The problem is that the former set, controlling the levers of public evangelical opinion as they do, seem utterly oblivious to the fact that there are many of us who not only think differently but also somewhat resent the suggestion that we ought to adopt their manner of thinking. It seems to be felt – and sometimes explicitly stated – that one ought to care about every matter under the sun, which is brought to the world’s attention, irrespective of how far removed it is from the circumstances of one’s daily life. Many of us disagree and would say that the world and the church would be happier if people put more effort into their own lives and stopped worrying so much about those of others.
Judging by the New Testament, the primitive church did not wholly escape being influenced by the cultural assumptions by which it was surrounded. At the first, Christ’s disciples’ notions accorded with those of the Jewish culture of their day. Peter had the audacity to rebuke Christ for suggesting he would suffer and die (Matt. 16:22), objected to him washing his feet (Jn. 13:8), and clumsily attempted to defend him by force when the Jews arrested him (18:10). James and John were rebuked when they proposed blasting an inhospitable village of Samaritans (Lk. 9:51-55), and Philip, by his ignorance, brought forth the sobering “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (Jn. 14:8-9). Which is to say that they adhered to the Jewish notions of a triumphant Messiah who was served by Israel’s enemies, in whose service force was used to overcome and punish them, and that even personal acquaintance with Christ did not cause them to fully appreciate his divine nature and mission.
The notion of a suffering and dying Messiah with a spiritual/redemptive kingdom rather than an earthly deliverer who would inaugurate a new golden era of Jewish history was not easily overcome: as late as Christ’s ascension some of the disciples asked “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:7). Taught by the Spirit after he was poured out at Pentecost, they went forth with better understanding, establishing Christ’s church and instructing his disciples in his way. But old habits die hard, and apostleship did not mean sinlessness or infallibility. On occasion the apostles stumbled into mistaken notions (Gal. 2:11-14); yet more did the newer believers. Christ had told the apostles they would be his witnesses “to the end of the earth” (1:8), but when that was begun through Peter’s mission to the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) the early church acted as though they had forgotten it (v. 45; 11:2-3). Even when the Gentiles had been included many of the Jewish believers thought this necessitated them acting like Jews. Thus the first crisis in the church was the Judaizer controversy, which necessitated the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) and subsequent apostolic instruction and opposition to the error.
The Gentile believers, for their part, also struggled to fully escape the notions of their old life. Paul had to tell them that meat sacrificed to idols was not tainted thereby, for some of them, weak in conscience, still acted like idols were real and that meat offered to them would entangle them in wrong (1 Cor. 8). It was with difficulty he made them to understand the resurrection, which was foreign to Greek thought (Acts 17:18, 32; 1 Cor. 15:12). At sundry points they had to be reminded to show respect for Jewish custom, not for its own sake but to avoid giving needless offense (Acts 15:19-21). It took diligence on both sides to ensure that the “wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that had previously existed between Jew and Gentile remained demolished, and for both to maintain the right relation to their wider culture. And as the epistles suggest, this was not done perfectly. All manner of erroneous concepts crept into the church from both Jewish and Gentile sources and required opposition: myths (1 Tim. 1:4), gnostic and docetistic ideas, and other philosophical concepts (Col. 2:8).
This difficult situation arose because of the nature of the new life in Christ, and because of the church’s relation to culture. Life in Christ did not mean being made completely perfect at the moment of conversion. Sanctification was an organic process by which the truth, implanted in one’s heart by the Spirit (Jas. 1:21; 1 Pet. 1:23), grew gradually and required intentional nourishment (Jn. 15:4-6; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 1:10; 2:6, 19; 2 Pet. 1:5-10; 3:18). This lifelong process was tempered by the believer’s remaining sin (Rom. 7:21), so that the Christian life was one of perpetual war between the new nature in Christ and one’s old sinful tendencies (vv. 22-24). It was struggle, not perfection (v. 25), and at times believers failed to understand or to act rightly.
In addition, Christ had come to save his people, not from the world as such, but specifically from the world insofar as it was a system of ungodliness that arrayed itself against God’s kingdom. The creation remained good, if marred by sin, and because of God’s common grace there was much truth, beauty, and goodness in the lives of unbelievers. Christ did not call his people to withdraw from the world (Jn. 17:15; comp. 1 Cor. 5:9-10), but to live holy lives as witnesses within it (1 Pet. 2:9). They were to use discernment to reject evil and accept good (Rom. 12:2). But human nature remained the same after conversion as before: believers were influenced by their circumstances and the company they kept (1 Cor. 15:33), and because of sin they sometimes erred in judgment or failed to realize when they had come under the influence of ungodly ideas (Gal. 5:7-8).
And so it is in our own day. This especially shows itself in the contemporary church in the question of politics. One’s political disposition is largely the result of cultural and economic conditions: “circumstances are the creators of most men’s opinions,” as the eminent English jurist A.V. Dicey put it in his The Relation of the Law to Public Opinion. This is not sufficiently appreciated, with many people acting as though political inclinations are solely a matter of conscious choice or perceived self-interest.
But being largely a matter of conditioned habit rather than conscious decision means that one’s political inclinations tend to influence one even when one does not realize it. And that is a problem, because believers’ circumstances tend to differ widely: rural versus urban residence, manual versus white collar labor, and differing levels of affluence and education all appear here. Sometimes strife has arisen in the church because people who inhabit one set of circumstances have attained to influence and have spoken upon cultural matters from their own position, and in so doing have offended other believers and failed to realize that what they put forward as responsible Christian cultural engagement is really, at root, the basic cultural/political inclination of their immediate society clothing itself in Christian garb.
The evangelical influential set today largely inhabits certain circles that are different from those of many of the believers whom their institutions are intended to serve. They tend to dwell in urban and suburban locations (esp. Nashville, Wheaton, New York City, or southern California); to work in media (like magazines or major publishing houses) or the academy (esp. seminaries); to be involved in large churches with congregations so voluminous as to cut them off from the bulk of their people, or in major denominational agencies (same issue); and to relate to the church (perhaps better, parachurch) in a way different from many believers (hosting podcasts, writing journal articles, participating in conferences).
We have, in other words, an evangelical intelligentsia, literati, smart set, culturati, establishment, elite, or whatever we wish to call it, and the geographic, vocational, and ecclesiastical circumstances of its members lead them to have a different perspective upon many affairs than that of the bulk of believers today. I do not say that such people are invariably wrong, only that they exist, and that their differing circumstances and beliefs distinguish them from the mass of evangelicals today. People in such circumstances tend to be more cosmopolitan, and to be concerned not only with the immediate affairs of their own community or church but with those of the wider world or church.
This is perhaps not surprising. The Gospel Coalition and major publishing houses are not trying to reach a single denomination or city, but all the people who have access to their productions. Their efforts are not exclusively local in orientation, and this tendency to always think in light of influencing the wider world seems to influence their cultural and political preferences. Indeed, the point of journalism, to use the examples of World or Christianity Today, is to take something that happens in one place and make it the knowledge of people in other places who would not know about it otherwise. Or again, the point of book publishing is to take the ideas of one person and broadcast them to the world so that they do not remain confined to his immediate circle but can influence people beyond the reach of his personal acquaintance. So also with conferences, which exist to gather people from all over to congregate around a common set of beliefs, or with seminaries, which inculcate a certain set of ideas in people of diverse backgrounds and then send them out to carry those beliefs to the ends of the earth. In each case the point of the endeavor is, in a sense, anti-local, the desire to propagate a given set of knowledge to as wide an audience as possible, whether by journalistic reporting, publishing books or other media, or training suitable propagators of the knowledge.
Such endeavors are often beneficial. But they do seem to inculcate in their participants a habit – that of thinking always in large terms of whole audiences, nations, and, dare we say it, markets – that influences their politics and culture otherwise, and which tends to set them at odds with other believers who do not spend all their time laboring and living in such circumstances. The many believers who perform manual labor, reside in small towns or the country, are in the more remote and less prestigious parts of the nation (‘flyover country,’ the South or Midwest), and who inhabit the lower echelons of wealth and educational attainment tend to think more locally, and to focus on their immediate circumstances rather than those of other people in other places.
Indeed, I can attest, as someone who inhabits such circles, that I do not care what happens on the other side of the county where I live or in its seat, except on those occasions, regrettably numerous, when they wish to interfere in the happiness of my own immediate community by some nonsense like a new tax, debt spending, or some grandiose and unneeded infrastructure project. In saying that I speak politically from my own circumstances, naturally, but I do think that they set me and the legions who feel similarly at odds with those evangelical elites (the term is used without derision) who are perpetually finding causes célèbre to expend their energies upon. Causes, most of which entail worrying about things far removed from their places of residence, disregarding the principle of comity of nations, or otherwise involve neglecting one’s own affairs to busy oneself with discussion about those of others. They inhabit a culture that thinks and acts in such a way; many of us in the pews do not.
The problem is that the former set, controlling the levers of public evangelical opinion as they do, seem utterly oblivious to the fact that there are many of us who not only think differently but also somewhat resent the suggestion that we ought to adopt their manner of thinking. It seems to be felt – and sometimes explicitly stated – that one ought to care about every matter under the sun, which is brought to the world’s attention, irrespective of how far removed it is from the circumstances of one’s daily life. Many of us disagree and would say that the world and the church would be happier if people put more effort into their own lives and stopped worrying so much about those of others. I speak from my cultural circumstances (rural Southern laborer) when I say that, but it has scriptural warrant (Prov. 26:17; Lk. 12:13-14; 1 Thess. 4:11), and we could wish that others would recognize they too speak from their circumstances and would be rather less prone to assume their culture of ‘care about everything, everywhere, all the time’ is the proper Christian one and admits of no dissent.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.