How Evangelicals Can End the Culture War

Ryan Gear | OnFaith Voices By on

I remember how tears streamed down my face when I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” with Billy Graham.

I was only 11 years old, sitting on my parents’ couch. About 30 minutes earlier, I had run downstairs from my bedroom out of boredom and flipped through the channels using this new handheld device called a “remote control.” I landed on a channel where a man was talking about Jesus in a stadium full of people. I didn’t know his name until the announcer said it at the end of the program.

After the man sincerely and vividly described the pain Jesus experienced on the cross on my behalf, in my child-like faith, I remember thinking, “If Jesus loves me that much, He deserves for me to love Him back.” Even though I was only 11, while the choir sang “Just As I Am,” my experience with God was real, and it changed my life.

Twenty-seven years later, as a pastor, I feel the same call that Billy Graham felt. It’s the call to be an evangelist. I don’t try to convert people like they have a target on their backs — like Billy, I believe that God’s Spirit is already active all over the world, calling people to Him, and we are all just privileged to present the invitation. In my relationship with Jesus, I have experienced a beautiful beckoning toward loving wholeness that I have never experienced anywhere else — and to me, evangelism is simply sharing my experience.

When younger unreached people hear our proclamation of the Gospel, it does not communicate the good news of the grace of God to them.

Evangelism means good news. The name evangelical means something like, “people who want to live according to the good news of Jesus Christ.” While evangelicals will go to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news in other countries, it is the tragedy of our time that when unreached young people in the United States think of Christians, they do not associate us with good news.

According to Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters, when 91 percent of people between the ages of 18-29 hear the word “Christian,” they think “anti-gay.” These are the people evangelicals say they are trying to reach with the Gospel. “Anti-gay” is the number one impression unreached young people have about Christians in the United States.

No matter what your view of same-sex marriage is, I know you agree with me that this is an absolute tragedy. Even worse, it is devastating to the cause of Christ and to the Great Commission. When younger unreached people hear our proclamation of the Gospel, it does not communicate the good news of the grace of God to them.

Evangelicals believe that we are called to obey the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18-20, the resurrected Jesus says to His followers:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Over the past few years, I have heard less talk about the Great Commission among evangelicals. Talk of the Great Commission has largely been replaced by talk of the “culture war,” “true conservatives,” and the “definition of marriage.” Can anyone disagree that, over the past 30 years, culture war politics have, at least partly, co-opted the cause of Christ among evangelicals?

Especially later in his ministry, Billy Graham avoided partisan politics. He stayed out of the “Religious Right” political fights and even refused to sign the 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, viewing it as overreaching and unnecessarily divisive among Bible-believing Christians.

Now, many evangelical churches have ceased to proclaim the Gospel to the unreached, and instead function as politically conservative enclaves, where “values voters” huddle together, easily manipulated by politicians for funds and votes.

Some Christians feel the need to defend the Bible because they assume that when culture changes, the Bible loses.

Traditionally, evangelicals have believed in the forward advancement of the Kingdom of God and in the life-changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We don’t retreat from society in apocalyptic fear and self-righteous entrenchment. Doug Pagitt has reminded me that reactionary separatism was a feature of the fundamentalism that Harold Ockenga’s neo-evangelicals rejected in favor of cultural engagement the 1940s. Evangelicals have a history of winsomely engaging culture, as it was said of Billy, with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Rachel Held Evans posted a blog last year about the phrase, “The Bible is clear . . . ” She listed some of the ways that phrase has been used throughout American political history — to justify war against Native Americans, to keep slaves obedient, to relegate women to the kitchen, to attack science, to oppose civil rights for African-Americans and, yes, to clobber people who are gay.

Consider Alabama. Last Monday, an Alabama judge’s order to ignore the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage harkened back to 1963 when Governor Wallace nullified the federal government’s order to desegregate schools. The repeated pattern is hard to miss. No evangelical today wants to be remembered for opposing civil rights in the 1960s, but many did, and many are repeating the same mistake now.

Some Christians feel the need to defend the Bible because they assume that when culture changes, the Bible loses. That’s the essence of the so-called “Culture War.” They feel like they have to win a cultural “battle for the Bible.” But that is simply not true, and it’s easily disproven by our own American history.

It is true that when American culture changes, some parts of the Bible are interpreted more clearly in the light of other parts. We have seen evangelicals learn to interpret the Bible differently regarding slavery, science, women’s rights, civil rights, and now gay rights. How can we reinterpret and adjust societal progress and greater human rights?

Because there is a part of the Bible that always wins. Take a look at Matthew 22:34-40:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Despite heroic portrayals of some Civil War era politicians, according to historian Mark Noll, verse 39 is what really ended slavery in America. When Christians realized that the African-American slave was their neighbor, the teaching of Jesus was activated, and slavery was on its way to being defeated. The teaching of Jesus ended slavery in the United States.

This Great Commandment is the central teaching of Jesus Christ. It’s also the foundation of all ethics. It is empathy. It is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and realizing that we all need love and that we are called by Jesus to love, not to win politically manufactured culture wars.

Perhaps we evangelicals need to pray a different kind of sinner’s prayer, a prayer of repentance for allowing partisan politics to supplant the good news. Regarding the perception that Christians are anti-gay, I welcome and affirm those who are gay because of the Great Commandment. Because of Jesus, I love members of the LGBTQ community as I love myself. For me, the clear teaching of Jesus trumps the six or seven highly debated “clobber passages” that were certainly influenced by the culture in which they were written.

Jesus is inviting evangelicals to get back to our roots and repair the damage partisan politics has inflicted on the cause of Christ in our country.

Closer to home, in a time when many evangelicals fear the future, the core teaching of Jesus heals society and creates a better world for our children. As a dad, I want to partner with God to create a more loving, just, and righteous world for my son, whose name is, for reasons you now know, Graham.

Jesus is inviting evangelicals — re-empowered by the Great Commandment and Great Commission — to get back to our roots and repair the damage partisan politics has inflicted on the cause of Christ in our country. In a time when many evangelicals defensively feel the need to help the Bible win, there is a part of the Bible that never loses.

Jesus always wins.

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  • Tim Steele

    Having grown up as a Bible believing Baptist, and later having rejected the church and all aspects of religion because I’ve felt rejected as a gay man, you might be one of the very first Christians I can see as something other than “one of them – the enemy.” I’m not looking to attack your faith or Christianity in general. I’m just not willing to continuing being attacked by it. Thank you for your words. It’s great to know there are some of you out there.

    • millers3888

      Same Tim. If there is one institution that really messed me up in my youth, it was the Church.

    • chake

      Churches have messed a lot of people up with their man-made dogma, creeds, and rules. In doing so they have missed the true meaning of what Jesus taught. I have found over the years my greatest spiritual growth has occurred during the periods of my life when I did not attend church. I have concluded organized Christian religions do nothing to foster spiritual growth, in fact they don’t understand it or care about it. Going to church has nothing to do with your love of God, growing spiritually, or getting into heaven.

  • Ryan Gear

    Tim, thank you for your kind words. I’m sorry for your painful experience in the past. Know that there is a large and growing number of Christians who accept you as you are and are more than ready to make the “culture war” a relic of the past.

  • Ambaa

    Great. Perhaps next you can call out your fellow evangelists for the methods used to convert people around the world. Bribery, coercion, tricks, and withholding medicine are not the way to spread “good news.”

  • Ryan Gear

    Ambaa, tragically, the practices you listed do occur. In addition, some evangelicals promote the inhumane treatment of lgbt people in countries they evangelize, such as Uganda. The spread of AIDS in Africa is due partly to the refusal of some religious groups to promote the use of condoms. And it’s not just other countries. Bribery, coercion, tricks, and withholding medicine (or health insurance) are also used by some evangelicals for political reasons in the United States. I repudiate coercive and inhumane actions, and people who use religion in this way are certainly not my “fellow evangelists.”

  • Torin

    You can also think those Evangelist that feel they can bring the kingdom of God through political means. When see Evangelical leaders rubbing noses with politicians watch out. Evangelicals have made a pact with the devil when the sought power, fame, and political influence and now Satan is calling for his do.

    • Matthew Kilburn

      You have to define “Kingdom of God”. No politician could establish the Heavenly Kingdom on earth, but in any given society, the right laws could certainly dictate a way of living very much in keeping with Scripture.

      • Torin

        But again, with over 1,200 denominations in the US alone, which way of living is correct. Each has their own perspective on the “Right” laws. Each Protestant denomination points to the Bible as a source of their standards. I guess the problem is separating religious practice laws from laws that create a just society. Murder, theft, and laws that creates a standard for the interaction of individuals in society is beneficial. Then again, relying on a text that was written in the bronze age is a problem too because what was just in that society no longer seem just today.

        • Chuck Darrell

          Yes, our task is to influence legislation with our faith. We have to obtain the skill to translate our biblical principles into secular, legislative language. Like Paul, we need to learn the language of our culture.

          However, I don’t see why we should refrain from this effort just because there are over 1,200 denominations. Your statement smacks of postmodern relativism. Just saying.

          God speed.

    • Chuck Darrell

      Nonsense. I’ve worked on several faith based legislative initiates over the last ten years. I never met anyone that was seeking political power, fame or influence. Your “pact with the devil” comment is a lie, straight out of the pit of hell – as my pastor used to say.

      Conversely, if I were the devil, I’d attack Gods laws by making them political issues. That way, I’d be sure of success because the world would tell people of faith to keep their religion in church and when they tried to discuss the issue in church, they would be attacked by people like you.

      Gods laws apply to every aspect of our life, and that includes the public square. Perhaps you should explain why our faith should not influence how we govern ourselves?

      Working to protect Gods design for marriage is not a pact with the devil. Working to feed the poor is not rubbing noses with politicians. Working to stop the insane accumulation of debt by our nation is not seeking fame. Protecting life, even our planet is not giving the devil his due.

      With respect, we live in trying times and need to lock arms, not attack fellow believers for making a pact with the devil.

  • Aliquantillus

    Christians are, and should be, anti-gay. The Bible is anti-gay, for gay-culture destroys the basics of sexual morality and the institutions of marriage and family, which are sacred for Christians. This culture war will not go away, nor will be solved through peaceful means. It will inevitably lead to open persecution of those who dare to disagree with the secular-humanistic agenda. Christians in the West have to prepare for that reality. The grim days of the Roman persecutions are returning in modern fashion. There definitely exists a tendency in secular culture trying to outlaw Christians just because they have opinions which aren’t compatible with the dominant mainstream. That’s why we have to express our opinion in a strong and bold way, to show that we won’t compromise: not only on homosexuality, but on all sexual behaviour which is deviant from a biblical viewpoint. The return to biblical standards in matters of modesty and chastity comprises a great number of things.

    • millers3888

      You say ” It will inevitably lead to open persecution of those who dare to disagree with the secular-humanistic agenda” right after saying Christians SHOULD be anti-gay. Truly mind boggling. Very glad I left the church.

  • Matthew Kilburn

    Are we really just supposed to sit back and say “well, people are going to sin anyway…so there’s really no point in making a crusade against sin a central part of our message…instead we should just go around telling sinners that Jesus will have them, whatever they do”? Because that is, in essence, what this article is advocating.

    Yes, Christians are called to evangelize and to baptize and to convert. But are we not also called to shape our society in a manner that conforms with God’s plan and desire for mankind? Can we really shape such a society if we are sanctioning alternative lifestyles as equal to the biologically- (and hence, biblically-) sound arrangement for human sexual behavior? Can we be a Godly people when we exterminate the lives of fifty million unborn children before they ever take their first breath? When people often spend a decade or more exhibiting promiscuous behavior prior to marrying or having Children?

    If we become so ambivalent or permissive in regards to sexual sin – which, again, is largely what this article advocates – when such sin strikes at the heart of how human society is structured….then how many other types of sin must we be led to condone?

    Even more dangerous than being seen as “anti-x” is to convert our faith into a bumper sticker that says “Smile, Jesus saves”

    • chake

      Where is the reference that Jesus called us to shape society. Jesus called us to shape ourselves. No one not even yourself can meet your sin free standards. You are simply saying other peoples sins are worse then mine. Neither Jesus nor Paul in his letters spoke very highly of those with that attitude. We all need to be careful we aren’t one of those who arrive at the “pearly gates” saying haven’t I done great things in your name and find ourselves not admitted. I can see somebody getting there and saying but God I was a gay basher in your name. Doubt that will get you admission ticket punched.

  • Gerry Mc Daniel

    The problem isn’t our teaching. The problem is where we give the teaching. The Church is subject to the same basic rules as all other human endeavors, Location, location, location. The church has chosen to withdraw from the main highway of life and set up shop in a cul-de-sac. Like all cul-de-sac’s it is nice, it is quiet, it is ignored. The Church is ignored because we practice Cul-De-Sac Christianity.

    Mother Teresa was uncompromising in her teaching and she wasn’t ignored because she taught from the mean streets of Calcutta. Location, location, location. She had her skin in the game of healing and redeeming. The modern church is more like a lifeguard, having forgotten how to swim and save the drowning is content to patrol the side of the pool ‘blowing the whistle’ on the rowdy and misbehaving. Again the problem isn’t ‘blowing the whistle’ the problem is where we blow the whistle. We should be in the pool not next to it.

    Mother Teresa was a first responder and that example should inspire the Church to be the Church of First Response rather than the Church of Last Resort. If we are Kingdom of God first responders then we have no need to water down our teachings to accommodate a skeptical culture. As it says in 1 Peter 2:12 ” Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

    • Chuck Darrell

      I concur. Too many Christians huddled in their prayer closets, deep within their cul-de-sac churches. The opportunity is in our own back yards.

  • scott montgomery

    Ryan, I appreciate what you are trying to say in tone. However, I don’t find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus nor any of the apostles waffled in sharing the Gospel or “good news.” The idea that we now just relent to a culture that has lost its way regarding sexuality is just wrong. How do you reconcile the view of “traditional marriage” and the same-sex issue with Scripture and the understand of the nature of God? While it is sad that many Christians don’t minister to the “Gay community” in an atmosphere of love, i hardly think that abandoning these important issues for the sake of the “culture” demonstrates the gospel either. I assume you would a baker design a cake for a same-sex wedding? Would this not be an enabling of engaging in sin regarding what most evangelicals call a religious ceremony? Scripture teaches that Jesus, while showing love to all – see the woman caught in adultery, never would have facilitated in sin. That’s why he always ended most of his engagements with “Go and sin no more.” How do you square that with your article?

    Scott, THM

    • chake

      It is very easy to reconcile. We are to love our neighbor as our self. We are not Jesus or God therefore it is not in our place to judge. Considering the hypocritical nature of most Christians and that most of us have broken several of the ten commandments we have no right to judge others. Jesus may have said go and sin no more, but are you so righteous you can cast the first stone.
      St. Paul is often quoted along with a passage from Leviticus by those who consider being gay a sin. On the other hand nearly all of Leviticus and many of Paul’s teachings are ignored by the same people who are anti-gay.
      Until such time as any of us can meet these standards of righteousness we should be more concerned with reconciling our own discrepancies than worrying about other people falling short.
      Maybe we should start our self evaluation by admitting we are no better than the pharisees (see Romans 8:28) and work from there. Certainly if we can be saved and continue to commit sins the same must hold true for gays.

      • scott montgomery

        Chase, First of all, context is key to everything. The post by Ryan suggests that truth is relative when it comes to Scripture. It doesn’t take a biology degree to understand the nature of God and his perfect plan for marriage. You miss the theological picture of marriage if you think that same-sex marriage is ok within the realm of Christendom. Second, we make moral judgements all the time. We, as believers, are not to judge self-righteously. However, we are to judge in several instances. Hence, the reason for the Pastorol epistles and the qualifications for Elders, and Deacons.

        • chake

          I don’t recall scripture regarding the unborn. Regardless it appears man picks and chooses scripture they want to adhere to and ignore what they don’t want to follow. The upshot is very little in the Bible is so straight forward that it is not subject to man’s interpretation. That is why we have modern apologetics. It is a rationalization of what we choose to believe or not believe in the Bible. It amuses me the way modern aplogetics use Socratic style argument to reach their desired conclusion. Many still think the Apocrypha should still be included in the Bible, and Revelation was added as an after thought. The Bible contains many truths and much wisdom, as is true of other ancient and early Christian writings. I think we need to get back to the basics of Christianity before there was a Bible and before men decided what was to be included in the Bible. The Bible has become the unread icon or the idol Christians worship. I think the time has come to take a step back and try to understand the Christianity of the apostolic era.

          • scott montgomery

            Chake, I am assuming you are not an Orthodox Christian by your comment regarding Scripture? You are correct in that many Christians pick and choose what parts they read or follow. However, that doesn’t change the timeless truths it has in it regarding life, sin, Salvation, etc. . Secondly, you assume incorrectly that the Bible cannon was put together by some poll testing. It had 5 distinct tests before the cannon was closed. There are several very good scholarly books on this – namely ” from God to us” by Norman Geisler, What “new” incite is to be had in the apostolic era if you don’t use Scripture. You can validate a lot of the New Testament with Tacitus and Josephus and their secular works. We have the Old Testament as well. You create a “straw man” with the statement regarding the life of the unborn. Understanding the nature of God, His plan of redemption in His death and resurrection, and unanimity of Scripture makes it very simple to see the value on Life – unborn or not.

          • chake

            I systematically reject theological or religious labels for a number of reasons. First and foremost would be they limit one’s thinking because they represent or are a result of pedantic indoctrination. The second would be that we as a society use labels to denigrate or claim superiority to other labels. This is the pox on Christianity. Each group, label, denomination, or theology each one feeling they are more right and therefore superior to the others.
            The concept of unborn life raises a plethora of questions. The most important for me being when does the fetus or zygote get a soul? For me that would be when life begins. Unfortunately nobody knows what the soul is. Where does it come from? What is it made of? We do know the soul is not biological, logically then it must be metaphysical. We do know that for many thousands of years mankind has believed that a soul, by some name or other, is that part of you which survives the demise of the physical body.
            Question: If I believe Jesus was the way the truth and the life; that he died on the cross and rose again but I believe the Bible is mostly allegorical as opposed to the inerrant Holy Word of God to be taken in its entirety as literal; what label applies to me.

          • scott montgomery

            Chair, By what standards are you placing your beliefs? How do you believe that Christ died for your sins and rose but reject most of Scripture as allegorical and not inerrant? By what standards do you pick which parts? Do you therefore reject the incarnation, the virgin birth, Jesus sinless life, the Doctrine of the Trinity, etc? If so, you would not be an Orthodox Christian by definition.

          • chake

            Reading parts of scripture as allegorical is not a rejection it is a search for meaning. There are no formulaic standards. You read multiple sources, analyze context, read it both literally and allegorically, apply logic and common sense to see which conveys the most spiritual meaning. For example if you read Genesis chapters 1-3 literally you can’t rationally juxtapose the contradictions. For example literally God or the gods, whoever us was, created man in our own image. Then He created man and women and later He created women from man’s rib. Obviously you can’t take that literally without having a problem so therefor you have to look for the allegorical meaning(s). What was the serpent that approached Eve? We know it wasn’t a snake until later when God cursed it to slither on the ground. Perhaps the whole tree of good and evil story is an allegorical symbol; if so what is its spiritual meaning. Are we really supposed to think God put two special trees in the garden which never existed before or since and forbade Adam and Eve to partake of them. Answering these questions requires research and reading to reach a conclusion as to which makes the most sense. Then there is the book of Job. Some theologians believe the whole book is a work of fiction. I don’t think it matters because either way there are valuable lessons to be derived from the story.

  • Paladin13

    All fine and good in theory, but the gay marriage and rights movement smells blood and is now persecuting Christians. If this author believes, that if Christians capitulate on gay marriage, the gays will be satisfied has been shown to be a lie. They will increase their persecution. And why should Christ protect us? Capitulating on gay marriage is embracing evil, whether you like it or not, as is capitulating on abortion. I’ve read similar columns by others over the years that if evangelicals and Catholics and others only just give up the fight on abortion, things will be better. 60 million dead babies. Their blood cries out to God. What’s the use of preaching a gospel void of moral teachings?

    • millers3888

      Must be so hard to be a Christian in the US….

      • Paladin13

        It will be so. It’s much more difficult and dangerous to be a Christian in Muslim controlled areas than the US at this time. Canada and Europe have become hostile to the Gospel. And in time, the left and the gay militants will make it punishable to speak and adhere to Christian doctrine, as they have in England and Canada. In fact, they’ve criminalized being against gay marriage in New Mexico and elsewhere. But that’s what the Lord predicted, because as the left and gay militants and atheists hate Christ, they should and will therefore hate Christians.

        So millers3888, what’s your opinion about Christian and Christian doctrine? I wait with baited breath.

        • millers3888

          Why is my opinion? Frankly, my opinion on all religion is that it is the biggest scam ever told. Homer’s Odyssey is more believable to me. But that’s irrelevant. You can believe anything you like. My family is Christian, most of my friends are Christians. I don’t hate them. The idea that it is harder to be a Christian than to be gay is absurd.

  • Mark McNeil

    I disagree. You’ve created a straw man of “partisan politics. ” To wit, John the Baptist was wrong in condemning Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. History is replete with Godly men, entering “partisan politics” many to their righteous deaths, a few to righteous revivals. You understate the depravity and consequence of sin. You attempt to parse just the “red” verses from the rest of the New Testament, it cannot be done. Jesus was on a mission to ransom sinners. The application of His blood does not give Christians license to encourage, coddle, condone, pooh-pooh or “affirm” evil. True love tells the truth, the whole truth, even when harsh. A sugarcoated Gospel is a false Gospel.

  • Chuck Darrell

    I worked on passing a marriage amendment for eight years in Minnesota which included working at the state legislature, working in churches, working with pastors, gotv efforts and much more. I’ve withheld my observations for over two years. I have a lot to say, but can’t say it all in a single post.

    Ryan, at 50,000 feet, we are on the same page.

    My initial observation is that the church can’t blame politics, or the culture war, for the fix it is in. And, politics is not the cause of the “anti gay” perception. Nor will abandoning the public square fix the problem.

    With respect, blaming politics is misguided at best.

    The gospel applies to politics. The gospel should have a major role in how we govern ourselves. Retreating from politics falsely declares that Christ does not rule over every aspect of our lives. Retreating from the public square allows “the world” to determine how we treat the poor, house the elderly, collect taxes, spend money, accumulate debt, sex, life, war, marriage, speech, worship, public prayer. I could go on and on.

    We need to understand who the enemy is. I worked with hundreds of pastors and churches. I never, ever encountered values voters huddled, vulnerable to politicians looking for votes and money. Conversely, I found them huddled in their prayer closets or running off to third world countries to avoid spreading the good news in their own back yards. Sounds harsh. I apologize, but it’s true.

    What’s concerns me is this; when Christians engage in the public square, the are told to be silent, keep your opinions in church, you are in violation of church and state. Tragically, when they bring the issues up in church, they are told to be silent by their pastors because it is political.

    If I were Satan, and wanted to corrupt God’s design (see the list above) I would politicize the issue. That way, I would be sure that Christians would not participate in the debate, and their pastors would forbid them form talking about it in church because it was political.

    As I review what I have written, it reads a bit harsh. That is not my intent. I’ll try to comment later about what I learned about Christians and their struggle dealing with gay marriage and gay issues.

    God speed