Every now and then it’s worthwhile to take a step back from the news cycle and explore differences in first principles—to discover the deeper reasons why people disagree. How can people look at many of the same facts and come to completely different conclusions about the state of the world or the state of the church?
The answer often lies in starting presuppositions. For example, years and years ago I was taught that a key distinction between conservatives and progressives could be seen in their different conceptions of human nature. Conservatives were more apt to believe in original sin and man’s fallen nature. Progressives were more apt to believe that man was fundamentally good.
How did conservatives reckon with the great good that mankind could obviously accomplish? Well, God’s grace elevates us, and so do functioning institutions like healthy families, churches, and communities.
How did progressives reckon with the great evil that mankind obviously commits? Well, toxic systems oppress and destroy, creating the cultural pathologies that grievously wound the world. Patriarchy, fundamentalism, and nationalism all work their dark magic to twist human souls.
Yes, I know this is overly simplistic. There are conservatives who are wildly optimistic about human nature. There are progressives who recognize mankind’s fallen nature. But the point is that there are distinctly different opinions about human nature, and those differences shape how we view the world.
And that brings me to the church. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that one explanation for profoundly different Christian approaches to politics and culture rests with different answers to the following question: Does the primary threat to the church come from within the church or without? Put differently, does the church stumble and fall primarily because of the sins of the church or because of the cultural and political headwinds directed against the church?
It’s a question closely related to questions about our own humanity. Are we fundamentally fallen individuals who sin primarily because of our own sin nature? Or are we good people, facing challenges primarily because we’re negatively influenced by our environment?
Before you give the “right” answer based on a textbook knowledge of Christian theology, think of your actual answer based on how you direct your emotions and energies. For example, when I discussed Christian nationalism in January, I noted that you’ll find very little Christian nationalism in American Christian theology, but you’ll find quite a bit more in American Christian emotion and action. I quoted Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd. “Actual Christian nationalism,” he argued, “is more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance.” His example was interesting:
I recently saw a yard sign that read “Make Faith Great Again: Trump 2020.” I wondered, How can re-electing Donald Trump make “faith” great again? What faith? When did it stop being great? No coherent answers would be forthcoming to such questions, but that’s the point. The sign speaks to a person’s ethnic, religious, and cultural identity in ways easier to notice than to explain.
Let’s return to my question. What is your visceral reaction? Does it match your rationally chosen stance? If your reaction is that the greatest threat to human souls or to the church itself comes from without—from the external forces attacking Christianity or from the cultural temptations buffeting our children—then that dictates a very different posture to the world and approach to politics than if you believe the true threats lie within.
I’ll give you an example, from Rod Dreher’s always-interesting and thought-provoking American Conservative blog. His pages are often a clearinghouse for Christians who express dark fears about the future of the church and the republic. They write anonymously to describe woke excesses in American corporations and the American academy. They describe the ways in which the culture is leading their children astray. One note, from an anonymous homeschool father, struck me as particularly poignant.
In spite of growing up with deep religious instruction, extreme restrictions on technology, and isolated from public-school kids, his daughter had turned suicidal, began cutting herself, rejected her faith, and adopted an LGBT identity. The father was stunned. “WE THOUGHT WE WERE SAFE,” he typed in all caps. How did his daughter go astray? The father thought he determined the culprit:
After the initial shock, when we were in “how did this happen??!?” mode, we discovered that it all had come in through the influence of one person, her best friend (who was from one of those “safe” Catholic homeschooling families I mentioned). As it turns out, the family was living a double life, with the public image of being devout but with severe dysfunction at the heart of the home. In the dysfunction, the “best friend” had no supervision and unlimited internet. So, with all the sleepovers the girls had in that house over the years, Lord knows what they were doing.
Well, well, well. Lesson learned (and word of warning to your readers): If you aren’t seeing what your kid is doing yourself, you don’t know what they are doing, period. NOBODY IS SAFE. Trust perhaps, but always verify.
First, God bless that family. I hope they heal, I hope the dangerous depression subsides, and I hope the daughter recovers her faith. But when I read the father’s heartbreaking letter, I wanted to type back in all caps, YOU COULD NEVER MAKE YOUR DAUGHTER SAFE.
The reason is simple. Parents cannot save children from their own fallen nature. Sin comes from within, not from without. You can purge their world of every negative image, remove every godless friend, and surround them with the best Christian culture, and these words from Jesus will remain completely true:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”…For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It’s a truth worth repeating again and again and again. Sin comes from within, not from without. It’s the fundamental truth exposed in G.K. Chesteron’s legendary (though perhaps apocryphal) response to a question The Times of London allegedly posed in the 1900s, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton’s response was succinct:
Yours, G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton didn’t mean that he was the worst person in Britain or the world. He was locating the fundamental flaw within man’s fallen nature—a fallen nature he shared.
This understanding really, truly matters for the way in which we interact with the world. An understanding that sin comes from within puts humility front and center in our interactions with each other. It places a greater emphasis on the righteousness of the church than the righteousness of the culture. It re-orders our priorities towards repentance. I found this tweet from my friend Sam Allberry moving and true:
But if you believe the most dangerous threats come from without, fear can rise in your heart. As you lose political and cultural power, and you see others shape the environment in which you live, then you start to have genuine alarm that other people are destroying the souls of those you love. What a terrifying idea.
Terrifying, but ultimately false.
None of this is an argument that environments are irrelevant. You don’t tell recovering alcoholics that it’s fine to stock their liquor cabinet. Pornography frequently connects with a person’s fallen nature in a particularly pernicious way. No man is an internal island. But a person should tend their souls–and shepherds tend the church flock–with far greater effort than they make to protect themselves from the world around them. They must realize that the law—whether imposed by parent or president—cannot render us righteous.
Indeed, if we spend more time attempting to reshape our environment in the hopes that it will protect our souls than we spend humbly asking God to reshape our heart, then our priorities are exactly wrong. If the church laments the waywardness of the culture more than it laments the misconduct of the church, then its priorities are exactly wrong.
Even worse, if we filter our concerns about the culture and government through the lens of partisan politics, we’re incentivized to exaggerate and amplify the threats from our opponents and minimize or rationalize our own faults. After all, we want to give uncommitted Americans reasons to love us and dislike or even loathe our opponents. Yet again, this is exactly backwards. We perversely enable the true threat, the darkness in our own hearts.
I get an enormous amount of criticism for not critiquing the secular left more than I do. Yet if I’m concerned for the health of the church, then corruption at the highest levels of the world’s largest Christian university, sexual predation by arguably Christianity’s most influential apologist, widespread conspiracy theories, and disproportionate disregard for the health and well-being of neighbors do more harm than the worst of Joe Biden’s culture war regulations or the most radical developments in the sexual revolution—and no, the sexual revolution did not make Ravi Zacharias or Jerry Falwell Jr. go astray. They did that on their own.
But while we are humbled by our own frailty, we should be confident that God still protects his people. The prophet Isaiah’s words ring true today:
No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed,
and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.
In all humility, I seek to be a servant of the Lord. In all confidence, I know that he preserves his people. But I also know that while he preserves his people, he does not always guarantee our peace or our prosperity. The history of God’s covenant with his people includes moments of rebuke. It’s replete with consequences for our own sin. And the path of righteousness is often hard.
But the dominant story is one of grace. We fail. He does not. We stumble. He lifts us up. It’s this reality—and only this reality—that makes me approach our world with confidence. No matter the twists and turns of politics and culture, I don’t shrink back. I lean in.
But it’s not confidence in myself. I only understand a fraction of my own sin, but that understanding is enough to cause me to approach God with fear and trembling, to seek to approach the world with humility, and to boast only in what God has done. Yet if we’re going to speak of true threats to God’s people and to God’s church, there is but one key conclusion—the call is coming from inside the house.
One more thing …
Last week’s newsletter about Jesus, John Wayne, and Christian masculinity triggered an enormous amount of feedback, both in the comments section and in personal emails. To continue the conversation, we invited Kristin Du Mez onto the Dispatch Podcast. We had a great discussion. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.
One last thing …
Several years ago I was invited to dinner at Charlie Peacock’s home. Charlie is a legendary Christian musician and producer, and after dinner he introduced his guests to a young woman named Jillian Edwards. She performed a short concert, and it was a true delight. She has a new album, and this is one of her songs. I loved it, and I thought you might too: