The facts are sobering. Fewer Americans are attending a church, and those raised in the faith are more likely to abandon it as adults. The majority now affirm no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage. In some communities, Christians are being shunned from the public square as homophobes and, ironically, intolerant. On some college campuses, espousing anything that resembles a Christian worldview is now enough to have one’s free speech rights revoked.
These trends and others are making Christians in the United States feel threatened and, like the “fight or flight” instinct of a frightened animal, within the collective sub conscience of American evangelicalism, there is an internal debate about how to respond. Do we retreat from the culture into safe enclaves, or should we aggressively engage and overpower those opposed to our values?
Anyone under the age of forty has only known an evangelicalism that fights; When the evidence that Christianity was losing it’s cultural influence first surfaced in the 1960s and 70s, many saw the threat as real but not insurmountable. Vocal leaders rallied the faithful to fight. The Religious Right was born to overwhelm and politically overpower those opposed to their values. Ed Dobson, a leader within the Moral Majority, reflected back on the years of activism and millions of dollars spent fighting the culture war:
“Did it work? Is the moral condition of America better because of our efforts? Even a casual observation of the current moral climate suggests that despite all the time, money, and energy—despite the political power—we failed. Things have not gotten better, they have gotten worse.”
Rather than transforming America into a God-fearing nation, research conducted by David Campbell and Robert Putnam found a direct correlation between the rise in secularism among young adults over the last 30 years and the political aggression of Christian cultural crusaders. In other words, fighting not only failed to make the culture more Christian — it actually made it less.
Rather than transforming America into a God-fearing nation, cultural crusading made us a less Christian nation.
After decades of defeat, fewer Christians have the will to fight. The Moral Majority has been re-dubbed the Moral Minority, and following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same sex marriage, the voices advocating flight from the culture are gaining attention. Rod Dreher calls this retreat The Benedict Option.
Some say it may be time to abandon the culture to its inevitable collapse. This view is built on the assumption that Western Civilization is following the pattern of Rome. Like the decadence and corruption of the Roman Empire, our society is unsustainable and toxic to those seeking to follow Christ, and any hope of saving it has passed. Rather than going down with the ship, Dreher says we should preserve our faith by finding a lifeboat. He wonders if the time has come for Christians to copy the 5th-century monk St. Benedict and pursue a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”
Listening to the Christians voices in the media, one might think these are the only choices we have—The Crusader Option of fighting the culture or The Benedict Option of retreating from it. I refuse to believe that these are the only paths God has put before his people. My struggle with both options comes from their common root of fear and self-interest. As the people of Christ we are called to faith not fear, and we are called to sacrificial love not self-preservation. As Henri Nouwen wrote, “Fear engenders fear. It never gives birth to love.” Surely there is a third path that follows in the steps of Jesus.
I will call it The Naaman Option.
Naaman was a foreigner suffering from leprosy (2 Kings 5). After being healed by the prophet Elisha, Naaman devoted himself to Israel’s God and vowed to worship no other. There remained one problem. Naaman was a servant of the King of Syria who worshiped another deity. Being old and weak, the King needed Naaman’s help kneeling during worship. Naaman asked the Lord through Elisha to excuse him for this action. Elisha responded, “Go in peace.”
Naaman was not told to flee Syria, neither was he commanded to deny service to his king or fight to overthrow the idolatry of his community. Instead, the Lord showed understanding and compassion. He recognized the dilemma Naaman faced living among a pagan people, and like Daniel who would face a similar situation in Babylon centuries later, the Lord expected him to participate in the culture—and even seek its flourishing!—while remaining loyal to God.
Naaman’s story reveals the error of our dualistic thinking. Popular evangelical rhetoric about the culture assumes that participating in a post-Christian culture is the same as endorsing it. Therefore, the only holy options are to fight the culture (The Crusader Option) or flee the culture (The Benedict Option). Naaman—along with Joseph, Daniel, and a handful of other biblical characters—show us that faith can survive and even thrive through engagement with a post-Christian culture, and that the Lord recognizes the difference between serving our non-Christian neighbors and affirming their values.
For example, although Naaman helped his master kneel before an idol, the Lord recognized that Naaman was not himself participating in idol worship. Likewise, there is a difference between baking a cake for a gay couple or issuing a government document and actively participating in a same sex wedding. If we cannot distinguish between serving our neighbors and affirming our neighbors’ beliefs or behaviors, than virtually any Christian participation in society must be viewed as a transgression of God’s law.
If we cannot distinguish between serving our neighbors and affirming our neighbors’ beliefs or behaviors, than virtually any Christian participation in society must be viewed as a transgression of God’s law.
Sadly, it has become all too common for Christians to cite the first half of the Greatest Commandment, “Love God with all your heart,” as an excuse for neglecting the second half, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” Religious people in Jesus’ day also appealed to holiness to justify their failure to love, and it was Jesus’ refusal to separate himself from the ungodly that upset them so much. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked Jesus’ disciples with contempt. They assumed being present with sinners was an endorsement of their sin, but they were wrong. As with Naaman, in Jesus we see that serving and socializing with those we disagree with is not the same as affirming their behavior.
The Naaman Option is not about cultural accommodation or surrender, however. It isn’t a license to open an abortion clinic, officiate same sex marriages, and launch an online marijuana shop in the name of “serving my neighbor.” Christians must continue to advocate for what is good, true, and beautiful as revealed through Jesus Christ. And we must oppose that which is false, harmful, and unjust. The Naaman Option simply seeks to do this in faith and love rather than fear and self-interest. It is about serving our neighbors rather than fighting or fleeing them. LIke Christ, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the world rather than separate from it, and seek what is best for others rather than what is best for ourselves. Only through such love will we reveal the heart of God to the lost and the least.
As you watch the culture slip ever further away from familiar and comfortable values, do not be afraid and do not lose heart. Do not succumb to the voices—including the “Christian” ones—tempting you to fight back in anger or run away in fear. Such responses do not honor God because they lack faith. Instead, consider the examples of those who have walked this road before us—Naaman, Joseph, Daniel, and Jesus. Pray for the grace to serve your neighbors, to bless those who disagree with you, and to seek their good rather than your own.
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