Responding in faith to a hostile world
In our post-Christian Western culture, Bible-believing Christians are facing increasing hostility to important aspects of our faith. In this article I’m not covering the extreme persecution faced by believers in places like North Korea, Pakistan or Libya. However, looking at the courage of Christians in those countries can be a good way of getting the opposition that we sometimes face into perspective.
Christianity clashes with the surrounding culture in different ways according to time and place. Sexuality, gender and the right to life are areas where Christian values jar most at the moment, with the values of the secular West. If we articulate the historically ‘Christian’ understanding of biblical teaching on these matters we might today find ourselves sneered at, marginalised, denied privileges or characterised as immoral.
In the face of hostility, it’s easy to get stuck in one defensive posture, reacting to everyone outside our tribe in the same rigid way. In this article I’ll be reviewing four possible responses we can have to hostility: compromise, silence, withdrawal and confrontation. Looking at each of them in turn, I’ll be identifying when they can be valuable, but also showing the harm that comes by taking the response too far.
A brief theology of hostility
Firstly, the ‘world’ has always rejected genuine Christian faith. The apostle John writes: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1). So, it’s entirely normal for a Christian to stand out and to attract criticism. The Parable of the Sower suggests that trouble or persecution will come to each believer in just “a short time” (Matt 13:20-21). Hostility will clear out nominalism in the church, which is probably good because nominal Christianity creates false assurance (Matt 7:21).
Hostility might sound like bad news. However, John Stott introduced his well-known commentary on the Sermon on the Mount by describing the Christian value-system as “totally at variance with those in the non-Christian world.” Opposition is recognition of the radical counter-culturalism of Christianity. Although nominal belief is swept away in the face of opposition, genuine faith is deepened, as believers are forced to articulate their faith, count its cost, and lean increasingly on God.
In the face of a hostile world, it’s easy to be reactive. We might want to hide, or we might want to stand up and fight. Often, such a reaction comes out of fear of confrontation; fear of marginalisation; fear of losing our rights; fear of being silenced. These fears, of course, can be well-founded. But the problem is that they are focused on ourselves (our comfort; our belonging; our rights; our churches) as well as the seemingly overwhelming forces of opposition (their financial support; their permission to indoctrinate our children; their apparent desire to undermine our churches). However, Jesus did not send his disciples into the world with an attitude of fear, instead, he told them, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
Instead of allowing our knee-jerk reactions, let us pause and choose, prayerfully, the right response for each person in a particular situation. That will enable us to respond more openly and lovingly.
1. Responding with compromise
One response to opposition can be to compromise our beliefs. Now, sometimes, compromising secondary matters can build bridges. Paul wrote of becoming “all things to all people”
(1 Cor 9:22), speaking of how he adapted his style to suit his audience without ever misrepresenting the truth of the gospel. Similarly, we might graciously use terminology that jars with our preferences in order to build rapport with those holding different viewpoints.
But when we allow our hearts to be seduced by our culture, or intimidated by a seemingly unstoppable cultural tide, then we are in danger of compromising key truths and losing our distinctive saltiness (Matt 5:13). We might defend our approach as other-centred when we empathise, say, with gay and trans people who have faced judgement and exclusion. But, important as it is to listen to people and to stand up against bullying, Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with heart, soul and mind (Matt 22:37). And Jesus makes it clear that loving Him cannot be separated from obedience: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15).
Some in the church have buckled under the pressure to compromise the historically Christian understanding on sexuality. But in a revealing piece of research amongst American LGBT people, Andrew Marin found that 51% of LGBT people left the church after they turned 18. Of those people who left only 3% left primarily because of the church’s traditional theology of marriage. This reason was dwarfed by reasons of feeling unsafe, feeling unwelcome, feeling unheard or even being asked to leave the church because of their same-sex feelings. The evidence shows that we don’t need to compromise our theology – instead, we need to overhaul radically the welcome that our churches give to LGBT people.
Here are three remedies to a posture of compromise:
1. Meditate regularly upon God’s Word and allow it to permeate your mind and heart (Psalm 1:1-2)
2. Expect the gospel to be divisive (1 Cor 1:23)
3. Don’t be ashamed of God’s truth, because it brings eternal salvation (Rom 1:16)
2. Responding with silence
A second possible response to hostility is to go silent. This arguably avoids the theological compromise of the previous approach, because we get to hold on to our beliefs (albeit privately). It involves no longer publicly articulating certain beliefs, for fear of upsetting others or inviting opposition. Now, being silent in conversation sometimes to allow others to talk is a long-neglected virtue – plenty of Christians are often too quick to push their viewpoints, whereas more listening would often be better (James 1:19), as well as building credibility and respect with others. Silence can also be a wise approach when it comes to divisive secondary issues that breed division and distract from the gospel (Titus 3:9). When it comes to counter-cultural matters, while we don’t have to hide them, it’s often wise to wait and introduce them at the appropriate moment when conversing with non-Christians. There’s rarely much sense in leading evangelistically on issues where there’s such a huge gulf between the Christian and secular mindsets.
Bearing in mind those points of wisdom, an unhelpful posture of silence can come from a heart of fear. This can sometimes be dressed up in spiritual language, such as “not wanting to create a barrier to the gospel”, but we are disingenuous if we hide the cost of discipleship. Indeed, if we are highlighting how following Jesus might be costly to others, they might very reasonably respond with a question like “Well, how is following Jesus costly to you then?” Are we ready for that question? Jesus is clear that every “disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
Here are three remedies to a posture of silence:
1. Be clear on what you believe and prepare carefully how you might articulate unpopular teachings to someone gently and respectfully (1 Peter 3:15).
2. Trust the Holy Spirit to help you with choosing the right words (Matt 10:19-20).
3. Accept that the gospel will offend some. Many deserted Jesus when he brought them a hard teaching – His response was not to swallow his words, but rather to emphasise the importance of sharing the truth: “The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63b)
3. Responding by withdrawal
A third possible response to hostility is to withdraw from the world. Again, we get to retain our beliefs, but we then withdraw from contact with those with whom we disagree. This might involve living in a separate community, or it might be choosing to spend all your time with Christians, or just keeping relationships with Christians (and non-Christians) at a superficial level. Now, temporary withdrawal from the world may be, at times, essential – Jesus withdrew from people often to connect with God (Luke 5:16) – but this should be a regular rhythm of withdrawal and re-engagement rather than a permanent cutting off of contact. We do need to guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23) to restrict ungodly influences on our lives, and most of us need to get more serious about daily devotions, Sunday observance and fasting from worldly influences (e.g. social media).
Having recognised the value of regular withdrawal to seek God, adopting a posture of withdrawal from the world can be a sign of hard-heartedness to the lost. Our Great Commission is to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 27:19-20).
Here are three remedies to a posture of withdrawal:
1. Meditate on the lostness of non-Christians (e.g. Matt 25:46).
2. Remember that Jesus has sent us into the world (John 17:18)
3. If we worry about ‘contamination’ from the world the solution is to press more deeply into God, rather than withdrawing from the world (John 17:15-21).
4. Responding with confrontation
The final response to hostility in these situations that we will explore is confrontation. We know that Jesus confronted the Pharisees and money-changers when he needed to. Sometimes we will need to be strong and assertive when we stand up for other people’s rights and when we seek to influence our nation’s laws.
But when our posture towards the world becomes a permanent one of confrontation, surely we have wrongly identified the enemy. Paul clarifies that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” (Eph 6:12) but we are to take a stand “against the devil’s schemes” (v11). We are to win over the world rather than fight it. A confrontational manner might also come from a hard heart, or an “us and them” mentality. Will the world see us as always battling for the rights of Christians, or will we wield radical meekness (e.g. Matt 5:38-42) in order to display the character of Jesus to an aggressive world?
Here are three remedies to a posture of confrontation:
1. Clothe yourself with humility, which is the antidote to self-righteousness (1 Peter 5:5).
2. Hand over your anxieties about the world to God. Receive His peace. Respond to others with gentleness (Phil 4:5-7).
3. Let go of any thinking that Christians are the victims (Rom 8:37), relax into the knowledge of God’s sovereignty over all authorities (8:31), and respond with compassion for the other person’s eternal destiny.
A versatile response to hostility
When we can relax into God’s sovereign power, we can let go of our defensiveness and fear of others. If we can allow our natural fear of man to be displaced by a supernatural fear of God, then we will become increasingly free to respond to hostility without focusing on ourselves, or the other person. Let us instead focus on God, who is far stronger than any earthly force. This correct posture towards God allows us to respond lovingly, and with much greater versatility. Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22)
But Jesus was the ultimate model of versatility, always choosing a response that would best love the other person:
- Jesus compromised nothing in God’s law (Matt 5:18), but he compromised man-made taboos to reach the Samaritan woman (John 4:9)
- Jesus was silent in his own defence (Matt 27:12), but he was vocal in declaring the truth even when it cost him his life (Matt 26:63-64)
- Jesus often withdrew to commune with his Father (Luke 5:16), but he involved himself even with those considered untouchable (Luke 5:12-13)
- Jesus risked relationships by confronting even his friends (John 21:15), but he prayed peace over his enemies even as they brutally killed him (Luke 23:34)
Be aware of how you can easily react to the world’s hostility with a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3:12)
This book review was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2021 edition of Ascend