This new situation makes personal religious convictions a matter of heated public interest. Now to hold to the traditional view of Christian marriage is to run afoul of one of the terms of recognition in secular society, because in doing so the Christian fails to affirm the legitimacy of an identity and a relationship that said society has already deemed legitimate. The Christian’s belief looks like bigotry, and there is no context in which holding such a view is deemed warranted or permissible. Christians are faced with a situation that has perhaps not been seen widely in the West since the fourth century: To be both a good church member and a good citizen has become increasingly difficult. Difficult choices will have to be made in the coming years.
Two things now seem obvious. First, the church will become smaller. We have already witnessed this over the past few decades, and COVID has served merely to accelerate the process. As church membership becomes more costly, the decline will likely continue for some time. Second, the church will lose even more credibility in the wider culture because it will look increasingly bigoted and detached from what society regards as reality. This is not a cause for rejoicing, but neither is it reason for despair. It is simply the cost it pays for fidelity in the world in which she—and we—now find ourselves.
Given that this wider social context severely restricts the possibility of the church regaining credibility, the church’s primary task is to regain credibility with regard to its own creed, code, and cult relative to its own constituency. The clergy need to demonstrate to congregants, and congregants need to demonstrate to each other, that they take the church’s own teaching, its own morality, and its own worship seriously.
What might this look like? Regarding teaching, here the differences between Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox become significant, as the creeds of each, along with the practical emphases that arise from these, are different in key ways. Catholicism and Orthodoxy will inevitably have a sacramental focus, while Protestantism will likely emphasize preaching and proclamation. Yet even as these diverse theologies manifest themselves in diverse practices, I would suggest that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy (and many Protestants!) need to learn from the traditional Protestant emphasis on preaching and catechesis. Given the many challenges now faced by believers in everyday life, Christians need to be taught the whole counsel of God so they can think through these challenges carefully and virtuously in a manner that enables them to respond. For example, if a transgender colleague demands that co-workers acknowledge their chosen gender identity, how should the Christian respond? Regular Sunday churchgoing might be a regular part of someone’s devotional life, but only knowledge of the Bible’s inviolable and enduring teaching on man and woman will enable an individual to think through the issue. And that requires positive teaching of the whole counsel of God. So one step toward solidifying the church in the face of our culture of moral anarchy is to teach Christian people Christian truths.
Yet there is more to this than simply teaching the Christian faith. Part of the problem the church faces is that it lacks credibility even with its own people, not because its teachings are in themselves implausible, but because the church’s behavior relative to those teachings has made them implausible. As noted above, sex scandals make the church’s teaching about sex seem insubstantial because it appears as hypocrisy. In fact, the issue of credibility and plausibility is even deeper than that. The intuitions of the modern mind tilt against Christian teaching because of its assertion of external authority, an authority that insists that we are made in the image of God and that we have a given moral shape to which we must conform if we are to be truly human. To use Charles Taylor’s term, the modern social imaginary makes the notion of individual autonomy intuitive, and any assertion otherwise seems to lack plausibility. And Christians, too, are profoundly shaped by this.
In short, it is not just the church’s hypocrisy that makes Christian teaching hard to accept; it is also the moral imagination of the modern person that does so. And so the church has to address the problem at the level of the imagination, too. And both the hypocrisy and the imagination problem require that the church embody its teaching in the code by which it lives.
This can take numerous forms. In ethical teaching, the church needs to be consistent in how it applies Christian principles. Thus, for example, to accept no-fault divorce but to object to gay marriage is incoherent. The former teaches people that marriage is a sentimental bond for the mutual happiness of the contracting parties, to be dissolved when one or both partners decides that the arrangement is no longer providing that. That is essentially the same logic as the latter and is a clear contradiction of the Bible’s teaching. Such inconsistency is hypocrisy. And yet the church’s teaching on marriage must also capture the imagination. It is not enough to be consistent on the issue; the church must encourage and cultivate strong, beautiful marriages that capture the imagination of its people.
This example points to one way in which the church can engage the broader culture. It must be a loving community. Christ himself pointed to love as a key apologetic tool when he declared that the love Christians have for one another would be the way people would know them as his disciples. Love has been eviscerated of meaningful content in the wider culture, with the statement “love is love” unwittingly indicating the reduction of the idea to vacuous rhetoric. It is here that the church has an obvious opportunity to build bridges. By being a community that cares for its own and extends that care to those outside, Christians can foster a social framework that provides a plausibility structure for Christian teaching.
This may look different in different places. Community life in a rural town or village is inevitably not the same as that in an urban setting. The key is that each congregation finds a way to be a loving community in the context in which it finds itself. Communities offer places to belong, and they shape our intuitive understanding of the world and our place within it. And at a time when traditional communities are breaking down and where the wafer-thin alternatives offered by the internet are leaving so many people feeling anxious and alienated, real community in real time and space with real embodied people has to be attractive. Our current state of social disintegration might actually be a first-class opportunity for the church to shine as a city on a hill. It is surely significant that the gift of hospitality is a New Testament qualification for eldership, for the church is to be characterized by precisely this virtue.
Title page to a 1658 edition of the Westminster Standards (Image credit: Public Domain)