In II Timothy 3:1-4, the apostle Paul gives a disturbing prophetic glimpse of the culture of human civilization in the last days, days that he calls "perilous times." He describes it as a time when
men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. . . .
Could Paul have been writing of our culture in the Western world in the twenty-first century? He certainly seems to describe a culture bent on pleasure, entertainment, vanity, greed, and utter selfishness at the expense of stable marriages, families, and other relationships.
Culture is a word thrown around a lot these days, but what does it mean? One of Webster's definitions defines culture as "the ways of living built up by a human group and transmitted to succeeding generations." In his 1991 book entitled Winning the New Civil War, author Robert Dugan offers a broader definition:
[Culture is] the ways of thinking, living, and behaving that define a people and underlie its achievements. It is a nation's collective mind, its sense of right and wrong, the way it perceives reality, and its definition of self. Culture is the morals and habits a mother strives to instill in her children. It is the obligations we acknowledge toward our neighbors, our community, and our government. . . . It is the standards we set and enforce for ourselves and for others: our definitions of duty, honor, and character. It is our collective conscience. (p. 169)
In 1947, Carle Zimmerman recorded in Family and Civilization his observations as he compared the disintegration of various cultures with its parallel decline of family life. Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied:
1. Marriage loses its sacredness and is frequently broken by divorce.
2. The marriage ceremony loses its traditional meaning.
3. Feminist movements abound.
4. Public disrespect for parents and authority in general increases.
5. Juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and rebellion accelerate.
6. People within traditional marriages refuse to accept family responsibilities.
7. Desire for and acceptance of adultery grows.
8. Interest in and spread of sexual perversions and sex-related crimes increases. (Quoted in Confident Living, November 1987, p. 34).
It sounds as if he is describing our nation today!
Sociologists call today's Western culture values-neutral. Advocates of this values-neutral philosophical approach argue that we should not adopt any system that defines right and wrong and expects all to adhere to it because no one has a right to impose his values on others.
A good illustration of this philosophy occurred in a high school values-clarification class conducted by a teacher in Teaneck, New Jersey, and reported in Imprimis in September 1991. A "hypothetical" girl in the class had found a purse containing $1,000 and had returned it to its owner. The teacher asked for the class's reaction. Every single one of her fellow students concluded she had been "foolish." When asked why they felt that way, the students contended that "if someone is careless, they should be punished." The teacher, when asked what he had said to the students, responded, "Well, of course, I didn't say anything. If I come from the position of what is right and wrong, then I'm not their counselor. I can't impose my views."
Where will the children of today learn the standards of a proper culture if a teacher, a counselor, or a person in authority will not—or cannot—teach these standards? In most cases, from the popular culture around them.
A George Barna poll conducted in late 2001 found that only 22% of American adults—and only 6% of teenagers—believed that "there are moral absolutes that are unchanging." Sadly, only 32% of those who described themselves as Christians believed in absolute moral standards, and only 26% cited the Bible as the source of their moral principles. It is tragic, but today most Americans no longer believe in the concept of absolute moral truths.
How then, can we establish an ethical and moral cultural base for our societies and families? Many articles in the church's publications, and many other, secular magazines and writings, have highlighted the biblical foundation of true values and the fact that, when the United States was founded, its leaders accepted, without shame, many of the principles of the Bible as the basis for its laws and culture.
In an engraving by T.H. Matteson, which depicts the first prayer in Congress given on September 24, 1774, in Philadelphia's Carpenters Hall, Jacob Duche kneels at a podium, his eyes raised toward heaven as he prays. Members of Congress, many of them on their knees, humbly participate in the beseeching of God to grant His blessings on the young nation. While the etching is an embellished account of the event, Mr. Duche's earnest prayer reveals the godly fervor that inhabited that august body that day, only 230 years ago:
O Lord, our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from Thy throne behold all the dwellers of the earth, and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the kingdoms, empires, and governments, look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on the American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor, and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee. To Thee they have appealed for the righteousness of their cause; to Thee do they now look up for that countenance and support which Thou alone canst give. Take them, therefore, Heavenly Father, unto Thy nurturing care. Give them wisdom in council and valor in the field. Defeat the malice of our adversaries; convince them of the unrighteousness of their course, and, if they still persist in sanguinary purposes, oh! let the voice of Thine own unerring justice, sounding in their hearts, constrain them to drop the weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle. Be Thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly. Enable them to settle things on the best and surest foundations, that the scenes of blood may be speedily closed, and order, harmony, and peace may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety prevail and flourish among Thy people. Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of their minds; shower down upon them and the millions they here represent, such temporal blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Savior. Amen.
What would happen today, in this age of "Separation of Church and State," this age of growing and ever-present atheism and secularism, if the leaders in Congress beseeched God openly? Stock prices in tar and chicken feathers would go through the roof!
It is impossible to have a moral community or nation without faith in God. Without that faith, everything comes down to "me," and "me" alone is meaningless. Many Americans today have stopped acting on what they know is right—and "me" has become the standard of measure for everything. Men see the strength of a nation in its wealth, population, armaments, technology, and knowledge. But where does God look?
Notice Proverbs 14:34. "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." The Bible reveals that the cause of the rise and fall of nations is moral and spiritual. No nation can rely on its strength, power, and wealth to save it from the devastating effects of moral decay. Moral, ethical, and spiritual problems cannot be resolved by money, strength of arms, "Star Wars" projects, social programs, intelligence, or humanitarian goodwill.
Moral societies are the only ones that work. If one were to take a good look at history, it would become obvious that there is a direct and invaluable relationship between personal integrity and the society's prosperity. It is faith in God that provides the anchor for a culture. Without it, we are cast adrift, lost in a sea of values-neutrality or hedonism and robbed of any means of determining right from wrong. The result is a culture that staggers like a drunkard unable to find a wall to hold him up.
The effects of cultural shift in the West can be best illustrated by contrasting changing social trends, in particular, the changes over a 50-year period in New York City:
In 1943, 3 percent of all births were illegitimate. There were 44 homicides by gunshot. In 1993, 1,499 people died of gunshots. 45 percent of births were illegitimate. Nationwide, nearly 30% of all babies today come home fatherless. 68 percent in Washington, D.C., the capitol of our country!! (Gary Bauer, Family Research Council letter, November 4, 1993).
Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett published a book in 1999 titled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. Here are a few of the statistics he presented, comparing life in 1997 with 1960:
» Violent crime increased by 467%.
» Illegitimate births were up 461%.
» Divorces rose by 100%.
» Children living in single-parent homes increased more than 200%.
» Teenage suicides jumped more than 100%.
» SAT scores dropped by almost 60 points.
In New Testament times, the effect of a permissive culture was illustrated by the story of the church of God congregation in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth, located on a natural harbor and at the intersection of several major trade routes, was quite prosperous. Like the city of Sodom centuries before (Genesis 13:13; Ezekiel 16:49-50), Corinth had allowed its prosperity to lure many of its inhabitants into immorality. Its culture had become so legendary for its decadence that it gave its name to the term corinthianize, meaning to act in an immoral way. Christians then—and now—are not immune to their cultural surroundings. The Corinthian Christians reflected the loose, values-neutral backdrop of their city in their own moral carelessness. Notice I Corinthians 5:1-2:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, impurity of a sort that is condemned and does not occur even among the heathen; for a man has [his own] father's wife. And you are proud and arrogant! And you ought rather to mourn (bow in sorrow and in shame) until the person who has done this [shameful] thing is removed from your fellowship and your midst! (Amplified Bible)
Verse 2 suggests that this sin was tolerated—perhaps even condoned—by many in the church. It seems that the values of Corinthian society had affected them to the point that they would tolerate this kind of degeneracy.
Steps to Take
What can we do to counter the culture that surrounds us?
First, we must recognize the popular culture and its influence on all aspects of our life. If we had been born in another place and another time, what kind of persons would we have been? How are we different now because of the culture around us?
We must study the history of our cultures. We must first recognize and then become familiar with the changing value systems of the modern world around us. This will then allow us to appreciate the impact of the time and place of our birth.
Second, we must develop and build appropriate moral and ethical convictions. What do we allow ourselves to do? What has shaped our standards and morals, our values? Where do we get our moral foundation?
There are proper definitions for the terms right and wrong, sin and righteousness, and they are found in the Word of God, the Holy Bible. Studying the Bible was once a common practice in America. In 1947, nearly 100% of American homes had a Bible or a portion of the Bible (the New Testament), and 68% of American adults read from the Bible daily. Of those, 66% believed it was the actual Word of God. Today, nearly 93% of Americans have a Bible or a portion of one, but only 36% read from it daily, and only 33% of those believe it is the actual Word of God. Our studying, meditating, and drinking in of the Word of God will provide us with a right moral and cultural foundation on which to build our spiritual lives.
Third, we need not worry about what others will think. Moral and ethical convictions will never bring universal approval. Those who accept a moral code derived from the Holy Bible will find themselves opposed by many, but we should not worry ourselves with what people think, but rather what God, our Creator, thinks.
Finally, we must stand up for what we believe. We live in a politically correct world. Not wanting to seem "unwise," the vast majority of people go along with it; few ever actually think for themselves and question the prevailing "wisdom" of the age. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:22, "Professing to be wise, they became fools." This is certainly the culture that we live in, where the "wise" are proving themselves to be very foolish.
In I Timothy 6:20-21, Paul admonishes the young evangelist Timothy to stand firm to the doctrine that he had given him. He writes this in about AD 65, when the church is sliding away from the truth that Christ had entrusted to the apostles.
O Timothy, guard and keep the deposit entrusted [to you]! Turn away from the irreverent babble and godless chatter, with the vain and empty and worldly phrases, and the subtleties and the contradictions in what is falsely called knowledge and spiritual illumination. [For] by making such profession some have erred (missed the mark) as regards the faith. (Amplified Bible)
He says, "Guard the deposit committed to your trust," as if he were making a deposit at the bank. Guard the deposit, the sound doctrine, the revelation of Jesus Christ! Paul writes that we should avoid "godless chatter," or as translated in the New King James version "profane and vain babblings." "Contradictions" is the Greek antithesis, a rival theory, fact, or concept. Paul means, of course, those rival arguments to the true doctrine.
He gives the same warning to us: We cannot be caught up in the culture of today. The Bible, the very Word of God, must be our culture. We must eat it, drink it, and live it!
Remember the adage, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." The courage to stand up for what is right may cause us to lose "friends" in this world, but actually doing what is right will reap valuable returns in our character over the course of this life and into eternity.