In a world of conservative and liberal, where does the church land? As one who speaks to cultural engagement around the country, I cannot tell you how often I get asked this question or ones like it.
Many believers know what their convictions are. Still we sense we live in a world where we believe some things, if not a lot of things, are out of whack. Either what others argue for does not fit into biblical values or the way in which an endorsed belief is held runs counter in tone to the way it should be defended. Discomfort results. The crisis about the use of the term evangelical reflects this dilemma. Many evangelicals have come to the point of seeing that what people mean by the term is not a reflection of them. A world out of whack is a hard place to live.
So how should we then live? Three principles can help us be more constructive in a divided world.
First, as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 6:20), we need to see that our core citizenship is tied to our allegiance to God, not to a locale or country. Civil religion at the expense of biblical faith is dangerous. We sometimes risk going there too easily. When I speak to this, whether I am in Australia, Italy or the USA, I make the point if God has believers as ambassadors for him where he has us located then that means our connection to him is greater than any other connection we possess.
No world is perfect and we need to be a conscience in the best sense of that word for others. We are foreigners in a strange land, exiles on earth. Our representation of him comes first. To critique the country we love is not necessarily a sign of defection. Israel's prophets did the same and they majored in being self-critical in healthy ways. The church needs more of this self-reflection, not less. This means primarily we are neither liberal or conservative, American or Australian, but believer, a member of the third way.
Second, that means we can be discerning (and less defensive) about what we endorse and how we endorse it. We can make observations like, I am for this but not for the manner it is being defended. We can examine and insist on both content and tone because tone matters.
We can look for and see grey as well as black or white. 1 Peter 3:14-16 says we are to be ready to give a defense for the hope that in us but with gentleness and respect not fearing those who misread us. Col. 4:4-5 speaks of our speech with outsiders as always being gracious, seasoned with salt.
Always is a technical term that means all the time, no exceptions. Because "they" do it does not give us the excuse to do it. We are a third way, different from the ways of the world around us. Sometimes in our Christian discourse gentleness and respect are severely lacking with those with whom we disagree. If we say the right thing in the wrong way, we are still partially wrong.
Third, our ways are not to be the world's ways. Eph. 4:17-19 urges us not to live as Gentiles do. We are not to mirror the world or its ways in going about engagement. When we do, we lose credibility and simply become another interest group vying for power. Too much of our engagement looks no different in style and tone than those we challenge. We need to do better than that. Some of the reason evangelicals have lost credibility is because they have lost sight of being a third way and look no different in tactics than the world. We are called to do better. We must do better. We must be different, a third way, to engage well.
Dr. Darrell L. Bock is Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary as well as Senior Research Professor of NT Studies. He is an author or editor of over 40 books, including a New York Times Best Seller in non-fiction. He is host of the Seminary's Table podcasts (voice.dts.edu).