This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
“Why are we on defense,” one frustrated culture warrior asked me, referring to some religious freedom issue, “when we should be on offense?” As I’ve written elsewhere, I find this metaphor telling. It assumes that what really matters is the church’s state rather than its mission.
The more I’ve thought of it, though, the more I’ve come to believe that—in one sense—“defense” is exactly what we’re called to do.
Metaphors matter. They shape the way we see who we are, where we are, and what we do. Even though we use the metaphor “culture war” for what some would call “worldview conflicts,” underneath all the military imagery is an unspoken legal metaphor that might be even more controlling. We lose ourselves in culture wars when we think we are prosecutors. But we’re not—we’re attorneys for the defense.
The image of culture war as prosecution makes sense. After all, we are often dealing with principles of righteousness and unrighteousness, of morality or immorality. We make the case for who’s wrong and who’s right, and having won the argument, we thus win the case. This sense of purpose has the additional benefit of being fully in step with the times.
From the social-justice advocate on TikTok policing pronouns and cultural appropriation to the “own the libs” right-winger showing how “wokeness” will make everywhere like Portland, almost everyone can find people or movements to prosecute their cases. And we cheer our favorites on from the courtroom benches.
The problem is that the Bible tells us the role of prosecuting attorney is already filled. Scripture reveals that the devil has two fundamental powers: deception and accusation (Rev. 12:9–10). It says the devil has “the power of death” precisely because the slavery common to humanity is the “fear of death” (Heb. 2:14–15). If the mission involved winning arguments and condemning opponents, the devil does that better than we ever could.
But Jesus’ mission is different. The apostle John writes, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
The world, John explains, is “condemned already” (v. 18). We all have sinned; we all fall short of the glory of God. People find different ways to do that, but whether through self-indulgence or through self-righteousness, we all are found guilty before our own consciences and before the judgment seat of Christ.
Yet we are part of a “ministry of reconciliation,” announcing the possibility of forgiveness of sins and peace with God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us,” Paul wrote. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
Returning to our metaphor, we might assume that the prosecuting attorney is the one devoted to justice and to calling things what they are. But the defense attorney must be just as rigorous in defining a crime, if not more so.
A defense attorney does not say to his or her client, “Well, who among us hasn’t embezzled a widow’s retirement fund?” Instead, the defense attorney will explain exactly what kind of jeopardy the accused is in and will usually say to the defendant behind closed doors, “You have to tell me the truth about what we’re dealing with here.”
Sometimes in those closed-door meetings, the defense attorney asks even tougher questions than the prosecuting attorney ever would. The difference is the end goal. The defense attorney is tough precisely because he’s on the side of the accused.
Several years ago, a friend of mine was being considered for a ministry position. I knew he would serve the ministry well, but I also knew the search committee was unsure about him. So I suggested we meet and do a practice run to prepare him for the interview. I said, “I’ll pretend to be the questioners, and you answer me.”
I then proceeded to ask the toughest, most hostile questions I could possibly ask—taking the worst view possible of every controversial thing my friend had ever done. He gave me a look of anguished disappointment: “Russell?”
“I’m not Russell Moore,” I said. “I’m not your friend here. I’m so-and-so on the search committee.” After that momentary confusion, my friend loosened up and answered my machine-gun round of obnoxious questions. He could then see that my questions weren’t to trip him up or humiliate him. Just the opposite—I was on his side.
Imagine a team of defense attorneys arguing their case before the jury. If one of them began referring to the accused as “our client, the obvious embezzler” or “our client who—if you have any sense at all—will rot in jail” or remarked, “There’s nothing as relaxing as some good old-fashioned embezzlement,” that would be a crisis. Some in the jury might say, “This defense attorney isn’t rebuking the embezzler; he’s rebuking his own team in front of the judge!”
The defense attorneys are on the same team only to the degree that they have the same mission. If one of them starts thinking he or she is a prosecuting attorney or a coconspirator with the accused, the group is no longer a team of defense attorneys.
That’s partially why the apostle Paul—like Jesus before him—speaks far more harshly to those inside the church than those outside. He doesn’t denounce the people who would say “I am of Zeus” or “I am of Artemis” the way he does those who would say “I am of Paul” or “I am of Cephas.” Why?
It’s because the church is called to a higher accountability than the world—and because a divided church speaks something untrue about Christ and the gospel. Paul specifically announced, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’” (1 Cor. 5:12–13).
If there is no eternity, then we should just fall into the same old culture-war patterns as the rest of the world. We should find an in-group and justify whatever they do—and we should identify an out-group so we can relentlessly hound them as stupid and wicked. But if there is a heaven and a hell and a Holy Spirit, then that posture is not just wrongheaded; it’s satanic.
If we are gospel Christians, entrusted with the genuinely Good News that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19), then our end goal cannot be to “win” an argument, much less to humiliate our opponents. Our end goal is to see people reconciled to God and to each other. Success for us isn’t defined by getting a “successful conviction” of our “enemies” on the Day of Judgment. Success is their acquittal through the blood of Christ and—even more so—their adoption into the family of God.
The frantic rage we can often display in supposedly protecting “Christian” values might feel like strength, but the world sees it for what it is: fear, anxiety, and lack of confidence. They can also see that it’s nothing like the confident tranquility of Jesus—who overturned tables inside the religious establishment but was indescribably calm before those with the authority to crucify him.
None of the prostitutes and tax collectors around Jesus were confused about his stance on sex trafficking or imperial extortion. And yet none of them were confused about the fact that he loved them—and that he did not fear being put out of the “in-group” for being associated with them.
If that doesn’t feel “offensive” enough for you, then maybe you’re playing a different game.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.