Throughout this series, we have said much about secularism, particularly through each statement of the Secular Creed. However, if we stopped the discussion there, we might very well be left with the age-old question: so what? I aim to answer that very question with this final post by thinking through how Christians should respond to our secularized world.
DO NOT BE CONFORMED
Since this series’ title comes from 2 Timothy 3:5, it would also be fitting for us to first deal with what the Apostle Paul explicitly taught us. As I have argued throughout, the apostle’s description of people who have “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” matches the secular ethics that we have been observing. Thus, if we do indeed believe that secularists fall into this biblical description, then Paul’s conclusion to the verse must apply to them as well: “Avoid such people.”
What should we make of this phrase? Is Paul calling us to gather into communes as monks, divorced from our godless society? I do not believe so, for our culture’s flight from true godliness is nothing new. In Paul’s own day, Christianity was only just beginning to spread across the globe; thus, the vast majority of the world would have likely matched this description. So practically speaking, it would have been quite difficult for Timothy to avoid such people entirely, since that would essentially require exiting the world. Jesus, however, gives us an indication of how we are to interact with the world as He prayed for us to the Father:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.John 17:14–19
Here Jesus specifically says that we, as His disciples, are sent by Him into the world; however, twice He declares that we are not of the world, that we do not belong to the world. This has led to the often-repeated phrase: “in the world but not of the world,” which certainly does capture what Jesus is saying. While we are not to divorce ourselves from the world entirely, a categorical distinction must be made. We live within this world but only as sojourners who are on the road to our true home. Again, Daniel is a superb example. Throughout his life in Babylon, he learned the Babylonian language, answered to his Babylonian name, and served the Babylonian king, yet he remained a Jew, never becoming a Babylonian. His was a life of distinction, of dwelling within Babylon without ever truly belonging to Babylon.
We are in the same boat. In Romans 12:2, we find the command: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” This is because “the course of this world” follows after “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Rightly, therefore, does James 4:4 warn that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Similarly, 1 John 2:15 states plainly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” And the list could go on and on.
Although we do indeed live in this world, we are called to be distinct and set apart from it. If this sounds “holier-than-thou,” it should because we are describing the call to holiness, which means being set apart exclusively for God. Of course, that phrase is often used to describe legalism, which derives its sense of holiness from one’s attempted righteousness (i.e., the Pharisees). True holiness, however, does not stem from our own righteousness but from the imputed righteousness of Christ. Thus, holiness excludes any boasting except in the graciousness of God. But even still, a separation is still made. Those who are in Christ become children of God, while those who refuse Him remain children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
All of this means that when Paul commands us to avoid those who have the mere appearance of godliness, he is urging us not to be influenced by the perishing ways of the world. Furthermore, our avoidance should be much more literal whenever someone who claims to be a Christian fits the apostle’s description in 2 Timothy 3:2-5. Yet specifically to our study, we should avoid the slogans and, more importantly, the ideologies of the Secular Creed and of secularism in general. We must strive toward genuine godliness, which requires avoiding all false and empty substitutes.
THE CHRISTIAN WITNESS IN A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD
But does such avoidance look like? How can we effectively point to real godliness in a world filled with its mere appearance? What does a Christian witness look like in our post-Christian, secular world?
As I mentioned briefly toward the end of Love Is Love, I believe that the former conception of Christian and church ministry is passing away. With people increasingly relying upon governmental social programs, charity ministries are no longer as distinctive as they once were. Music ministries lose some of their punch now that most people have access to limitless tunes on Spotify or Apple Music. An inexhaustible number of books and digital sermons and teachings from amazingly gifted teachers can make the weekly sermons of one’s local congregation feel lacking. Social media’s offering of a 24/7 connection with a digital community has few of the limitations or hassles of face-to-face interaction. In other words, the world is changing, and the church collective and Christians individually must be ready to meet these changes.
Thankfully, the biblical response to shifts in culture is always simply to remain faithfulness in what God has commanded. Indeed, I believe that the technological and ideological movements of our society will provide greater, rather than diminished, opportunities for the gospel and its implications to shine. To keep things simple, let us focus briefly upon three areas of Christian witness to the secular world: the gathered church, the faithful family, and the discerning individual.
First, the weekly gathered body of believers provides a simple yet powerful witness to the world around us. Secularism today is increasingly adopting a sort of gnostic character. Gnosticism was one of the first Christian heresies, and it believed the physical world to be entirely corrupt and sinful, while the spiritual world was good and true. This led the Gnostics to both licentiousness (because the body doesn’t matter) and asceticism (because the body must be beaten into submission). While many secularists today do not believe in the spiritual realm, the digital world is increasingly becoming its proxy. Without the hope of everlasting life in Christ, some are attempting to escape from death through such hopes as uploading their consciousness into a computer. This is merely a digital form of Gnosticism. The body is broken and faulty, but technology can provide the escape. The COVID lockdowns have only accelerated this development by increasing people’s reliance upon digital interactions and shrouding face-to-face interactions with the fear of death.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that everything digital is wicked (I’m listening to Spotify as I write this, after all). However, we must be wary of secularism’s branch of digital Gnosticism coming toward us. While the advancements of digital technology are tremendous, they do not replace physical presence and interactions, and the gathered church must show the goodness of physical embodiment each Lord’s Day. Of course, there will always be better music to listen to online than in the local congregation, but Spotify cannot capture the beauty of a young child singing “In Christ Alone” with all his might within the body of Christ. Greater sermons than those within local congregations can be found online, but they cannot replace the weight of the pastor having specifically prayed for each member by name as he prepared his message. And we have not even ventured into the beauty of the church being composed of men and women, children and adults, from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, worshiping the risen King. The secular world claims to desire unity; let us show them an embodied realization of it each Sunday.
Second, secularism and its offshoot, cultural Marxism, have set themselves at war against the biblical structure of the family. This should not surprise us. While primarily pointing to Christ’s triumph over Satan, Genesis 3:15 can also indicate the Serpent’s continual battle against the continuation of God’s image-bearers. Abortion and steeply declining birth rates are two large indications of our society’s anti-natal mindset. The world now sees children as annoyances at best and a further plague upon Mother Earth at worst. We, however, believe that God created the earth for us to steward and enjoy by filling it full of people, each of whom God designed to reflect His image. And we continue to reflect His character as we give ourselves to another of the opposite sex in marriage and raise new humans into the world. Secularism scoffs at all of this. Indeed, we must understand that the destruction of the family is not simply a byproduct of secularism but rather its goal. Therefore, as the world continues to mangle the family pattern, loving marriages filled with many well-loved children will only become a more and more radical witness against rising tide of secularism.
Third, as individual Christians, we must be discerning of the lessons and indoctrination that the world gives to us. One of the most insidious lies today is the notion that anyone can go through life without being indoctrinated by something. Because doctrine simply means teaching, there is nothing that does not teach; therefore, everything indoctrinates. Our world particularly has been indoctrinated into the cult of secularism through the mystic spells of entertainment. The word spell in Old English simply meant word, so when we think of a spell, we should not think only of sorcery and witchcraft. Instead, words and messages are spells that influence how we think and behave. As Christians, our entire lives should be shaped around the gospel (the gōd spel or good spell in Old English). However, each piece of media that we consume is casting a spell of its own in our direction. We must be aware of the cultural hypnotism that entertainment can perform.
Again, this is not to say that entertainment is itself sinful, and biblical themes can certainly be found even within secular entertainment. The portrait of familial love in the film A Quiet Place is one of my favorite examples. Nevertheless, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that most entertainment can be theologized or that media consumption is necessary for cultural engagement. Perhaps the best witness that a Christian can give to a secularist is not a Christian perspective on the latest hit show but a loving display of what is far more important.
For example, A Game of Thrones was at peak popularity during my college years, and being a major Lord of the Rings fan, it was quite natural for classmates to ask about my opinion of the show. However, because it contained nudity, I abstained from ever watching it. This then led to many conversations about why, as a Christian, I could not support to exposure of fellow image-bearers to the eyes of millions of viewers. In a similar way, I greatly enjoy superhero stories, particularly Marvel; however, due to Disney’s (who now owns Marvel) willingness to work with and express gratitude to the Chinese Communist Party as they filmed Mulan in the same region where Uyghurs are being systemically raped and forcibly sterilized, my conscience no longer allows me to financially support Disney and its various companies. This has not hindered my cultural engagement; instead, it has led to many conversations explaining the present-day genocide of the Uyghurs. I do not intend to bind anyone’s conscience on particular matters; instead, I merely want to raise the question: How are you being counter-cultural in your consumption of entertainment? How does your media consumption look different from that of any non-Christian? As discerning believers, we must take great care to ensure that our worldview is shaped by Scripture, not by the culture’s narratives.
Notice that these are not programs to be implemented but rather a lifestyle to be lived. This makes things both easier and harder. It is always easier to blame Christians as a whole than to become the ideal yourself. However, you do not need pastoral or committee approval to implement these changes; you just need to love your church, love your family, and guard your eyes and heart.
I could say so much more upon each of these realms of life; however, if you notice these largely follow the pattern of Ephesians 4-6. How we display the gospel in our gathering together is expressed in Ephesians 4:1-5:21. How we display the gospel in our household is found in 5:33-6:9. Finally, our individual stand against the onslaught of Satan and the world is presented in 6:10-24. We should all linger of these passages all the more and structure our lives accordingly. Then as we look upon the our world’s godless imitation of godliness, we can live out Ephesians 5:7-11:
Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
 For a theological discussion on why the body matters, see my sermon on Christ’s incarnation.
 Also, in case you are wondering, my wife and I also attempt to refrain from buying anything made in China, which is just as difficult as you might expect.