The Problem of Christian Passivity, Part One

As an anti-Christian teenager, I enjoyed challenging Christians about their faith. The arguments I made against Christianity were not original or very well-researched: I cannot have read more than three books on the subject during my whole adolescence. Yet the dynamic of each conversation seemed to prove that I was winning. 

In the world of Christian apologetics, it is not uncommon to encounter atheists who are both well-read and charitable. My own hostility to Christianity was more typical of the vast majority of anti-Christians: my arguments were unoriginal because I was not all that interested in developing them. Like most secular Westerners, this did not stop me from having a strong opinion, nor from believing that I had discovered that opinion myself. 

What really fueled my confidence was not that Christians were intellectually unprepared—although it helped that they were. Instead, my hostility was excited because I perceived Christians as showing weakness. I don’t mean that the Christians I confronted explicitly conceded defeat. I mean that the believers I challenged seemed to approach almost any clash of ideas with an attitude of passivity. They avoided staking out bold positions, took great care not to say anything that might be offensive, and generally went beyond mere civility and into passivity.

During one such conversation, I recall thinking that I’d made a discovery: that Christians secretly knew that I was right and that their faith was a lie. Far from being winsome, which is probably what these Christians had intended, the impression that Christians were doormats encouraged me to be even more aggressive in my opposition. The compliant agreeableness of Christians did not soften my hostility. Instead, it put blood in the water. 

I also remember the very moment when I first began to consider Christianity in a new and different light. A man had handed me a paper tract earlier in the day and, propelled by some unusual circumstances, I found myself looking through it. The content of the tract—although not quite fire-and-brimstone—was clearly intended to be provocative. As I looked at the tract, it suddenly struck me that Christianity might not be, as I’d thought, something that a person trying to rationalize cowardice would invent. This experience didn’t convince me that Christianity was true—that didn’t happen until much later—but I did catch myself viewing Christianity with a new kind of respect. 

I agree with authors like Brett and Kate McKay about the problem that has been called “the feminization of Christianity.” Yet I also think the church faces a distinct but related problem: Christian passivity. In this column, I’ll review the nature of the problem and what might be done to counteract it.

The best way to define what I mean by “Christianity passivity” is through an illustration. Imagine you are in a setting in which other Christians are present, and a secular person enters and begins to strenuously denounce Christianity. Suppose that, rather than attempting to make any defense of your faith, you allow the person to proceed unopposed, perhaps thinking that simply being polite is the ideal Christian response. If so, you can be sure that the other Christians present will probably think nothing of this reticence. Your fellow believers will almost certainly not regard you as having done anything suspect or un-Christlike. 

But now imagine that, rather than remaining passive, you rise to the occasion and firmly engage with the critic’s arguments, even going on the offensive against his own views. In this case, it goes without saying that your behavior is likely to be frowned on by some of the other Christians present, who might conflate any energy in your argument with unkindness. And if you do genuinely cross the line into rudeness, this offense is going to be judged far more severely than had you said nothing at all, and utterly surrendered the floor to the atheist. 

First Peter 3:15 famously commands Christians to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word “defense” (apologia) connotes an accused person’s defense of himself in court, as in the Apologia of Socrates. Yet, in the popular interpretation of this verse, the subordinate clause of the sentence has somehow chewed up and eaten the main clause. It is almost a cliché that, when apologists remind Christians that they are commanded to be “prepared to make an apologia,” someone will chime in to quote the subordinate clause of the sentence as if it cancels out the main clause, or as if to suggest that “gentleness” itself is the “defense.” This is not unlike the way that people are fond of quoting the words “render unto Caesar” while omitting the part of the sentence containing Jesus’ main point: “and unto God the things that are God’s.”

To take a larger illustration, consider Chick-fil-A’s 2019 decision not to renew funding for The Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and to instead give to certain secular charities. Despite many Christians’ initial hopefulness that this was a coincidence, Chick-fil-A executives have stated clearly they made this decision to avoid controversy. 

There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A [accusing the company of homophobia], and we thought we needed to be clear about our message,” Chick-fil-A’s president, Tim Tassapoulos, told reporters. The executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, Rodney Bullard, told Business Insider that Chick-fil-A was refocusing on being “relevant and impactful in the community… [f]or us, that’s a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that’s being waged. 

While giving to Christian charities can be morally valuable, giving to secular charities can be praiseworthy as well. Many Christians have therefore convinced themselves that, because Christians do not have a per se duty to give to Christian charities, Chick-fil-A has not done anything wrong. For example, Franklin Graham—coming to his friend Dan Cathy’s defense —said that “[Chick-fil-A] announced that in 2020 they’re giving to fight hunger and homelessness and support education. What’s wrong with that?” 

The premise underlying this argument seems to be that it is acceptable for Christians to calculatedly attract the smallest amount of controversy they can possibly conceive of. To Graham, and Chick-fil-A’s other defenders, whether Chick-fil-A is boldly asserting Christian principles is irrelevant. Instead, the only question we should ask is whether Chick-fil-A is doing something actively and directly contrary to those principles. So long as the answer to that question is “no,” Graham suggests, Christians have nothing to object to. 

In contrast to this attitude, consider the famous story of Daniel 6. Persian officials had persuaded Darius to pass a law decreeing that “whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions.” In his commentary on Daniel, John Calvin pointed out that Daniel could have responded to this law with timid hairsplitting, such as by waiting to pray until after the thirty days had expired, or praying silently to himself. Instead, Daniel went straight to his house, opened his window, and prayed out loud three times a day, “as he had done previously.” In the words of the church father Theodoret, “when [Daniel] got news of the passing of the law, he had great scorn for it and continued openly doing the opposite… he said his prayers not in secret but openly, with everyone watching, not for vainglory but in scorn for the impiety of the law.” Even though Daniel did not have a duty to pray out loud in the first place, he responded boldly as soon as his religious practice was infringed upon. By demonstrating his open “scorn” for the law, Daniel both glorified God and framed the narrative around the law, rather than allowing it to be framed for him by the officials. 

Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 8-10: for Christians, the physical act of eating food sacrificed to an idol is itself lawful, for “an idol is nothing at all.” Yet Christians should not be seen eating the food of idols, lest other people “be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols” by an apparent compromise with idolatry. Christianity therefore takes an approach that is the opposite of certain other religions, which allow the believer to conceal his religious beliefs when they are disfavored. Under a biblical worldview, when compromises related to God are on the table, it is time to go into battle, not to retreat. 

If Daniel had adopted the strategy approved by Franklin Graham, he might have just prayed silently, demurely accommodating his worship to socio-legal convenience. “So he’s praying silently—what’s wrong with that?” we can imagine Franklin Graham saying. 

Likewise, it is now the norm that, when their standing in society is threatened, Christians passively withdraw from the edges of culturally acceptable discourse—the so-called Overton window—and allow it contract around them. If repeated multiple times, this process will result in Christians squeezing themselves into a smaller and smaller range of allowable discussion, like a mouse being eaten by a boa constrictor. 

This is an uncanny reversal of the history of the church—a kind of Benjamin Button version of church history. From its inception, Christianity has involved a fervent rejection of all the Overton windows surrounding it. Christendom persisted and filled the world through the force of an uncompromising zeal. The historian Rufus Fears powerfully described the effect of the Emperor Diocletian’s attempt to systematically exterminate Christianity: 

Instead of breaking Christianity, it only seemed to strengthen it. And non-Christians who watched these men and women—these girls, even, and boys who were Christians—stand up to the Roman bureaucracy and say ‘No, I will not worship your gods: put me to death.’ There must be something in this idea that gave it power. 

After emerging from the Great Persecution, the church triumphed in the religio-civil wars of Constantine and Theodosius. Yet, far from being co-opted by imperial authorities—as is often represented—the church always maintained a separate sphere of power, from which it could check the influence of the state and culture.

So how did the church founded by Jesus Christ, whose force of personality reverberates throughout the Gospels and shook the core of Western civilization, come to take on the one-dimensional meekness of contemporary Christians? The most obvious answer is that the character of Christ himself has been subjected to layers of editing. I’ll focus on two of those layers in particular. 

First, Christ’s zeal is consistently erased or minimized. It goes without saying that there are few contemporary Christian songs in which Jesus clears his father’s house with a scourge, menaces people with talk of millstones, or appears with eyes aflame with fire. Nor does the Jesus depicted in most sermons seem to preach frequently about hell, or to scorn the flavorless and lukewarm. He rarely, if ever, talks of coming to bring a sword or of casting fire upon the Earth. 

And when someone does bring up these less-than-polite facets of Christ’s character, the defender of Christian passivity is always ready to evade them, asserting that Christians are only supposed to imitate one half of Christ’s attributes and ignore the other. We should immediately be suspicious of this standard—which just happens to minimize social inconvenience—since it cannot explain the church’s exclusive focus on the most agreeable aspects of Christ’s personality. You might think the church believes that Christ showed us his zeal for some reason other than moral example. But if this is true, why is the church so eager to ignore Christ’s zeal entirely?   

A still more penetrating question is where the defenders of Christian passivity find any hint in the Bible of the notion that we should not imitate Jesus. Jesus himself certainly never said “do not imitate these things I am doing.” Nor is that how Paul understood Christ’s message: Paul commanded us to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” The worshipers of Milquetoast Jesus, accordingly, do not seem enthusiastic about imitating Paul either. 

Some try to justify this division by pointing out that “Jesus is God and we are not,” or by using similar words to that effect. The problem with this argument is that it applies equally to Christ’s other attributes. If someone tells a haughty Christian leader that he should serve others as Jesus served, it is obviously no excuse for that leader to reply, “Jesus is God and I am not,” even though this statement is factually correct. The rule cannot be that Christians are to “be imitators of God” if the mere fact of Jesus’ divinity is a reason not to imitate him.

In part II of this article I will examine the Bible’s warnings against the sin of passivity and its call to Christian boldness. I will also offer some suggestions for promoting a Christian culture that cultivates the virtue of boldness.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

*This article (part 1 of 2) is adapted from a longer version found here. Used by permission.

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Ian Huyett

Ian Huyett Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney whose practice is currently focused on issues affecting religious organizations, including religious liberty and related areas. He publishes academic work on law and religion and on law and technology.