A recent news article highlights a seminar at George Washington University (GWU) on “combating ‘Christian privilege’ in America.” It claims that “Christians get ‘unmerited perks.'”
The campus offers seminars on other “privileges” as well (such as heterosexual privilege, socioeconomic privilege, etc.), but the article points out that “each of the privilege seminars states that they focus more specifically on white privilege.”
I don’t aim to address the claims of this seminar or its supporters, per se; but rather to use this as a launching pad to speak about a broader issue.
Is Christian privilege a “thing?” If so, in what sense? It’s likely that when discussing these heated issues we are not properly defining terms–consequently, we may even be defending views that are not factually or theologically accurate.
First, we’ll look at the beginnings of the church. Of course, we are still in the “church age.” Therefore, we need to apply the teachings and history of the church to these discussions–not the American political scene. More on that in a moment.
Second, we’ll go ahead and talk about the truth of “American Christianity.” I’d like to submit that if we start defending American Christianity, we may end up not defending biblical Christianity at all.
Finally, we’ll examine what might be a gracious, common sense response to someone who claims that you have better socio-economic or political standing in in virtue of so-called “Christian privilege.”
The Church’s Violent Beginnings
We’d be remiss not to approach an issue like this without first examining the biblical data. While one might be justified in a critique of American Christianity, it’s likely they don’t understand biblical Christianity in the least.
Sadly enough, I can say this very same thing about most Christians.
The growing epidemic of “Christians” who barely know what they believe let alone why they believe it simply serves to make matters worse.
Whatever Christian privilege is, it is not indicative of early Christian believers. In fact, 11 out of 12 of Jesus’ Apostles were martyred for their belief—the 12th, John, was boiled in oil and then left for dead on the Isle of Patmos.
Knowledge of such persecution in the ancient world is so widespread among religious scholars that many have argued in the opposite direction, claiming that Christians actually welcomed and invited martyrdom.
Some may have;1but as a whole, it’s not clear to me that early Christians were happy about that suffering. They certainly expected it—that much is clear. A bit of background will help us to understand why:
It was not exactly popular to be a Christian in the days following Jesus’ resurrection. In a sobering exposé, the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians,
“For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you” (1 Corinthians 4:9-14).
The religious and political climate in that day was hostile to the preaching of Jesus Christ. The Jews had their established religious traditions. You and I probably break many of the 10 commandments every day—history records over 600 additional laws and traditions the Israelites had to follow to be considered “right” before God. James’ words were indicting: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
But Jesus broke the “rules.” He said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17).
When Jesus suffered and died, He satisfied the wrath of God and made a way for our salvation. It is because of this radical transformation we can account for facts of history such as the martyrdom of the apostles, the rapid growth of the church despite the threats of persecution and death, the shift away from Saturday (Sabbath) worship to worshipping on “The Lord’s Day” (Sunday), etc. Now, instead of purportedly working to appease God, we work because we love God, having been changed by Him into a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).2
Let’s call a spade a spade—the only “Christian privilege” known by the early church was that of certain persecution and likely execution.
Sean McDowell comments regarding the spreading of Christianity in Rome,
“Roman authorities had little problem that Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Their problem, however, was that Christians refused to worship other deities. While Christians considered worshipping pagan deities idolatry, Romans considered such behavior defiance to the state. Jews were often excused since their behavior could be “chalked up” as a matter of national peculiarity. But Christians could not appeal to any such ethnic privilege. As a result of their refusal to worship the pagan deities, Christians experienced popular abuse, intellectual condemnation, and persecution on a local and (eventually) statewide level. And yet, amazingly, Christianity prevailed.”
Nothing, in that day, could have been more counter-cultural than believing in Christ. In Jewish terms, Christ was a blasphemer and His followers just the same. In Roman terms, Christ followers were defiant exclusivists. In fact, the only good reason to believe in Christianity in those days was the truthful, eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus.
By the way—that’s the only reason to believe in it today! Paul said “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The question is this—what’s different today? Has, somehow, belief in Christ shifted from being that which invites persecution to what which deflects it?
Enter “American Christianity”:
The Truth About American Christianity
Before we dive headfirst to the difference between American Christianity and biblical Christianity, let’s define some key terms:
Christian Privilege (cultural): The idea that Christians receive inherent advantages in society (or in the workplace) due to the perception that Christianity is status quo, while other religions are not. As a result, other religions are marginalized, overlooked or ignored altogether, or even perceived as troubling, problematic, or suspicious. (From study.com)
Christian Privilege (actual): “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9).
American Christianity: The notion that Christian values are partly or fully represented by those who subscribe to a certain political party or agenda, and that The United States of America was founded on distinctly Christian values to the exclusion of other religious and areligious belief systems.
Biblical Christianity: The belief that Jesus Christ is the one true God of the Bible (John 10:30), Creator of the universe (John 1:1-14), and “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3b-4).
Assuming we are clear on those terms, we can make some important distinctions to help us clear the weeds, so to speak.
My good friend Caleb Johnston has written a helpful piece in which he highlights recent statistics, suggesting (amongst other things) that, although most American Christians do happen to hold conservative values, this group spends shockingly little time in Scripture reading, study, and prayer–even less than many who identify as both Christian and politically liberal.
He summarizes, “politics are extremely polarized, people seek out and listen to the “like” minded, but beyond this…conservatives may base more on religion despite the majority spending no serious time in study of what they actually believe.”
This conclusion, if true, ought to be eye-opening.
His point, if I’ve correctly understood, is that there may be others on the opposite side of the political spectrum who hold values which also reflect the teachings of Christ that your own political representatives don’t seem to take seriously.
That said, here’s the truth about American Christianity: There is no such thing. Let me explain.
Dr. Frazer of The Master’s Seminary clears away the smoke and exposes the problems with such a view:
It is theologically wrong. In the church age, there is no such thing as a “Christian nation.” Earthly nations are no longer the primary tools God is using for His work. Rather, the church is “a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9)
It is historically inaccurate. Christians should base their arguments and positions on truth and reality — not myths or history as we wish it had been.
It tarnishes the Word of God. By designating a mixture of Christian and non-Christian influences as simply “Christian,” “biblical,” or “Judeo-Christian,” we attach the authority and reputation of the inerrant, infallible Word of God to a hybrid/mixture of biblical and non-biblical influences.
It cheapens and corrupts the Gospel. Identifying merely “religious,” “decent, generous, moral” churchgoing people as Christians makes the Gospel one of moral behavior and pronouncements rather than the saving work of Christ and personal commitment to Him.
It exalts what God hates. Scripture clearly teaches that God hates generic, moralizing “religion” worse than a lack of religion. While the framers were “religious,” they were not (as a rule) distinctively Christian.
It causes believers to confuse their cultural heritage with biblical Christianity. Many lose the ability to distinguish what is truly biblical from what is merely American tradition. They, in fact, worship the “tribal god” of America rather than the transcendent God of the Bible. (Romans 12:2)
It reduces the Bible to a mere tool or servant of a political agenda. According to the “Christian America” view, proper use/interpretation of Scripture is not important — what is important is counting how many times it is quoted.
It (sometimes idolatrously) places confidence in processes and institutions rather than the sovereign God. Belief that the political system was originally Christian/biblical focuses or directs efforts towards correcting the political system and misdirects the resources of the church. “If we could just elect the right people….”
It accelerates the process of secularization in society. When believers fail to maintain an independent Scriptural position by which to judge and evaluate the culture, the most important independent voice to stem the tide of secularization is co-opted and, thus, rendered impotent.
It obscures the principles of evaluating true Christianity by the fruit it produces — Rather than simply on the basis of claims of piety.
It leads to national idolatry and national self-righteousness. The naturalistic political ideals of the nation are treated as if they were on a par with Scriptural revelation.
It increases the tendency to violence. One may become convinced that God is “on our side” and focus on “awakening” the system.
It emphasizes redeeming the world system rather than redeeming people.
Ouch. Such a scathing reproach—with contextually accurate Scriptural support to boot—will forcibly remove many Christians from their comfort zone. This, I think, is a good thing.
As an aside, this view causes way more issues for believers than it solves. For example, many have criticized Christians who voted for President Trump because of the moral conflict involved. This reproach intends to highlight the “inconsistency” of Christians who supposedly possess superior moral values voting for a public figure of questionable—to say the least—moral integrity.3
The problem is that Christians—and everyone else—were not voting for a religious figure. We were supposed to be voting for a President! I voted the way I did because I thought my choice had a better vision for the future of our country. This may have included protections for certain religious beliefs. But in no way, shape or form, did I purport to be voting for a religious figure.
The problem I’m addressing here is that many did. And liberal democrats are right and justified to call out those who did. If you voted for Trump, for example, because you thought he would be a good religious leader, you voted for the wrong reasons. Period.
My point is that while there may be a movement or an ideal which we define to be American Christianity, it has no reflection on actual, biblical Christianity at all. They are two very different things and should be evaluated as such.
Now—is there some overlap? Sure. There are various elements of my personal political beliefs which are also rooted in my belief about who God is, who I am as a human being made in the Image of God, and how I believe our country should operate in light of those beliefs. My stance on the abortion issue is a perfect example.
How does this relate to Christian privilege, you ask?
I think “cultural Christian privilege” is tied to “American Christianity.” And “actual Christian privilege” is tied to “biblical Christianity.”
I’m sure I could be wrong. But as an actual Christian, I cannot help but to see the public dismissal of Christian opinion on social issues, the forcing of materialistic naturalism upon kids in our education system, the intentional distorting of Christian belief in order to advance political and cultural agendas, etc.
We are suffering from a huge disconnect and lapse in communication. As usual in our country, we’ve failed to properly define our terms and communicate our intentions before the mudslinging began, and now we’ve got to backtrack and take a new approach.
Here’s my bottom line:
We cannot hope to win our neighbors to the actual gospel if what we’re presenting is merely the American gospel.
In light of this observation, how ought we to respond? We’ll look at that last.
A Gracious, Common Sense Response
Let’s look at a few practical steps you can take to get the upper hand on this issue the next time it arises in your conversations:
First, educate yourself. Listen–it does no good to attempt a response to an issue if you don’t really understand the issue. Educate yourself as to what is meant by terms such as “Christian privilege” and “American Christianity” when used in popular culture.
Second, define terms. A great way to navigate this kind of conversation is using the tactical approach. If someone wants to talk about about Christian privilege, start by asking, “What do you mean by “Christian privilege?” You may find out the person doesn’t even know what is meant by the term!
Third, offer an alternative. Continuing in the spirit of the tactical approach, I suggest offering a “leading question.” Perhaps you could ask, “Have you ever considered that American Christianity may not be actual Christianity at all?”
Finally, offer the gospel. Here, I don’t necessarily mean you should launch into a gospel presentation, per se. While those are never a bad thing, I simply mean that you can present an argument similar to the one I’ve made throughout this post, assuming you find it compelling.
For example, point out that Christians have historically been subject to persecution rather than privilege, that American Christianity doesn’t capture biblical (actual) Christianity at all (and why–see Dr. Frazer’s list above for examples), and that real Christian privilege certainly exists–but has to do with the life offered to us and the payment for our sins wrought by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Allow me to leave you with a serious word of caution: Conversations on this topic will be fruitless (at best) if you don’t intentionally take the time to clarify what is meant by certain terms.
In failing to do so, your interlocutor may think you are totally ignorant to and out of touch with the current cultural climate. Just as you would expect others to be educated when they advance their view on a subject, they rightly expect the same from you.
This is an issue with much heat and controversy attached–particularly when it touches on peripheral moral issues like “human rights”–so I would would implore you to heed the Apostle Paul’s advice:
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Colossians 4:6).
Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!
- We all know the feeling of nobility that comes along with “giving oneself to a cause.” So, I suspect that we can logically infer that there were those who would give themselves for mere self-recognition. I would imagine this to be the vast minority. Even so, it does nothing to diminish the ultimate reason behind why they gave their lives.
- Of course, a study of the entire Bible will demonstrate that good works were *never* the path to God! The Messiah (Jesus) was always God’s rescue plan. Not one soul—from Adam to the final gentile—will have entered heaven on the basis of their good works.
- One serious problem with this is the misunderstanding shared by many believers and unbelievers alike that one who believes in God is inherently “better” than someone else. As I’ve written elsewhere, this completely misses the point and is not even true. Nor do actual Christians claim that this is true. One can be “good” without acknowledging God–the argument is that there is no grounding for moral values without Him.