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An Interview With Charles Colson

"The problem is that the world doesn’t know what the question is, and we don’t know how to give them the answer."

A culture increasingly muddied in moral debate presents major challenges to the Christian community. Enrichment managing editor Rick Knoth recently visited Charles Colson, founder/chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, in his Reston, Virginia, office. Enrichment was interested in Colson’s thoughts on several key issues facing the church and evangelical leaders: the future of the church, intellectual and cultural illiteracy among evangelicals, religious apartheid, Christians in politics, the pro-life agenda, and others.

In Colson’s compelling and perceptive way, he calls the church to develop a persuasive cultural apologetic, a defense for what we believe, so when the secular world is forced to face the question, "Is there truth and is it knowable?" we will have an answer for the faith that is in us. Until we do that, Colson says, the church will continue to be shoved to the side.

What is your perception of the Church’s role in American life and the view individual believers have of the Church?

Charles Colson: I wrote a book, The Body, on that subject and have given a lot of time and thought to the role of the church in American life and in the eyes of the Christian. The greatest single scandal in evangelical assemblies, and I can really only speak for that, is the low regard individual Christians have for the church.

I do not believe one can experience conversion or the fullness of the Christian life apart from the church. The lowest state to which the church is going—the disregard of the church, the view of the church from the consumer perspective, the idea that we go to church for what we can get out of it—is scandalous.

The church’s job is to equip the saints for works of service in the world. Lone rangerism of Christianity today ("I’ll drop into this church or go where I’m made to feel good") is missing the whole point of the church, which is the fullness of the Christian life.

In The Body, you said, "When compared with previous generations of believers, we seem among the most thoroughly at peace with our culture, the least adept at transforming society, and the most desperate for a meaningful faith." How, then, can Evangelical leaders be spiritual change agents to this generation of believers?

Colson: Evangelical leaders must have incredible patience, perseverance, and courage—real guts—because he will be offending a good part of his congregation much of the time. However, he must teach the people that the job of the church is not to make them happy but to make them holy. There’s a whole different role in the way he has to look at them and the way they have to look at him in the sense of accountability—the kÈoin¯onia that has to be bred into the way of thinking about their church experience. That will separate the chaff and the wheat quickly, but pastors have to do that or lose their integrity.

There has never been a more inculturated church. All the standards we measure the church by are the same standard the world uses. I remind myself, it’s not success; it’s faithfulness. Thus a pastor has a difficult job—he must live with the people week after week. At the same time there’s the growing, deepening inculturation of the church, a growing restlessness for genuine spirituality. People are saying something ain’t right. That’s good.

Seventy-six percent of the American people say we have a spiritual problem in our country. That’s great, because now they understand the root of the problem is not that we haven’t passed enough laws; rather, the root of the problem is in terms of our social value system.

The issue is not, "By whom are we governed?" but "How then shall we live?" If people are asking that question, the pastor has a good chance to answer it and lead them in that direction. Edmund Burke, a great patron saint and political poet, said, "What matters is not so much the laws as the manners of the people." Manners—the habits of the people—are bred in family and church. Therefore, it isn’t an issue of laws but of habits and manners.

How can the church position itself for the next generation?

Colson: The church has a real problem, and I’m not sure I can advise a pastor how to deal with it. I’d like to see the church practice preaching truth—both the epistemological question of "Is there truth and is it knowable?" and the revelation of truth in Scripture. God is truth and is to be worshiped, not because it’s convenient, makes us feel good, or is therapeutic.

At the same time we are in a totally consumer- and market-oriented economy. People look at a church and try to make a decision on the basis of all these other factors. If I were a pastor, I would have a difficult time. I might end up with a small church because I don’t think I could play the market-studies game. On the other hand, if you don’t play the market-studies game, you won’t get people in. If you don’t get the people in, you won’t be able to disciple them. So it’s a very difficult question to answer. Pastors have to walk a very fine line.

My pastor and I have had some long talks about this. He’s a bright young guy—a wonderful preacher who puts a lot of focus on sermon content. Then he focuses on church activities and teaches people that coming into the community of the saints for the purpose of being equipped is a real commitment of fellowship and involvement. They are not only to come, sit, and listen but get involved.

Thus a patient educational process is necessary to make people understand the true nature of the church. How to do that is a tough question, for the church competes for people’s time, and they ask, "Is it convenient?"

Are there signs that evangelicals lack intellectual and cultural literacy? If so, what are they? And how does this weaken their ability to present the gospel effectively?

Colson: Read Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Basically, he said evangelicals have tended to think more in terms of exegesis, doctrine, and hermeneutics; whereas, orthodox Jews, for example, have thought more in terms of the relationship of their faith to the broader issues of life.

Evangelicals have looked inward and never outward beyond their own little comfortable, parochial environment. After 400 years of Protestantism, we have defined ourselves by what we are against, not what we stand for. I am a Baptist because I believe in adult baptism, individual conversion, soul freedom, the sole authority of Scripture, and the ecclesiology of the local church. I don’t have to be against signs and wonders or baptismal regeneration to prove my own belief system. Evangelicals, however, don’t think that way. They think we’re going to refight the past. That has caused us to have an intellectual paralysis and cultural blindness.

In America there is increasing hostility of secular concerns toward religious concerns. How can the church be effective in a culture increasingly hostile to Christianity?

Colson: The key to that is a persuasive cultural apologetic: "Prepared always to give a reason for the hope that is within you but with gentleness and reverence." This is a reason defense, an apology, a defense for what we believe.

The only way we’re going to bridge this gulf, which is getting wider and deeper between the two Americas, is to be able to articulate intelligently what we believe about our worldview. Show the other side their worldview is either irrational or incapable of producing a moral order. When we talk to secular people and show them why that’s so, they’ll see it. But we don’t do this. We build our own comfortable cocoons; therefore, our America is shrinking and the other America is getting bigger.

The problem is that the world doesn’t know what the question is, and we don’t know how to give them the answer.

What do you see as the church’s role in social issues?

Colson: According to Wesley, there is no holiness apart from social holiness. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said the Christian heart has to be touched by the things that touch God’s heart. If we’re going to be faithful to Christ, we are going to live out the gospel wherever we are called—inner cities, prisons, the homeless—and make the greatest and most powerful witness for the Kingdom.

William Wilburforce is my hero. He said, "God has laid before me two great objectives: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of man." God changed England through him.

One of the reasons I’ve argued against Christian political alignment is that it tends to fit us into the agenda of the political party. We don’t really fit any political party’s agenda. On many issues we find ourselves passionate as it comes to social justice. No one should be able to stereotype us. If we allow ourselves to be stereotyped by the world, we’re inculturated.

You have said that one of the greatest needs in the church today is the soup kitchen. Will you elaborate on this?

Colson: I’m glad you asked that question, because sometimes in discussing apologetics people think only in terms of propositional arguments, which have limitations.

The most powerful apologetic is the life lived in Christ—we care for widows and orphans, hug people who are dying with AIDS, hate the sin but love the sinner, feed the hungry, clothe the naked—do those things Jesus commanded us to do. The world sees our love in two ways: by our love for the world with the soup kitchen and our love for one another. Therefore, an apologetic is both propositional and demonstrative—people seeing the reality of Christ in our lives. That’s hard in a very self-centered, self-absorbed culture.

In Western culture it seems that life has now become the question, and the answer is determined by weighing the quality of life with economic and other considerations. How can the church elevate the value of life in a culture seemingly set on devaluing it?

Colson: The problem is that the value system of the secular worldview is fundamentally pragmatic: "What works is good." It is also radically individualistic: your task is to find, and my task is to teach you the process by which you can find your own values. This type of process will never elevate the dignity of anything.

The thing that made Jefferson such a towering figure in history is what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." That is, they are true because they are true, not because someone says they are true. The secular world, however, doesn’t believe anything is true unless someone says it is true; then they are basically positive of it.

Until we can show how that particular worldview system fails to produce either a rational or a moral order, they can never see the dignity of life. We can’t elevate the dignity of life when life is merely a preference, and living or dying becomes a matter of choice. If choice is the ultimate virtue of life, then we can never elevate anything beyond choice. We make all our own choices.

Therefore, until we can battle the existence of absolute truth and make an apologetic for that, we can never restore dignity to life or elevate anyone’s view of any particular thing. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable [sic] rights…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

How can we say what liberty is? Liberty, as the Supreme Court has said in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, is basically what one defines for oneself.

Are there steps the church can take to become more savvy in promoting the pro-life agenda?

Colson: The pro-life agenda has no meaning apart from its being rooted in absolute truth, in self-evident truths—truths that are true because they’re true, not because somebody says they are true. Until we can do that, we will continue to lose. Right now, we’re in a vulnerable position. The pro-life issue, from a political standpoint, will continually be pushed to the side. We argue that life is sacred, created in the image of God, is an inalienable right that flows as a result of our being created in God’s image. That no longer has any meaning, so we get marginalized, increasingly shoved to the side.

That process will continue until we go to the root question: "Is there truth, and is it knowable?" The problem is that no one in secular life knows enough to ask that question. They don’t know the question. It’s like the bumper sticker that says, "Jesus is the answer." The world says, "What’s the question?" Before we can fight the right-to-life battle we must challenge people to know what the question is—force them to face the question—and then be prepared to answer that question.

Is there hope for our cities? And what is it going to take to turn them around and give them a better understanding of who Christ is?

Colson: Our cities are virtually lost. Fifty-six percent of the black population between the ages of 19 and 31 in the city of Baltimore are in jail or on probation awaiting trial. Two or three generations of babies are having babies. We lose what our republican fathers called the community in memory; that is, the ability to transmit values from one generation to the next. If you have a two-generational break, the grandparents can still pass it on to the grandchildren, but it is almost impossible for the great-grandparents to pass values to the great-grandchildren.

The inner-city culture has almost been destroyed, largely by white fraternalism. Nothing will change it short of a real spiritual awakening from within. East London in the late 19th century was in a similar condition as American inner cities are today. William Booth came along. And unless we have a Booth or a John Wesley, it’s not going to change.

What are the dilemmas Christians face when they serve in politics?

Colson: Plato said, "Only he who does not seek power is fit to hold it." The first dilemma the Christian faces when he is involved in politics is the realization that he serves another King. It is unacceptable to say that something is personally offensive, but "it is my duty to carry out the law." We can’t do that. The Christian is going to be tortured by conflicting loyalties when in public office, but he stays in public office. That is a source of continuous tension—to oppose personally but to favor publicly.

The second thing is that everything about politics builds up the person. And everything about the Christian life is, "Have this mind which was in Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but poured himself out." The Christian is an anticelebrity; the politician feeds on celebrity—another tension.

The third thing is the expedient argument—"I have to do this so I can stay in office; because if I don’t stay in office, I can’t have any influence." Christians have repeatedly rationalized themselves right out of their faith. (I’m having dinner with a few young congressmen this week who have determined not to do that, and they want to talk to me about how to avoid it.) Politics is probably the hardest profession or vocation a Christian can choose.

What have you learned about the nature of God in working with prison inmates and seeing their lives changed?

Colson: First of all, I’ve witnessed the power of God’s grace. He takes someone who killed his father or one who killed innocent people in a drunken drug-inspired orgy and makes incredible disciples who are sold out to Jesus and study the Scriptures.

I’ve seen God’s sovereignty, reality, and humor as He confounds the wisdom of man. God uses prisons to train people for future roles of leadership or martyrdom. It has been exciting.