SHAFAQNA – A prominent Christian seminary professor says believers need to keep their chins up in the face of a culture that seems increasingly hostile to their beliefs, and he urges the faithful to keep fighting for religious freedom while still evangelizing the lost.
Owen Strachan is an assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves at the school as chair of gospel and culture and as president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Strong religious liberty protections were modified in Indiana to the point where many faith leaders concluded the final law is worse than no bill at all. Legislation was also changed in Arkansas to accommodate political pressure on the governor from activists alleging that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, discriminated against “gays” and lesbians.
In addition to those political fights, the Supreme Court will hear arguments later this month on whether states have right to define marriage for themselves and decide whether to acknowledge same-sex marriages in other states. Many court watchers expect the justices to side with same-sex marriage advocates in those cases.
But while the culture may be be shifting quickly against Christians, Strachan said this is the worst possible time for believers to give up hope or give up fighting.
“This is not the fall. The fall of Adam and Eve happened thousands of years ago. This is not the one problem the church is facing that it cannot overcome,” he said. “If you study Christian history, you see so many obstacles faced by Christians in the past.
“So often, there’s this tendency, ‘Jesus must be coming because things are getting so bad.’ The reason that Christians have jumped to that conclusion is not simply because their theology is a little off. It’s because things have been so bad in their culture and society,” he said.
Strachan said it is precisely when the road gets difficult that Christians must stiffen their spines.
“We’re in that kind of moment, and we’ve got to recognize that the Lord has placed us here to be gospel witnesses and to push for love of neighbor in the public square, to champion good policy even if we lose in big terms at the Supreme Court,” he said. “So we’re going to keep on going. The band is not going to stop playing. It’s time to put your head down and keep going.”
While Christians may be seeing the most hostility in modern U.S. history, Strachan said even America’s relatively brief past shows amazing changes can happen.
“If you lived in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s, you would have thought that slavery would be a part of America forever,” he said. “It can feel like America is sliding into the abyss, and it will never recover, but look what happened. Through a great, fiery cataclysm, slavery was abolished in this country and the slave trade was ended.”
Strachan added, “I have hope. I believe in an awesome God, who does awesome and unexpected things. Even if things do darken in our country, I would tell Christians to stay at their posts, as Chuck Colson used to say, and keep working.”
But with record numbers of Americans denying faith in God and resisting the church, should faithful Christians be focused primarily on evangelizing unbelievers rather than trying to improve society through public policy?
“I’m very greedy on this. I’m unwilling to choose one or the other and be forced to select only one entree culturally,” said Strachan, who sees no conflict in believers vigorously pursuing earthly and eternal goals.
“There is absolutely no divide between public-square witness in policy work and evangelism,” he said. “We must recognize that the gospel creates both of those instincts. The gospel creates an instinct to share the truth about Jesus Christ with unbelievers, absolutely. But the gospel also creates this love for justice and righteousness and this love for neighbor.”
That combination, he said, played key roles in two of the greatest changes in the American fabric.
“Christians in the 19th century evangelized. They planted churches and preached the gospel. But they also worked at the local, state and national level to advance anti-slavery legislation. And you know what happened? It worked in the end after a great war,” said Strachan, who added that America saw a similar strategy play out in the middle of last century.
“The same thing happened in the mid-20th century with the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “A lot of Christians who loved the gospel continued to preach the gospel but also fought in different ways and advocated in different ways for full racial equality.”
Strachan is quick to admit the monumental cultural challenge facing the United States. He said we are watching in real time the fracturing of an uneasy truce that lasted for centuries.
“I think what we’ve seen in American history is a marriage of the First Great Awakening and the enlightenment. So you have Thomas Jefferson at the same table as Jonathan Edwards. They’re effectively working together for common purposes. It appears today that the enlightenment, with its call for neutrality and liberty and freedom is triumphing over our religious heritage.
“What that means today, specifically, is that what is called erotic liberty is beating religious liberty in the public square. Christians, in a pretty unusual way, are being targeted for their views, and our religious liberty is very much imperiled in this day,” he said.
Strachan said for America to drift away from its commitment to religious liberty is to forget the basic roots of our great experiment.
“Religious liberty is what America’s founded on,” he said. “It’s why the pilgrims and the Puritans came here. They were specifically not granted full-fledged religious liberty in the U.K., so they came to these shores so that they could worship according to their conscience.
“It’s the freedom that grounds all the others. If you don’t have freedom to practice your religion to be sensitive to your conscience, then what do other freedoms matter?”
Because of that common heritage, Strachan said he is encouraged to see robust partnerships among Catholics and Protestants in fighting to preserve and strengthen religious liberties and other bedrock principles. He believes it’s a movement that every faith in America should join, while noting that common cause in policy does not erase foundational differences in the faiths.
“Christians should even be thinking about partnering with Muslims on this cause and Buddhists and others of different religions,” he said. “It’s not because we don’t believe that our worldview differences are unimportant. We very much believe they are important and even eternally important. But we live here. We live in this country and we recognize that something is imperiled which threatens all of us.
There have been countless religious freedom debates over the years and endless cultural debates as well. Why is the debate over homosexuality the pivot point for a confrontation over religious liberty?
Strachan said he has a strongly educated guess for why this appears to be coming to a head now.
“It’s because homosexuality is so closely tied to the body,” he said. “Our identity is so derived from our body. I think that’s some of what is coming into play. People want to be able to do with their bodies as they see fit. So when others who are religious resist the full approval of same-sex marriage and transgender identity, we’ve recognized that this isn’t going to be a gentlemanly dispute.”
Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the marriage cases, meaning the court may impose same-sex marriage on all 50 states in just over two months. Strachan said the impact of that on our culture would be enormous.
“It’s going to very much change the nature of this country,” Strachan said. “We’ve just got to be honest about that. We’ve got to look it full in the face and say America is going to change. It’s going to mean that sexual immorality as defined by the Bible and as we would understand from natural design is going to be enshrined in law.
“That’s going to mean that people are going to be shaped by these laws. Politics is going to influence culture as it always does. This is going to have very deleterious effects for American culture and society in general.”
But as difficult as that cultural avalanche would be to faithful Christians, Strachan said it’s more important than ever to fight for what they know to be right.
“There’s a ton of ground left to be claimed in this cultural divide,” he said. “We want to be very much plugged into upcoming elections. There’s all kinds of good measures that have taken hold in the pro-life realm and the marriage realm at the state level.
“We don’t just want to look at one verdict from the Supreme Court, which will be huge. We don’t want to assume that that’s the only decision that has import for American public life. That’s frankly not the case.”