the marriage debate.”
Lesson 6 – Engage the culture with excellence, in all spheres of society
“We need to encourage Christians to develop good art, good music, good film and television. And in that task we should remember that piety is no substitute for competency.
“We should be as concerned about what the FOX TV show Glee has done to corrupt a young generation as we are about anything the [Supreme] Count has done. But what is the Christian alternative to Glee? We need to encourage those with vocations in the artistic realm to continue their important work.
“It’s not that we need fewer natural law philosophers, or appellate litigators; it’s that we need more of everything. Christians need to be at the forefront of everything. At one point Christians were shaping culture—because God became a man, not just a mind. The best literature, the best art, the best music—for over a thousand years—all was produced by Christians: Shakespeare, Dante and Chaucer; Palestrina, Bach and Beethoven…
“Christians should be at the forefront of every sphere of human life, embodying excellence in all that they do, brining glory to God in every domain
“In short, there’s work for everyone, for artists and musicians, for pastors and theologians, for statesmen and lawyers, for scholars and activists.”
Lesson 7 – Defend just laws, but resist unjust, immoral laws
Anderson reminds us, “Just as we didn’t accept Roe as a true interpretation of the Constitution on life, so too we should refuse to accept [the recent Supreme Court ruling in] Windsor as the truth about the Constitution on marriage.
Here we need to heed the words of the great Martin Luther King Jr. on the difference between just and unjust laws. As he wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail:
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. … Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
Lesson 8 – Don’t fall into the trap of seeking the acceptance and approval of the dominant culture
“Some argue that we should soften our stance on so-called controversial issues. That in order to be evangelists we need to be seeker friendly. They’re wrong. While we shouldn’t be bombastic or imprudent, it is precisely our countercultural witness to what St. Paul called the more excellent way that will bring people to Christ.”
Even if our friends turn against us out of fear of offending the sensibilities of those with cultural power, that should not change what we do. Ultimately, we stand or fall before the audience of ONE.
Lesson 9 – Identify the lies, and confront them with the truth
“Bad philosophy needs to be answered by good philosophy. Bad science needs to be responded to with good science—this is true with the science of embryology and the social science of marriage. We cannot allow the other side to depict these debates as ones of faith against reason, or backward superstition against enlightened science. This takes work (see lesson 3!). We have to work twice as hard as our opponents. We have to understand their arguments better than they understand them themselves—so we can explain at the level of reason, where they’ve gone wrong.”
Lesson 10 – Work in God’s strength, not your own.
Remember that our first duty is to “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33).
“The only way to find the courage, and the strength, and have the hope to fulfill our vocation in life is to rely on the grace of the One who called us to that vocation.”
“Regardless of whatever the future may hold, God doesn’t ask us to be successful, He asks us to be faithful.”
I encourage you to read the entire speech here.
- Scott Allen