The example of Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire leads us to see that culture-making is an expression of worship, and that culture wars are won and lost first in the spiritual realm. The Christian's calling is not to cultural retreat, but to transform culture in obedience to God's revealed word.
The Faith of our Fathers
Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John, was arrested and burned to death about A.D. 156. A relative of the magistrate who arrested him was also a Christian, and tried to persuade Polycarp to save himself by saying, “Caesar is Lord;” the bishop refused and perished in the flames. The question that this raised then, as it does now, is why should Christians make such a big issue of so trivial-sounding a matter as speaking some series of words? It was because that series of words bore testimony to one’s ultimate allegiance. The Lord our God is one Lord, you shall have no other gods before me.
Culture-making as an Expression of Worship
To understand the nature of the present cultural crisis in the West and the challenge it represents to Christians, we must go back to antiquity and the religious policy of Rome that led to the persecution of the church. Roman emperors considered their military victories the victories of Roman gods over other gods. The ‘culture wars’ here were indeed warfare between cults; someone’s god would be victorious! And while other religions were officially tolerated, it was on the condition that they did not contravene the laws of Rome. Thus the central requirement of law in Rome, from which the pagan social order naturally followed (for religion and politics were no more separate then than they are today), was the recognition of the emperor as the ultimate object of worship and allegiance.
Lessons from Antiquity
How does this historical reality help us understand our own cultural moment? It is certainly true that in much of the world today, Christians are not being executed for their faith in the Lordship of Christ. Nonetheless, whilst we are not being tossed to wild beasts, we are now largely under an official state doctrine of tolerance, which in the name of equality and compassion, is determined to censor, in the public and increasingly in the private spheres, the preaching of the gospel, the moral standards of Scripture, the prayers of citizens in the schools and corridors of power, as well as free speech that challenges in any way the pagan and secular ideology of our time. This cultural shift is due to a revived ‘cult,’ a form of humanism expressing itself sociologically as cultural Marxism. In this worldview the Christian faith is portrayed as a retrograde, patriarchal and draconian form of oppression which serves the self-interest of white, male, wealthy and middle class misogynists, using the private family and repressive Christian morality as a weapon for the promotion of capitalism and class domination. Consequently the war presently being waged in the West against the Christian faith is a culture war in the realm of ideas that is as real as the violent war waged against the early church.
The Art of Culture War
There is nothing new about this strategy. In A.D. 261, Gallienus issued the first ‘Edict of Toleration’ in the Roman Empire, the purpose of which was not to favour Christianity but to oppose it with a strategy other than murder and violence – targeted strategic propaganda. As an emperor soaked in Hellenic culture, Gallienus preferred to contest Christianity in the field of ideas.[i] The propaganda war against the faith continues today. It is powerful, well-resourced and pervasive in many public and private institutions. Sometimes the propaganda is framed in terms of the political ideals of multiculturalism that dominate our society; at other times it has centred on the official state policy of political correctness as it relates to restrictions on free speech and liberty.
It is difficult to see how a Christian view of the family or even basic Christian evangelism could avoid falling afoul of this religious policy of state, since the proclamation of the gospel requires the calling of all men and women who reject the salvation and Lordship of Jesus Christ to repentance, faith, and a changed life that eschews anything the Bible considers sinful and idolatrous.
The Christian’s Threefold Cultural Calling
What then is the calling of Christians in the midst of this culture war? First, we cannot distance ourselves from culture, or hide from it. Christ is over and transcends culture as creator, redeemer and king. All things have been made subject to him and he remains the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8); his truth, gospel, and law are not culturally relative. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Pt. 1: 24). Since Christ’s purpose is the restitution and reconciling of all things to himself (Col 1: 20), the transformation of culture by faithfulness to the gospel and the total word of God is central to the Christian’s calling.
Second, we must be mindful that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Our battle is spiritual and it is a struggle for the minds and hearts of people.
Thirdly, to wage this spiritual war, we must be faithful to recognize and live in terms of the relevance of God’s word to every area of life. Only in this way will we see the gospel transform us, our families, communities, and therefore cultures. Until we recover this understanding of the faith we will not be able to comprehend, never mind emulate, the martyrdom of the great Fathers of the church who could not treat as trivial the words, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ but instead died for the confession, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Indeed, without this comprehension we will remain irrelevant to the crisis of our age and the faith of our forebears will pass like wind in the prairies, driven by the propaganda of idolatry – the worship of man and state[ii]
The challenge is great; yet with it, there is tremendous opportunity. The question of culture-making is ultimately a question of lordship - idolatry or true worship. Is Jesus Christ lord, or some other god? The character and shape of our culture depends upon the answer.