At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Church finds herself living in a post-Christian world. When we look around, the parallels with the world in which the Church of the first centuries lived are striking. Once again the Church of the west lives in a world of religious pluralism and syncretism, and practicing Christians find themselves in the minority. The sexual ethics of today have completely reversed the dramatic transformation that Christianity had worked upon the Greco-Roman world and have returned accepted behavior to the sexual free for all of the first centuries (though no one in the first centuries was so foolish as to believe that two people of the same sex could be married).
It is important to recognize these similarities and to understand that the culture addressed by the New Testament stands closer to our own than at any time in 1500 years. As Christians survey the cultural scene they often take comfort in the thought, “Well, the Church has faced this before.” However while there is truth to this, there is also another reality that cannot escape our attention.
The sad fact is that the Church is not the same as she was in the first three centuries. The Church of that time believed in the authority of Scriptures as God’s revelation. She believed that doctrine grounded in Scripture was a key component in her life. As one Body she rejected the world’s sexual ethics and instead spoke the truth of God’s design for his creation.
The Enlightenment of the 1700’s with its emphasis on the priority of reason has changed all of this. It began an intellectual trajectory that has prompted large portions of what is now called the Church to reject the authority of God’s Word, and therefore to dismiss notions of truth and error in doctrine. Where this has occurred, this same group has been carried along with the culture and has accepted the sexual ethics of today. Homosexuality, ordained homosexuals and now same sex marriage have become accepted parts of life.
Christians who are orthodox in belief will dismiss such abdication to the world. Yet the difference from the Church’s situation in the first centuries is important. The Church of the first centuries stood in opposition to the world. Now, large portions of that which calls itself Church stand with the world. The world certainly notices this and it weakens the Church’s witness to the world. An excellent example of this can be found in William N. Eskridge Jr.’s piece in the Sunday New York Times in which he argues that it’s not gay marriage vs. the Church anymore. The presence of Christians who accept homosexuality and same sex marriage provides proof that these things are true and that all Christians should accept them.
Again, it is easy for orthodox Christians to dismiss this argument. But existence of this “alternative Church” presents a threat to the Church. In addition to weakening the witness of the Church to the world, it also threatens the future life of the Church. Those being raised in the Church face powerful cultural forces that seek to draw them away. Simultaneously they see an alternative way of being “Church” – one that does not require struggle against the world. This a challenge that the Church of the first centuries did not face.
The Church is the Lord’s Church and so she will be sustained according to his will. At the same time, we need to be clear minded about what we face as we seek to be faithful in this time and place. The existence of a “Church” that has become part of the world is a new threat that did not confront the Church of the first centuries.