A millennial season is fading for the church and western civilization, and a period of tribulation is rising.
I'm not saying The Millennium has come and is now going, or that The Tribulation is upon us. Rather, I use these terms in their broader symbolic sense, in which a "millennial season" signifies a period of favor for the church, and the advance of its message and ministries, while a tribulation-time symbolizes the withdrawal of that favor and the ensuing consequences.
The Christian Church in the West has enjoyed a millennial era for centuries, but now that sun is setting. Darkness increasingly drapes the bright sky under which the western church has flourished.
The Church of Jesus Christ in the West must now learn how to function in tribulation. Christian communities in America, Canada, and Europe must note the example of churches in Syria, Egypt, and other countries where tribulation is deadly rather than mere social and cultural ostracism.
Even better, the contemporary western church must note the model of the first century church in the Roman Empire, which we will examine in an upcoming column in this series.
Events in that early Roman era and current actions perhaps mark the dawn and sunset, respectively, of the millennial season for Western Christianity.
The daybreak of the age of favor was in the growing consensus of Rome-even before Constantine's fourth century endorsement of Christianity-that Christians and their beliefs might not be a bad thing for society after all. Romans watched Jesus' followers tend plague-sickened people, care for the poor, embrace slaves into their fellowships, and even care for wounded soldiers who might have been their enemies.
"They are poor, yet make many rich," an anonymous writer says in a letter to one Diognetes about 150 A.D. He concludes, "what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world."
Julian the Apostate, trying to restore paganism to Rome and defend it from the sunburst of Christianity, laments the rise of the cultural impact of Christ's followers. "They support not only their poor, but ours as well (and) all people see that our people lack aid from us," he complained. Julian and others recognized the powerful movement spreading its rays over the wide reach of Rome.
When there is consensus among the people of a nation and its significant leaders that the Bible and the Judeo-Christian worldview, along with churches and their ministries are good for society, favor is extended, respect granted, and the Gospel is "unhindered," as Luke put it in Acts 28:31.
This is the consensus now fading in the western world. The emergent view is that Christians who adhere to the biblical message are more than pesky gadflies, but constitute an actual threat to society and the belief system that is increasingly supported by the culture's consensus-setting establishments.
Recent Texas events show both the underlying and overt anger at biblical Christianity in the United States. During the Texas Legislature's debates this summer over adding more restrictions to abortion, prolife and abortion forces collided in Austin, the state capital. As prolife activists sang "Amazing Grace," a group of abortion supporters responded with "Hail, Satan!" Then they switched to chanting obscenities regarding the church.
The less noted sign of the dissolution of the consensus occurred in San Antonio. Recently the City Council, as reported in The Christian Post, began consideration of an ordinance including "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in the city's anti-discrimination code.
But the most chilling inclusion – later removed – provided that anyone who had ever been viewed as discriminating against one of the groups listed in the regulation would be refused opportunity to serve on a municipal board, or be eligible for a city contract.
That would include, presumably, churches and pastors who refused to conduct homosexual weddings, if and when same-sex marriage is legal in Texas. But it would also perhaps encompass florists, Bed and Breakfast establishments, and any other enterprise whose service policies conflict with the city government's code.
If such can even be contemplated in Texas, the glittering buckle of the Bible Belt, it lends credence to Russell Moore's belief, stated in a recent Christian Post story, that "the Bible Belt is collapsing." It also reveals the intensity of the shattering of America's Judeo-Christian consensus. To paraphrase Jesus, "if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:31)
Such notions would have been unthinkable in the millennial age of the old consensus. Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll describe the biblical consensus of late 19th and early 20th century America in their book, The Bible in America: "A broadly evangelical Protestant consensus powerfully gripped mainstream culture – and there are good reasons to believe that this homogeneity was very much a product of common assumptions about what the Bible is and teaches."
Many observers assume such consensus began to crack in the 1960s. Hatch and Noll say it began earlier. "For ordinary people," they write, "the 1920s and 1930s seem to have been the decisive years of transition" away from the biblically based consensus in America.
Nathan Miller agrees. "The 1920s and the Making of Modern America" is the subtitle of his book, New World Coming. "To an astonishing extent," he says, "the 1920s resemble our own era... in many ways that decade was a precursor of modern excesses."
Those "excesses" once unleashed are as unstoppable as the setting sun and the shrouding darkness. Ultimately those who seek to hold up the light midst this world's darkness become the hated enemy. Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, described the new consensus: "The true believer is the real danger ...The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all."
At some point those who resist the new consensus must be stopped. They are threats to progress, obstacles to society's evolutionary advance. That's why tribulation comes to those perceived as blocking the new thought and attitudes.
The authentic church in the 21st century can no more try to accommodate, or make a peace treaty with the spirit of the age, than the church in Rome could enter a non-aggression pact with its cultural and social demons. The early church learned the meaning of tribulation as it was driven into the tombs and arenas.
What will tribulation look like as our millennial age fades under the rising darkness, and what must we do? These are questions we probe in the next installment of this series: "The Coming Tribulation."