Question: Should we, as Christians, change what we believe and the values we have been taught to make Christianity more appealing and relevant to people today?
Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, responds:
We are living in a rapidly changing world in which nothing remains untouched. In many ways change can be a good thing – but not always.
In this bubbling cauldron of change the Christian faith is being stridently opposed, maligned and marginalised in a way that has not been seen in centuries.
The church’s response has often been to tone down its beliefs, soften its message, seek to present a kind of smiley face emoticon and, above all, try to be relevant.
There is a momentous shift taking place in which the Christian faith is being attacked by secularism in its various forms and by religions that stand opposed to all that Christians believe. I want to mention some of these conflicting values.
Religious – Theism or Atheism
Theism – the word is derived from the Greek word ‘theos’ that means ‘god’ and while the word may refer to a belief in the existence of one or more gods, it is normally associated with a belief in one God. Theism affirms that God is the source of all things, that the existence and continuance of the universe is dependent on him, and that he will accomplish all his purposes.
Atheism – this word is also derived from a Greek word, one that means ‘no god.’ Essentially atheism is the belief that no gods exist. One could summarise the beliefs of atheists in this way:
a) There is no God
b) The supernatural does not exist
c) All that is in the universe may be scientifically measured
d) Morals are relative and not absolute.
Today the atheist agenda is being strongly and vigorously propagated and religion generally is being criticised and scornfully dismissed as a foolish fantasy. In particular Christianity is being targeted by misrepresentation, lies, intimidation, scorn and abuse.
The late biblical scholar, Derek Kidner has written, ‘The assertion, There is no God, is in fact treated in the scripture not as a sincere if misguided conviction, but as an irresponsible gesture of defiance.’
Gender – Biological Reality or Gender Identity
The biological reality is that there is a clear distinction between male and female both in role and in function, especially in the area of the reproduction of the species. Two people of the same sex cannot produce a child! Yet biological reality is being challenged by the idea of ‘gender identity.’ ‘Gender identity’ is commonly understood as the choice of gender a person may make that is based on what they sense and prefer themselves to be regardless of whether or not they are male or female.
The consequence of this has been the promotion of homosexual practice as an acceptable alternative to the male/female relationship with the attendant demand for gay ‘marriage’ and the adoption of children by gay couples. The redefining of words has been a major component of the campaign to make homosexuality an appropriate life choice. Men now can have ‘husbands’! Women now can have ‘wives’! And, in some cases, children are discouraged from using the words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ in preference to the gender neutral ‘parent.’
I am reminded of the book written many years ago by Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-glass, where he wrote, ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ Today it seems that we are living in that same ‘Wonderland’ in which words are so devalued, distorted and debased that they can mean anything we want them to mean.
The argument is often made that there is nothing wrong with two people loving each other. Indeed there is nothing wrong with that. In fact the atmosphere of the kingdom of God preached by Jesus is love – the love of God, love for God and love for one another. And Paul described love as the greatest of all virtues. (1 Corinthians 13:13).
But love may be distorted. The love of a paedophile is a distortion. The love of a stalker is a distortion. The love of a terrorist for his religion is a distortion. And homosexual love too is a distortion.
Today it is not politically correct to oppose homosexual practice, and despite attempts by some to reinterpret the scriptures in a way that they approve, the Bible is quite clear in both Old and New Testaments regarding so-called ‘gender identity’ and homosexuality.
For example, Paul wrote, ‘God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done’ (Romans 1:26-28).
Christians must love homosexuals, but that does not mean that we approve of and support homosexual practice as harmless, normal and socially acceptable. The pressure of contemporary cultural opinion should not determine what we believe and what we represent.
Human Life – Precious Gift or a Disposable Commodity
When society places a diminished value on human life, the consequences are horrendous. The cheapening of human life makes people defenceless and human life is vulnerable from birth to death.
This is a vast subject but let’s briefly consider just one issue – abortion – in which political correctness diminishes the preciousness of an unborn child. Abortion is readily available today as a method of birth control and is considered as a lifestyle choice. As an unplanned or unexpected pregnancy may threaten the kind and quality of life that one may have planned, it is now quite acceptable to ‘get rid of’ the inconvenience. Call the unborn baby a foetus and remove it from the womb! The problem is thereby resolved! The word ‘abortion’ is now often replaced with the milder-sounding phrase ‘pregnancy termination’ but the result is the same. A life has been deliberately extinguished.
While an argument may validly be made for the abortion of an unborn child (such as the possible death of the mother if she were to give birth), the vast majority of abortions are for psychosocial reasons.
In Australia, apart from South Australia, abortion figures are not published. It is conservatively estimated, however, that around 80,000 children are surgically aborted each year in Australia. And to this figure one may add those babies aborted by the ‘morning-after’ pill and by drugs given to terminate pregnancy up to nine weeks gestation. Tragically the most dangerous place in the world today is the womb! What we are seeing in supposedly enlightened Western countries is a practice that far exceeds the most extreme practices of child sacrifice in ancient cultures.
In November in 2013 Pope Francis asked, ‘What do you think, that today human sacrifices are not made?’ He continued, ‘Many, many people make human sacrifices and there are laws that protect them.’ It is uncertain as to what he was referring, however the comment could certainly be applied to infanticide that is now described as abortion.
Many now choose to believe that an unborn child may not be classified as being a human being. In some counties this position has been legally endorsed. For example, under section 223 of the Criminal Code of Canada, a foetus is only considered as being a ‘human being … when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother whether or not it has completely breathed, it has an independent circulation or the navel string is severed.’
But it is not the birth of the child that qualifies it as part of the human race – the unborn child is no less a human being! Human existence is unique. Christianity affirms the preciousness and sacredness of human life. We believe that that uniqueness is affirmed in the opening pages of the Bible where we read…
• ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).
• Later, David wrote of God: ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well’ (Psalm 139:13-14).
Unless we recognise the unique preciousness of human life, we will consider it as something that we may toss into the rubbish bin without any sense of shame.
Social – Responsibilities or Rights
In societies in which people become increasingly self-focused, the demand for rights has continued to grow. Nowadays the theme of ‘my rights’ is frequently asserted. Increasingly those rights have been written into the law and we have children’s rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights, ethnic rights, gay rights, and so on. Some of those rights are admirable, yet as people increasingly focus on their ‘rights,’ they lose focus on their responsibilities.
John F Kennedy many years ago neatly summarised the contrast when he stated, ’Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’ What he was stating from a national perspective is equally true from a personal one.
Personal responsibility trumps personal rights! It is interesting to note that while the New Testament says little about personal rights, it says a lot about personal responsibility. The principal and most glorious right we have is found in John 1:12, ‘To all who received him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’
But the responsibilities of Christians are particularly emphasised in the Bible. For example…
• Jesus told a young man who was enquiring about living a life that was pleasing to God, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother and love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19:18-19).
• He was quoting from the Ten Commandments, the first half of which refer to our responsibilities to God, and the second half of which refer to our responsibilities to other people (Exodus 20).
• Jesus also said, ‘But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).
• Paul speaks about our responsibility to obey the authorities, pay taxes, pay our debts, show respect and honour, not to murder or commit adultery or steal or desire what belongs to someone else (Romans 13:5-9).
• And Peter says, ‘Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing’ (1 Peter 3:9).
Ethics – Moral Absolutism or Moral Relativism
In today’s world there is increasingly a head-on clash of moral values.
In one corner is the Christian position which essentially holds that the God who created the universe and placed humankind on earth has also given moral rules and principles by which to live. Christian ethics are not based on what you or I may think is right or wrong but are built on a foundation of moral absolutes as revealed by God.
In the other corner is the secularist/humanist/atheist position that asserts that morality is an ever-changing thing and that we cannot speak of things as being either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Instead, it is argued, ethical values are variable and are influenced by the culture and the times in which we live, the situation in which we find ourselves and how we may feel at that particular time. It is worth noting, however, that many who would hold the position of ‘moral relativism’ are aggressive in advocating the ‘rightness’ of their politically correct positions that oppose Christian values!
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, succinctly summarised this view when he wrote, ‘You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.’
However Christian morality is not so flexible and inconsistent. Rather it is based on the character of God. From him flows all that is good and he has shown us what is good and how to distinguish between right and wrong. The psalmist has affirmed,
‘Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.
You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!’ (Psalm 119:2-5).
• God does not lower his standards simply because we find it difficult to live by them.
• He does not remove the standards that contemporary society declares to be old-fashioned.
• He does not modify his standards to bring them more into line with what ‘enlightened’ people today maintain are politically correct.
• He does not give his church the right to judge which standards to embrace and declare and which to eject and disregard.
• He does, however, remind us that there is, and always will be, an irreconcilable difference between the world’s standards and his standards.
Sadly in the western world, at a time when Christian values need to be rediscovered and practised, they are being denied, decried and defied. We cannot rewrite the Bible to accommodate our own prejudices, desires and lifestyles.
Faithfulness or relevancy
It is time for God’s people to stop hiding from the onslaught of atheistic, humanistic and secular aggression against Christian values and beliefs, but to arise and humbly, boldly and confidently affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ by our word and through our lives. We should embrace the advice Paul gave to Timothy, ‘God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord’ (2 Timothy1:7-8).
Consider some of the following biblical texts that give us explicit directions:
• ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ (Romans 12:2 NIV).
• I particularly like the JB Phillips translation that says, ‘Don’t let the word squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.’
• Or the William Barclay translation, ‘Don’t try to match your life to all the fashions of this world; don’t be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings.’
Jesus said, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels’ (Luke 9:25-26 NIV).
Jesus told his followers to be many things as they witness for him – above all he called us to be faithful. Not once did he say that we were to be relevant!
Dr Jim McClure is the author of Grace Revisited (See Resources), Overview of the Old and New Testaments and the Understanding… series. Orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
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