We live in a world of paradox. On the one hand, evangelical Christians raise the alarm about the corrosion of religious freedoms. Yet on the other hand, my progressive friends often lament about the power and dominance of the religious right—as if these are shackles to be freed from.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Could it be some of both? To be honest, I don’t know if I can parse out such a complex issue—I can only be sure that today’s culture is becoming increasingly polarized. The divide between religious conservatives and non-religious progressives is at an all-time high, and destined only to become larger. How is the church to cope?
The church has always struggled with just exactly how to be “in the world but not of the world.” It seems almost a balancing act between the church’s identity—what she believes—and the church’s relevance—the way we show love to a dying world.
That’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the church in Philippi. Did Paul have any specific conflicts in mind? Unlikely. I think it’s way more probable that Paul had seen what happens when the church collides with the world—and he didn’t want the Philippian church to experience hardship, or worse: to fall away entirely.
Listen to what he tells the church about their own destiny to suffer:
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:27-30)
I believe a good way to unpack this section is to look at it through the lens of Christian identity and Christian relevance. Do you see what Paul’s saying? The church will never be relevant to a dying world until the church learns to stand unified in her identity in the gospel. And when she does, even conflict and suffering can be seen as a sign of spiritual health.
So let’s do something: let’s extrapolate a bit on what Paul’s saying. What would it look like for a church to get off track in these areas?
ISOLATION (ALL IDENTITY; NO RELEVANCE)
This isn’t hard to imagine, unfortunately. Today’s churches have become adept at forging an identity that never needs to come into contact with the outside world. If we’re painfully honest with ourselves, we’ve allowed our greatest dreams to become a steady paycheck, kids who don’t cuss, and a pleasing worship service on Sunday mornings.
I know I can be a little bit…caustic in this area. I’m not saying these aren’t great things. But when we take a great thing and make it the greatest thing, it’s the worst thing that can happen to the contemporary church. I believe that the church will never experience revival until people within the walls begin to believe the gospel for the first time.
Thus, the church can never truly experience identity until she also recognizes her relevance to the surrounding world. As Christ’s example shows, self-sacrifice can never remove us from the world; it presses us further into it.
ACCOMODATION (ALL RELEVANCE; NO IDENTITY)
Of course, it’s quite possible to be so focused on loving the surrounding world that we sacrifice the message of the Bible for the safety of cultural relevance. We saw this a generation or so ago. Many of the so-called “mainline” denominations became increasingly focused on social issues: alleviating poverty, promoting peace, preaching tolerance. And then a strange thing happened: the battle was soon won—maybe not by churches themselves, but by a larger cultural movement. In other words, the church’s values very quickly came to match those of the Democratic party. The church no longer had anything to offer that couldn’t be found inside a piece of political literature. So why bother at all?
Or—to get a bit more personal—maybe we’ve experienced the cold sweat that comes from the fear of being labeled “a fanatic.” Nothing is more deadly in our world than being too committed to any one thing—especially a religious belief. “I don’t want to shove religion down anyone’s throat,” we might say. But what are we really saying? I’m not comfortable making anyone uncomfortable. So we mumble something about how “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship,” and the conversation rolls on without us ever having to truly reveal our Christian identity. It’s safe; but it’s far from good.
MISSION (BOTH IDENTITY AND RELEVANCE)
So when we return to Paul’s message to the Philippian church, we see that he emphasizes both identity and mission. Suffering, it seems, is the price—or maybe even consequence—of commitment, but also the surest badge of unity. Christianity has always thrived under persecution. This was true in Paul’s day, and it can be true again today.