In Here, Out There: On Assessing Spiritual Threats
Should Christians pay attention more to the sins inside the church or the culture pressures outside the church? It's complicated
This isn’t a typical One Little Word post, but it’s a Sunday afternoon and I had an idea I wanted to think through here, mainly to complement, I think, the Sunday essay from my friend David French. I really appreciate David’s thought-provoking work in The Dispatch and in National Review before that. Before you finish this, let me remind you to always read David.
David this week is taking on the question: What should the church be more primarily worried about? The pressures against the church on the outside or corruption within? The piece is nuanced, but this is essentially the conclusion:
Indeed, if we spend more time attempting to reshape our environment in the hopes that it will protect our souls than we spend humbly asking God to reshape our heart, then our priorities are exactly wrong. If the church laments the waywardness of the culture more than it laments the misconduct of the church, then its priorities are exactly wrong.
David is concerned, rightly, I think, that we are often tempted to be overly concerned with the world out there than with the sin in here. He’s making an important point. I have seen this tendency in my own heart and in my fellow Christians. It is easy to get worked up about a new cultural problem and ignore our spiritual disciplines. We can be tempted to fight battles “out there” and ignore the battle “in here.” David says this:
If we spend more time attempting to reshape our environment in the hopes that it will protect our souls than we spend humbly asking God to reshape our heart, then our priorities are exactly wrong. If the church laments the waywardness of the culture more than it laments the misconduct of the church, then its priorities are exactly wrong.
If we lament the waywardness of the culture more than we lament the misconduct of the church, we are indeed getting our priorities exactly wrong. After all, we read Peter’s words that “judgment begins in the house of God (1 Peter 2:17).” The faithfulness and righteousness and purity of the church are paramount.
And yet . . . I think we should consider this with a bit more nuance and complexity. A Christian in the world really needs to be able to do two things at once: make arguments against false ideas in the culture and tend to our souls. We are outward and inward people. Consider James’ admonition to the first-century church. He urges followers of Jesus to both “care for widows and orphans” (cultural issues in a culture that devalued widows and orphans) and “keep yourself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Activism and purity, advocacy and piety. And sometimes the purity of the church is compromised by accommodation to cultural pressures without.
I don’t think David is arguing against this, because by the nature of his job he applies Christian arguments to cultural issues. He does this very well. But I do think there is a way to see this as a false choice between tending to the church’s manifold sins and making arguments against ungodly cultural arguments.
Consider Paul’s admonition to the church at Corinth (one that had more than its share of internal corruption):
We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
Or Peter’s word to the early church:
but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)
What’s more, as David hints at, environments do matter. The Bible tells us that there are three enemies of our souls: the world, the flesh, and the devil. That is to say that there is a world/cultural system that is aligned against God. This is not the people of the world, whom God loves (John 3:16), but a world system run by the prince and power of the air (Ephesians 2:2-3). James went so far as to say that that to be a friend of this world system is to be at enmity with God (James 4:4). The Apostle John tells us to not “love the world” (1 John 2:15-17).
So the enemies of the Christian soul can be within (our own fallen hearts) and without (cultural pressure).
What’s more, the idea of “out there” and “in here” is more complicated than we think. At times when we are combating cultural ideas, we are not arguing with the world, but trying to equip the next generation of Christians whose faith will be challenged by ideas that run contrary to Scripture. Our people are inundated on every side by messages that are at odds with Jesus’ teachings. Pop culture, social media, friends, etc form a powerful influence on this cohort of young people. Even those raised in faithful Christian homes face enormous pressure to give up faithful Christian orthodoxy. Of course “the world” can be cultural influences from multiple directions: right-wing conspiracy theories or left-wing sexual ethics, to name two. Parents and pastors and anyone who has a responsibility to teach are tasked with discipleship in a way that prepares people to live out their faith in a world that opposes Jesus.
Of course, “out there” and “in here” are different depending on contexts. A church in a conservative part of the country that rails only against the ungodly Democrats and Hollywood and Media while never addressing pet sins is in danger of what David is diagnosing. At the same time, a church in a liberal part of the country that only ever rails against conservative economics or Christian nationalism is also in danger of that same sin. My friend Trevin Wax has written persuasively that we need “multi-directional” leadership that sees the potential for spiritual threats and heresy from every side.
Again I don’t think David French disagrees with this at all. This is why I’m writing here as a compliment, not a rebuttal. We need both postures at once. We must humbly tend to our personal spiritual lives, to the sins inside the church, gives us a faithful witness to the watching world and helps us keep our eyes focused on Christ, resisting the urge to wring our hands in fear when we know the end of the story. And we must humbly resist the cultural pressures with kindness and gentleness, with courage and civility, knowing that faithful Christians will always and ever be strangers and exiles until Christ returns (1 Peter 1:12).