From the days of St. Paul, the Church has been compared to an army. Paul regularly used military language to describe the Christian life, talking about “taking every thought captive” using “the weapons of our warfare” (2 Cor. 10:3-5), and about “putting on the armour of God” in their “fight against principalities and powers, the spiritual armies of evil in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:11f). All this martial imagery reveals that the Christian Faith is not simply a philosophy, requiring of us nothing more than reciting timeless truisms and uncontroversial bits of moral advice. Our message to the world is not “A little hard work never did anyone any harm”, or “A stitch in time saves nine”. Our message is “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and delivering this message requires our involvement in conflict. As St. Paul and the martyrs who came after him all knew, preaching the truth is a bloody affair. We are involved in a warfare, requiring spiritual weapons and armour, and when we preach the truth, some people are not going to like what we say. There is nothing for it: accepting baptism means enlisting in an army, and soldiers in an army are called to fight.
That is the difficult task given to all of us as we give our witness around the office water-cooler or at school—to fight, but to be inwardly gentle, to speak the truth, but to do it in love, to be at the same time both serpents and doves (see Mt. 10:16). Sometimes we find the task too much for us, and we cannot keep the proper balance of both truth and love. We err on either one side or the other: we speak the truth boldly, but with anger, or we keep a gentle attitude, but compromise our proclamation of the truth for fear of offending someone. It’s hard to get the proper balance (as many websites prove), but that remains our task nonetheless. And the first step in fulfilling the task is to acknowledge that we are involved in a war, requiring of us both truth and love.
Many Christians, dear gentle souls that they are, are simply not up for it. They look at the controversy swirling around them in our society with all its sound and fury, its anger and denunciation, and want out of the whole thing. I do sympathize. Reading certain websites or blogs sometimes makes me also want to opt out of the whole mess and find a monastery garden somewhere to hide in. But this temptation must be resisted, for it involves going spiritually AWOL. The war is not over, and we do not have the luxury of laying down our arms before it is. Regardless of how the others at the office or in the classroom react, we have to stay in the battle and continue to speak the truth in love.
The first question to be answered is: What truth? What challenge needs to be answered? That is, in what areas might we be called upon to give our witness? What is the main issue with which the Church must grapple today? Where is the front line?
The front line varies from age to age. In the second century, the challenge came from the Gnostics, people whose rival systems of thought incorporated the person of Christ into their own essentially pagan view of the cosmos. People like Irenaeus were on the front line to answer them (he was recognized as “Saint Irenaeus” after the battle was done). In the fourth century and after, the front line was the Christological question of the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, and the main opponents to be answered were the Arians, who said that Jesus was not truly divine. Later on the front line was drawn over the question of the legitimacy of images, and the iconoclasts were the ones who needed answering.
It is important for the church leaders to know where the front line is today. It is no use for them to keep on telling the modern World that icons are okay. The front line has shifted, and icons are no longer the issue. Leaders must identify the current area of challenge to Christian faith in order to successfully commend that faith to the world. If we refuse to engage the world, fewer from the world will be converted to Christ, and we will lose our children, for the world is asking questions that our children are listening to, and we must provide both the world and our children with the answers.
Whether we like it or not, today these questions center around sexuality and gender. The front line today is not drawn over questions of Christology or icons, and our children are not in danger of becoming Arians or iconoclasts. The world’s frontal assault on our Faith is no longer theological. Movies and magazines and columns and blogs do not revolve around the question of the homoousios or the Filioque clause in the Creed. They do revolve around questions of sex. Is gay marriage acceptable? Is casual sex okay? Is virginity unnatural? May women be ordained to the priesthood? Is homosexuality a valid alternative lifestyle? What about trans-gender? What about the explosive growth of the pornography industry? What about the pervasive use of sexual images around us? We may duck these issues and refuse to meaningfully engage in the debates, but the debate will continue in our society nonetheless, and will eventually make inroads in the Church, whereas we have been called to make inroads in the World. That is why this debate is not just a debate, but also the front line in a battle. If we refuse to deal with these issues, the enemy will push us back and our children will fall prey to an alien ideology and a harmful way of life.
One thing is certain: if we speak the truth, people will get upset. Being upset, they will stigmatize us as narrow, talk about us behind our backs, and exclude us from the “cool” parties. Depending upon the situation, they may also write letters, make phone calls, send emails, start Facebook groups, write blogs, and argue in online forums. There is no use bemoaning this, or trying to speak in such a way that no one will be offended. Truth always offends, and it always divides. It divides those who are teachable from those who are not, those who respond to the call to conform their lives to the Gospel from those who refuse. Ultimately it will divide the sheep from the goats. But it always divides. A Church which never says anything divisive or anything offensive is a Church which has failed its duty to speak the truth, and a Christian who is afraid of controversy is like a solider who is afraid of the sound of gunfire: he may be a swell fellow, but he needs to get off the battlefield and stop calling himself a soldier—or a Christian. Before we open our mouths to speak, we must settle it in our minds that if we speak the Gospel faithfully, someone somewhere will be offended. It is sad when our message offends the World. But there is one comfort we may take from it—the offense taken confirms that we have said something worth saying, and that we have been heard.