The Collision Course of Christian Exclusivity
What has changed over my lifetime is the self-consciousness of Leftists and secularists. They can no longer peacefully coexist with Christians. As in imperial Rome, Christians must go.
Dear friends and supporters:
We live in a time that champions tolerance above virtually every other virtue, but there have been few times in recent memory marked by more fiery divisiveness (and not just on Twitter). How do we explain this seeming contradiction?
Today’s tolerance isn’t genuine tolerance, but is much closer to what the apostle Paul in Romans 1 calls the approval of evil. Secularists and pagan postmoderns aren’t tolerant of differing viewpoints and practices. But they are selectively tolerant of depravity, and highly intolerant of anybody intolerant of that depravity. This selective tolerance, this intolerance for godliness, increasingly stamps culture and springs from religious exclusivity. But this intolerance has a history. It didn’t start with today’s “cancel culture.”
Imperial Roman “Cancel Culture”
A good place to start is with the earliest Christians. They weren’t especially tolerated by the Roman authorities or by their fellow citizens. They were persecuted and martyred, in fact. They weren’t oppressed because they believed in Jesus in their hearts. The ancient Romans were polytheists, and as their empire expanded, they collected gods like philatelists collect stamps. They couldn’t care less if people trusted Jesus.
But to declare that Jesus is Lord, the first creed of the church, and that he alone is Lord, and therefore that Cesar is not the ultimate Lord — was considered seditious. The early Christians weren’t disloyal Roman citizens. They weren’t revolutionaries, trying to overthrow Roman authority. That was an act of highly politicized Jews in their increasingly maddening apostasy. Christians were peaceful, obedient people.
For Christians, however, Jesus is Lord, and not just of the human heart, but also in all areas of life. The power-hungry Caesars couldn’t, of course, abide such a sovereign competitor. And that’s why Christians had to go. They contested all areas of life, public and private. In the words of Al Wolters,
There is something totalitarian about the claims of both Satan and Christ; nothing in all of creation is neutral in the sense that it is untouched by these two great adversaries.
It’s the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and our predecessors’ willingness to declare it publicly that got them into trouble. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that he is a way, a truth, and a life, but the way, the truth, and the life. This didn’t simply mean that one could gain eternal life only in Jesus Christ. It certainly meant that. In addition, as Peter declared, there’s salvation in no other name than Jesus Christ’s (Ac. 4:12). Jesus “has an exclusive.”
It was an interesting choice of words. In the ancient world the emperors often used coins as propaganda to further their political agenda. Coins are currency, and lots of people see them. We might say that during the Roman Empire, coins were the political commercials. Caesar Augustus had a coin struck that showed him related to the sun-god and great diadem, ushering in a new order of salvation and world history, and that “salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.”
In other words, the primitive gospel positioned itself as the counter-imperial gospel. Jesus Christ is the true emperor, and Caesar is not.
This wasn’t fundamentally a political assertion. Jesus recognized Cesar’s subordinate authority in the political realm. But Jesus is King and Lord of all the earth, and he won’t tolerate any competitors.
This is why the early Christians suffered such official hostility: not because they believed in Jesus, because they declared that Jesus is the exclusive Lord of the cosmos. Christianity is soteriologically exclusive (soteriology is salvation doctrine).
Epistemic and Ethical Exclusivity
But the religious exclusivity of Christians also meant epistemic and ethical exclusivity (epistemology is the study of what and how we know). That is, through Christ alone can we gain knowledge and truth. He is the mediator of creation, and he is the mediator of redemption. To know anything as we should, we must know God’s way in Jesus Christ. This is to say, Jesus isn’t only the exclusive way to heaven. He is the exclusive way to live in this life. (See Creational Worldview: An Introduction.)
This is just another way of saying that we must live according to his norms, his law, in the Bible.
This exclusivity has always put Christians on a collision course with unbelievers, who prize their autonomy. Autonomy means self-law, and it has been the chief problem in the world since the Fall. What’s different is that recent Western culture has turned this autonomy into a principle. It’s not just the people want to live without biblical restraints; sinners have always wanted that. Postmoderns want to forge an entire worldview and pattern for living that way. You might call them principled rebels. They aren’t simply rebels who enjoy defying God. They must consciously create a rationale and sometimes even ideology or worldview for their rebellion.
This is precisely what has happened in the postmodern world and with existentialism, Cultural Marxism, and the New Left. I must add that it’s also true of the secular libertarians. Their motto is “free markets and free sex.” In the end, this is no better than Marxism and socialism.
I mention sex, because since the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, it’s the most prominent and graphic public display of radical autonomy, principled rebellion (see “The Erotic Regime”). And the battlefield today isn’t just in culture, but in our churches and Christian schools, over homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” and even in evangelical churches with so-called same-sex “attraction.”
This week I received a heartbreaking note from a Christian grandfather:
My grandchildren attend a private “christian” school. The apple in her grandfather's eye is in the fourth grade. One of her classmates lives in a shared custody arrangement. Her father is in an unseemly relationship with another man. The topic of unnatural affections came up in the classroom amongst her peers. My regenerated granddaughter offered that such a relationship offends God. Her classmates shut her down with the accusation of bigotry and homophobia. The teacher told her to discuss this with her parents…. My heart aches for my little granddaughter.
This cultural and churchly normalization of homosexuality is just the latest expression of a broader principle of sexual autonomy. The question is whether I will conform to God’s sexual standards, or invent my own. This is just as true of premarital sex and adultery as it is of homosexuality and bestiality and transgenderism and “gender fluidity,” though the flashpoint today is homosexuality.
Because all this sexual rebellion is so pervasive, it stares us right in the face in our churches, not just out in the secular and neo-pagan culture.
The Christian life is a battle, and battles presuppose enemies. The chief enemy of Christians is Satan (and demonic spirits aligned with him [Eph. 6:12]), but a leading strategy in thwarting God’s earthly kingdom is his enlisting humans to assist him. This diabolical strategy started in Eden.
The Bible assumes that the true Faith will constantly be under attack in the sinful world and in the church. This doesn’t mean that we should invent enemies when there are none. There are enemies aplenty already.
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The Liberalism of Evangelicalism
Pastors all over the Western world are softening and capitulating on the issue of homosexuality and transgenderism and so-called same-sex “marriage.” Many of them are doing this not as a result of any well-thought-out reason, but because their church members implicitly pressure them, or they believe that standing for biblical sexual truth will keep unbelievers away from church.
In other words, they’ve been willing to revise and reengineer Christian truth to adjust it to the culture. This is not fundamentally different from the older theological liberalism. In fact, it is today’s version of theological liberalism, and many evangelicals have in this way become liberal.
Conservative churches that surrender to the Sexual Revolution aren’t practicing tolerance as a virtue. They’re practicing selective tolerance by tolerating what God forbids and by refusing to tolerate those who stand with God’s word.
J. I. Packer and the Objectivist Position
In 2003 the late J. I. Packer and a number of other faithful Anglicans left the Episcopal church over the acceptance of same-sex “marriage.” In a striking article “Why I Walked,” he pinpointed two views of the Bible that sparked that controversy:
At issue here is a Grand Canyon-wide difference about the nature of the Bible and the way it conveys God’s message to modern readers. Two positions challenge each other. One is the historic Christian belief that through the prophets, the incarnate Son, the apostles, and the writers of canonical Scripture as a body, God has used human language to tell us definitively and transculturally about his ways, his works, his will, and his worship. Furthermore, this revealed truth is grasped by letting the Bible interpret itself to us from within, in the knowledge that the way into God’s mind is through that of the writers…. I call this the objectivist position. The second view applies to Christianity the Enlightenment’s trust in human reason, along with the fashionable evolutionary assumption that the present is wiser than the past. It concludes that the world has the wisdom, and the church must play intellectual catch-up in each generation in order to survive. From this standpoint, everything in the Bible becomes relative to the church’s evolving insights, which themselves are relative to society’s continuing development (nothing stands still), and the Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry is to help the faithful see where Bible doctrine shows the cultural limitations of the ancient world and needs adjustment in light of latter-day experience (encounters, interactions, perplexities, states of mind and emotion, and so on). Same-sex unions are one example. This view is scarcely 50 years old, though its antecedents go back much further. I call it the subjectivist position.
Not just in the culture, but also in our churches, we encounter today the subjectivist position. When unbelievers are converted, they often still carry remnants of that position; they don’t lose all their intellectual errors at conversion. Even many long-time Christians, so-called, embrace this error. It’s basically capitulation to Progressivism, that the Bible must be adjusted to the temper of the times (see “We’re All Progressives Now”).
Truth must shift to conform to Darwinism, naturalism, postmodernism, Cultural Marxism, and neo-paganism. Ethics are progressive. As we move through time, we become more ethically enlightened. Therefore, to oppose same sex “marriage” and same-sex “attraction” and transgenderism is to oppose God’s plan for the world, because his plan is to reveal himself through the consciousness of progressive humanity.
They might not state it that coherently, but that’s what many of them believe. This is nothing short of theological liberalism, which is anti-Christianity.
Religious Exclusivity Inescapable
If we think about it, we discover a delicious irony. Christianity is an obvious example of religious exclusivity. But it’s not the case that secularists and neo-pagans are devoid of religious exclusivity. They’re just as religiously exclusive as orthodox Christians, but they have chosen to exclude different things and people. They’ve turned their hearts away from God, and therefore they exclude Jesus Christ and the authority of his word and his church.
This religious exclusivity is becoming increasingly consistent with its own inner presuppositions. In short, as this form of anti-Christian exclusivity works out its implications in people’s minds and hearts, they realize that it works only if they exclude their main competitor, and that is Christianity, and the people who espouse it.
If you’re a Christian baker, and you refuse to design a cake specifically for same-sex wedding, you might be breaking a recent law of non-discrimination, and you’ll suffer punishing financial sanctions.
If in Canada you distribute flyers opposing homosexuality, you’ll be charged with a hate crime and fined over $7000, and the Canadian courts will uphold the conviction.
In Scotland, “Gordon Larmour, 42, was charged by police after telling the story of Adam and Eve to a 19-year-old who asked him about God’s views on homosexuality.” He was charged and then jailed.
Christians declare, “Jesus is Lord,” and we refuse to bow the knee to any other lord. Christians are committed to valid religious exclusivity. Secularists declare, “We are (or the state is) lord,” and they refuse to bow the knee to any other Lord.
Secularists are committed to religious exclusivity. Religious exclusivity, therefore, is an inescapable concept. All religions are exclusive in some way, even (perhaps especially) the predominant secular religion.
The only question is what they exclude, and how.
What has changed over my lifetime is the self-consciousness of Leftists and secularists and Cultural Marxists. The classically liberal society, which was shaped by Protestant Christianity and which prevailed since the U. S. Founding, permits political and religious liberty. Christians are happy with this arrangement (should insist on it, in fact), because if left politically unmolested, Christianity, by the Holy Spirit’s power, can peacefully vanquish all rivals. When you have the power of the Spirit, you don’t need the power of politics to defeat your religious opponents.
But secularists lack this power, and they are increasingly aware that classical liberalism (see “Liberals and Conservatives Against the Free World”) works in favor of Christianity and in the sort of ordered, virtuous society that Christianity tends to foster.
Therefore, like 19th century Marxists and 20th century Nazis, they have turned on the free society. They want to capture the levers of political coercion on the one hand and cultural coercion (“cancel culture”) on the other to stamp out Christianity. They cannot peacefully coexist with Christians. As in imperial Rome, Christians must go.
In this hostile climate, Christians must not cower and hide from but confront and expose the evil, opposing it and exposing it, and expecting eventual victory, not just at the Final Judgment, but also before.
Now is the time for “Crusading Christianity.”
Today Sharon and I are in northwestern Pennsylvania. Tonight I’m delivering the graduation address (“Bronze for Gold”) for Christ Dominion Academy and preaching Sunday (“The Greatness of the Holy Spirit”) at Living Church International.
I hope to write next week here on “How Did We Become Secular?”
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