A new Christian consortium, dedicated to preserving religious liberty, is promoting its mission with militaristic imagery and language. The group’s website uses terms like “battle,” “fighters,” and “war.” It’s clear the founders of this organization see themselves as being on the front lines of the conflict for the soul of our nation. They’re proud participants in the ongoing culture war.
To some, this approach may seem legitimate. After all, in the struggle for dominance between polarized groups, only one side can emerge victoriously—and it isn’t the side that refuses to fight.
The question we must ask is this: Is a warlike posture the proper response to an increasingly anti-Christian society? Does such an approach represent the “wisdom that comes down from above,” or the wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, [and] demonic” (James 3:13–18)?
All’s Fair in Love and Culture War
The problem with the culture-war approach is not that it (rightly) discerns opposition from the world. The problem is in the chosen mode of response.
By embracing the culture-war paradigm, many Christians adopt—likely inadvertently—an “all’s fair in love and war” perspective. After all, in a war you don’t turn the other cheek; you strike back as hard, or harder, than your opponent. That’s how wars are won.
And so we employ battle tactics we normally would not find defensible:
- We express outrage over every new infraction we see in the news or on social media—forgetting that we are neither to give in so easily to anger (1 Cor. 13:5; James 1:20), nor to imitate the evils of outrage culture, cancel culture, or victim culture (3 John 11).
- We fight and quarrel with our opponents—forgetting that such skirmishes stem from selfish motives (James. 4:1), and that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone” (2 Tim. 2:24).
- We mock those in opposition to us, using the popular rhetoric of sarcastic memes, name-calling, and condescending language—forgetting that we are to communicate “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15), and to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” by letting our “speech always be gracious” (Col. 4:5–6).
In short, culture warriors wrestle with others in an antithetical way to scriptural teaching: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Or, as Jesus himself put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting. . . . But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
Ours is a spiritual war. We take our marching orders from our own former Enemy, he who reconciled us to himself by the shedding of blood—not ours (in just retribution), but his (in gracious propitiation).
Some might well ask, “But shouldn’t we oppose the evils being spread in our society?” The answer is a resounding yes. Engaging with—and even confronting—our culture is a legitimate form of being salt and light in the world.
Again, the deciding factor is the nature of our engagement. Are we seeking to destroy or to rescue our opponents? When we correct or oppose or reprove, is it with the goal of winning the conversation or winning a neighbor? Do we confront others in the right spirit?
We are not at war with our ideological opponents—we are at war for them.
In the words of Jonathan Edwards, do we engage one who opposes us “without angry reflections or contemptuous language . . . [and] as seeking his good rather than his hurt; [and] more to deliver him from the calamity into which has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought”? As these words suggest, we are not at war with our ideological opponents—we are at war for them.
To engage with our culture in a militant and hostile manner is to forsake our role as ambassadors. It’s trading our diplomatic visas for military dog tags. It’s trading the armor of God for the fig leaves of human striving. It’s a capitulation to earthly wisdom—attempting to fight for the kingdom of God on the world’s terms.
Enemies or Neighbors?
Throughout human history, Christians have displayed valiant love in the face of overwhelming opposition. That’s why the apostle Paul was able to address a crowd, who had just tried to kill him, as “brothers and fathers.” That’s why Maria Goretti was able to speak these words shortly before dying from the wounds of her attacker: “I want him with me in heaven forever.” That’s why the newly converted Ed Johnson was able to say, before being lynched by a mob, “God bless you all.”
That is how Christians are called to battle. Not to fight fire with fire—at least, not how that phrase is normally understood: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:20). As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fire of human hatred can only be overcome by the spark of divine love. The unassuming meekness of this love may appear weak and ineffectual, but it generates a supernatural yield more powerful than any earthly weapon we can wield.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fire of human hatred can only be overcome by the spark of divine love.
Too often, when push comes, shove follows. Too often, when the culture opposes us, we feel like equal opposition is the only answer. But the second greatest commandment reminds us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that our neighbor is any person we come into contact with—including those who insult and threaten us.
By divine decree, everyone is our neighbor. No exceptions. And we win our neighbors through the same love that won us.
The Gospel Coalition