I have been thinking a lot lately about some of the challenges that the church is facing in North America these days. These challenges are not surprising in view of the cultural shift that has taken place in the west in the last forty or fifty years. Before then, Christianity’s defence and progress had a lot to do with providing reasonable arguments for the authority of the Bible, for the existence of God, for His creation, for the uniqueness of Jesus based on the nature of his revelation in Scripture, for the basis of eternal salvation, for the definition and nature of the church, for how to live the Christian life, and for the end of all things. Sure there were differences of opinion on some issues like the details of creation, the nature of sanctification, the government of the church, and Jesus’ second coming. But for the most part, Christians were united around certain essentials concerning the Bible, the deity of Jesus, and how to have assurance of personal salvation.
Today, however, there is a new wave of anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture. And sometimes it is very strong, very overt. Christianity has come to be seen more as an enemy than an ally of that which is good and right. In fact, it goes much further than that. The Christian faith is now often being seen as the cause for many of the problems that exist in the world because, by its claim to superior revelation, it has often been seen as initiating powerful abuse against vulnerable peoples. Christianity is often blamed for racial discrimination, for gender inequality, for creating barriers to scientific progress, and for standing in the way of sexual freedom.
The reason for this change in attitude toward Christians and the church is a rising sense of distrust of structures of authority as they exist in every form. The roots of this philosophical change go back to ideas that were developed earlier in the 19th century when philosophers such as Fredrick Nietzsche, and Immanual Kant began to speak about the fact that reality was really, “a figment of our imagination.” In other words, instead of thinking of life as an objective reality apart from our existence, these people postulated that we use words to describe reality from our own personal perspective. Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault took this a step further to say that words were used as a means to exercise power or to manipulate others. Therefore, the idea developed that words had to be deconstructed concerning the reason for their use.
All of this eventually affected the way people began to think of those in authority. It also began to affect the way people thought of history and other literature like the Bible. The thinking arose that the Bible was not a divine revelation after all, but merely the extension of a Jewish culture, and later the early church. Currently, the idea is dominant that the Bible cannot be taken at face value. One has to see the words in their cultural context and what might have been happening in the minds and activities of the people at the time those words were written. This has radically affected biblical authority, and with it the motivation and relevance of the Christian message and the church.
It has also had dire effects within the church. Members of the church itself are beginning to question how various words are used. A huge element in hermeneutics today has to do with trying to understand the cultural context in which the original words were written. The idea is that we “need to read between the lines,” to see things that we may never have seen before, or that we may have taken for granted. As you can imagine, this approach has had the effect of causing a good deal of fragmentation within the church itself. So you end up with huge differences of opinion on such matters as sexual morality (including the issue of homosexuality), abortion, gender relationships, and even basic questions concerning the nature of the gospel, evangelism, and other aspects of church ministry.
Not all the changes from the structured approach of a former generation are necessarily bad. It’s true that the extreme structuralism of the past had its own difficulties including a tendency to ignore deeper innuendoes in the text of Scripture. But on the other hand, I don’t think we have even begun to see the ultimate effect that this cultural change will have on the church, let alone the rest of the world. For since it creates a major sense of distrust for the Bible as being the actual words of divine inspiration, there is no end to the multiple ways in which it can be used contrary to God’s intention.
So what should be done about this challenge? Well, in the first place, Christians need to return to prayer. Surely the sovereign God is working out His own purposes through these changes. But we should be concerned about the multitudes of people who are not hearing the Gospel and experiencing the salvation that God desires for them. Also, I think Christians need to re-commit themselves to the divine authorship of the words of Scripture and study them more honestly and at face-value, thus interpreting them the way God intended.
It is true that the cultural context needs to be taken into consideration, but my contention would be that it isn’t difficult to understand God’s wisdom if care is taken in seeking to look at the basic thrust of the text while comparing it with other Scriptures. This may seem simplistic to some, but I have a great fear that, if we’re not careful, we will be tempted to change the meaning of Scripture in order to suit our own ideas. And thus we will actually miss hearing the Word of the Lord. May God be merciful to us and to His church in these days.