If I profess, with the loudest voice and clearest exposition, every portion of God’s truth except precisely the points that the world and the devil are attacking at this time, I am not confessing Christ, so boldly that I can profess Christianity. Where the battle rages, the soldier’s loyalty is proven; and to be stable on the whole battlefield for that matter is only an escape and a shame for him if he retreats at that moment.
This quote is attributed to Martin Luther, although it is probably apocryphal. To paraphrase what this means: we would all agree that we must “confess Christianity,” proclaim and teach the gospel – all the Trinitarian faith. But not all of the main things of faith are always under duress. For example, the world may think of the Nicene Creed as just a fantasy, but it does not specifically attack the Nicene Creed. Right now the world is attacking other claims of faith. If we ignore these attacks, we risk failing to prove our loyalty where the battle rages.
Three of the main things the world is relentlessly attacking right now are Christian sexual ethics, sanctity of life, and evangelism.
First, marriage and sexuality. The decade from ’65 to ’75 was a period of revolution. Revolutionary impulses in politics and economics were quickly brought under control: the radicals had Richard Nixon and a resurgence of capitalism. But the cultural revolution did not take hold. In this regard, the changes of the 1960s were profound, increasing and relentless. And sexual liberation has been in the foreground.
I started teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) in 1965. In the early 1970s, I still considered myself a progressive. In the late 1970s, I was alarmed enough by the fallout from the sexual revolution in my seminar and in society to begin teaching a course on marriage and Christian sexual ethics. I found myself defending natural law thought against attacks from my Jesuit students, many of whom rebelled against Catholic teaching. Some of them have left the priesthood; others found ways to redefine celibacy so they could date women or attacked Humanae Vitae. And Lutheran students were also caught in the loosening of sexual constraints around this time.
After leaving LSTC in 1982, I taught at Roanoke College for almost thirty years. I continued to teach the course, and now I teach it for the Lutheran Theological Institute online. Such teaching is not peripheral to the Christian faith. It’s not something we can agree to disagree with, as many have argued. There is no wiggle room for our belief that marriage is between a man and a woman who promise lifelong fidelity, with the promise of new life.
As society turns completely against Christian thought, it will take a great deal of wisdom and courage to keep this understanding of marriage and sexual ethics a main thing. We will be tempted to either comply or ignore these basic teachings. Avoiding the problem, however, will only mean complying in the long run. I pray that we have the wisdom and courage to endure.
The second main thing is the sanctity of life from start to finish. Although fertility rates are falling precipitously around the world, our culture continues to find excuses for aborting babies. Meanwhile, our society is aging. We will soon have an imbalance between young people and retirees. There will be a huge burden on young people; meanwhile, the elderly who do not have children will struggle with loneliness. There will be great social pressure to accept physician-assisted suicide.
The novel by PD James Children of men, set in 2021, depicts a dystopian world of massive infertility. In this society, the elderly embark at the age of 60 on sumptuous party boats. They never come back. No one talks about it, but everyone knows what happens on these trips: the elderly see it as their duty to get out of life early in order to ease the burden on the young.
Sure, Children of men is a fiction, but we are not far from such a dystopia in our own society. Let us be a community of believers who welcome young families with children, so that the grim predictions of infertility and the barbaric practice of abortion do not haunt us. And honor and care for the elderly, finding ways to support them in order to resist the temptation – and public encouragement – to end them.
The last main thing I want to touch on is evangelism. I will never forget a lecture I once heard from a former director of World Missions for the Evangelical Church in America, to which I belonged. In her lecture, she recounted the sins – mainly relating to “colonialism” – of previous generations of missionaries. After listing each sin, she led a chorus of new bureaucrats chanting: Never again, never again. Shortly after this meeting, ELCA formally abandoned pioneer missionary work (“pioneer” missions being missions to those who have never heard the gospel) in favor of “accompaniment” or help churches already established in other countries. Instead of evangelizing those of other religions, we had to dialogue with them.
I am not against support or respectful dialogue; but I find it shocking that a church is renouncing pioneer evangelism – brazenly rejecting the Great Commission as a symbol of the past, as my old friend Jim Scherer has said. The Great Commission is the command of Jesus himself.
The faithful always support the pioneer missionaries at home and abroad; I am proud that my own religious organization, the North American Lutheran Church, is doing this. But make no mistake: these companies will continue to be attacked in the future. According to our culture, evangelism – in other words, acting on the belief that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life – does not honor diversity, inclusiveness, or fairness.
The world today relentlessly attacks faith on three particular fronts: Christian teaching on marriage and sexual ethics, Christian commitment to the sanctity of life, and Christian duty to evangelize nations. . These are fundamental commitments of the Christian faith and life. These are main things. Let’s keep the main things.
This essay is adapted from a talk given at the 2021 North American Lutheran Church Pastors’ Conference.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Emeritus Professor of Religion and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.
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