Most Christians say the culture around us is becoming more and more hostile to our faith. What should we do in response?
It has long been the case that the Church disagrees with the world outside it. In the West today, the conflict is typically focused on issues of sexuality, gender and abortion. In recent months, people have been arrested for praying outside abortion clinics; others have been sacked from their jobs for articulating Christian views on sexual ethics, or say their bank accounts have been closed because of their beliefs.
It’s clear that Christians are feeling the pressure. The recent ‘Future of the Church’ survey by Premier found that a whopping 89 per cent of respondents agreed that “increasingly government legislation and regulation is threatening freedom of thought, speech, conscience and religion”. It seems the Church broadly agrees that our beliefs are under threat, but what should we do about it?
Three different possible responses are summarised by Ben Chang in his recent book Christ and the Culture Wars (Christian Focus). The first is to fight back, demanding fair and equal treatment in response to a viewpoint that Christians are being increasingly marginalised and persecuted. The second is to embrace campaigning on hot topics, believing that Christians must actively argue the case for traditional Christian ethics. Thirdly, we can choose not to engage at all, preferring instead to turn the other cheek. The oft-heard refrain: “the world should know Christians for what they are for, not what they are against” is another manifestation of this third perspective. Engaging in culture wars is sometimes seen as counterproductive to the cause of the gospel, and some say the Church needs to get its own house in order before worrying about wider societal attitudes.
OPTION ONE: Standing up for our rights
When Northamptonshire local government councillor King Lawal was suspended by the Conservative Party for saying “Pride is not a virtue, but a Sin,” he sought help from Christian Concern, and has now instructed lawyers to prepare legal action against them. He also plans to sue the other organisations that dismissed him for expressing his beliefs (see box).
Critics of such responses argue that we should accept we no longer live in a majority Christian country and behave accordingly. “As a public servant Cllr Lawal needs to understand that we live in a secular society. So his pronouncements will come under a different scrutiny to a 100% Christian audience”, said one response on Twitter. “In that light his comments are unwise and he comes over as rather naive.”
Standing up for what is right is not about expressing anger or drawing attention to ourselves
Yet St Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen under Roman law when he was persecuted (see Acts 22:25-29). “There’s nothing wrong with speaking prophetically or seeking to claim the rights the State grants us: freedom of speech, of religion, or employment protection,” says John Stevens, national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. “We live in a culture that is privileged due to Christian influence from the past. That has given us rights we can use.”
Perhaps it’s a question of how we do it that’s important. “It’s vital that we don’t become like the world when we react against the pressure it puts on us,” says Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute (CI).
Calvert also cited Philippians 4, where Paul talks about Christians displaying qualities of “reasonableness” or “gentleness” as part of their witness to the world (v5). “It’s also vital that we don’t mistake gentleness for weakness. We must stand up for what is right…[which] is not about expressing anger or drawing attention to ourselves. It is about loving God and neighbour. We dishonour God when we go along with the sins of society. We also harm our neighbour, because we send him a false message about what Christians believe.”
When the CI won a High Court challenge against the dismissal of a Christian school governor who challenged teaching on gender (see box), it wanted to prevent a “terrible message” being sent to parents, governors and schools, namely that they cannot question what is being taught. “We hope her success will reassure parents, inspire more Christians to take up the rewarding role of being a school governor, and encourage existing governors seeking to do what is best for their schools – especially when it comes to upholding the reality of biological sex”, said its statement. “Likewise, we trust it will discourage any schools inclined to silence such views.”
OPTION TWO: Making the case
Many believers work for unfashionable social causes such as promoting traditional marriage, reducing abortion and reversing all the related societal changes that have so radically transformed our culture since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. “It is right, good and indeed loving to our neighbour that we use public channels to point people to truth, and to a message that upholds life, freedom and hope,” says Lois McLatchie Miller, spokesperson for ADF UK.
Are Christians under threat?
The introduction of “buffer zones” around abortion clinics has led to Christians being arrested for silently praying near facilities.
The government is also planning to introduce a ‘Gay conversion therapy’ bill, which evangelical-turned-gay rights campaigner Jayne Ozanne says must include the banning of “gentle, non-coercive prayer”.
An unnamed Christian school governor was dismissed - and banned from serving as a governor of any school in the UK – for questioning material about gender that was being taught to primary school children. A legal challenge later decided in her favour.
Christian teaching assistant Kristie Higgs was sacked for saying on social media that she was concerned about sex education at her school. An employment tribunal found she had not been unfairly dismissed, but a judge overturned the ruling on appeal.
Anglican vicar Rev Richard Fothergill’s bank account was closed after he sent an email criticising Yorkshire Building Society’s promotion of gender ideology.
Core Issues Trust, which provides support for those struggling with sexuality and identity issues, had its bank accounts closed by Barclays. After a two-year legal battle, Barclays settled out of court, paying them £21,500.
Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service says that either withholding money for a person to have an operation to change their sex, or not using their preferred pronouns can now be considered “domestic abuse”.
Rev Dr Patrick Pullicino, a Catholic chaplain, received a £10,000 settlement after an NHS trust dismissed him for expressing orthodox views on marriage and sexuality in response to a patient’s questions on the issue.
Felix Ngole was expelled from university for Facebook posts criticising homosexuality. He eventually won a long legal battle to complete his social worker training, but has since had a job offer withdrawn due to his beliefs. He is taking legal action.
For a Twitter post that stated pride was a sin, King Lawal found himself ousted from multiple positions, including as a local councillor, charity trustee, from the board of an education trust, as governor of a healthcare trust – and even forced to resign from his own company on threat of withdrawal of a government contract.
Catholic campaigner Caroline Farrow has been arrested for what has posted online, initially for calling a transgender woman “he”.
But this doesn’t have a great track record in the UK. From the 1960s until her death in 2001, Mary Whitehouse campaigned valiantly against the rapid increase of non-Christian morality on our TV screens. As the sexual revolution took hold, Whitehouse wrote and protested about programmes showing non-married couples co-habiting, swearing, sex and nudity. But she appeared to produce little fruit, and was roundly ridiculed. TV executives deliberately sent her previews of racy shows with the expectation that her outrage would increase the audience of the contested programme instead of reducing it.
We say we long for revival. What price are we willing to pay?
Her argument was that the morals of the country would deteriorate. Last year, a BBC Radio 4 documentary Disgusted Mary Whitehouse observed that given violent explicit pornography is readily available through the internet, and the social norms she tried to protect are long gone, Whitehouse’s warnings appear to have been prophetic. Perhaps she was ahead of her time after all?
Some secular commentators are also starting to change their mind, now daring to suggest that Whitehouse may have been right on many issues. So says New Statesman journalist Louise Perry in her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Polity). She criticises our culture’s liberal morals from a secular (evolutionary) feminist perspective, pointing out the many harms it inflicts on women and children.
Christians have found secular comrades in the area of gender ideology, too. Many feminists (including Harry Potter author JK Rowling) oppose the idea that transgender women who still have male genitalia should have access to women’s spaces such as toilets, changing rooms and even prisons. Sports stars including ex-Olympic swimmer, Sharron Davies, campaign against transgender athletes in women’s categories.
There are obvious challenges when it comes to engaging in such controversial and emotive topics, including the threat of being cancelled. But now is not the time to retreat, says James Mildred, from Christian campaign group CARE: “The temptation in the face of rising secularisation is to withdraw from the public square and focus on evangelism. But it’s not, and never has been, an either/or. The coming of the kingdom of God into this world means more than just individual salvation. As Christ’s ambassadors, we have a duty to engage in forms of political engagement and social action.”
OPTION THREE: Fixing the Church
Other Christians argue that wrestling with culture is less important than getting our own house in order. In the previously mentioned Premier survey, only 15 per cent thought that the most important issue facing the UK Church was the attitude of secular media and government towards Christianity. More than 20 per cent said it was UK Church leadership.
Writing in Faithful Exiles: Finding hope in a hostile world (The Gospel Coalition), evangelist Glen Scrivener uses the story of Abraham in Genesis 14 as a guide. The patriarch usually stayed out of the wars that were going on around him and, instead, built his “household of faith” with only a brief attempt to make an alliance with the king of Sodom. “Sometimes ‘entering the fray’ is right,” Scrivener told Premier Christianity. “Mostly ‘building the household of faith’ is our calling.”
It’s a view shared by many leaders: the Church’s role is to spread the gospel, so that our culture is transformed because more Christians are loving, praying and being led by the Holy Spirit. “Bringing about change is best brought about by growing the Church, following Jesus and living by his teachings,” says Stevens. “The great social reforms of the 19th century came on the back of evangelical revivals,” he adds. “There’s a danger in thinking it’s all about creating a Christian culture rather than building a people who are committed to the Lord Jesus and living for him.”
There’s a danger in thinking it’s all about creating a Christian culture rather than building a people who are committed to Jesus
Many are inspired by the stories of great revivals, when whole towns were healed from strife, alcoholism, feuds and other troubles. But do we pray and desire this supernatural transformation enough? In a recent opinion article for Premier Christianity, Malcolm Macdonald, vicar of St Mary’s Church, Loughton, Essex wrote: “Just when things seem darkest, God moves and everything changes. But this only happens when we get more desperate for him, when we pray for increased vision, repent and desire to be saturated with the things of God.”
As Jason Mandryk of Operation World points out, there are astonishing revivals still happening today. However, most are not in comfortable, wealthy Western countries. They are largely occurring in countries in the Middle and Far East, Africa, South America and India, where there is harsh persecution. “We say we long for revival. What price are we willing to pay?” Mandryk asks, observing that moves of God tend to happen in the unglamorous contexts of prayer and fasting, poverty and persecution.
Founder of 24-7 Prayer, Pete Greig, also thinks going deeper in prayer is an important spiritual discipline. He said recently on Twitter: “Surveying the hysterics of contemporary culture and the crisis of leadership in the church, I’m increasingly convinced that the quiet, remote disciplines of prayer and pilgrimage, silence and solitude far from being extraneous to modern life are urgently, startlingly essential.” He added: “It is our hidden lives in Christ which lend our public witness for Christ the credibility of dissonance and depth.”
Stevens is optimistic that this kind of ground-level transformation is already happening in the UK. “I’ve seen more churches that have navigated that challenge from the world, and biblically focused churches are seeing growth,” he says. “There is a spiritual hunger among many people, there’s a recognition that society is not working. I’m less optimistic about the culture, more optimistic about the Church.”
He believes the abuse scandals that have rocked the Christian community in recent years do not reflect what’s really happening on the ground. “For most ordinary Christians, their experience is of their own leaders who love them,” he says. “The real growth is in ordinary churches, where people are loving each other.”
Australian church leader Mark Sayers also feels hopeful. “I am seeing this incredible trend where people have been through a real renewal of their personal faith in the last couple of years,” he told Premier Christianity. “There are people now in churches who weren’t at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Without a personal revival in our own hearts, how could we ever show the love and patience of the Holy Spirit in any situation, let alone when trying to engage with a hostile culture? If we each seek a closer relationship with Christ and listen to what he truly calls us to do, we could do it all with love, whether engaging the world around us or transforming the Church.