My friend and colleague, Samuel James, has a brilliant piece (you should read the whole thing) on why the culture wars are inescapable:
The idea that conservative Americans can escape the “wrong side of history” if only they will shut up and be kind is an idea based on a myth: The myth that progressivism has a fixed destination and, once arrived, will seek to go no further. Was it for bombastic rhetoric or theocratic zealotry that the Little Sisters of the Poor now await for the Supreme Court to decide whether they can be consistently Catholic? Was it for political activism that people like Barronnelle Stuzman faced crippling fines and public scorn? Of course not. These Americans were prosecuted for their beliefs, not their bullying.
Rather than thinking of culture war as a Byzantine byword, we should consider the realities behind it. As Richard Weaver wrote many years ago, ideas have consequences. There is an undeniable conflict in American culture between the doctrines of self-authentication and autonomy and those of transcendence and obligation. “Culture war” may be too small or too cute a phrase for this conflict, but it nevertheless gets to the heart of something very important. Conservatives who think they can opt out of the culture war may think they are skipping schism en route to charity, but they are really skipping charity as well.
To what James is saying, I would add this idea: if we are gospel people, we are always, at some level, at war with the culture, at least the part of the culture that is under the rule of the “prince and power of the air.” In some ways, our definition of culture is deficient, because, as Andy Crouch will point out in his must-read, Culture-Making, culture is more than just the “out there” people and ideas of the world. We are part of culture. We create culture. We live in culture(s) (church, family, home, neighborhoods, etc).
Still, Jesus preached a gospel of the kingdom that he promised would, at some points, offend the larger, fallen, unredeemed world. He also promised this gospel would cause his disciples to be disliked and often hated (John 15:18). This is part of what I was getting at in my piece, a while back, for The Gospel Coalition:
Even if we committed to, as some ministry practitioners suggest, “only preach the gospel,” we still could not avoid areas of conflict with the larger culture. That is, if we preach the whole gospel and not a kind of easy-believism, cost-free message.
Consider why the early church was persecuted by Rome. They weren’t subjected to persecution because they were intolerant or because the Romans were especially mean. The first Christians were persecuted because of the message they proclaimed: there is another King and another kingdom. Caesar may be in power, but he’s not worthy of worship or adoration or sacrifice. Christ triumphs over Caesar and every other worldly ruler. This view offended the citizens who participated in emperor cult worship. What’s more, the early Christians refused to make sacrifices to gods they didn’t believe in. This resistance led to marginalization, separation, and eventually martyrdom for many.
The gospel message itself—this message of love, redemption, grace, and mercy—was the main reason the church was disliked. Christians did find favor in some parts of the empire and modeled both courage and civility. But even Christianity at its best could not escape the scorn and punishment of the larger world. Then, as now, genuine faith in Christ was seen as strange and dangerous.
Christians today shouldn’t seek martyrdom, nor should we go out of our way to offend. There is much we can learn from Jesus about living in the tension of grace and truth. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can avoid the cost of discipleship. The gospel itself is, at many points, at war with a fallen humanity.
What’s more, we tend to pick and choose which parts of “culture-warring” we like and dislike. Another quote from my piece:
Often when I hear people say we should take a break from the culture wars, I want to ask, “Which ones?” Every time Christians apply the gospel to their communities, they are, at some level, enaged in “culture warring.” They are bringing the kingdom of Christ to bear on the fallen world, corrupted by the enemy. It’s a battle of light against darkness.
The term “culture wars” typically evokes hotly contested issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. But to engage less controversial issues like human poverty, animal cruelty, and immigration reform does not make one less of a culture warrior.
Imagine if every Christian took a year off from fighting human trafficking or racial injustice. Imagine if every Christian stopped advocating for urban renewal and prison reform. Imagine if Christians silenced their voices against persecution of religious minorities or the economic injustice of payday lending.
This is what a real culture war timeout looks like. But what kind of gospel would this be? That gospel stays within the four walls of the church, doesn’t motivate God’s people to love their neighbors, to care about human flourishing, to embody the ethics of the kingdom. That half-gospel is not the triumphant, world-altering good news Jesus delivered.
The result of such a timeout would be catastrophic. How many lives, created in the image of God, would suffer? What’s more, we’ve seen that no amount of good works guarantees peace with the “prince and power of the air.”
Of course, 1 Peter 3 helps us discern between opposition due to our own sinful engagement and opposition due to faithfulness to Scripture. We should constantly evaluate the way we speak, interact with arguments, and do activism. We should be known for our compassion and our love. But let’s not fall prey to the fiction that we can make the gospel palatable enough so as to be inoffensive. The gospel is always a stumbling block to those who don’t believe. It’s always strange to the ears of those who hear it the first time. It is this very distinctiveness that makes it compelling.