It’s not a modern problem. The first Christian writers were very much aware of the danger which is why the apostle Paul told his friends that they shouldn’t let the non-Christian world ‘squeeze them into its mould’ (J B Phillips translation). A more modern commentator put it this way: ‘don’t be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings’.
It could be argued that this is exactly what is happening to the Anglican church if a recent survey of its clergy is to be believed. When questioned, over half said they support a change in church law to allow them to wed gay couples and a sizable majority seem to support a change in position on premarital sex too. 21.6% support an end to the teaching of abstinence before marriage, and 41% say opposition to premarital sex should be dropped for people in “committed relationships”.
Now I know it was a small sample and it’s been argued that its methodology and the presentation of the survey’s findings are far from robust but, accurate or not, this survey is a useful reminder that Christians can easily forget that they are supposed to be different. Jesus stressed this in the Sermon on the Mount when He told His followers that they were to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. A former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that Christians need to be different if they are to influence the society in which they live.
I’ve obviously focused on the church’s approach to sexual ethics so far but this is just one of many areas where Christians can lose their distinctive edge and ape the behaviour of the world in which they live. I came across another striking example in B L Coombes autobiography ‘These Poor Hands’. (University of Wales Press 2002). Coombes highlights the way in which the church was influenced by the pressures of deference and class in the early 20th century. The bell ringers, he writes, were not very enthusiastic until the local squire arrived but ‘Then they pealed in earnest’. And, he continued, every worshipper had to wait outside until he had ‘walked to the widening of the path and had made that dramatic flourish when he pulled out his gold hunter watch and looked up at the church clock. When he was satisfied that the clock had not dared to contradict the time shown on his watch he would nod to the clock, smile at the admiring people, and hold out his hand to the vicar standing in the doorway to welcome him’.
Sadly, when we lose our cutting-edge, we lose our appeal too. Jesus made this clear he told the crowds following him that if His disciples lost their ‘saltiness’ they would be thrown out and trampled underfoot like discarded salt. Is it any wonder then that more and more people seem to be abandoning the church in general? As one leading commentator has said, “If the church wants to grow, attract youth, and remain relevant in society it needs to advocate for Biblical teaching on marriage and sexual ethics. The church should not be adjusting its teaching to follow the culture or society but proclaiming the benefits for society and individuals of life-long heterosexual marriage and reserving sexual expression for marriage.”
It’s pretty depressing to read that church leaders want to change the Bible’s teaching, but thankfully the early church didn’t succumb to that temptation and there are still churches willing to challenge the latest cultural fashions rather than bow down to them. Let’s face the facts. Imitating secular society has never been a successful strategy for church growth. Jesus understood that which is why He was keen for us to know it.