Christianity: Counterculture Or Subculture?
By Allan Turner
As it out-thinks, out-lives, and out-dies the pagans around about it, the Christian community is to be a counterculture, not a subculture. Unfortunately, many modern churches of Christ have begun to blend in. Instead of acting like strangers and pilgrims (Hebrews 11:13; I Peter 2:11) whose citizenships are in heaven (Philippians 3:20), many Christians have become much too comfortable in our narcissistic, hedonistic, materialistic, and pluralistic society. Many are failing to live out the “in the world, but not of the world” mandate of John 17. Like the church at Laodecia, many of us, indulging ourselves in the material riches of our society (cf. Revelation 3:17), have become “neither hot nor cold” (verse 15). Consequently, if we do not repent, the Lord will eventually spew us out of His mouth. Because repentance is not possible without a change of direction and a turning from that which is wrong, the rest of this article will be devoted to identifying the process—namely, secularization—that has brought us to this critical point in time, and a defining of our terms—namely, narcissism, hedonism, materialism, and pluralism.
What Is Secularism?
Every society is made up of different people, different jobs, different values, and different classes. Nevertheless, students of history tell us that no society can survive or function without a unifying system of thought. The unifying system of thought that acts as a glue that makes the various parts of a society adhere is called a “world view.” This world view may be built on a philosophical system like Platonism, or on a religion like ancient Israel. It may be built on a common mythology, or on a devotion to the state, or on some political philosophy. In every society there is a competition between philosophy, religion, mythology, and politics for dominance. One of these elements will eventually emerge as the principal world view.
Originally, a Biblical world view was the unifying system that dominated American society; but, this is no longer true. In our modern topsy-turvy culture, the principal ism or system of thought that is being reflected in our creative arts, in our popular literature and music, on our TV screens, in our educational institutions, and even in our churches, is secularism. In secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in view of the here and now. There are no windows into the eternal. If there is a God—and the secularist is either an atheist or agnostic—He is totally irrelevant. All that matters is now. In the secular world view, human beings are not created in the image of God. They are, instead, wholly physical. Consequently, humans are the outgrowth of an evolutionary process, and are, at best, nothing more than a chance collocation of atoms. Because there is no hope of life beyond this present physical world, the secular humanist declares that man's highest end is happiness, freedom, and progress for all mankind in this present world. To this end the secularist “assigns to man nothing less than the task of being his own savior and redeemer” (Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism, page 283).
In stark contrast to secularism, which says, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” stands Christianity, which says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Christianity speaks of something more than the here and now. While secularism takes the short view, Christianity takes the long view. While secularists talk about the here and now, Christians speak of an eternal life beyond the grave. While secularism, which teaches man is the product of evolution, validates narcissism, hedonism, materialism, and pluralism, Christianity, which teaches man is created in the image of God, refutes all man-made isms with the admonition, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
The Bible tells us that faith comes as a result of hearing God's Word (Romans 10:17). In Hebrews 11:3, the writer says that faith has its starting point at Genesis 1:1. Consequently, the starting point for a Biblical world view is the first verse of the Bible. Before the here and now, God, who transcends this current time-space world, existed in eternity. This means there is more to reality than the here and now. But, there is more. Apart from “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” there are no real ethical obligations; no such things as absolute norms of conduct—no moral absolutes. If there is no Creator who is Sovereign of the universe, then man is under no moral obligations and is absolutely free to do as he pleases. It is here then that we arrive at the crux of the matter. Man, in his arrogant pride, does not want to do what God wants him to do. As a result, man attempts to suppress the truth about God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Why? Because if man can be persuaded to believe the lie that there is no Sovereign God who lives in eternity, then he can be comfortable involving himself in all sorts of uncleanness and ungodliness (Romans 1:19-25). Secularism, of course, is the perfect vehicle for such unbelief.
The Gravedigger Effect
In the 20th century, the secularization of American has had a tremendous affect on Christians. It is as unfortunate as it is true that we have bought, nearly “lock, stock, and barrel,” the secularization lie. Consequently, we have given ourselves over to a traditional, uncritical, and unscriptural view of the separation of church (the sacred) and state (the secular). Although it is true that Christians ought to distinguish between the secular and the sacred, it is just as true that we must never try to separate them. To do so would be to deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life. Nevertheless, for the most part, we, as 20th century Christians, have given ourselves over to a view of church and state that has forced us to divide our lives into that which is sacred and that which is secular. This dichotomy has forced us to compartmentalize our religion. Within the confines of an ever decreasing arena, we unashamedly proclaim belief in, and reliance upon, God. But outside these parameters—cage might be a better word—we are reluctant to even mention His name. Although religion in the private sector may seem to be flourishing, in the public arena it has been almost totally neutralized. Today, Christianity may be privately engaging, but it is socially irrelevant. The central sectors of society (business, technology, science, medicine, law, politics, etc.) have been stripped of religious influence. As Americans, and, unfortunately, as Christians, we have thought it only proper to internalize our religion. This “privatization” or secret discipleship (i.e., the “Joseph of Arimathea Syndrome,” John 19:38) has contributed to the current secularization of America. But, more importantly, it has caused true Christianity to be without any real impact in public life. Afraid to mention the name of the Lord publicly, except within the limited confines of church and family, for fear of being thought un-American, uncivil, un-professional, anti-social, sectarian, and fanatical, we now find ourselves without any real impact in our communities. Instead of being the salt that savors and the light that shines out of darkness (Matthew 5:13-16), we have allowed the “Wall” the secularists have erected between church and state to force us to publicly blend in with the rest of society.
Embarrassing as it is, the secularists have actually become victors by default. They are occupying territory that Christians have withdrawn from. Thinking it our duty to espouse a principle that forces us to eliminate the Lord from ALL of government and MOST of society, we have created the monster called “Secularism.” This Frankenstein, which is now determined to destroy us, is an unnatural creation that should have never been fabricated in the first place. In essence, we have been digging our own graves, and it is this conduct that we have dubbed the “Gravedigger Effect.”
Seduced By A Metaphor
No student of the Bible would deny that Jesus taught there was to be a distinction between church and state. During His earthly ministry, Jesus said: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21). Nevertheless, we feel confident in denying that the Lord wanted His disciples to believe there was to be a separation of God and the state, that is, a complete divorcement of God-based morality from civil government. The “Wall,” or in its more expanded form, “the wall of separation between church and state,” first articulated by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, is a seductive metaphor that has subsequently misled many. The concept of an inseparable wall between church and state, whether one believes it to have been taught by Jesus or espoused in the Constitution, surrenders to a simplistic understanding of a complicated subject. It is, in fact, a gross hermeneutical error to use Matthew 22:21 as a prooftext for an absolute and inseparable wall between government and religion. Prooftexting or “Bumper Sticker Theology,” as I prefer to call it, must give way to a conceptual or over- all view of the Lord's teaching on any given subject. For example, the faith taught in John 3:16 cannot really be understood without the teaching found in James 2:14-26. Likewise, we would expect the truth taught in Matthew 22:21 to be amplified elsewhere in God's Word. For example, in Titus 3:1, the Christian is taught to be “subject to rulers and authorities.” Is not this really the same as, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's”?
Those who have supposed the state to be absolutely autonomous and free from a God-based morality have failed to consider many Bible passages, including Colossians 2:10, where Jesus is said to be “the head of all principality and power.” Not only is He “head over all things to the church,” but He is “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1:21-22). There is but one exception to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, and that is the Father, “who put all things under Him” (I Corinthians 15:27). As Christians, there is simply no excuse for not knowing what Nebuchadnezzar had to learn the hard way; namely, “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25).
As we have already said, for the Christian to have believed that in order to honor Jesus Christ it was necessary for him to eliminate the Lord from ALL of government and MOST of society, is totally irreconcilable with the truth taught in the Bible. It is just such unquestioned allegiance to the erroneous doctrine of “the Wall” between church and state that has caused churches of Christ to be without any appreciable impact on society and, as a result, very ineffective in their evangelistic efforts. Having rested our hopes on apologetics (the defense of a doctrine), we have sorely neglected discipleship (the living of a doctrine), see Galatians 2:20. Jesus taught us that we are to be the “salt” and “light” of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). With but little thought given to the context, we can readily understand that the Lord was not referring to our “saying,” but our “doing.” Christians function as salt and light when others see our “good works and glorify (our) Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16b). A world groping in darkness is benefitted by the disciplined lives of a “chosen generation, a royal nation, a peculiar people” (I Peter 2:9).
Unless we acknowledge our mistakes and repent, we will be no good to ourselves or others. Consequently, let us now examine some of the philosophies and values that exist under the larger umbrella of secularism and that affect us both personally and collectively.
Narcissism is one of secularism's false values. It says, “Me first.” It says, “I'm number one.” The narcissist is in love with himself. Other people matter only as they serve to fulfill and satisfy him. He is only concerned about his rights, his privileges, and his happiness. Wives, husbands, children, employers, employees, and fellow citizens all take a second seat to the narcissist. He or she is a “me first” kind of person. He is in love with the self-esteem, self-love, pull-your-own-strings, put-yourself-first, you're-number-one shibboleths of modern-day pop-psychology. When the Christian becomes infected with this spiritual disease, he begins to talk about doing something for himself. He talks of being tired of doing what God and everyone else wants him to do. He begins to complain about the sermons not being uplifting enough. He protests that Bible classes just aren't positive enough. He whines about the worship services of the local congregation just not doing anything for him anymore. It is not long before families, church unity, ethics in the marketplace, and community stability soon begin to play second fiddle to the “star” of the show—Numero Uno! By contrast, Jesus instructs us to crucify self and put others first (cf. Matthew 16:24,25; Philippians 2:3). He teaches us to give ourselves away to God and others (Matthew 22:34-40).
Closely related to narcissism, hedonism says that life ought to be lived solely for pleasure. It is personified in the Playboy philosophy of the 1950s and '60s and is summed up in the motto, “If it feels good, do it.” It fans the flames of pornography and homosexuality as it promotes anything and everything that supposedly gives “pleasure.” It replaces responsible living with a “thrill at any cost” approach to life. It is responsible for the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Those given over to hedonism are addicted to lust and can never be satisfied. Nevertheless, in their attempts to satisfy their lusts hedonists usually become quite promiscuous. This, of course, destroys many marriages and homes. Finally, the pursuit of pleasure at any cost leaves men and women broken, lonely, and sad. On the other hand, those who follow God's Word will find true happiness and satisfaction in the “one flesh” relationship ordained by God, and will find ultimate satisfaction in pleasing Christ (II Corinthians 5:9).
Materialism says, “I am what I have” and “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Instead of concentrating on the spiritual and eternal things, materialism seeks after those things that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and possessed. Everything and everybody takes a second seat to material-ism—the accumulation of things. In contrast to this, Christianity teaches that we ought to be laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven. In other words, life is an investment, and we can either invest for short-term benefits or long-term gains.
Modern America prides itself in its pluralism. Pluralism is modern culture's belief that there are many different right ways to live and believe. Find whatever works for you. If it's Jesus and Christianity, fine. If it's Hinduism, great. Whatever you want to believe is just fine. Find the church of your choice. Dogmatism is out. Absolutes are out. All paths lead to the same god. God wouldn't turn away sincere people. All this nonsense is pluralism. In pluralistic America, even witchcraft and devil worship are constitutionally protected religions. Many seem to think that the Creator of the universe is somehow limited by the Constitution of the United States. He is not! Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The apostle Paul taught, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Any culture totally given over to pluralism has forgotten that there is a Law above the law. America, both collectively and individually, will honor God and be blessed, or it will disobey God and pay the bitter consequences.
Allowing ourselves to have been seduced by a metaphor, we have unwittingly added to the void that has caused our current secularization. Surrendering to the enemy, we have even stooped to digging our own graves. Consequently, we believe it critical—for both the church and society—that the church of Christ respond to the God-given imperative: “Let your light shine.” But realizing some may misunderstand our thesis, we want to make it clear that we are not advocating the “social gospel” which still overshadows a majority of the Lord's church. We are not promoting the activation of the universal church, and would resist all efforts to do so. Every such effort has resulted in the dilution of the gospel message. On the contrary, ours is an appeal not to the church collectively, but to the church individually. As individual Christians, we must learn that there is no basic conflict between discipleship and political power. Biblical faith is more than a private pill to be swallowed; it is a prescribed regimen that must become a part of every facet of our lives.
As we approach the 21st century, secular values and their consequences will continue to permeate our culture and affect Christians. But, as always, there is a remedy. After repenting, we must turn to (1) strong Bible teaching (II Timothy 3:16; 4:4), (2) a rediscovery of our calling (I Thessalonians 2:12; Romans 12:1,2; II Peter 1:1-11), and (3) the development of a Bible-based world view (Ecclesiastes 12:13; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:36-40). Ultimately, the battle is for the mind; therefore, we will either give ourselves over to a secular way of thinking or we will develop the “mind of Christ.”
It is our prayer that churches of Christ will stand up and courageously
answer the Lord's bidding to be counterculture. With this in mind, we close
with the apostle Paul's exhortation in Romans 13:12-14, which says: “The
night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works
of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly,
as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and
lewdness, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and
make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”