A generation ago – or was it two? – Arnold J. Toynbee wrote: “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”
What Toynbee would have to say about the United States or Western Europe today, one can hardly imagine. Not, of course, that Toynbee’s opinions were infallible. However, his knowledge of history and insights into why civilizations collapse gives his assessment a bit more authority than that of many commentators.
Writing nineteen centuries before Toynbee, Paul warned the Christians at Rome about the risks of conforming to the patterns of decay in the culture of his day.
In Romans 13.11-14 he outlines some of those patterns of behaviour which are so destructive.
Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy.
Those who oppose the gospel are often quick to accuse the church of being obsessive about sex and alcohol – obsessively against, that is! They often advise the church to catch up with the times and become more “relevant” or even “more relevant to the culture”.
There are a couple of ironies in this criticism:
The first irony is that if the church talked more about sex and alcohol it might make itself more relevant to the issues of our culture and not less relevant.
Statistics released in Scotland over the last few years revealed the following:
- There were 35059 alcohol-related hospital stays in Scotland in 2014-15.
- There were 94630 alcohol-related primary care consultations by 48,420 patients in 2012/13.
- Alcohol is associated with 33% of major trauma patients and 25% of all trauma patients.
- In 6 out of 10 cases (59%) of violent crime, the victim said the offender was under the influence of alcohol.
- In the past 10 years, half of those accused of murder were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the murder.
- Two thirds of young offenders were drunk at the time of their offence.
- Alcohol harm costs Scotland £3.6 billion a year in health, social care, crime, productive capacity and wider costs.
- Alcohol costs Scottish employers £308 million a year.
The stats on sexually transmitted infections and sexually transmitted diseases are similarly depressing:
- Between 2003 and 2014 sexually transmitted diseases rose by 43% all age groups.
- Between 2003 and 2012 cases of gonorrhea and herpes rose by 133% and 116% respectively.
The second irony is that the church, namely the members of the church, often seem to think that they are immune to the pressures and temptations of the culture. As someone who has been in Christian leadership for over twenty years, I have noticed a far more relaxed attitude – perhaps complacent attitude – towards both of these issues develop within the church in general. I hope that it is merely coincidental with my time as a leader and not a consequence!
So how should we respond?
Firstly, we should recognise that this is a real live issue for us today, as much as it was for the church in Paul’s day.
If Paul felt the need to warn the church at Rome, a church he described elsewhere as full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15.14), then we too should take heed to his warning.
Secondly, reflect on the issues at stake in terms of light and darkness rather than just right and wrong.
Looking at the issues in terms of right and wrong can easily end up with a simple analysis that lacks any sense of empowerment. Many know what is right and wrong – and ignore it! And many want to do what is right, but find themselves tripped up over and over again by their weakness.
Paul talks about these issues in terms of light and darkness. He exhorts us to put on the armour of light (Romans 13.12). He exhorts us to put on Christ (Romans 13.14), in other words to rely on His power.
We need power to resist the influences of a decaying culture. And divine power is available.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of relegating alcohol and sex related temptation to a special category of temptation. In the same list Paul talks about quarrelling and jealousy! Sins operates in all sorts of ways. Quarrelling and jealousy can be just as destructive but far more subtle.
If Toynbee was right, our culture is in a state of collapse. If we will put on the armour of light and put on Christ, we will not collapse along with it. We’re not part of a collapsing Kingdom.