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Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World
That Says You Shouldn't by Stephen McAlpine
(The Good Book Company, 2021) Reviewed by John Atchley
Perhaps you’ve noticed the tides shifting. Whereas once Christianity occupied a seat right in the centre of Western society, the Christian faith has gradually been pushed further and further out. Take the case of sexual morality. Once, biblical principles shaped much of morality. Today, according Stephen McAlpine in Being the Bad Guys, ‘Western culture is obsessed with sexuality because it has declared that our deepest, truest, most authentic self is discovered there. Yet we [Christians] say otherwise.’ (p 65)
McAlpine claims that Christian voices nowadays are not only less sought out but are becoming seen as the enemy of authentic humanity. It’s now said that we’ve been victimising others and standing in the way of their fulfillment. Hence, we’re finally being cast aside so that peace and joy can spread across the earth.
For Christians, these accusations – besides sounding like a parody of the Gospel – feel deeply disturbing. In retaliation, many disgruntled believers have aired their frustrations on social media, in sermons, or at school or work. Often, this is done in quite indelicate ways.
Of course, such outcry is understandable. If someone is made to feel isolated, betrayed, or attacked, it’s only natural for that person to enter fight-or-flight mode and to lash out at perceived threats. But even if we accept that the reaction is natural, we should also admit that that doesn’t make it acceptable.
To the contrary, it’s yet another reminder of how difficult it is to live up to our calling as ‘ambassadors of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus repaid false accusations with more love and service. On the other hand, we often continue to struggle with the temptation to get back at those who hurt us – that is, we tend to ‘repay evil for evil’ (Romans 12:17).
That’s the scene set by McAlpine in the first half of his book. The second half further explores how we should respond to a world that’s setting us aside in order to pursue its own agenda. Should we take the path just mentioned and cling to our power, dig our heels in, and scream louder than everyone else (i.e. fight)? Or should we go the other way and give up our convictions on sexuality, ethics, and morality, as many believers seem to be doing (i.e. flight)?
McAlpine offers an astonishing third possibility: if the world is saying we’re the bad guys, let’s be the best bad guys we can possibly be.
This doesn’t mean leaning into our villainy. It means standing at odds with the world, but always in service to it. McAlpine’s final three chapters illustrate how to do this. He offers practical strategies for the church, the workplace, and the world in general.
Briefly, much of it comes back to being churches which stick together even when it hurts. This is in contrast to a trend in the West of promoting a cancel culture and a corresponding dismissal of so-called ‘toxic’ people. It comes back to being Christians who serve the community regardless of how we’re treated.
McAlpine also exhorts his readers to approach their jobs with the same courageous faith which Daniel exhibited. Throughout, we’re to remember that the ways of the world are temporary, whereas God’s designs – even when we struggle to understand them – are eternal.
I highly recommended this book. It’s especially useful to young Christians who are most often the ones out on the frontline of this battle. It’s also useful for church leaders who are trying to prepare their flock to be a light in the darkness. For the rest of us, it presents an opportunity to reconsider how we engage with the world as it moves further away from Christian morality.
If I may be so bold, I venture to say that many Christians often haven’t engaged well with the world on issues like sexuality and transgenderism, preferring to fall back into the aforementioned fight-or-flight tactics. Meanwhile, McAlpine reminds us that our job isn’t to police the world (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10). Rather, we’re to follow Jesus’ example and love the people in it regardless of their sin. The early Christians didn’t win the world with anger and vitriol. They were characterised by self-sacrifice and counter-cultural service. We will do well to pay attention to their example.
For those interested in continuing their engagement with these issues, I recommend two other resources that McAlpine’s book seems to be in dialogue with. The first is Olive Tree Media’s informative series of documentaries, Towards Belief (especially their episode on homosexuality). The second is Timothy Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods (Keller’s YouTube sermons based on this book are easily accessible and just as useful). These materials, along with Being the Bad Guys, could foster some wonderful Bible study discussions. They can help prepare your congregation to engage better with the world and turn it towards Christ.
John Atchley is a lecturer at South Pacific Bible College in Tauranga, New Zealand. He and his wife, Rosie, are part of the Otumoetai Church of Christ in Tauranga. firstname.lastname@example.org