Guest Writer-Christians And The Public Square – To Fight Or Abandon? By Dr John Birley

We live at a time in which Christianity and the foundations that it rest upon are increasingly coming under attack. Christians are painted as being anti-science when it comes to the creation and evolution debate, as being homophobic as regards the issue of homosexuality, as sexist in their treatment of women and generally of holding to an antiquated, unsophisticated and irrelevant belief system which offers little to the “tech-savvy” 21st century.

Certainly critics of Christianity have become more vocal in the public square in recent times. The public square has both a literal and figurative meaning. Literally it could refer to a physical space but its figurative meaning implies a place where one is free to speak and be heard. A forum to air, discuss and debate differing views.

Historically such discourse typically took a verbal form of communication. Opinions and ideas were debated in law courts, in government chambers, in churches, in universities or in public houses. In the modern era with the exponential increase and diversity of media forms and the variety of platforms available to share this media, coupled with the insatiable appetite for fresh sound bite news items, have fed the trend for shrill and often ill-formed attacks against Christianity. As Christians have through every generation today we wrestle with our role in the culture we occupy. We seek to answer the question, what should our response as Christians be? Should we fight for our place in the public square, or step away to concentrate our efforts in other areas? Should we simply live out the gospel in our own communities and allow our influence to disseminate in a more organic manner.

The reality is that even in the west where we as Christians have enjoyed a privileged status for centuries we are witnessing a gradual and sustained demise in both our influence and role. Christian values shaped and impacted western cultures in deep and significant ways and whilst other voices were heard the Christian one was dominant. This is no longer the case. This does not mean that there is a vacancy in the public square but that the space once occupied by the church is now home to other ideologies, beliefs and worldviews. Worldviews that are at odds, usually in a hostile way to Christianity. Depending on where you live this may have been manifested in the marginalization of a Christian voice in the public square, legislation, either overtly, or by implication against Christian public speech, and in some instances in verbal or physical intimidation or outright violence.

We should note at this point that the media and those given a voice in the public square are often those with the most vehement polemic. This results of course in the opinions of those with the loudest voice or who despise Christianity the most holding centre stage. Non-believers without a strong opinion either way who undoubtedly make up the majority are seldom given a platform. The perception therefore is that the strongly argued atheistic opinion is the dominant one in society.

Sadly the fact that public opinion is too often allowed to be swayed by the loud vocal minority means that many non-believers fail to ever hear a well reasoned Christian defence. This is especially prevalent across increasingly secular Europe where Christians are marginalized or religion is regarded as a private matter and not one that should intrude into public discourse. In debates about the role or involvement of Christians in the public square public opinion appears to have shifted to the view that all voices carry equal weight at the table. Such a view perhaps too simplistically captures the post-modern notion of no over-arching meta-narrative. Christianity in such a system deserves the same voice as any other minority participant. Christianity offers they claim no more or less than any other voice in the public square. This brings us next to the nature of discourse in the public square.

Increasingly the means and manner of information exchange has resulted in a sound-bite culture or clipped form of communication which does not allow for a well reasoned and thorough discussion of the issues. This is of course something of a generalization, but the nature of modern media encourages brevity and information that can be consumed easily and quickly. Christians increasingly lose out in such communicative exchanges because a single sentence response is ultimately insufficient. It is difficult, if not impossible for example to answer the homosexual advocates' question of, “If they love each other what's wrong with it?” in a five second sound-bite. Increasingly in western cultures impassioned emotionalism wrapped around the ideology of human freedom triumphs against a well structured reasoned argument. This is not to suggest that Christianity lacks emotion or that one cannot make an emotional plea but rather to highlight that the nature of the public square makes argument refuting difficult.

As Christians therefore what should our conclusions be? Clearly we have been marginalized in our role and status in the public square. It seems unlikely that unless we witness a divine intervention and widespread repentance that the privilege and status of the church as dominant in the public square will return. Also the nature of modern communicative exchanges make it extremely difficult to convey our beliefs and values clearly and effectively.

One might therefore conclude that Christians should abandon the public square altogether and focus on areas they will more significantly be able to impact. My argument however would be that Christians by necessity need to be representative in the public square. But that equally they must demonstrate their Christian nature in the good they do in the community. The two go hand in hand. Through the demonstration of our God honouring lives and by extension our love for others we provide a visual and concrete witness of what it means to be a Christian and by doing so demonstrate our value in the public square. It is because of this value exhibited through our deeds that we underscore the importance of our position at the table of public discussion. As the Apostle Paul emphasizes in his short letter to Titus Christians are to devote themselves to good deeds (Tit 2:14, 3:1, 3:8, 3:14).

God's intention is that we work for good in our communities, not just for our brothers and sisters in Christ but for the community as a whole. It is perhaps natural in the increasingly hostile world we now inhabit that our tendency will be to figuratively close our doors. However as Christ demonstrated through his own example we are to minister and help those pushed to the margins, shunned and ignored. Churches should be welcoming places that are open to all. Places where the gospel is preached to a needy world. As Paul tells us, some unbelievers will be converted through this open door policy (1 Cor 14:25). In the same way perhaps much of what takes place in the public square will fall on deaf ear, but we cannot know what impact our words or actions might have. As a result to abandon the public square because it is hostile or difficult to navigate is to abandon a powerful means of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.