By Rhett Burns
Strong and Courageous: Following Jesus Amid the Rise of America’s New Religion by Tom Ascol and Jared Longshore (Founders Press, January 15, 2021)
The United States of America is witnessing the ascent of a new religion, characterized by the twin goddesses of individual autonomy and universal equality, and fueled by the spirit of anarchy. In Strong and Courageous: Following Jesus Amid the Rise of America’s New Religion, Tom Ascol and Jared Longshore seek to encourage and equip Christians to fear and obey God, rather than man, amid new challenges posed by new rivals.
In one sense, Strong and Courageous is a postmortem on the year of our Lord, 2020. Ascol and Longshore catalogue the abuses of governmental power related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the lawlessness of the summer riots. But they also show that 2020 was not an anomaly. Rather, the events of last year demonstrate the principle of sowing and reaping.
“Do not let yourself think that the year 2020 was just a hiccup. It has not been a random blip on our radar screen, happening to pop up without reason. Paul says, ‘Do not be deceived” God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap’ (Galatians 6:7). The civil unrest that we have observed is the bubbling over of the spirit that gives life to the new religion. That spirit is a spirit of anarchy that seeks to cast off God and His truth.” (82)
Individual Autonomy and Universal Equality
What is it we’ve been sowing? At the heart of America’s new religion are the notions of individual autonomy and universal equality.
“Universal equality and autonomy are the bread and butter of modern thought. The mantra goes: we are accountable to no one, dependent on no one, but must have precisely the same things as everyone else.” (31).
These ideas are folly because we live in God’s world. Autonomy is a claim to deity, for only God possesses self-sufficiency. But we are made by God, and we depend on him for life and breath and everything. General revelation teaches us we are not autonomous when, for example, we see a baby dependent upon its mother for life and nourishment, whether in her womb or at her breast. Perhaps this is one reason abortion is the sacrament of the new religion—they must attack this obvious reminder of our dependency. Universal equality is also folly, for “we do not live in an egalitarian creation” (89). Both nature and scripture teach us that God has ordained hierarchies of authority for our good.
Because both individual autonomy and universal equality are incongruent with how God made the world, their fruit can only be destructive. Ascol and Longshore show that destructive fruit has come in the form of all sorts of evil, including abortion, riots, and tyrannical governmental orders.
Ascol and Longshore identity at least three areas where Christians have compromised to detrimental effect. The first is that many evangelicals have bought into aspects of the new religion, operating according to the principles of autonomy and universal equality. The result is that we have a problem with authority, having “swallowed the poison pill, which teaches us that hierarchy is bad” (89).
“In the [new religion] worldview, any attempt to exercise authority is domineering and any attempt to teach someone is an encroachment upon the exalted human self. You can, of course, exercise authority and teach if the autonomous individual permits you to do so. But no authority is genuine, according to the new religion, unless the individual says so.” (199).
Tell me, has this attitude not crept into our churches? Do Christians not chafe at someone telling them what to do? Do pastors not dance around the authority of their office?
The second area of compromise is statism.
“Christians have not sufficiently grasped that civil authorities are under God’s authority.” (111)
“The civil magistrate possesses a limited and regulated authority. Jesus regulates it. Far too many Christians think that the civil magistrate’s authority is regulated equally by Jesus and reason, as if Jesus and human reason were co-rulers over civil authority. What we have done is put the civil authorities up there on par with Jesus to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t bump into Jesus’ realm.” (119).
Deferring to state power is the default setting for too many Americans, including Christians. Though our constitutional republic has made us citizen-kings, we have squandered that inheritance in the name of autonomy and equality. Though Jesus, having risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, has been crowned with all authority in heaven and on earth, we cower beneath the unlawful edicts of mere governors and mayors.
The third area of compromise is a fixation with safety. It’s amazing what can be demanded—and given up—in the name of safety. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed this reality. But this fixation is not limited to health concerns, but also affects our evangelism and cultural engagement. Concerned for the safety of both our persons and our reputations, we believe we can advance the kingdom by being nice. Ascol and Longshore point out, however, that “advance always comes at a cost” (156). That cost is often dangerous.
The Call for Courage
Therefore, we need courage. Defying tyrants, defeating enemies, and preaching Christ to the new religion is dangerous business. But we must not run from the fight.
Strong and Courageous calls Christians to courage by helping us see the battle lines, how we got here, and the way forward. The way forward is to commit our lives to the absolute authority of God’s Word and applying it to all spheres of life. Ascol and Longshore devote the last third of the book to what this looks like practically in our lives.
I wish they would have given some attention to the price of courage in the church. Because of the compromises mentioned above, anyone who reads this book and takes action will likely face opposition even within their local church or their larger Christian circles. How do Christians navigate those relationships? What do you do when you lose friendships? How do you respond to false charges? Because Ascol and Longshore are not strangers to controversy and bold stands within Christian circles, I was hoping they would address some of these questions by telling of some of their experiences.
Strong and Courageous captures the current moment. It’s not pretty. But this is no time for despair. The Gospel was made for times like these. Jesus rose from the dead to raise up nations like ours. Jesus rules from heaven to put all enemies—even the ones that look unstoppable now—under his feet. We were made for just these times.
“Under the providence of God, we have no reason to panic. We have no reason to despair. But we ought to discern the times. Our assessment is that it is time for Christians and churches to humble themselves, repent, and call upon God to come and act. We are not getting out of the mess we are in apart from God’s almighty power. As we look to Him, we must stand uncompromisingly on His truth. Paul would not give an inch to those who twisted true religion. So, too, we must not give an inch to those who would advance a false religion. What you do right now matters.” (67)
Strong and Courageous releases January 15.
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business entrepreneur living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids. He publishes Get Your House In Order, a newsletter about building a household that lasts.
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