Seven principles for cultivating a Christian posture toward the world
Important lessons to learn as we deal with negativity and hostility
Tim Keller recently tweeted about abortion and politics, then James Wood wrote a piece for First Things respectfully critiquing Keller’s approach to politics and cultural engagement, which prompted David French to defend Keller and critique Wood. By now, someone has probably offered an article criticizing them all.
Rather than responding to the specific arguments in particular, I’d like to zoom out and ask a broader question: What should the Christian’s posture be to a hostile world? Not surprisingly, the question does not allow for a simple answer. The message and model of the New Testament cannot be reduced to a single attitude or strategy. But there are important lessons to learn.
Here then are seven principles for cultivating a Christian posture toward our “negative” world.
1. Set an example of godliness for the unbeliever.
We should live demonstrably different lives, keeping our conduct honorable so that outsiders might give Christianity a hearing (1 Peter 2:12) or at least be put to shame for slandering us (1 Peter 3:16). This means we refuse to repay evil for evil. It also means we bless those who do not deserve it (1 Peter 3:9).
2. Be prepared to suffer.
Even those who do good may suffer for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14). We should not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon us (1 Peter 4:12). Winsomeness is often a desirable aim, but it is not by itself a sufficient cultural strategy. If the world hates the church, perhaps it’s not the church’s fault but the fulfillment of what Jesus promised (John 15:18). We can care for the poor, love one another, and get our tone right, but still, the world will hate those who are not of the world (John 15:19).
3. Build attractive bridges to welcome the curious in.
Although the application of 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 can be debated, the big idea is clear: We should be eager to remove barriers to the gospel. Coming to Christ takes a miracle of the Holy Spirit to regenerate the fallen human heart. We should not make the Holy Spirit provide a second miracle to overcome our stupidity. When someone wants to learn more about our faith, we should respond with gentleness and respect, not with boorishness (1 Peter 3:15).
4. Build sturdy walls to keep false teachers and false teaching out.
The same Peter who counseled gentleness when making a defense of the faith also called the sexual libertines of his day “irrational animals” (2 Peter 2:12), “blots and blemishes” (verse 13), and “accursed children” (verse 14). The difference in Peter’s tone has everything to do with what or whom is trying to get into the church. The faithful minister builds both bridges and walls. Jesus didn’t rebuke the seven churches because they weren’t nice enough to the Nicolaitans. He rebuked them for tolerating that woman Jezebel who thought herself a big shot but was leading Christians into sexual immorality and idolatry (Revelation 2:20).
5. Do not think that one size fits all.
If we are to be wise in our posture toward the world, we must discern whether that creature in the distance is a lost sheep looking for home (Luke 15:3–8) or a pig ready to trample pearls under its feet (Matthew 7:6). Jesus patiently taught Nicodemus the Pharisee because he came looking for help (John 3:1–21), while John the Baptist denounced the Pharisees as a brood of vipers because they came looking for trouble (Matthew 3:7). If outsiders only get from us sunshine or thunder, we are probably living out our personalities more than we are trying to discern the sort of person in front of us and what message he needs to hear.
6. Approach cultural and ethical polarities on a case-by-case basis.
Some issues that divide Christians are adiaphora, matters left up to our consciences and guided by the goal of mutual edification (Romans 14:13–23). But sometimes there is no middle ground and no third way (1 Corinthians 5:1–13). When Jesus was asked about divorce, he sided with the more restrictive Shammai school over the Hillel school of interpretation. When asked about the resurrection, Jesus defended the resurrection in agreement with the Pharisees over against the Sadducees. In one sense, Jesus transcended those debates—He was, after all, calling people to Himself—but He didn’t act like both sides of the controversy were equally right and equally wrong or that the best answer was some of Column A plus some of Column B.
7. When people give you a hearing, don’t lead with a hard edge, and don’t leave the hard stuff out.
Think of Paul in the book of Acts. He begins his speech to the men of Athens with commendation and common ground, but he goes on to correct their worship, call them to repent, and proclaim the (hard-to-believe) resurrection. Likewise, Paul speaks respectfully to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa, but he does not avoid the doctrines and ethical demands he knew they would find disagreeable. In this, Paul is a model for us as we face an increasingly hostile world: courtesy wherever possible, clarity at all costs.
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