Cultural Opposition: Lie Down, Lean In, Lay Low, or Leave?
There are four basic responses available to Christians and churches in the face of cultural opposition. We can lie down and so surrender our stand and our faith. We can lean into the opposition by being vocal about our beliefs, willing to “take it on the chin.” We can lay low by taking great caution in airing those parts of our beliefs that the culture finds offensive. Or we get leave. Get out of Dodge.
It is always sin to lie down. It is never sin to lean in, though sometimes it is not wise. Sometimes it is wise to lay low or even to leave, though occasionally these amount to sinful lying down.
One of the greater challenges for Christians throughout history has been determining when to lean in and when to lay low or to leave, as well as when laying low or leaving amounts to sinful lying down.
Lying down comes in two basic forms: explicit and implicit. And both forms are sinful. “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). The Christian lapsi in the early church who offered incense to Caesar, thereby affirming Caesar’s supremacy over Jesus, explicitly denounced him. So did the Japanese converts in seventeenth-century Japan who denounced Christ by stepping on a bronze-plated image.
Christians and churches who continue to maintain the Christian name, but let outside authorities dictate which beliefs are acceptable, have implicitly laid down. One thinks of the Nazi-submitting German Evangelical Church. Karl Barth’s Barmen Declaration, which declared that Jesus and not the Führer was the head of the church, offered a good picture to the contrary.
Perhaps somewhere in between the implicit and explicit acts of lying down—and just as sinfully culpable—are Christians who deny particular doctrines and adopt more culturally respectable forms of Christianity. Enlightenment-era liberals who called themselves “Christian” yet denied the resurrection or Virgin birth come to mind, as do many other examples of those today who would alter historic Christian teachings in a societally favorable direction. The goal isn’t always to be “culturally respectable.” Deniers may genuinely believe they are conforming with “the facts” or a better hermeneutic. But finally they listen to man more than God (see Gen 3:17), and they sinfully lie down. Not all sin is intentional (see Lev. 4).
Leaning in can also take two forms: active and passive. Evangelism is the most concrete form of “actively” leaning in. Evangelism walks a person straight into opposition.
So it was when Jesus declared that the kingdom had arrived in him, or when Paul showed up in synagogues or the Areopagus. Surely one of the most jaw-dropping biblical examples of actively leaning was Paul returning to Lystra immediately after they stoned him!
There is a secondary sense in which battling for biblical righteousness or justice can be viewed as a form of active leaning-in, even if the name of Jesus is not explicit. William Wilberforce’s quest for biblical justice against the slave-trade might count as such an example, even if the quest was not specifically tied to the name of Christ. Churches or Christian leaders today that stand up for a biblical view of marriage might be regarded as leaning in in this secondary sense.
Martyrdom is the most concrete form of “passively” leaning in. A Christian is asked to deny, to denounce, to tear, to step, to betray, to offer up—all upon threat of pain, imprisonment, or death. But his or her posture is to stand still. He or she refuses to do what’s asked. Then the lions come. Or the flames burn. Or the sword swings.
So it was with everyone from Polycarp to John and Betty Stam. And countless others.
It is hard to imagine a situation in which leaning into cultural opposition by standing up for the name of Christ or for biblical justice is sin. In fact, I cannot think of one: real or hypothetical.
“I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame” (Ps. 119:46).
Yet not every fight is worth having, not every hill is worth dying on. Sometimes it is better to lay low.
Daniel and the three Hebrew boys picked a few famous fights with their pagan kings, to be sure. But this wasn’t their only approach. The chief of the eunuchs feared losing his own head for not feeding them from the king’s table. So Daniel suggested a surreptitious 10-day “test” of their program.
Jesus avoided head-on confrontations at multiple points. He did this when telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. He also did this by saying he came for the sick, not the healthy, knowing the Pharisees regarded themselves as healthy. And of course he tried to keep his messianic identity a secret for a time.
Paul, too, had Timothy circumcised in order to avoid disruption. And perhaps he had something of laying low in mind when he tells us to seek peaceful and quiet lives?
Might we even construe Naaman’s decision to let the king of Syria lean upon his arm while worshipping an idol as a judicious act of laying low? Elisha, at least, affirmed it.
The wise pastor or Christian in the workplace must sometimes decide, “This is not a war worth waging.”
The $64,000-dollar question is knowing when to lean in and when to lay low. Laying low can be a form of compromise. A church that believes all the right things, but never preaches sin, hell, or anything that offends the citizens of its host culture, is a compromised church. So with the Christian who never stands up in the workplace. They are like salt that has lost its saltiness. You might as well throw it out. (See Andrew Wilson’s Sexuality and Silence here.)
That said, I have seen evangelists lead out with points of agreement as well as points of disagreement, both to great effect.
How do you know when to lean in and when to lay low? To some extent, the answer depends on personal temperament. If you are a natural born fighter, you just might need to practice laying low from time to time. If you are like most people, however, you might practice leaning into the opposition more often.
It also depends on who you are talking to: admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess. 5:14).
Beyond this, the decision depends on the multitude of circumstances that make up any given historical moment. No Christian should make such decisions by him or herself, but seek guidance from fellow-elders or church members. And pastors should solicit counsel from other churches. How foolish to go into battle paying no heed to one’s own platoon, or seeking to coordinate with other platoons!
Sometimes, of course, God sovereignly removes the option of laying low. He caused a servant girl to recognize Peter’s accent, blowing his cover. For such moments we pray that God would also grant the courage to lean in and not lie down.
The more drastic form of laying low is actually leaving. Like laying low, leaving can be both wise and unwise, righteous or sinful, depending on the circumstances.
At one point in his ministry, Cyprian hid from persecution. At another point, he stayed and stood. Both decisions may have been right for the occasion. Some independent pastors in sixteenth century Britain went to prison. Others fled to Holland or the American colonies. Both responses, in principle, could have been correct, depending on the person. If I were pastoring a church in Iraq and ISIS was on the doorstep, I would probably tell my congregants to flee. If I were in Iran, I might not.
Not all acts of running away are righteous. Some are sin. The disciples sinfully abandoned Jesus in the Garden.
When might it be legitimate to leave as opposed to lay low or lean in? Perhaps when one’s life is at stake. Or when one’s family is no longer free to worship Jesus Christ and bear witness to him.
Certainly there are times to stay when the stakes are that high, too. I’m grateful Christians remain in Iran, and I pray there are Christians quietly evangelizing in Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Such decisions to stay are heroic and often godly.
That said, seldom should a pastor lean into the consciences of church members and exhort them to stay and face death rather than flee, such that members feel like they are sinning by leaving. He might set the example himself and instruct them from the Word generally, but he should leave such specific decisions to their consciences and the Holy Spirit.
LOVE AND ETERNITY
Two things distort our judgment on when to lean in versus when to lay low or to leave: fear of man and a lack of love.
Two things to correct our gauge: fear of God and love. If the Day of Judgment barely flashes on your mental radar, you will often make the wrong calculation. Eternity-mindedness is one fix. Compassion, understanding, and a concern for the whole flock the other.
The ministry of the pulpit, finally, will mostly lean in. Because the Bible leans in. Because God leans in. With holiness and judgment, compassion and grace, God leans in.