The New Christian Counterculture: Separating or Non-Separating?
Rev. Larry E. Ball
Henry Van Til said that culture is religion externalized and made explicit. There has always been a dominant culture in every society that results from the dominant religion of that society. The religion that rules the hearts and minds of the people in any society is the religion that forms the basis of the laws and values of that society.
The first culture began with Adam and Eve. As Adam and Eve obeyed God, they established in the Garden of Eden a dominant righteous culture based upon submission to God. The devil challenged (or countered) the godly culture in the Garden of Eden, being the source of the first counterculture. Since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, there has always been a culture and a counterculture. Sometimes these two cultures (dominant culture and counterculture) are more visible than at other times (especially when men become epistemologically self-conscious as Dr. Cornelius Van Til taught us). These opposites are always in battle (antithesis) against one another. When Christianity gains dominance, it becomes the reigning culture of a particular society. As Christianity wanes and the devil gains more control, Christianity becomes the counterculture of a particular society.
Ultimately, God will rule His kingdom and He will establish a true godly culture. We know this will happen because Christ has crushed the head of Satan under His feet on the cross, and He has directed us to pray that His "will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The devil with all his followers eventually will be cast into Hell and his counterculture will never again threaten God's righteous culture. However, until that time, every generation will have to fight the battle of the culture wars.
It has been interesting to watch what I have termed the "Christian Counterculture" movement in America (See the Chalcedon Report, September 1999) during the latter part of the last century into the new millennium. It is clear that Christianity had influenced American culture greatly since the days of the Puritans. A shift in power has occurred, and we lost our influence in the public square. We now live in a society that has unofficially declared Christianity irrelevant (and may soon declare us wicked).
In reaction to the rise of this pagan culture in America (essentially the same as the counterculture in the Garden of Eden), there is a growing New Christian Counterculture movement. It can be identified by a return to the Scriptures as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. This movement is being led by those who have chosen to home school their children or put them into quality Christian schools. These Christians are the new pioneers in America, and are to be admired for their courage and steadfastness.
This New Christian Counterculture goes beyond the spiritual pietism that restricts religion to a mere internal experience. It goes beyond the sectarian view that divides life into different categories, where religion is just one part of the whole of life. It is not to be misconstrued with the liberal gospel that identified mere social change with the gospel of grace. It is the belief that through the gospel of Jesus Christ, everything under heaven must be brought captive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Bible is our guide in all areas of life as it speaks to the church, politics, education, and science to everything. There is no neutrality, only antithesis. There is a war going on which began in the Garden of Eden, and all of us are actively engaged in that war whether we know it or not. Eventually, Christ will put all His and our enemies under His feet. It is our privilege as Christians to pursue the goal of victory as God rules a justified people by the power of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Holy Scriptures. His law sets the standards for a righteous culture, and we are the vessels He has chosen to establish His kingdom through our believing and living out the gospel of grace. Incrementally Christ will establish a kingdom on earth where the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Is.11:9).
Engaging the Antithesis
Those who read the Chalcedon Report commonly accept what I have said up to this point. I need not convince such readers about the existence of the war. However, those who are at the forefront of this war must learn how to fight the war. We agree on the existence of the war, but we don't always agree on the best method to engage the enemy, if at all. We don't have many generals. We don't have a track record. We don't have much experience. We are treading through deep waters where few have tread before us. We live in a post-Christian America. The techniques of those in other cultures in days past who fought the same war may not suffice for our particular time in history. Obviously, many things are the same in any war, but because of the times and the characteristics of our particular enemies in America, many things are different.
We must think through our strategy, and pray that God will prevent us from major mistakes before we make them. Just because we have the courage to be in the battle, and just because we believe in a sovereign God, does not mean that we are immune to major errors and tactical blunders. It may take several generations of Christians to learn from the mistakes of their parents before this New Christian Counterculture can develop acceptable Biblical tactics.
We must make sure that our tactics in fighting this war are not merely a reaction to the culture of our day, but reliable deductions from the Scriptures. It is easy for pure emotional reactionism rather than careful Biblical exegesis to determine our tactics. As a pastor, I have often seen zealous new converts (not only to the Christian Faith, but also to Christian Reconstructionism) almost destroy themselves and everyone around them. In their reactionism, they over-reacted to the extremes, and became just one more problem for the church. I fear this reactionism may do great harm to many among those in the New Christian Counterculture movement. Paul said in Romans 10 that zeal without knowledge is a dangerous thing. Most of us while growing up in America were taught lies from the school of humanism, sometimes in our own churches. Now that we have rediscovered old truths, some of us are angry because we learned so late in life.
Some of us are disillusioned. However, we must be careful that our emotional backlash does not blind us to clear Biblical principles.
One of the most dangerous errors that we face in the days ahead is what I perceive as an unbalanced Separatist Christian Counterculture as opposed to a more balanced Non-Separatist Christian Counterculture. Separatism has the tendency to leave the world that God made for us, and to go off and create its own world.
Sometimes, this is achieved by strict limitations on associations, and at other times in more extreme cases, it results in geographical citadels. It is often a world with no contact, or at least minimal contact, with those who are unbelievers. It does not rub shoulders with those who disagree with us. It has a tendency to develop a communal mentality that serves as a fortress to protect us from being in the presence of our enemies. It tends to be a communal retreatism rather than the establishment of a covenant community that serves as a boot-camp to prepare us to aggressively confront the enemy in a world where God has called us to live and in a world that God has called us to recapture.
The Bible is clear that Christians, even those in the New Christian Counterculture movement, are to be "the salt of the earth" (Mt. 5:13). Salt left alone on the kitchen table is worthless. It taps into its potential only when it makes contact with food. It then becomes an agent to improve taste or to preserve quality. Likewise, it is my opinion that our Separatist brethren are failing to be used of God when they run off into their own little groups without engaging the world in which they live. They often build their own partitioned kingdoms that they think will be safe and sound from the evils of the world. Typically, no one outside of their detached kingdom knows anything about them. Their influence on the society in which they live is minimal at most, if not non-existent.
Jesus said in the high priestly prayer, "And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world" (Jn. 17:11). Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in his demand that they not associate with immoral people under church discipline, that he did not mean "the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world" (1 Cor. 5:10). Paul again wrote to the Corinthians, satisfied that he had been able to conduct himself in a Christian manner in the world outside the church, "For our proud confidence is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you" (2 Cor. 1:12). To the Philippians Paul wrote, "Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:14-15). It is very difficult to be lights in a world where you have no presence and in a world that cannot see you.
As a matter of fact, our ability to be in the world and not of the world is one of God's ways for us to be an encouragement to other believers. In 1 Peter 5:9, in the context of the dangerous attack by the schemes of the devil, Peter says, "But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world." Peter is not talking about the world in us, but about us in the world. It is a means to encourage others. That we are able to live in a world opposed to us and yet maintain our Christian testimony is a major test of our sanctification. I am afraid that too many of us enjoy watching movies like Braveheart, and then retreat back into our fainthearted communes.
Emptying the Nest
Another real issue challenging most covenant families is how to move their children from the covenant home into a world from which they have been sheltered most of their lives. This is especially true of the Separatists in the New Christian Counterculture movement. I don't buy into the argument that we are to throw our children to the lions at an early age to teach them how to live in the world (as is argued by some seeking to justify sending their children to government schools). Our covenant children are to be nurtured by covenant parents, and not by a host of government schoolteachers, most of whom have themselves been trained in anti-Christian philosophy.
However, what concerns me as I look at the landscape of the New Christian Counterculture movement is the inability of covenant parents to prepare their children to face a hostile world. Our children will not always be underage and at home. They need to be prepared to face not only a hostile world, but also a very competitive world. Especially with our sons, we must not raise wimps, but men of valor and courage. The question before the New Christian Counterculture is how to do this.
None of us want to raise children who are incapable of facing a world full of anti-Christian sentiment. Sheltering is good for our children, but eventually they must fly out of the nest and meet the enemy without Mom and Dad present. I fear that those I have termed "Separatists" may find themselves greatly disappointed, and may even eventually believe they have been betrayed by God, because their children as adults will not be able to handle living in a world outside of their communal safety net.
Let me suggest a few principles, not only to prevent such disappointments, but also to give some direction to enable your children to leave the nest and face the world.
First, while your children are young and still at home, you must be an example to them of one who is able to live in the world and yet not be of the world. Do not raise them in a communal cocoon. As parents, be what God expects you to be living in a hostile world. For example, show your children how you can attend the meeting of the local city government board of aldermen, and speak to the issues of the day (not to mention the possibility of holding a seat on the board). Show them how to play in a tennis tournament at the local tennis association and maintain a Christian testimony (even when you lose). Show them how to handle the arrogance of the editor of the local humanistic newspaper, speaking the truth in love. Take them with you and let them sit quietly in a chair out of sight, and see how a man is supposed to live in the world and maintain his Christian testimony. This assumes, of course, that our men are living in the world and have not chosen to shun the world.
Let your children, especially boys, use their talents in the context of community events. For example, Little League Baseball provides a challenge for many young boys (and their parents too!). There is nothing sinful about it. Push them into contact sports. It won't harm them. It will not hurt a boy to get a bloody nose because he tried to steal third base. This is simply teaching him how to be a part of the world. He can still study his Latin when he gets home from the ball game.
Secondly, as your children get older, push them out incrementally. In their mid-teens, it would be good for them to work at Chick-Fil-A. Even more challenging, encourage them to wait tables at Pizza Hut. Let them see what it is to "be stiffed" by someone who does not leave a tip. Let them learn how to work under a manager who has been divorced three times and is carrying a chip on his or her shoulder. They also may have to work with another employee who has a mouth that spews forth nothing but foul language and invectives against God. What will they do? Guide them while they are still at home, so they can come to you for advice. They will need your guidance and help, and it will be wise to give it while they are still under your oversight. By guarding your children in their mid-teen years, you will not abdicate your responsibility as covenant parents. It will provide a controlled environment so that your children can leave home, engage the world, and then return home to the safety net provided by their parents all in the same day. Don't wait until they leave their covenantally sheltered home. It may be too late! Once they have learned some skills in responding to a hostile world by using Biblical principles, you will not be afraid when the day arrives that they leave home as adults. Separatist communal societies do not provide such opportunities. Covenantal Christian communities do.
Before I conclude this article, I would like to mention one other item that may be highly controversial and raise a few hackles within the New Christian Counterculture. This is only what I perceive as a trend, and understandably there are many exceptions. Your child may be one of the exceptions.
It appears to me that typically most Christian schools and home schools are providing an excellent education in the arts and humanities. We are learning to teach our children how to read and write well, and how to think Biblically. What I have noticed however, as a trend only, mind you, is that our children have slipped behind the children of the world, who have comparable intelligence, in the areas of mathematics and science (including the broad spectrum from engineering to medicine). This may be because most of our leaders and role models in the Reconstructionist movement are literary giants. Math and science disciplines (and their derivatives) are very demanding, and often it appears to me that our children (especially our young men) are far behind their intellectual counterparts who are being raised in humanistic homes.
It is interesting how many parents want their children to be part of a godly self-supporting covenant home. Yet because we are producing young male adults who have not learned to conquer the world of math and science (including such disciplines as the field of accounting), we are not raising potential heads of households who will be able to provide a living for our covenant daughters. Not only must we raise our young men to be true spiritual heads of our daughters (being able to answer their wives questions about the Bible, which will be a challenge in itself because we have taught our daughters so much theology), but we must raise them to provide adequate food and shelter for their own households. While recognizing that not everyone is called to conquer the fields of math and science, I fear that we are short-changing many of our children by not preparing them to pursue callings that will enable them to provide financially for a family. Accomplishment in the fields of math and science still pays a sufficient salary that will allow a man's wife to fulfill her calling (in raising a dozen children?), because her husband can afford to feed them.
For recent college graduates, World magazine, in the August 11, 2001 issue, reported that economics/finance majors commanded an average starting offer of $40,577, and computer-science grads commanded an average starting offer of $52,723. Many of our daughters are accustomed to fairly high lifestyles (nice homes, their own automobiles, annual vacations, quality health care, and designer clothes) that their fathers (many of whom are engineers, doctors, professors, etc.) can provide for them. We may not be producing sons who can provide what daughters are accustomed to. We may not be producing sons who can take care of the families they hope to have in order to continue the covenant blessings. Unless we change direction, we may have to prepare our daughters for a considerable reduction in lifestyle, especially since most of them do not plan to work outside the home.
The agrarian society is gone for most of us. The idealism of the pioneer homestead is deceptive. We cannot retreat into a fantasy world of the past, but we must face the reality of the modern mobile society.
In conclusion, those leading the New Christian Counterculture movement are to be admired. Both those who lead and those who follow are to be commended for their willingness to break with the mainstream and be distinctively Christian. It is a blessing that they are once again discovering the Biblical concept of the covenant. Yet, being brave does not always make us wise. We must be aware of the pitfalls of our own zeal. Separatism that goes so far as to avoid the world goes too far. It will in the long run only damage our children. We must live in the world that God expects us to occupy, not vacate it. Unless we learn and teach our children how to occupy, we will handicap our children for generations to come.
Larry Ball is pastor of Bridwell Heights Presbyterian Church, Kingsport, Tennessee. He is also a CPA. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the Chalcedon Report and is used here by permission of the author.