November 15, 2017

As Though the Church were a Safe Space

Many Christians have adopted the attitude that the gospel of Jesus has nothing to say to the world outside the church doors, and as a result, no longer have an answer to the big objections of our time to Christianity.

Over the past generation or two, we have seen a gradual sea-change in the types of questions or objections that people now hold regarding the Christian faith. These used to focus on things like the historicity of the resurrection, the authenticity of the New Testament text, or the plausibility of miraculous claims in Scripture. Fewer people in our time are interested in denying miracles, but they will often object that Christianity is too exclusive, oppressive and intolerant, or that it has an imperialist history with blood on its hands.  Christianity doesn’t ‘virtue signal’ in the right direction for modern sensibilities.

Christianity is thus deemed irrelevant, outmoded and untrue, not because there is a lack of evidence for the historical resurrection of Christ, but because Christians don’t appear to advance ‘tolerance,’ ‘equality,’ ‘social justice’ or ‘saving the planet,’ reducing carbon footprints by any means – including abortion. Some Christians have felt so overwhelmed or intimidated by the apparent force of these objections, that they have either stopped witnessing to the truth of the gospel or have been converted the other way, seeking to synthesize Christianity with the cultural religion of the age.

How is it that Christians have been caught so off-guard and flat-footed in our revolutionary times? Why has our witness been so muted and often ineffective? There are many things that could be said about this question, but one important answer is that, in general, Christian believers in the West have lacked vigilance and so neglected the development and defense of a consistently scriptural vision of reality in the wake of our remarkable, historic success in evangelizing and shaping Western cultural life.  Because of this neglect, a humanistic moral narrative now dominates the public consciousness in which Christianity is often perceived as not simply untrue, but immoral.

In other words, we too readily assumed that broadly Christian norms would hold; that largely Christian categories of life and thought, established by centuries of tradition, would remain the religious presuppositions of society; that a robustly developed scriptural philosophy and cultural apologetic were unnecessary because Christian assumptions were now simply ‘common sense’ assumptions; that the task of evangelization on our own shores was largely accomplished and the sacrifices of the past no longer necessary. Biblical laws were really ‘natural laws’ – surely agreed upon by all ‘civilized’ people – and the Christian view of life and truth, liberty and justice was in fact an essentially neutral perspective accepted by every ‘rational’ state in terms of God’s common grace. In short, we thought that as a culture, we had already accepted broadly Christian ideas, and so we need no longer contend for a society marked by Christian distinctives or explicitly directed by biblical revelation. In the insightful words of Peter Hitchens:

It was the triumph of the Christian religion that for many centuries it managed to become the unreasoning assumption of almost all, built into every spoken and written word, every song, and every building. It was the disaster of the Christian religion that it assumed this triumph would last forever and outlast everything, and so it was ill equipped to resist the challenge of a rival when it came, in this, the century of the self. The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot?[1]

In the face of what Hitchens here memorably calls selfism, where every man is his own god (Gen. 3:5), we have quickly capitulated, our witness dying out with a whimper. The principle here is that, once you have self-consciously abdicated the Lordship of Jesus Christ in one sphere of life, you will eventually surrender your witness to it everywhere else.

With all moral restraint cast to the wind, who can resist? First we gradually withdrew further and further from faithful witness as unbelieving culture makers began meddling in the fields of family, education, law, politics, art and every other cultural sphere. We wanted to believe that the ‘neutral’ status quo gave us a pretty good social order. Soon thereafter we began justifying our abandonment of a distinctly Christian vision for life in the world altogether, and retreated into the four walls of the church.  But even there many began claiming that surrender, synthesis or compromise with the new religious power was the better part of valour for the ‘survival’ of the faith – a faith that by this point had become radically altered and increasingly unrecognizable.

In a damning display of irony, it so happened that with the collapse of our biblical witness – the various spheres of culture effectively abandoned – and the Christian’s life in the world dominated by a secular vision, the church itself soon became radically politicized, so that challenging the Christian in the pew about the issues of life that matter most has come to be considered offensive and unacceptable. To witness faithfully regarding beginning and end of life issues, biblical marriage, sexuality, family, education, law, political and cultural life etc. in terms of the light of God’s Word is seen by many as a violation of church-state separation, an invasion of privacy, or a political offense, as though the church were a ‘safe space’ to escape the convicting voice of God himself.

And so pastors and their pulpits bend to what their people want to hear. But, “has not the greatest danger always been that those charged with the duty of preaching the steep and rugged pathway persuade themselves that weakness is compassion, and that sin can be cured at a clinic, or soothed with a pill? And so falsehood flourishes in great power, like the green bay tree.”[2] These present circumstances remind me of some words quoted by Aragorn in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which he laments the collapse of the realm of Rohan:

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? 
… They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; 
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.[3] 

Compromising the Word of God in any area by bending to the desires of sinful man is never a wise or fruitful course – it can only lead to judgment and decline.  The shadows have been lengthening on the church in the West because we have been deluded into thinking that the church is a ‘safe space’ from the demands and judgments of God himself.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Neither God’s church nor his world are a ‘safe space’ where we can be insulated from the powerful, convincing, convicting and commanding Word of God.  That word impinges on us at every turn.  If we despise it, let us remember that “the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1 Pt. 4:17).


[1] Peter Hitchens, “The Fantasy of Addiction,” First Things, last modified February 2017,

[2] Hitchens, “The Fantasy of Addiction.”

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the second part of The Lord of the Rings (London: Harper Collins, 2014), 141-42.

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