For a long time, people called me a “young evangelical.” Actually, the adjectives were sometimes less gracious: “radical,” or “leftist” or “Marxist.” (My response to the “Marxist” label was simple: “I’m a Mennonite farm boy, for Pete’s sake. Have you ever met a Mennonite farmer who wants the government to own his land?”)
So I used to be a “radical, young evangelical.” But I was born in 1939, so, however reluctantly, I have long since had to abandon the label “young.” Hence this open letter to a younger generation, many of whom are 40 years younger than I am.
I have no desire to lecture you or “set you straight.” I have enormous appreciation for this generation. Forty years ago, when some of my friends and I started talking about social justice, racial justice, God’s special concern for the poor, and holistic mission that combined evangelism and social action, we were considered radical.
Much is different today. Not all older Christians “get it,” but you younger ones certainly do. A special concern for the poor and oppressed is part of your DNA. Caring for creation and transcending racial prejudice is simply who you are. You cannot imagine an evangelism that only cares about people’s “souls.” You just assume, without any need for argument, that biblical Christians should love the whole person the way Jesus did, offering both spiritual and material transformation. You want to engage the whole culture—art, music, literature, politics—rather than withdraw into some isolated ghetto. For all of this and much more, I shout, “Hallelujah!”
But there are four areas where I would love to have a dialogue. I have four questions I would like to ask you to ponder. Do you care as much about inviting non-Christians to embrace Christ as Savior and Lord as you do about social justice? As you understand, thanks in part to postmodernism, that every person’s thinking is limited by his/her specific location in space and time, are you in danger of abandoning an affirmation of moral and intellectual truth? Will you do a better job than my generation of keeping your marriage vows? As you rightly seek to respect the dignity and rights of gay/lesbian people, have you considered carefully the Church’s millennia-long teaching on homosexuality?
I won’t lecture you on these topics. Every generation of Christians must seek again to discern what biblical revelation means for their own time and place. All I ask is that you do that in dialogue with the whole Church—the Church of the earlier centuries, the worldwide Church today and, yes, those of us who are now “older evangelicals.” We will pray fervently for you as you do that and be most grateful when you seek us out for dialogue.
Let me explain my four questions.
Are you in danger of neglecting evangelism in your passion for social justice?
You know how much I affirm your commitment to justice for the poor and your rejection of an evangelism that focuses only on the “soul” and neglects peoples’ material needs. I have spent much of my life arguing on biblical grounds for precisely these concerns. But I have also watched some Christian “social activists” lose their concern for evangelism.
Evangelism and social action are inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin. But they are not identical. Working for economic development in poor communities or structural change to end systemic oppression is not the same thing as inviting persons who do not now confess Christ to embrace Him as Lord and Savior. If we only do social action and never say we do it because of Christ, our good deeds only point to ourselves and make us look good.
The Bible clearly teaches that persons are both material and spiritual beings. Scripture and human experience show sin is personal and social; social brokenness (including poverty) results both from wrong personal choices and unjust structures. If we only work at half the problem, we only produce half a solution. People need both personal faith in Christ that transforms their values and very person, and material, structural transformation that brings new socioeconomic opportunities. That is why holistic evangelical community development programs that truly combine evangelism and social action (think of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association) work better now in this life.
But persons are made for far more than a good life here on earth for 60 or 100 years. Every person is invited to live forever with the living God. Jesus died so whoever believes in Him may have a better life now and life eternal.
Two other biblical truths are crucial. Jesus is the only way to salvation, and those who continue to reject Christ depart eternally from the living God. I know my generation has sometimes said these things in harsh, insensitive ways. Too often we have failed to say with the Bible that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
But if the Bible is our norm, we dare not neglect its teaching that people are lost without Christ (Ephesians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus (certainly the most amazing teacher of love the world has ever known) says more about eternal separation from the living God than anyone else in the Bible (Matthew 25:41; Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50; Matthew 18:8). Surely, if Jesus is true God as well as true man, we cannot act as if He did not know what He was talking about.
Instead, we should embrace His claim that He is the way, the truth and the life; “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV). For as Peter said at Pentecost, there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Of course there are tough questions about things like those who have never heard or eternal punishment. (I wrestle with those in the chapter on evangelism in my Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel.) But for most of Church history, Christians have believed and taught the biblical affirmation that apart from Christ, people are lost eternally. Those parts of the modern church that have abandoned these truths have declined disastrously.
So, gently but clearly, I ask you to wrestle with the question: Do you care as much about lovingly inviting non-Christians to embrace the Savior as you do about social justice? Is there any danger that this generation of Christian social activists will repeat the one-sidedness of the old social gospel and neglect evangelism? Will this generation of young Christians spend as much time, money and effort praying and strategizing about how to winsomely invite non-Christians to come to Christ as you do working for social justice?
Are you in danger of abandoning an affirmation of moral and intellectual truth?
My second question is about truth. You have rightly learned from postmodernism that every person’s ideas and beliefs are significantly shaped by their specific location in space and time. Do you still believe there is moral and intellectual truth?
You are certainly correct to point out that Christians over the centuries, including this generation of older evangelicals, have been perversely shaped in their thinking by surrounding society. St. Augustine said dreadful things about sexuality, and Luther penned terrible comments about Jews. In my lifetime, too many older Christians were blatantly racist and homophobic. They largely ignored the hundreds of biblical texts about God’s amazing concern for justice for the poor and marginalized. One older Christian friend of mine told me 35 years ago that he had gone to evangelical Bible conferences for 60 years and never once heard a sermon on justice.
Far too often, older Christians have made absolute claims about their theological affirmations. We failed to see clearly that every human theological system contains human misunderstanding that comes from the fact that every theologian is a finite, imperfect, still painfully sinful person. Young Christians have learned we must be far more humble in our theological claims.
But does that mean truth does not exist? Sophisticated postmodernist thinkers say yes. All “truth” is simply a human construct produced by different groups of people to promote their self-interest. At the popular level, relativism reigns. Whatever I feel is right for me is “my truth.” It is outrageous intolerance to tell someone else they are wrong.
But finally, that kind of relativism—whether the sophisticated or the popular variety—does not work. If truth does not exist, science and civilization collapse. If, as Nietzsche claimed, no moral truth exists, then society is simply a vicious power struggle where the most powerful trample the rest. As the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell said, those who have the best poison gas will have the ethics of the future. One of the best Christian antidotes to this kind of modern relativism is Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical The Splendor of Truth.
The fact that my (and every other human) understanding of truth, justice and morality is dreadfully imperfect does not mean intellectual and moral truth do not exist. God is truth. Christ is the truth. The Bible is God’s revealed truth, even though my understanding of it is very inadequate. That God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that Jesus is true God and true man; that Jesus rose bodily from the dead; that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the only way to salvation for everyone—these are unchanging truths that will always be essential for every generation of Christians, even though we finite human beings never fully understand them.
Not everything must change.
Contemporary culture confuses relativism and tolerance. In so many circles, it is considered intolerable to say someone else’s behavior and beliefs are wrong; but I can and should respect other people and defend their freedom to say and do things I consider wrong without abandoning my assertion that some actions are moral and others are immoral. We must vigorously reject society’s equation of tolerance with relativism.
My prayer for this generation of young Christians is that you learn from postmodernists the many complex ways our ideas and beliefs are shaped by our social setting without abandoning the historic Christian affirmation that moral and intellectual truth exist because they are grounded in God.
Will you honor your marriage vows?
Third, a question about marriage. Will you young Christians be more faithful in keeping your marriage vows than my generation?
I weep over the pain and agony so many of you have experienced in your homes. Through no choice of your own, you had to suffer the anguish of broken families. So few of you enjoyed the security of knowing Mom and Dad would be faithful to each other for life. It saddens me to realize some of you even fear to marry because of the pain you experienced due to your parents’ broken marriages. That your Christian parents got divorced at the same rate as the rest of society is one of the most blatant markers of Christian failure today.
The widespread agony in so many evangelical homes is a striking contrast to the joy of good Christian marriages. God’s best gift to me, after His Son, is my wife, Arbutus, with whom I expect to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this August. Of course we had troubled times. At the worst time, we needed the gifts of a wonderful Christian marriage counselor for six months. But the ongoing joy of a wife and husband growing together in mutual submission over many decades is an amazing gift of our Creator. And yes, even at 71 years of age, the sex is still a delight.
The older I grow, the more certain I am the Creator’s design for sex and marriage truly works better than the alternatives. For a couple years before our marriage, I carried a note in my wallet promising God and myself to wait until marriage. At the hardest times in our marriage, when I was severely tempted to commit adultery, God’s holy commands protected me. Working through our painful struggles rather than running away from them has led to decades of happiness.
I want to plead with young Christians. Please resolve now to keep your promise to your spouse and children. Please live out a wonderful model of joyful, mutually submissive marriages that bless your children with security and goodness and attract non-Christians to the Savior. Forgiving each other for failures, working through the inevitable problems and growing together for a lifetime are better for your children, better for the Church and better for society. That is also the way to more lasting joy for yourself.
One related question for you to ponder if you are not married: Can you look into the face of Christ and say, “Lord, I believe with all my heart that the way I am relating physically to others is pleasing to you”? If you cannot do that, are you willing to ask Christ to help you change your behavior so it truly pleases the Lord? If you are not willing to behave now sexually in a way that is biblically obedient, why do you think you will later keep your marriage vows and spare your children the agony you have endured?
My young friends, the Creator’s way really works much better than today’s sexual promiscuity. I believe with all my heart that your generation can, in the power of the Risen Lord, keep your marriage vows, experience joyous marriages and thereby live winsome models of marital fidelity and happiness. I beg you, make that your goal and then by God’s grace do what it takes to reach it.
(there’s another section of this but it’s not out yet)