Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

“It’s All About Me!”
Ministry In A Therapeutic Culture

If ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should ever happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish such things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anyone can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality round in a bottle. Christianity without the tears – that’s what soma is.[1]

Ninety years ago, Huxley depicted a Brave New World, where citizens were kept peaceful, happy (and under state control) by means of a constant supply of medication.

Today, ever larger numbers of people (including children) are offered therapy or medication to address mental, emotional and spiritual pain.[2] Others resort to self-medication with addictive substances or behaviours.[3] Many point to a collapse in Christian belief and practice.[4] And increasing numbers of commentators have warned of the dangers of an increasingly therapeutic culture, where “happiness itself is a right owed to all”.[5]

In this article we will note some of the factors which have contributed to this cultural moment, and then consider how the therapeutic culture has impacted the church (including evangelicalism).[6]

I. The Culture

When I trained as a teacher, we were often told that self-actualisation was the goal for every child. That thinking fuels the idea that life is “all about me”. During the mid-twentieth century, two sociologists described a sea-change taking place in Western society. In 1966, American sociologist Philip Rieff (1922-2016) published The Triumph of the Therapeutic. He observed that until the twentieth century, it had been generally accepted in the West that wisdom is mediated to the young through parents, teachers and church leaders. Youngsters were taught that it was a good thing to control their desires; self-control, restraint and respect for authority were held out as virtues; duty and service to others were central to character formation. With the advent of the therapeutic society, the overthrow of traditional authorities was viewed as progressive. Individual liberation was seen as the key to fulfilment. Desires were to be indulged. But what would society look like when everyone lived like this? When everyone was seeking self-fulfilment? When communal and family bonds were fractured?

Then, in 1979, American historian and social critic, Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), published The Culture of Narcissism. Western culture had formerly emphasised character building, and respect for the family and authority. But now, family was seen as repressive, individual freedom was held out as the goal, long-term commitments were feared, and the interests of men and women were pitted against each other.

Rieff and Lasch weren’t Christians. But they sensed that once we all assume that our supreme end is self-fulfilment, we enter uncharted territory. What will society be like when everyone puts self-fulfilment ahead of service to others? Insisting that as free individuals, we are not accountable to any transcendent authority, and placing our own choices ahead of any obligation to others, both diminishes us as humans, and damages social cohesion. When a society loses belief that we are designed to live in community, with mutual obligations, that society cannot last.

Today, the overreach of liberalism and “uber-individualism” has become even more apparent.[7] Insistence on self-determination has escalated into the expectation that we all have the right to construct our own identity, as well as our own morality. Almost overnight we find ourselves faced with the assumption that we must not question anyone’s individual claims, however bizarre; the idea that “safe spaces” should protect the vulnerable from uncomfortable ideas; and the claim that “criticism is violence”. To question an individual’s feelings may be deemed hateful. How did we get here? 

1. No God: Loss of Transcendence

In 2017, author Douglas Murray[8] identified two major factors contributing to the loss of Christian faith in Europe. Darwin’s account of the origins of life without a Creator made atheism intellectually credible, and Christianity was hollowed out from within by liberal theology.[9] Our culture is now infused with a naturalistic worldview (this world is all there is), rather than the theistic worldview (this world is created by God). Many grow up in a “world without windows”.[10] We are expected to exclude belief in anything beyond the things we can see, touch, taste, hear and feel. There is no access to transcendence, eternal values, mystery or God. But without a transcendent authority, who, or what, is left to judge between competing claims to truth?

In 2013 a family in England were told that their four-bedroom home would have to be demolished. A deadly weed had spread from wasteland near-by, and penetrated the walls of their home. The only way to remove it would be to knock the house down, kill the plant, and rebuild.[11] Today, like that poisonous knotweed, the lie – that there is no ultimate truth – has penetrated every institution in the West. The pioneers of critical theory wanted to bring about a society where all inequalities in outcome were removed.[12] To achieve that, the power (hegemony) of established institutions had to be undermined. How? Use radical doubt (aka critical theory) to question all objective truth, including scientific truth (and much that had previously assumed as “common sense”).

For decades now, many students have been taught that both claims to absolute truth, and universal explanations (“meta-narratives”), are disguised grabs for power. They are exploited by oppressors to protect their privilege. Reason, logic and science are seen, then, as tools of oppression which should be replaced with the lived experience of people in oppressed groups. Authentic knowledge is achieved within different communities. People outside those groups do not have access to that knowledge.[13] So critical theory denies the existence of objective universal truth, and challenges the use of “oppressive” tools of reason and logic. It removes any possibility of reasoned debate. On what shared basis can civilisation continue? Such a society is vulnerable to tyranny: the subjective judgments of the loudest voices win.

2. No Judgment: Loss of Absolutes

If there is no Creator, we are not answerable to a Creator. There won’t be a final Judgment. If we won’t have to give account to our Creator God, then who has the right to tell me what to do? Philip Rieff (mentioned above) maintained that the distinguishing mark of modernity was the assumption that we are not accountable to anyone other than ourselves. During the twentieth century the idea gained ground that the exercise of all authority is toxic. But society cannot function without the exercise of authority – so what will happen once it is assumed that the exercise of authority is necessarily oppressive?

Professor Frank Furedi points out that during the 1940s and 1950s, many began to use the terms authority and authoritarian interchangeably. Then, in the 1950s the word obedience began, increasingly, to be used alongside the term unquestioned. The implication was that obedience was something for unthinking people! The idea of moral judgment morphed into the derogatory term judgmentalism, and now morality is associated with a negative moralism.[14] Within the cultural framework of extreme individualism, everyone must do what is right in their own eyes.

For many decades, education systems in many countries have incorporated “values clarification”. Each child is expected to work out for themselves what is right and wrong. Values clarification is not a neutral teaching tool. It challenges confidence in absolute morality and promotes moral relativism.[15]

In 1993, British sociologist Richard Hoggart observed that when elderly people in the deprived area of Leeds where he had grown up spoke of youth delinquency, they qualified any statement with, “but it’s only my opinion of course”. In a world where God and absolute moral standards are denied, we all have to be non-judgmental. On that same housing estate, Hoggart found that there was little confidence in the role of parents. Children were growing up in what was, effectively, a “violent, jungle world”.[16]

In 2011 a study of attitudes among young adults in America was published which found:

Six out of ten (60 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed expressed a highly individualistic approach to morality. They said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion, in their view… In this world of moral individualism, then, anyone can hold their own convictions about morality, but they also must keep those views private. Giving voice to one’s own moral views is itself nearly immoral…[17]

Refusal to affirm whatever moral choice someone makes is regarded as failure to respect them, and even as hate. By 2020, it was common to hear the slogan “criticism is violence” on university campuses.[18]

3. “It’s all about Me!”: Collapse of a Shared Culture

If there is no God, we can create our own identity, choose our own destiny and construct our own morality. We only have this one life on earth, so we should fulfil ourselves while we can.

(i) The challenge to biblical sexual morality

By the end of the nineteenth century, a number of intellectuals had launched an attack on conventional morality, and during the early twentieth century, others continued the campaign.[19]  Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1908) reversed everything usually assumed about morality. He defined chastity as immorality, and purity as impurity:

The preaching of chastity is a public incitement to anti-nature. Every expression of contempt for the sexual life, every befouling of it through the concept “impure”, is the crime against life – is the intrinsic sin against the holy spirit of life.[20]

These ideas would be promoted by the advocates of “free love”. Around the beginning of the twentieth century this group was limited to members of the intellectual elite (such as the “Bloomsbury” circle in London).[21] Later, the same ideas would be propagated through the whole of Western society.

The idea that sexuality is a core element of personal identity is the legacy of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). He believed that to be human is to be sexual,[22] insisting that from early infancy humans are capable of sexual expression and enjoyment, hence his hatred of Christian morality and the traditional family as they forbade early sexual activity.[23] Freud regarded humans as highly developed animals, and he understood sexual desire in purely physical terms. Sex is “de-sacralised”; there is no place for mystery, and no place of innocence. This depersonalising of sexual behaviour opened the way to the grossness of modern pornography and the cheapening of casual sexual encounters.[24] 

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) argued in The Sexual Revolution (1936) that sexual suppression in childhood led to unhappiness throughout life. He believed that human fulfilment demanded sexual satisfaction. Children could be liberated from oppressive moral codes by means of permissive sex education.  Fascism arose, he suggested, as a result of sexual repression,[25] and suffering and cruelty in society were due to the enforcement of Christian morality: “…suppression of the love life of children and adolescents is the central mechanism for producing enslaved subordinates and economic serfs”. [26]

Reich believed that his “gospel” of sexual liberation would bring life and happiness to all. The way to get this good news out to the masses was by means of compulsory sex education from the earliest age. Traditionalists, religious fundamentalists and social conservatives had to be silenced; there could be no happy coexistence between the old and new morality.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), pioneer of contraceptive provision and founder of Planned Parenthood, also viewed sexual freedom as salvation. In The Pivot of Civilisation (1922), she argued that the magic bullet to tip humanity towards a better future was contraception (and the sexual freedom that this would facilitate).[27] Sex had to be liberated from the restraint of lifelong faithful monogamy (Christian morality). Her philosophy can be summed up:

  • What is the cause of human misery? Christian Morality
  • What will solve human suffering? Sexual Liberation

The legacy of such thinkers is the new morality prevailing in Western culture:

  • Sexual freedom used to be regarded as sinful; it is now seen as healthy
  • Modesty, chastity and sexual restraint used to be considered virtues; they are now viewed as pathological
  • The “natural” family of a married father and mother was accepted as the fundamental building block of society; it is now often thought to be a seedbed of abuse and an outdated relic of heteronormativity.

The old morality based on a Christian worldview was replaced with the new morality of individual freedom. Sociologist Anthony Giddens (b. 1948) has described this as the “democracy of the emotions”. The “pure relationship” is based on “confluent” love. Partners must be free to leave at any time.[28] It is the authentic experience of each individual that matters, unfettered by external rules.

(ii) “Don’t question my experience!”

The existential movement denied the reality of God and made individual experience supreme.[29] Emotion becomes the overriding principle of deciding moral questions. We do not want our feelings to be challenged by others (or even by ourselves!). This begins at an early age:

Therapists are even showing up at our day-care centres – and they’re talking to primary school children so frequently that by the time the kids turn nine, they sound as if they’ve been studying Freud. “I’m stressed out.” “I’m so depressed.” “I need to chill out.” We have socialized a generation with self-victimization, and the kids have internalized its terms.[30]

Instead of teaching youngsters virtues such as character and resilience, many think it is important to validate whatever they are feeling. This creates individuals who are in continual need of therapy and support, inhibits enterprise and ambition, and creates dependency and entitlement.

Jonathan Haidt insists that it is damaging when youngsters are told to trust their feelings at all times (he calls this the untruth of emotional reasoning). Many now assume that emotional well-being has to be protected from any psychological harm which may be inflicted by words or ideas that make them feel uncomfortable. This increases the likelihood of becoming “fragile, anxious and easily hurt”![31] It is a vicious circle. 

(iii) Identity politics and Queer Theory

Some experiences are given more credence than others: the experiences of those without “privilege”. Increasingly, propositions are assessed, not on their rational merit, but on the status (privileged or not) of the person making the claim. In this context, a new class of victims have been created by the claims of queer theory. Systemic heteronormativity is said to be the idea that there are embedded structures in a society that privilege heterosexuals. These structures (especially the man-woman married family) need to be overthrown, in order to achieve equality of dignity for anyone who falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. 

Three decades ago, in 1989, a handbook for gay activists entitled After the Ball was published. The authors, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, deliberately constructed the concepts of “born gay” and “gay orientation”, in order to shift attention from behaviour and choice to “fixed identity” (over which a “victim” had no control).[32] This brilliant move afforded minority status to gay people, and simultaneously shifted any questioning of homosexuality into the realm of persecuting a minority. Anyone who suggested that man-woman marriage was natural or that homosexual activity was wrong, could be labelled as homophobic. If they attempted to refute that accusation, they were accused of internally repressing their own homosexuality, or, alternatively, of internalising homophobia.

Equality of dignity means that we are obliged to positively affirm LGBTQ+ identities. Douglas Murray, himself a gay man, believes that we have moved beyond acceptance of homosexuality to a situation of moral blackmail where failure to celebrate queer culture is condemned. To suggest that “two men cannot make a baby” is now regarded as bigoted.[33] And yet, to insist that “two men can make a baby” denies objective reality and insults women, without whom babies cannot be made! So this overreach of individual autonomy actually demeans half the human race.

II. The Church

Even that brief survey indicates that many non-Christians are ready to acknowledge the dangers (both to individuals and society) of unlimited elevation of individual freedom and fulfilment. It should be plain that there is a direct conflict between the therapeutic worldview and the biblical worldview:

Therapeutic Worldview

 

Biblical Worldview

SELF: the source of authority for me

 

GOD: the source of authority for all

My desires and feelings are the authority for me

 

The transcendent God defines identity, meaning, truth, morality: there is an external point of reference

We each define our own identity and values

 

God’s moral law has been placed on the conscience of every human being made in God’s image

We do not need to submit to an external authority

 

God has revealed his truth in his Word, the Bible

We might have hoped that the Christian church would unite to resist these various challenges to biblical truth. Sadly, many clergy and theologians have cheered them on.

In 2019, Southwark Cathedral hosted a launch event for Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, written by Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A key moment in Shameless is when one of Bolz-Weber’s parishioners tore out and burned the Bible pages referring to God’s condemnation of homosexuality, and then burned all the other pages of the Bible, except the four Gospel accounts of Jesus.[34] She then felt joy and freedom, an experience regarded by Bolz-Weber as true Christian liberty. This exemplifies a “no guilt, no shame”, therapeutic version of the Gospel. We are expected to celebrate the release experienced by a troubled woman when she threw sections of the Bible onto a bonfire.

Let us note some of the steps along the road to this re-writing of biblical truth:

1. Loss of Confidence in Divine Revelation

Christian theology all too often adjusts in order to fall into step with the surrounding culture. Nineteenth-century theological liberalism mirrored the naturalistic worldview that posed such a challenge to the Christian faith at that time. The methods of higher criticism set human reason over the authority of Scripture: doctrines concerning the miracles, the resurrection, and the Virgin Birth seemed incredible within a naturalistic worldview. Many nineteenth century theologians believed that the way to rescue Christianity and make it plausible in the scientific age was to liberate it from “primitive” and supernatural elements. A number of German theologians led the charge: rooted in the early-nineteenth-century German Enlightenment (especially the writings of Immanuel Kant) they elevated human reason to assess the various parts of Scripture. The Bible was analysed using the same critical methods as would be used for any other ancient text.

In parallel with the move towards a naturalistic worldview, liberal theologians separated religion from the realm of historical facts. Religion was viewed as a matter of experience; it became less important to insist that Jesus physically rose from the tomb – instead, the “spiritual reality” of new life was said to motivate the early disciples. Accounts such as the Virgin Birth, the historicity of the miracles, the literal return of Christ and the resurrection of the body were all called into question. Christ’s authentic teaching was said to have been overlaid by later theological interpretation (especially by Paul). There was an ongoing attempt to get back to the “real” Jesus.

The Bible was increasingly viewed as just a collection of human documents, not the Word of God. Jean Réville (1854-1908), a self-identified Protestant Liberal, argued that liberalism was essentially non-doctrinal – belief in the Trinity was no longer needed, and the Bible was a source document, but not to be regarded as authoritative.[35] During the nineteenth century, many protestant churches abandoned belief in the Trinity, and became Unitarian. There was then a further slide into an abandonment of any belief in a transcendent Deity: by the twentieth century many Unitarians were committed humanists.[36] Belief in the afterlife was generally replaced with the idea that social justice should be achieved here on earth.[37]

Many churches in Europe, America and beyond, lost confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. As missionaries were sent out all over the world, they took unbelief with them. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) resigned from the Baptist Union in protest at the refusal of denominational leaders to discipline those who denied fundamental truths.[38] He stood almost alone, but warned:

Assuredly the New Theology can do no good at all… If it were preached for a thousand years by the most earnest men… it would never renew a soul, or overcome pride in a single human heart.[39]

American theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. He argued that Liberalism is not to be regarded as one branch of Christianity – it is a false religion. But at the time of his death, in 1937, theological liberalism was still dominant in universities and seminaries around the world. 

In reaction against the sterility of liberal theology, Karl Barth (1886-1968), Emil Brunner (1889–1966), and others re-emphasised the transcendence of God and the sinfulness of humankind. Neo-orthodoxy was a necessary corrective to liberal theology. But it did not return to the conviction that all Scripture is inspired, and therefore without mistake. The new emphasis on the transcendent led Barth, for example, to teach that Scripture becomes inspired when the Holy Spirit applies it to the believer. That move – placing authority at least partly in the experience of the individual – played perfectly into the culture of the mid-twentieth century, for by this time the collapse of confidence in universal truth had contributed to the idea that the only thing any individual could do is seek their own authentic experience. There was no point in looking for external, objective reality.

Theological liberals in the past placed human reason above Scripture; their descendants now place human experience above Scripture. A bridge between the older liberal project and the new therapeutic liberalism was provided by John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983), Divinity Lecturer at Cambridge University and Bishop of Woolwich. Honest to God (1963) argued that God is not “out there”, rather we experience the “God within”; we decide our own morality (situational ethics”); moral absolutes are a shackle. The now-retired American Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong (b. 1931) recalls his excitement at reading Honest to God in 1963:

…when I read it – I couldn’t stop. I read it three times! My theology was never the same. I had to wrestle with how I could take the literalism I had picked up in Sunday school and put it into these new categories.[40]

Spong became a leading voice in the Progressive Christian movement (see below), which champions a diversity and inclusivity that effectively means celebration of any and every lifestyle.[41]

2. Expressive Individualism

Once you deny that there is a God whose character and decrees define what is right, then you deny universally-valid moral laws. The remaining moral absolute is to be faithful to yourself, to find your own authentic identity. This expressive individualism has seeped into many sections of the church. If the Bible contradicts “what I sincerely and deeply feel”, all too often feelings win. The Ten Commandments seem dangerously authoritarian in an age influenced by the new discipline of psychotherapy.

The Revd Dr Gavin Ashenden recalls his ministerial training, where he was taught the two core elements of Rogerian counselling technique: unconditional positive regard and self-actualisation. He describes the new world of uncritical affirmation in which “love” has taken on a new meaning: “the insistence on accepting someone ‘as they are’, with no preconditions and no criticism”.  “Hate” now means “any criticism of the fragile self”.[42]

If, in the name of an external morality, a Christian voice were to challenge the demands the therapised ego insisted made it happy or actualised, this Christian or the Bible whose words the Christian was calling upon, would become “hate speech”… The culture of Limitless Self-Regard… identifies any refusal to accept its demands for self-realisation or self-satisfaction on its own terms as hate. The struggle in the Church is not one of compassion versus hate: it is one of revelation versus narcissism.[43]

Questioning someone’s identity or orientation is now viewed as hateful, even violent. Affirmations of absolute moral truth are viewed as intolerant; calls to repentance and a holy life are seen as abusive; evangelism is softened. In some parts of the professing church, preaching hell and judgment is almost unknown. The gospel becomes a message of finding fulfilment, achieving freedom from anxiety, or discovering the authentic meaning of life. The significance of God is that he can bring meaning and hope to me – self, not God, takes centre stage.  

3. The Shift in Evangelicalism: “It’s all about me and Jesus”

The Great Awakening of the eighteenth century wonderfully demonstrated the power and importance of individual conversion. Sadly, during the subsequent two centuries, sometimes the focus on individual salvation meant a neglect of God’s glorious purposes for the whole cosmos and unconcern for the doctrines of creation and common grace.

In Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s[44] David Bebbington traced various ways in which evangelicalism has developed in response to the culture around it. He noted the impact of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century (leading to greater sentimentality among many evangelicals), and relativism in the twentieth century (leading to an emphasis on each person deriving “truth” from personal experience.

Professor David Wells has written a succession of books which analyse the ways in which evangelicals have often been shaped by the surrounding culture.[45] He characterises much current Christianity as “filling out my story, being propelled on my journey”.[46] Faith becomes a private, personal, individual matter, which would help explain way some worship services consist solely of songs about how Jesus loves me: “Our experience in the modern world inclines us to think of God solely as the ‘inside’ God and to lose sight of him as the ‘outside’ God.”[47]

We are encouraged to think of God mainly as relating to me and providing for my needs, but downplay the biblical truths concerning his holiness, transcendence, justice and sovereignty. Sin is presented not so much in relation to God – how we have offended our Creator – rather we focus on our own experience of anxiety or pain or failure. Wells argues this leads to a spirituality that is, “…deeply subjective, non-moral in its understanding, highly individualistic, completely relativistic, and insistently therapeutic”.[48]

This helps to explains the shift within evangelicalism regarding attitudes to a range of ethical issues, including an increased acceptance of divorce, artificial reproductive technologies (even when they involve destruction of the early embryo), and homosexual practice. At a popular level, each time you hear someone say: “My God would never condemn people to an eternal hell!” or “My God would never discriminate against women/gay people!” that is an example of placing personal experience in judgment over Scripture. The teaching of the Bible is interpreted in such a way as to justify our own lifestyle.

The historic evangelical position is that Scripture stands as the final authority by which all human experience is judged. But many evangelicals have shifted towards a therapeutic model of pastoral care, listening to the experience of those they help, and using that experience to mould their doctrine and theology. Hence experience sits alongside Scripture as authoritative.

The last book written by Francis Schaeffer was The Great Evangelical Disaster (1983). He argued that the greatest threat to evangelical faithfulness was accommodation to the spirit of the age. We tend to be seduced by the enjoyment of personal peace and affluence, and are therefore unwilling to pay the price of costly discipleship. If taking a biblical stand on current cultural flash points means losing our job, then it is just easier to keep our heads down. We should remember that the most popular books read by previous generations of Christians included The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War. These taught that true Christians will suffer for their faith. By contrast, today many Christian self-help books imply that God wants to make our lives as comfortable as possible.

4. Emerging Church – Progressive Church

By the end of the twentieth century, a new strand of protest had arisen within evangelicalism, reacting against what was viewed as traditional orthodoxy with its linear thought and rigid creeds and statements of faith, as well as against authority structures, megachurches, denominations and power bases of church life. One section of the movement, broad in its convictions and without clear structures or boundaries, became known as emerging (or emergent) church.[49] Embracing diversity, a common factor in these churches was a rejection of dogmatism; formal statements of faith and authoritative preaching were replaced with assurances of inclusivity. This was, effectively, a religious expression of postmodernism. Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren (b. 1956) rejects any theology which he views as based on modernist thought which presents orthodoxy as “nailed down, freeze-dried, and shrink-wrapped forever”.[50]

Just as the liberal theologians of the nineteenth century were motivated by a sincere desire to rescue Christianity to make it more acceptable to a scientific age, those involved in the emerging church (which has morphed into progressive church), have tried to engage with contemporary culture. They recognise that people today long for authenticity so they try to present Christ in a personal (rather than a highly structured and traditional) setting. Some of their specific criticisms of modern evangelicalism (for example, disillusionment with aspects of the megachurch movement or evangelical celebrity culture) are well-founded. But whenever we place human experience in judgment over Scripture, it is a denial of authentic biblical Christianity. As Dan Doriani comments:

[Today many] believe in an experience of Jesus “not intrinsically tied to any specific doctrinal formulation.” They believe “doctrine and morality are finally unimportant as long as believers experience warm feelings about Jesus and engage in ministry to the world.” But if experience is the key, then revelation is found outside Scripture…[51]

Alisa Childers was a committed, Bible-believing evangelical and a successful Christian singer. She joined a progressive church, attracted by the way it seemed to offer authenticity and relevance to real life. The studies she attended there “challenged my beliefs, rocked my faith and shook me to the core.”[52] As she studied both the claims of the progressives and the claims of Scripture, she came to believe that “the gospel can only be fully known if the Bible actually is the inerrant and inspired Word of God”.[53] She now believes that:

 …progressive Christianity offers me nothing of value. It gives me no hope for the afterlife and no joy in this one. It offers a hundred denials with nothing concrete to affirm.[54]

III. The Challenge: Legislating against Repentance?

In the context of a therapeutic culture, the Christian teaching about God’s moral law and the need for repentance is, increasingly, viewed as psychological and emotional abuse, an assault on individual freedom. It is not surprising, then, that even within evangelicalism, there has been an airbrushing away of fundamental biblical truths, including eternal punishment[55] and the universality and perpetuity of God’s moral law.[56]

In this context, we need to be alert to current serious challenges to religious and individual liberty.[57] We will consider just one: In July 2020 Boris Johnson announced that he is committed to introducing legislation to outlaw “conversion therapy”.[58] While some quack medical practitioners or charlatan preachers have engaged in abusive practices, such crimes are, rightly, already punishable in law. Rightful revulsion at such instances is being exploited. Some, including professed evangelicals, demand that:

Any form of counselling or persuading someone to change their sexual orientation or behaviour so as to conform with a heteronormative lifestyle, or their gender identity should be illegal, no matter the reason, religious or otherwise – whatever the person’s age.[59]

To introduce such sweeping and loosely defined legislation would have a devastating impact on gospel freedom.[60]  The law would be used to decide a theological question: “Does the Bible teach that homosexual practice is wrong?” To say “Yes” (whether in sermons, small groups, individual conversations, prayer times, or even as parents speak to their children) could be outlawed. Steve Chalke believes that sermons and informal prayer that don’t affirm LGBT identities are “safeguarding issues” which require government intervention. He anticipates that such legislation would lead to high-profile prosecutions against churches.[61]

“Conversion” is a biblical term (e.g., Acts 15:3), which includes both putting our faith in Christ, and repentance from sin. A blanket ban on “conversion therapy” could be used to coerce churches to accept the idea that becoming a Christian does not involve repentance with regard to sexual sin (contra 1 Corinthians 6:11). It would threaten religious liberties, and deny individuals the freedom to voluntarily seek biblical counsel.

IV. The Opportunity: Holding out Grace, Community and Hope

In the face of such challenges, some may be tempted to stay quiet. In a therapeutic culture it is so tempting to assume that this life is mainly about us, our security, and our comfort. It is easier to lie low, keep our faith private and bunker down in our Christian communities than to risk the accusations of hateful intolerance that may result from openly proclaiming the gospel of repentance.  In the West we are not (yet) being forced to deny Christ by brute force. “Soft totalitarianism” is when we are intimidated by the threat of losing social status, employment or academic credibility.[62] If we think that life is all about security in the here and now, we will fall at the first hurdle. We should remember that the joy of knowing God’s smile is greater joy than anything else.

Our chief end in life is not self-fulfilment! It is to worship, enjoy and obey our God; and he calls us then to love and serve others. Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). If we pray for God’s will to be done on earth, we are to work for that as well, by doing good, serving our neighbours, and sharing the good news of salvation. We may feel weak, but we have the truth of God’s Word and the power of his Spirit. In union with Christ and his people we are to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness from sin which, alone, can liberate those who are trapped by the devil in a prison of deceit.  

The current therapeutic culture has manifestly failed to deliver real satisfaction, as even many non-Christians have been forced to acknowledge. We should regard this cultural moment as an opportunity, not a threat.

In a world where the “windows have been shut” there is a yearning for transcendence. Living life as if “it’s all about me” can never deliver satisfaction. We have all been created in the image of the Triune God to love and enjoy him, and to love and serve others. And, created in the image of God, we all have a conscience. On the one hand, our therapeutic culture tries to erase guilt and shame but, perversely, our culture is also fiercely unforgiving.[63] Christianity offers forgiveness, a new start, and the power to live a new life. 

In a world where unlimited autonomy has been exalted, and freedom has been sought from the restrictions and limitations of binding commitments, there is an ocean of insecurity and pain. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, psychologist Oliver James observed that the epidemic of broken relationships caused by the sexual revolution and family breakdown was creating a collective “wail of anguish, which crescendos to the furthest reaches of our society”.[64] The number of broken bonds is far greater now than then and many long for fidelity and security. We have a faithful God who keeps his promises; he has created us in his image, and his moral law works for human flourishing, not against it. And the powerful bonds of genuine Christian community offer acceptance, commitment and grace. 

In a world which lives for the now, death is the end, and there is no real hope for the future. If the main purpose of life is to fulfil ourselves, when life does not deliver our desires, what is the point of going on? Earlier this year, author Rod Dreher shared a heart-breaking letter written by a young man in Canada, who had been searching for spiritual reality. The evangelical churches he visited offered “all flash and no substance”, but he continues to seek a solid foundation of biblical truth. He wrote:

Churches are crumbling; unable to offer a vision and path for those seeking holiness. There are plenty of us, young people, who are disillusioned with the way that society is going. I truly believe it’s why so many people my age are suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Drug usage, alcohol abuse and a hookup culture are blankets of comfort for people who have no meaning or purpose in life anymore… It’s extremely difficult being a young person nowadays. People don’t believe it or understand why I say this. They immediately point to the fantastic technological advancements and wealth in our society. While those things have undoubtedly made life better, there is a tremendous lack of meaning and purpose with most young people. I can confidently say that many of us feel hopeless and aimless in life. We are living in a society that promotes people to do whatever makes them happy, even if the consequences are dire… [65]

All around us there are countless people who are “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). But we have a certain hope to hold out, and the free offer of the gospel to share.  Christ has defeated all evil; ultimately all the effects of the fall will be rolled back; God has good purposes for this world; we have the hope of resurrection from the dead, and eternal life in the new heavens and earth – a cosmos restored and renewed. Throughout the world, there are Christian churches that confidently proclaim these truths, and which are growing despite fierce persecution.[66] Jesus Christ is reigning as King of kings, and he will be exalted over all enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25). It is our privilege and our joy to represent our King, as we speak and stand for him, whatever the cost.

 

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