Winning arguments is not the same as winning souls. Very few, if any, have lost a quarrel and found themselves converted. But we all know the impulse deep down, when engaging with unbelief, to lash out in an effort to show ourselves right rather than win the unbeliever.
If we genuinely are willing to take our cues from the New Testament, rather than instinct, we might be surprised to find the way the apostles would have us to engage with our society. Paul points to kindness, patience, and gentle correction (2 Timothy 2:24–26), and Peter lays out the way of “gentleness and respect” and compelling hope.
In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)
Will they ask about our hope if our rhetoric is full of fear and at fever pitch?
Church Meets World
Don Carson has seen a lot come and go in the church and in the world.
Not just a world-class scholar of the New Testament, he’s been a keen observer of cultural upheaval and societal change for some five decades now. He laid bare the philosophical foundations in his impressive volume The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism and authored Christ and Culture Revisited as a steady guide for orienting Christians in a swiftly changing milieu.
Being cosmopolitan, in the best sense, has helped. He was born to British parents, raised in French Canada, has taught at the graduate and doctoral level for more than thirty years, and has traveled extensively, observing trends worldwide like few have.
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Carson to ask about his sense on the state of the church in America today, and going forward.
You might wonder whether someone with his ecclesiological pedigree and breadth would dream nostalgically about the 1950s and join the fight to reclaim the golden era that seemed so much more conducive to Christianity. Carson, however, is much less worried about the broadening gap between church and society — and much more eager for Christians to learn to engage with humility and kindness.
We are all products of our age, in some degree, admits Carson, and in the days ahead, evangelicals desperately need to take their cues from Scripture, rather than engaging with society on its own terms, in its own tenor.
“What is first of all required is to take our cues on conduct and civility and tongue — what we say, what we think, where we’re going, what our values are, living in the light of eternity, living under the shadow of the cross — take all of that from Scripture, from the gospel, from Christ and subconsciously work toward being a counter culture, a different culture, one with an allegiance tied to the kingdom of God.”
Carson’s concern is that far too often we have let the surrounding culture define the rules and assumptions of our engagement. When shouted at, we are prone to respond with the natural human instinct to shout in return. We return shrillness with shrillness. But in our increasingly post-Christian society, we are in increasing need of being the kind of people who respond to a slap on one cheek by turning to the other and who respond to vitriol and venom with gentleness, perceptive questions, careful listening, and loving kindness.
We need to learn, in the words of the apostle Paul, “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Growing Up in Opposition
This isn’t the first time Carson has experienced firsthand growing opposition to the church. His patient vision for engagement today has its roots not only in the biblical text, but also in his upbringing in French Canada, where evangelicals were openly opposed, even persecuted, in the 1950s. Carson’s childhood in Quebec was not your mother’s upbringing in the southern United States.
“Because of the background in which I grew up, I never held a view that Christians are entitled or Christian ministers ought to be revered by the culture. Baptist ministers alone between 1950 and 1952 in French Canada spent about eight years in jail. I’ve never been tempted by the view that Christians ought to be honored by the culture.”
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