In 2014, I wrote an article for First Things entitled “A Church For Exiles.” My purpose was twofold: to argue that the future status of the church in the West would be that of an exile community on the cultural margins of society; and to suggest that my own branch of Christianity, the Reformed faith, offered the best model and theology for surviving such a status.
At the time, some decried the notion of exile as defeatist, while others were irritated by what they saw as my Reformed chauvinism. To the latter, I must probably plead guilty; all I can say is that declaring my own wife to be the most beautiful woman in the world does not mean that I have insulted every other woman on the face of the planet. To the former, I note that what once appeared to be catastrophic pessimism now seems, if anything, somewhat understated. Freedom of speech and religion are now under huge pressure. Society’s moral imperatives are in seemingly constant flux and always suffused with outrage. And as our dominant cultural institutions impose new moral standards retrospectively, without a statute of limitations or any sense of punitive proportion, our situation as religious believers looks bleaker now than when I wrote the article. The institutions of cultural power are all dominated by those who despise us. We are set for internal exile.
Yet despite this forced march to the margins, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our current situation is the endless blame game religious people are playing against themselves. Exile might be bearable if it were not proving the context for civil war. The Christian right excoriates the left as the left returns the favor, often via Twitter (that medium ideally suited for accurate representation of others and careful assessment of opposing viewpoints). David French commented on the personal attacks from the right that were a factor in Beth Moore’s exit from the SBC, while anyone who has dared to question the emerging social justice orthodoxy might well face an angry left demanding his or her firing. This is not to say that all criticism of Moore and others is illegitimate, but it is to note a rather unpleasant truth about the loudest voices in the conservative Christian world: They seem united only in their apparent belief that a posture of righteous indignation and demands for extreme sanctions against those who hold different opinions are essential parts of courageous Christian discipleship. In today’s social media Christianity, hatred is love and slander is sanctification, as Orwell might have put it.
In all of this, though, most worrying is the frequent rhetoric that blames “the church” for her woes. That some Christians have been compromised through political engagement is no doubt true. This is hardly unprecedented in church history but is perhaps particularly raw in the polarized world of post-Trump Christianity. When character counts for Clinton but not for Trump, the double-standard is embarrassingly obvious. But these actions by Christians do not in themselves make the church the culpable agent of her own troubles, let alone the central cause of society’s ills. For sure, they do not help the public image of Christianity, but Christians who spend their days playing the blame game must be careful to always point to the church as the solution. Failure to do so is to kill hope. St. Paul was certainly well aware of the failings of Christians, even of the wickedness that they could perpetrate in the church’s name, as his blunt letters to various congregations indicate. But he never ceased to present the church—flawed, divided, morally compromised as she was—as the meaning and hope of history.
We should not forget that it is not the church’s failure to address various subjects, from LGBTQ+ issues to race, that has created her current problems in our culture. Individual Christians, congregations, and denominations may have failed at many times and in many ways on all of these issues—though the evidence is not as comprehensive or unequivocal as the dominant narratives would suggest. And no doubt those failures have not helped the church’s social status or enhanced her influence. But these are not the ultimate cause of our impending exile. No; it is the culture's monopoly on how to deal with these things that places the church in a no-win position.
For example: On issues of sexual identity and behavior, if Fred Phelps and his ilk had never existed, we would still be in trouble with the world. The church’s teaching on these matters is of the essence of her witness, a point somehow missed by certain Catholics. The world’s way of thinking about sex and identity is wrong, and there is no polite way for the church to say that because her vocabulary for doing so has been deemed hate speech by the world to whom she witnesses. The moral register of today’s cultural climate considers it immoral—indeed, an act of violence—to say “gay marriage is not marriage” or “you were not born in the wrong body.” Those statements are deemed hateful precisely because they demand that someone set aside the sovereignty of his own desires or feelings in light of an external authority. They require acknowledgment of a world for whom the happiness of the individual is not actually the meaning of its existence. That is actually part of the gospel, part of the solution, part of the church’s faithful witness—not a cause for handwringing, repentance, or self-loathing, though it is assuredly a cause of our growing exile.
The church’s exile from mainstream culture is going to be hard, but the Bible makes it clear that she wins in the end. The gates of hell shall not prevail against her. That is the source of our hope at this time, and so it is pastorally cruel and theologically irresponsible for Christians to obscure this truth with endless complaints about “the church’s” past behavior and present inadequacies. By all means, call out the moral failings of Christians, congregations and denominations, left and right; but be specific, do so without slander and vitriol, and make a clear distinction between the church and the specific failings to which you allude in order to promote clear thinking. And remember—if your critique of Christians is not balanced by a Pauline emphasis on the church, the body of Christ, as the answer to the world’s problems, you ultimately offer no true Christian commentary on the contemporary scene. For as soon as you see the church herself as part of the problem, you have lost the gospel and deprived yourself and your audience of hope.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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