Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sacrificing for the Emperor: Cultural Orthodoxy and God's People

"At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals." ~ George Orwell, "The Freedom of the Press" (emphasis added)

My friends, this is a post that I have wanted to write for several years now. It has been a part of many conversations that I have had with friends, congregants, family, and many, many others over the past few years. Last year, with the SCOTUS ruling on marriage, my desire to write it has been "amped up," but yet, I have continued to let other things get in the way. One of those things is my perfectionist idolatry: there have been parts of this that I felt I was not prepared to write well and I struggle with idolizing perfection. (My idolatrous perfectionism is actually one of the things that keeps me from writing more, which I know God is working on in me but my progress is slow.) Yet, lately, it has been coming back in full-force through many conversations with graduate students in my church. In fact, I lead a graduate student Bible study on Virginia Tech campus, and we are studying the Old Testament book Daniel, which has brought this back up over and over again. We are about to finish with Daniel 6, and again, I have been reminded of this subject and felt compelled to write, whether or not I am prepared to do it perfectly. So, this post will partially be a study in Daniel 6 and partially my musings on current cultural trends in light of God's Word and history, and then, next week, Lord willing, I will write another talking about how Daniel and other believes have been faithful under harsh times.

It is no secret that our current culture is pushing Christians to capitulate on its views of sexuality and sexual identity. Any Christian who upholds a biblical view of marriage and sexuality is labeled a "bigot" and "hateful," no matter how politely or lovingly they make their stand or even if they hold that view quietly, and any Christian who refuses to use their business to support any agenda of a sexual-progressive movement is sued and most are losing those suits (in this most recent case, even actor and vocal supporter of LGBT issues, Patrick Stuart, is against the ruling). In fact, even teaching the biblical view of sexuality in a Sunday school class might soon be labeled "extremist" and suppressed in the UK. And, some are coming right out and saying that anyone who descents from the culture's view of sexuality should be forced to comply with it. It seems our society is approaching a totalitarian state, where a particular worldview of sexuality is the only one allowed in the public square, which reminds us more of the Brave New World of Huxley or Orwell's 1984 than a democracy where individuals are supposedly given human rights. Now, I am not writing this to talk about the details of this cultural issue itself, transgender ideology, whether or not same-sex marriage should be legal, or anything like that. Others have written on the subject, and many have done a better job than I could. I want to look behind this and ask the question, "What is going on? Why is this happening? Is there anything behind this cultural push?" and hopefully provide some biblical and historical encouragement for Christians to follow Christ instead of culture.

That is why I started with a George Orwell quote. Many of you have probably read Animal Farm, and if you have not, I would be willing to bet you have at least heard of it. What you may not know is that Orwell wrote a preface to it that did not end up in the published work called "The Freedom of the Press," from which I quote above. In it, he talks about what we might call "cultural orthodoxy," which every culture has had, although it has taken many different forms. That cultural orthodoxy is, as Orwell writes, a body of ideas that all "right-thinking" people are assumed to hold, and anyone who descents from them in any way is never given a fair hearing, actively suppressed, and often persecuted. Sound familiar? It should. In Orwell's time, it was communist philosophy. In our time, in the West, it is sexual sovereignty: "I am sovereign over my own body and sexuality, and no one can tell me or believe otherwise." But, I think the real issue is not actually sexuality or really even cultural orthodoxy, per se: it is an issue of highest loyalty. To whom will we give our highest loyalty? The Kingdom of God or some kingdom of man?

Let me start with Daniel. Any Christian who grew up in the Church is familiar with Daniel 6: Daniel and the Lion's Den. It is a popular children's story, but, like almost all popular children's stories, it is often taught wrongly. It is often taught as "If you obey God and do what's right, everything will turn out fine for you." There is a grain of truth to that, but it depends on what we mean by "fine." Often by "fine" people mean that life will be generally comfortable and you will avoid most suffering. But, biblically-speaking, "fine" does not mean we will not suffer in this life; quite the contrary, actually. The biblical "fine" means God will use our suffering for our ultimate good, but we will still suffer. But, even that is not the point of the story. The point of the story comes out in the decree that the king is duped into making: "O King Darius, live forever! All the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions." (vv. 6-7)

We look at that and on the surface are tempted to think it is about praying and worship. That is part of it, but ultimately it goes deeper. The ESV gets the translation right because it is about making a petition not just praying. Praying is certainly in that category, but asking a satrap for tax money to fix a road would be as well, which is why they qualify it with "any god or man." So, then what are these enemies of Daniel doing? They are appealing to the vanity of King Darius--to his desire to be the highest dependence and highest loyalty in Babylon. Whatever we depend upon most will be the thing to which we are most loyal--our highest loyalty. In essence, they are saying, "Make a law, King Darius, that for thirty days no one can have a higher loyalty than you; no one can be more dependent on anyone else than you." That would be a tempting prospect to anyone, and, indeed, it is the original temptation: "You will be like God." (Ge. 3:5) They know Darius will love the idea of being everyone's highest loyalty, and they know that Daniel will not give in to that command. That is why in v. 5 his enemies say to one another, "We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God." Thus, they have set the trap: make the highest loyalty someone other than God and watch Daniel maintain his loyalty to God. It is a test of loyalty that they know Daniel will fail.

Such a situation is not unique in the history of God's people. This was also the main issue at stake when it came to the official Roman persecutions of Christians. (You can read my summary of early Church persecutions here.) The Romans were remarkably tolerant of religions, philosophies, worldviews, etc. so long as the Roman State was your highest loyalty. They deeply distrusted and hated anyone who had a higher loyalty than the State. If they ever found out that you had a higher loyalty than the State, you were persecuted, and that was exactly the issue that caused the first empire-wide persecutions of Christians from 250 AD onward. Before 250 AD, the persecutions of Christians were localized to various regions of the Empire, and they were not yet a matter of official Roman policy. Then, Emperior Decius came along. Decius issued a decree that commanded all people under Roman rule to offer a single sacrifice once a year to the Roman gods for the well-being of the emperor by burning incense before the local magistrate. When you did, you were given a libellus (the image above is a surviving libellus), which was your proof of sacrifice. If you could not present a libellus when ask for it, then you were sentenced to death. Do you see what he was doing? He was testing the loyalty of his people. If they were ultimately loyal to Rome, they would sacrifice, even if they also had other gods they served, but if they had a higher loyalty to their God, they would not sacrifice. The ones whose highest loyalty was not to the State could then be identified and erradicated. Rome was fine with your religious beliefs, so long as you were loyalty to it above all else. It was a test of loyalty that Decius knew many Christians would fail.

For Daniel and the early Christians, the test of cultural orthodoxy many have been different, but the underlying issue was the same: Who is your highest loyalty? Whom do you really serve above all else? And, what we are seeing today has the same underlying issue, even though the test of cultural orthodoxy is different. The real issue is not sexual autonomy. That is just a symptom of something deeper: a culture that deeply distrusts those who have a higher loyalty than the culture itself, e.g. Christians.

Our culture is fine with religious beliefs and "spirituality" and even encourages it, so long as those beliefs do not lead you to question the prevailing cultural dogma, so long as you pass the test of cultural orthodoxy. For, if you pass that test, it shows you are more loyal to the culture than you are your religious or spiritual beliefs. If you are willing to compromise on that one belief, it shows your highest loyalty is really to the culture; not the God of the Bible. Last year, Frank Bruni of the NY Times tipped this hand and revealed these cards in his article "Bigotry, the Bible and Lessons from Indiana." There he lays it on the line. He tells us that religious freedom is really "freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity." I added emphasis to show you his bottom line: all people, religious or not, must bow to the "enlightenments of modernity," i.e. all people should be more loyal to the culture than their god, religous text, or spiritual beliefs. It is a test of loyalty: Is our highest loyalty to the culture (the "enlightenments of modernity") or to our God?

You see, friends, what we are seeing in culture is what Christians have experienced in all cultures in all times. It is just that the specifics of the test are different for us. Why do I point this out? For two reasons:
  • First, we Christians need to be reminded of this so that we do not begin to think that we are going through something no other Christian community has. We are not. Our struggle is not unique. The true Church of God's people has never been on the "right side" of human history and has always been at odds with cultural orthodoxy. And, in those times where we seemed not to be at odds with the surrounding culture, I would argue that those are the times we have been least faithful to God and His Word. It was not because the test was not there but because we passed it (from the culture's perspective). I will talk more about this in the next post, but we need to remember that because then we can look back on history and see that God sustained His people during all those times and tests, no matter how bad the persecution became. He will do the same today. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church (Mt. 16:18). 
  • Second, I want us to realize that whatever the test of cultural orthodoxy is, the issue at the base is always spiritual. The fundamental issue is not sexuality, communism, or petitions. It is always a test of whether or not we will worship God and depend on Him above all else, even if it costs us everything we have in this world. In fact, these were really the issues at stake in devil's temptations of Jesus. And, if we are going to follow Christ through these tests, we need to see them for what they really are: spiritual battles. We need to look past the arguments over sexuality and see what lies behind it: Will we trust God, believe His Word, make use of His means of grace to sustain and train us, and make Him our highest loyalty? That is the question that really matters. It was what mattered for Daniel, the early Church, and all other Christians throughout space and time. 
For now, I leave you with that to ponder. Next week, Lord willing, we will learn from Daniel and a little from Church history how we live as faithful Christians in the midst of these tests of cultural orthodoxy.

By His Grace,

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