If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely those points which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
This quote is attributed to Martin Luther, though it is probably apocryphal. To paraphrase what it means: We would all agree that we are to “confess Christianity,” to proclaim and teach the gospel—the whole Trinitarian faith. But not all of the main things of the faith are under duress at all times. For instance, the world may think the Nicene Creed is simply a fantasy, but it is not specifically attacking the Nicene Creed. Right now the world is attacking other claims of the faith. If we ignore these attacks, we may be failing to prove our loyalty where the battle is raging.
Three of the main things the world is relentlessly attacking right now are Christian sexual ethics, the sanctity of life, and evangelism.
First, marriage and sexuality. The decade from ’65 to ’75 was a time of revolution. The revolutionary impulses in politics and economics were quickly subdued: The radicals got Richard Nixon and a resurgence of capitalism. But the cultural revolution did not settle down. In this respect, the changes of the ’60s have been thorough, escalating, and relentless. And sexual liberation has been at the forefront.
I began teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) in 1965. By the early ’70s, I still considered myself a progressive. By the late ’70s, I was alarmed enough about the fallout of the sexual revolution at my seminary and in society that I began teaching a course on marriage and Christian sexual ethics. I found myself defending natural law thinking from the attacks of my Jesuit students, many of whom were rebelling against Catholic teaching. Some of them left the priesthood; others found ways to redefine celibacy so they could date women, or attacked Humanae Vitae. And the Lutheran students were also caught up in the loosening of sexual restraints in that era.
After leaving LSTC in 1982, I taught at Roanoke College for nearly thirty years. I continued to teach the course, and now I teach it for the online Institute of Lutheran Theology. Such teaching is not peripheral to the Christian faith. It is not something we can agree to disagree about, as so many have argued. There is no wiggle room for our conviction that marriage is between a man and woman who pledge lifelong fidelity, complete with the promise of new life.
As society turns comprehensively against Christian thought, it will take great wisdom and courage to keep this understanding of marriage and sexual ethics a main thing. We will be tempted either to conform or to ignore these core teachings. Avoiding the problem, however, will only mean conforming in the long run. I pray that we will have the needed wisdom and courage to endure.
The second main thing is the sanctity of life from beginning to end. Though fertility rates are falling precipitously throughout the world, our culture continues to find excuses to abort babies. Meanwhile, our society is growing older. We are soon going to have an imbalance between the young and the retired. There will be a huge burden on the young; meanwhile, the aged who have no children will grapple with loneliness. There will be great social pressure to accept physician-assisted suicide.
P. D. James’s novel Children of Men, set in the year 2021, depicts a dystopian world of mass infertility. In this society, the elderly embark on sumptuous party ships when they turn 60. They never return. No one talks about it, but everyone knows what happens on these trips: The old people see it as their duty to check out of life early in order to lighten the burden of the young.
Of course, Children of Men is fiction, but we are not far from such a dystopia in our own society. Let us be a community of believers that welcomes young families with children, so that the dismal predictions of infertility and the barbarous practice of abortion will not haunt us. And let us honor and care for the aged, finding ways to sustain them so that the temptation—and public encouragement—to end it all can be resisted.
The final main thing I wish to address is evangelism. I will never forget a lecture I once heard by a former director of Global Missions for the Evangelical Church of America, to which I used to belong. In her lecture, she recounted the sins—mostly regarding “colonialism”—of previous generations of missionaries. After listing each sin, she led a chorus of new bureaucrats in chanting: Never again, never again. Soon after that meeting, the ELCA formally gave up pioneer missionary work (“pioneer” missions being missions to those who have never heard the gospel) in favor of “accompaniment,” or helping already established churches in other countries. Instead of evangelizing those of other religions, we were to dialogue with them.
I am not against accompaniment or respectful dialogue; but I find it shocking that a church would forswear pioneer evangelism—brazenly “dismissing the Great Commission as a symbol of the past,” as my old friend Jim Scherer put it. The Great Commission is the command of Jesus himself.
The faithful still support pioneer missionaries at home and abroad; I am proud that my own church body, the North American Lutheran Church, does so. But make no mistake: These ventures will continue to be attacked in the future. According to our culture, evangelism—in other words, acting upon the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—does not honor diversity, inclusivity, or equity.
The world today is relentlessly attacking the faith on three particular fronts: the Christian teaching on marriage and sexual ethics, the Christian commitment to the sanctity of life, and the Christian duty to evangelize the nations. These are core commitments of Christian faith and life. They are main things. Let us keep them main things.
This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at the 2021 North American Lutheran Church Pastors Conference.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.
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