The Only Hermeneutic of the Gospel
“People aren’t asking whether Christianity is true, Abe. They aren’t even asking if it is good. My friends are wondering if Christianity is even safe.”
This was how a friend of mine responded in a conversation we were having about how the objections to Christianity we were hearing seem to have radically shifted in the last decade or so. We had been talking about how there was once a time – maybe 30 years ago – when the primary objections to Christianity were intellectual in nature. Can a modern, educated person believe in miracles and virgin births and bodily resurrections? Wasn’t Jesus just a really great moral teacher or prophet? Isn’t the Bible just another human document, filled with errors, superstitions, and even prejudices? While there were intellectual barriers that kept someone from accepting Christianity, there was, at a popular level, a general perception that Christianity could be good for someone if that was what worked for them. And as people got older and started having kids, going to church made cultural sense as a way to network socially (and even professionally) and instill in one's kids a strong moral compass. Christian beliefs weren’t intellectually credible, but Christian morality was still seen as an ethical good. Church-going was seen as socially neutral (even if a bit odd) and even, in some cases, a social good (if you were into that kind of thing).
That, we were saying, is what has radically shifted right under our feet in just the last decade. In the wake of multiple church abuse scandals and cover ups, the moral failings of several prominent Christian leaders, the aggressive support of a president of questionable moral character, the politicization of a pandemic, the opposition to cries for racial justice, and the resurgence of a virulent Christian nationalism all began to raise serious questions about the moral validity of evangelical Christianity. The leading edge of Christian cultural apologetics had shifted decisively away from the intellectual and toward the moral. Church-going now took on significant social stigma. The erosion of moral credibility in public perception meant that people wouldn’t even have the chance to engage with the intellectual arguments for Christianity.
But my friend was putting an even finer point on the issue. She was saying that amongst her friends, their objections to Christianity weren’t abstract questions about theoretical moral goods in a pluralistic society. They weren’t wrestling with questions about the ethics of public health mandates or moral requirements for spiritual leaders and public servants or about the differences between patriotism and nationalism. Their objections were about whether Christianity could be trusted to protect the safety of the most vulnerable. It was a far more immediate and personal concern.
Whatever one might think about these broader social issues, what interests me is the missiological reality that this shift represents. If the call of the Christian is to bear credible witness to an unbelieving world, then whether one agrees with the validity of these social trends or not, they have become a part of our contextual landscape. And if my friend put her finger on the pulse of these trends, which I think she did, then the most urgent evangelistic need that faces us today is demonstrating anew the moral credibility and power of the Christian faith. If the people Jesus encountered in the gospels needed to experience his healing miracles as concrete demonstrations of the good news that he was God come in the flesh, then the people of our day need to experience the healing works of compassion and justice of the Body of Christ in order to be open to the good news of his saving grace.
To be clear, works of compassion, justice, and liberation for the poor are gospel ends in and of themselves as visible demonstrations of the reality of the Christ’s current reign (e.g. Luke 4:18-21). But, in our current missiological moment, they take on even greater moral urgency and weight. In a world where the primary barrier to the gospel is the question of whether it is safe for the most vulnerable in society, congregations must prioritize work amongst the most vulnerable in their neighborhoods and cities, even if it is for the sole purpose of addressing the primary objection that is preventing people from engaging with the claims of Christianity. Lesslie Newbigin’s famous words are profoundly prescient:
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.
The most urgently-needed cultural apologetics for our day isn’t primarily an intellectual defense (as important as that is). The most powerful apologetic for this generation will be whether Christians can become known as the people who most willingly and most sacrificially identify with and seek justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our cities and neighborhoods. That is to say, today the most effective hermeneutic of the gospel will be the local congregation of women and men whose earned reputation will reflect to the watching world the reputation of the God they worship: the God who is the defender of the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.