We are all products of our age, in some degree, admits Carson, and in the days ahead, evangelicals desperately need to take their cues from Scripture, rather than engaging with society on its own terms, in its own tenor.
“What is first of all required is to take our cues on conduct and civility and tongue—what we say, what we think, where we’re going, what our values are, living in the light of eternity, living under the shadow of the cross—take all of that from Scripture, from the gospel, from Christ and subconsciously work toward being a counter culture, a different culture, one with an allegiance tied to the kingdom of God.”
Carson’s concern is that far too often we have let the surrounding culture define the rules and assumptions of our engagement. When shouted at, we are prone to respond with the natural human instinct to shout in return. We return shrillness with shrillness. But in our increasingly post-Christian society, we are in increasing need of being the kind of people who respond to a slap on one cheek by turning the other, and who respond to vitriol and venom with gentleness, perceptive questions, careful listening and loving kindness.
We need to learn, in the words of the apostle Paul, “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Growing Up in Opposition
This isn’t the first time Carson has experienced firsthand growing opposition to the church. His patient vision for engagement today has its roots not only in the biblical text, but also in his upbringing in French Canada, where evangelicals were openly opposed, even persecuted, in the 1950s. Carson’s childhood in Quebec was not your mother’s upbringing in the southern United States.
“Because of the background in which I grew up, I never held a view that Christians are entitled or Christian ministers ought to be revered by the culture. Baptist ministers alone between 1950 and 1952 in French Canada spent about eight years in jail. I’ve never been tempted by the view that Christians ought to be honored by the culture.”
Carson says he understands why people raised in deeply Christian contexts would develop a different reflex than his, and he is not eager to minimize the losses that come with an increasingly secular society. We should be honest about the real pains and losses of growing opposition, he admits, but he’s eager to highlight the gains as well.
“I probably feel a little less that we’re losing something massive. We’re losing some things, but we’re also gaining some things now.”
Among those gains, he includes the purifying of the church from “nominal Christianity”—from those who are Christian in name only, not truly born again from the heart.
“The rising antipathy against the church means that there’s less and less Christian nominalism around….If what’s going down is the nominalism, so that proportionally there’s more authentic Christianity that’s biblically based, this becomes a way of purifying the church, too.”
“Some of the apparently Christian ethos inherited from Judeo-Christian roots was fake, it was hypocritical,” and Carson appreciates the fresh desire in our day to be honest—“authentic” in its best conception—rather than put up a façade. This is a gain.
He also finds among the gains his sense of less rebellion against Christianity among young adults—and even new curiosity about the faith.
“As the culture moves further and further away from Christian roots, what you’re finding nowadays, for example on university campuses, is that there is less rebellion against Christianity than there was 15 years ago because they don’t know enough about it to hate it. There’s at least a sort of open curiosity.”
In the days ahead, Titus 3.1–3″>Titus 3:1–3 is one of many passages that will help us take our cues from Scripture, as Carson charges, rather than from society’s manner and assumptions in public speech. There Paul writes to his protégé Titus, ministering in the moral chaos of Crete, a society hostile to the gospel,
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. (Titus 3.1–3″>Titus 3:1–3)