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Christians in Culture pt. 2: Historical Humility

One of the reasons why Christians differ in their views and approaches to cultural engagement is because they not only view their own history differently, but also because they view our present responses to that history very differently. Do we have an accurate picture of Church history? What responsibility, if any, do we have for the sins committed by Christians in the past (or present)? What are the challenges present in coming to a consensus on these issues? These are some of the questions I will tackle in this second part of the series. This post is a part of a series that is meant to be read in order. For part 1, start here.

The first grid we need for understanding what it means to be Christians in culture is that of historical humility.

As I wrote in a previous post, historical humility is the necessary courage to look back on our Christian history with honesty. Yes, there are many things we have gotten right. But there are also many things we have gotten wrong. We have been unfaithful to our Lord, and this has damaged our witness to him in the world. We have no moral high ground to ignore our failures or act as if we have all the right answers. Our humility is an argument in itself for the truthfulness of our beliefs. It shows we take seriously the words of Christ, and that they have transformative effect on our lives.

The normal posture of the corporate Church body must be one of humility and repentance. In the Scriptures, we read of how God’s people have always practiced a corporate confession of their sins (Leviticus 16:21; Nehemiah 1:7, 9:1-2, Daniel 9:1-19). Far from boasting in our own righteousness, our God continually calls us to turn from our sins and to come back to him (Isaiah 44:21-22, Jeremiah 3:14, Malachi 3:7-9). In the New Testament, the call for Christ’s followers to confess their sins together and to one another is affirmed both by Christ (Matthew 6:12) and his apostles (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9).

While God’s commands ought to be obeyed simply because they come from God himself (and that should be reason enough), there are at least three practical reasons why we must have this historical humility.

The first reason is because it keeps us humble before our God. The Scriptures say,

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Humility is a requirement for having proper fellowship with God. He resists the proud. This is no small thing! St. Bernard of Clairvaux emphasized the need for humility when he said,

Humility is the virtue by which a man recognizes his own unworthiness because he really knows himself.

Until we know our own need for grace, we cannot fully depend on the infinite well of grace that is found in Christ. We need this historical humility to keep us humble before our God and be in right fellowship with him.

The second reason is because it helps us see ourselves how the culture sees us. If we are able to see ourselves as those outside of the church see us, we will recognize that we have no grounds for defensiveness or moral superiority. Our humility expressed in confession of sin shows our own sincerity about what we say we believe. The Reformed theologian John Calvin understood this connection between our public confession of sin and our witness to the world:

And it is fitting that, by the confession of our own wretchedness, we show forth the goodness and mercy of our God, among ourselves and before the whole world.[1]

Here is the truth of the matter: we have no righteousness in ourselves to stand on any kind of moral high ground. This is not only evident from Scripture (Romans 3:21-27, Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5), but also from any honest evaluation of Christian history. Even if we focus our evaluation to the 20th and 21st centuries alone, any serious reckoning with Church history must (at least) deal with our complicity in racial injustice, gender inequality and patriarchy, as well as rampant abuse scandals in our churches and among some of our most high-profile leaders. We must also consider such statistics as Dr. Diane Langberg highlights in her newest book, Redeeming Power:

Let’s shine light on two statistics: 64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women view pornography at least once a month[2]

Understand also that statistics from various sources show that we in the evangelical world are both divorcing and battering our spouses as regularly as our secular neighbors are.[3] And we say marriage is sacred. We are to love. How? In the same manner as Jesus loves. Yet research shows that we Christians are the most likely to object to living next door to someone of another race.[4]

The reality of these endemic sins ought to be enough to move us to a deep repentance. How much more so knowing that our neighbors are well aware of these failures? How can we have any fruitful witness in the world if we are unwilling to acknowledge and confess the sin of those who carry the name of Christ? If we are unwilling to confess our own complicity in systems that allow for such sins to go on?

Author Rosaria Butterfield captured this well when she said:

Our own conduct condemns our witness to this world. Shame on us. Our post-Christian world has not taken away our Bibles or the Holy Spirit’s convicting rebuke on our Christ-owned consciousness. We have done this through high-minded moralism and unrepentant sin. And now we must be salt and light in a world that knows we have blown it. We will wear the title of hypocrite – and rightly so – until we repent to God and love our neighbor in word and deed. Now is the time to know our stuff and roll up our sleeves. Reconciliation starts with repentance.[5]

Shame on us, indeed.

The third reason is because historical humility informs our practices in Christian fellowship and sense of corporate responsibility.  In particular, historical humility fuels our practice of corporate confession of sin, or what has historically been called the “general confession.” Here is how John Calvin explained this practice in the life of the church:

Now this sort of confession ought to be ordinary in the church and be used extraordinarily in a special way, whenever it happens that the people are guilty of some transgression in common… Nor does it matter if sometimes a few in one congregation be innocent, for when they are members of a feeble and diseased body they ought not to boast of health. Nay, they cannot but contract some contagion and also bear some part of the guilt.[6]

Notice what Calvin says here. Not only should the practice of general confession be ordinary (regular) in the church, but it doesn’t matter if someone feels they are truly innocent of the sins being confessed. Even if we are truly innocent (we rarely are), we belong to one another, and thus we must not boast of our own health if another part of the body is sick. Indeed, it is likely we are not as innocent as we believe we are, for we “cannot but contract some contagion and also bear some part of the guilt.” The Scriptures exhort us to confess our hidden faults (Psalm 19:12). We are likely not as innocent as we think we are.

When Christians today try to talk about corporate responsibility and guilt, they are often labeled as being “woke” or as being influenced by “Marxism.” Yet corporate responsibility and communal guilt are important concepts of the historic theology of the Church – especially in the Reformed tradition. We just saw it in Calvin, and we see it in theologians like Herman Bavinck:

We cannot point to the boundary where community or solidarity ceases and the personal independence and individual responsibility begin. But all this does not take away from the fact that such a solidarity exists, and that people, be it in small or in large communities of interrelationship, are united to each other in real solidarity. There are individuals, but there is also an invisible bond which binds whole families, generations, peoples into a powerful unit. There is an individual soul, but there is also, be it in a metaphorical sense, a popular or national “soul.” There are personal characteristics, but there are also social characteristics peculiar to a given circle of people. There are particular, individual sins, but there are also general, social sins. And thus too there is individual guilt, but also common social guilt.[7]

Many Christians who emphasize individual responsibility and reject corporate responsibility for sin (often with labels such as “liberalism” or “Cultural Marxism”) must wrestle with the fact that these ideas are nothing new but are firmly located within a historic Reformed theology and ethic. It may be that we still disagree on where the line is between communal and individual responsibility. But these accusations toward those who mention or emphasize communal responsibility are often baseless.

Now I would hope that of the three grids I am explaining in this series, there would be the greatest amount of unity among Christians on this first grid. Unfortunately, I do not believe it is so. When I look out on the American Evangelical Church today, I see so much fear and pride that my heart is made heavy with grief. I find that there are at least three reasons why this practice of historical humility is so strongly resisted.

The first reason is because of our heightened individualism and focus on the self in many of our churches. The Evangelical gospel has tended to focus on the self; thus, we emphasize concepts like “a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “personal Bible reading.” Much of this emphasis is good. Scripture itself puts an emphasis on the individual, including the faith an individual must have to be saved (Romans 10:8-10) and personal responsibility (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

Yet the heightened focus on the self – to the neglect of our relational responsibilities – is a unique product of the modern Western culture. In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt traces this idea as one of the major arguments in his book. For example, Haidt uses the acronym WEIRD to describe our culture in the West as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. According to his research,

The WEIRDer you are, the more you see the world full of separate objects, rather than relationships…it makes sense that WEIRD philosophers have mostly generated moral systems that are individualistic, rule-based, and universalist. That’s the morality you need to govern a society of autonomous individuals.[8]

However, contrast WEIRD culture with traditional, non-WEIRD society. Haidt continues:

But if you live in a non-WEIRD society in which people are more likely to see relationships, contexts, groups, and institutions, then you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals. You’ll have a more sociocentric morality, which means that you place the needs of groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals.[9]

None of this is to say that a non-WEIRD society is more virtuous than a WEIRD society (or vice versa). However, Evangelical Christians in the United States must be willing to realize that our emphasis on the self is as much – if not more – a product of our cultural environment as it is a result of our theological beliefs.

In fact, if we’re willing to be honest about our history, we’ll realize that the context in which the Bible was written was very traditional (and non-WEIRD). As a result, many of the individualistic conclusions we might assume about Scripture would have been completely foreign to the original authors or audience (such as the emphasis on individual Bible reading, which is a very good thing but completely foreign to God’s people until the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century).

The second reason we resist historical humility is because we are filled with fear. It seems like the enemy which Christians fear has changed in every decade. In the 1920’s it was the modernists, in the 30’s it was socialists, in the 50’s it was communists, in the 70’s through the 90’s it was the “gay agenda” and Democrats, in the early 2000’s it was Muslims, and today it is once again “Marxism” and Black Lives Matter.

But while the focus of our fear has shifted, the fear itself has been constant. In fact, fear seems to have become nearly virtuous among many Christians today. As I noted in the introduction, fear is a commodity marketed by many Evangelical Christian leaders. The constant fear of what might happen as the culture “declines” (what does that even mean? What standard are we using to measure decline?) creates a subculture in which we are unwilling to be honest about ourselves, our churches, and our witness in the world. As essayist Marilynne Robinson has said,

Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.[10]

In his well-known fictional work The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis insightfully captured how fear can be seen as nearly virtuous among Christians. Writing to his nephew Wormwood, the senior demon Screwtape wrote:

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is easier and is usually helped by this direct action.[11]

What Lewis illustrated for us here is that so long as our hearts stay focused on the things we fear, rather than the fear itself, we will never have the self-awareness to recognize that fear is unbecoming of a Christian. Instead, we will convince ourselves that these fears are our crosses to bear, and as crosses they must be marks of a good Christian life (Matthew 16:24-26).[12]

Yet the Word of God testifies that we must not fear the things of this world, but the Lord himself. Leviticus 26 describes what the state of God’s people will be when they find themselves departing from the Lord:

The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues. And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. (Leviticus 26:36-37)

Let us return to the Lord and be rid of our fear. We will likely find ourselves more willing to practice historical humility as we do.

The third reason we resist historical humility is because of our lack of historical awareness. So many of us today are simply unaware of our own history. We’ve been taught sanitized versions of Christian history that highlight the strengths of our heroes while neglecting their failures. For example, in their book Meet the Puritans, Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson wrote several pages about the influence of American theologian Cotton Mather. Yet absent from these pages was any mention of Mather’s pro-slavery and racist views. Why must Christian students of their own history often turn to non-Christian historians to learn the truth about their own history (in this case, I learned a fuller picture of Cotton Mather’s history and influence from Dr. Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning)?

Indeed, I am continually shocked by my tradition’s complicity and advocacy for a great many sins. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered J. Gresham Machen’s (often regarded as a hero who fought against modernism in the early 20th century) pro-segregation views. It wasn’t until I was in my denomination (the PCA) that I learned of its complicated history on issues of racism and segregation. While reading Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, I was grieved by the way many modern Evangelical leaders have treated and talked about women.

Yet I had to learn the truth of our history on my own. In some ways, I feel cheated that it was kept from me until now. I echo the sentiment of the Rev. Dr. Irwyn Ince who said,

The overwhelmingly common experience of those who have pursued theological education in the seminaries that train ministers for biblically conservative Presbyterian denominations is being assigned readings by theologians within the tradition who defended American chattel slavery.[13]

This lack of historical awareness and instruction has created a massive divide in Evangelical Christianity today. How do we process our history when we learn so many grievous details that were kept from us? One camp uses these historical details as ammunition to constantly put the Church on blast. This response serves nothing but our own interests, and it repels outsiders from having any care about what we might have to say. Another camp gets defensive, either disputing and ignoring the history, or simply dismissing it by saying things like, “They must not have been true Christians,” or “I’m not responsible for what they did.” These responses lack the appropriate humility to acknowledge our own complicity in sins or responsibility to do something about the lingering damage in the present.

But there is a better response: one that is both honest about our past yet still filled with love for the Church today. This is the Christian response to our checkered history. We must have the historical humility to be honest about our failures and our responsibilities to right what has been wronged while simultaneously being filled with a deep love for the Church.

Why do we love the Church? Because Christ loves the Church. He died and gave himself up for her in love (Ephesians 5:25). Despite her many flaws and sins, he has betrothed himself to his church forever (Hosea 2:19-20). One day he will give us new, beautiful garments to wear at the great wedding ceremony (Revelation 19:7-8). If this is how Christ feels about his Church, how could we not love it as well?

I’ll have more application for us in the final post in this series. For now, I’ll conclude with a couple brief thoughts.

In order for fruitful evangelism and church planting to take place in the United States today, Christians must be prepared to confront two realities: First, the failures of the (predominantly White) church in America to confront injustice and inequality, as well as our many hypocrisies and idolatries that have more often protected our own comforts than advanced the cause of Christ in the world.

Second, we must be willing and able to see ourselves the way our non-Christian neighbors see us. This means we have to do the hard work of confessing the failures listed in the first, while also listening to the perspectives of those who see us very differently than we see ourselves.

Both of these tasks require a great deal of historical humility as well as a deep love for Christ’s church.

If you’d like to start increasing your own historical awareness of American Church history, here are four books that can help with this work. These are not the only ones, but some good ones to get started:

1) Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

2) The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald

3) The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

4) Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.4.10.

[2] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/aug/24/more-than-half-of-christian-men-admit-to-watching-/

[3] https://www.barna.com/research/new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released/

[4] https://www.barna.com/research/racial-reconciliation/

[5] Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, pg. 61

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.4.11.

[7] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 226.

[8] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pgs. 113-114

[9] Ibid., pg. 114

[10] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, pg. 130.

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperOne, 2001), 25–26.

[12] Lewis goes on to connect this fear to the malice we show to one another: “Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary (Ibid., 28).” Or in the words of Master Yoda: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”

[13] Irwyn Ince, Meditations on Preaching, iii.

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Christians in Culture pt. 2: Historical Humility

by Ben Hein time to read: 14 min
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