The call to be irenic is an important and valuable one in today’s climate of divisive and destructive engages between people in an increasingly divided society. Saint Peter, for example, calls us 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” (I Peter 3:15). This text provides the perfect balance for our calling. On the one hand, we are called to defend the historic gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to joyfully affirm the biblical teaching, even if the cultural winds are blowing strongly in our face. But, we are to do it with a posture of humility and grace. As Christians we have not always been effective at this balance. Sometimes, we can express truth in ways which are harsh and destructive and tragically disconnected from the larger vision of God’s redemptive work in the world. At other times, we have been guilty of a cowardly passivity where we have not joyfully defended the clear teaching of Scripture.
Today, it is particularly vital that Christians understand the difference between a “position” and a “posture.” A theological position is, in itself, not necessarily irenic or non-irenic. How that position is expressed can certainly be done in a way which is irenic or not. However, being irenic is a posture, not a position. Peter’s use of words like “gentleness” and “respect” bear this point out. It is not unusual today for positions themselves to be regarded as non-irenic, thereby confusing a “position” with a “posture.” This is a categorical error.
There are many Christian “positions” which the world, and even some in the church, find inherently offensive. Let me give a few examples. To say, Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is a position which is offensive to many people. Likewise, positions on God’s final judgment, the emphasis on the blood of Jesus, or the teaching of Scripture that marriage is a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman all fall in the category of difficult positions in today’s cultural climate. However, it is a categorical error to identify these positions as inherently non-irenic. They are positions, not postures. Each of these biblical truths, and dozens like it, can be expressed in ways which are compelling and beautifully integrated into the beautiful tapestry of the biblical vision. However, we must boldly reject the notion that we are not “irenic” simply because we hold scriptural positions which are at odds with the culture around us.
Most of us who are reading this blog have belonged to churches long lulled into the sleepfulness of Christendom which, over many centuries, gradually sanded down all the sharp edges of the gospel. We gradually began to mistake western, cultural civic religion as the actual gospel proclaimed in the New Testament. We gradually began to believe that the “no cost” gospel of “easy believism” was actually the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now that we are clearly emerging into a post-Christian culture, it is a new challenge for many of us to re-discover the prophetic, radical message of the gospel. However, this is not an easy transition. The mainline solution to this problem has been, broadly speaking, to make fairly predictable concessions to the surrounding cultural milieu in the hope that the new generation will, once again, fill our churches because the church will retain its “historic” role as being in the cultural center. We have long enjoyed the fact that Christians have positions of political power, since the vast majority of our Presidents, Senators and congress members were also members of the church. But, we are clearly seeing the sunset of that long cherished assumption. Indeed, this has always been the besetting sin of civil religion and has never been true to the gospel. The more difficult, and, frankly, more painful, task is to re-read the Scriptures and allow it to take root fully within our lives and in our churches. We desperately need a return to a robust, scriptural Christianity embodied by Christians who are holy and who deeply engage (not retreat) in ways which demonstrate not how much we are really like culture, but rather the stunning alternative to which the rule and reign of God calls us to. We must boldly proclaim the gospel, but do it with an irenic posture. It is not irenic for the church to become just another cultural echo chamber. It is not irenic to refer to unbiblical beliefs and practices embraced by Christians as merely “different perspectives.” We are called to be a prophetic witness to the saving work of the Triune God in the midst of a depraved and lost generation. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul calls us to when he says that we are to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16).