Chuck Colson was a prominent figure on the evangelical landscape. He was imprisoned due to his part in the Watergate scandal which led to the demise of the Nixon administration during the early 1970s. He founded a ministry called Prison Fellowship in 1976. It now operates in 113 countries. His death on April 21 reminds us of how fleeting human life is even when lived to the full age of 80 years.
Colson was fairly optimistic about the influence of Christianity upon the culture. He called for a revival of moral discourse and believed that only Christianity operates as a viable worldview. He called for believers to live out their faith and see the world as God sees it. He saw the real culture war as a conflict between two kingdoms: God’s kingdom of light and the satanic kingdom of darkness.
Zeal for a unified church led to great compromise for Colson. He published a work titled The Body in 1992. It was updated and re-worked in 2004. The title was changed to Being the Body. The 1992 work opposed radical individualism that expressed itself with a “Jesus and me” mentality or a solitary belief system. The desire for a church that expressed itself with solidarity led Colson to a great compromise with theological systems which betrayed the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This error stirred great controversy when Colson brought so-called Evangelicals and Catholics together for a meeting in New York in 1991. The Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus called for the meeting to quell unrest between Protestant and Catholic groups in Brazil and Chile. The goal was to avoid what had happened in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Colson believed that the Holy Spirit prodded him to reach across the table and seek real fellowship with Catholics as a reformed Southern Baptist. Neuhaus and Colson met together regularly and in 1994 released an unofficial document (ECT) about unity. J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, and Pat Robertson signed it. Other conservative evangelicals like R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur did not.
Years later in 2009 another document called The Manhattan Declaration identified “Christians” as those from the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical traditions. The document called for all believers to unite in the Gospel. But what Gospel is not so clear. Conservative evangelical and Southern Baptist Albert Mohler signed this document because of the so-called Culture of Death which threatens our society. Concerns about abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and the destruction of human embryos for medical research motivated even conservative believers to compromise along with Colson. Colson once quipped, “The church is like Noah’s ark: The stench inside would be unbearable if it weren’t for the storm outside.” As humourous as that is, it is sad to realize how far Colson was willing to go because of the raging cultural storm.
When Neuhaus and Colson tried to hammer out a compromise and answer the question, “What does it mean to be saved?” they simply could not do it. They met for a two-year period and published a document called The Gift of Salvation. It affirmed that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own, but it is entirely God’s gift conferred through the Father’s grace. The statement remains unofficial and not accepted by the Vatican in Rome. So, ECT and The Manhattan Declaration affirm a continued search for common ground. But this is ground that will not be found. Roman Catholicism has taught that a faith alone salvation is anathema. Reforms in the 1960s (i.e., Vatican II) did not change that fact. It is fatal to confuse the Gospel with a works or merit-based approach. This is what Colson and others involved with ECT have clearly done. Roman Catholicism teaches that one must do something for his eternal life; Christianity teaches that only Jesus’ work is acceptable to the Father. There must be no confusion on this point.
Colson believed and defended his view that the Roman Catholic nun Teresa was a Christian. He also once had a powerful urge to make the sign of the cross after prayer with an Eastern Orthodox adherent. He did not for the fear of betraying his Baptist tradition. Later, he felt foolish because church history reveals that believers had been making the sign of the cross from the very beginning in order to signify they had been crucified with Christ. While that may be so, it is certain that making the sign of the cross carries a much different mystical and idolatrous meaning today. As a former Roman Catholic, I consider it misguided at best and blasphemous at its very worst.
However dangerous Colson was when it came to compromise, he did call Christians to the discipleship of the mind. He demonstrated that our society has set up a false dichotomy between faith and reason, viewed the humanities as explorations of God’s truth, and argued powerfully for the cultivation of the Christian mind.
There are many interesting and helpful facts in Colson’s work How Shall We Live. One particular highlight is the earth’s uniqueness as evidenced in its ability to support life. If it were even slightly closer to the sun, all its water would boil away, and life would be impossible. If the earth were only slightly farther away from the sun, all its water would freeze, and the terrestrial landscape would be nothing but barren deserts. He wrote that the chemical reactions necessary for life to function occur within a narrow temperature range, and Earth is exactly the right distance from the sun to fall within that range. Earth must remain the same distance from the sun in its orbit as well. Thus, the orbit must be and is circular. Most other planets in our solar system have elliptical orbits. Interestingly, water is the only substance whose solid phase is less dense than its liquid phase. This is why ice forms on the top of oceans and lakes. Thus, marine life survives and thrives. This is all very good illustrative material for the preacher.
The big bang theory, the atom, and DNA discussions within this work are also well worth the reader’s careful consideration. Colson showed how Darwinism is a crucial plank in the worldview of naturalism. Naturalism claims that God did not create man; rather, it is man who created the idea of God. Since naturalism has no basis for morality, mankind creates his own standards. Therefore, Christianity and Darwinism are mutually exclusive. If God has a hand in the evolutionary process, then each variation would be beneficial from the start of creation. This is obviously not the case. Colson argued passionately for biblical origins which preserve the value of human life.
The face of evil and the Culture of Death mentality are indicators of the increasingly depraved condition of the human populace. Colson cites many examples of atrocities committed in our own country. Colson believed that God is not the author of evil because had He created evil, then His own essence would contain both good and evil. Colson writes of man’s freedom to choose. There must be a source of sin outside of God. Our moral choices make us genuine first causes in the sovereign plan of God. God created the world good and perfect. One of the perfect things He made was free creatures. They have freely chosen to do wrong. Man and his rebellion brought sin into the world. Once the creation chose evil, God could not ignore it. God astonishingly would bear the punishment for such a choice by sending His Son to redeem the fallen creation.
Is there a better way of living? Colson illustrates the danger of the utopian mindset by meticulously unfolding the story of Meg Broadhurst and a group called Synanon. Meg sought help through Synanon which was an Alcoholic’s Anonymous offshoot. The group shamed members into publicly doing ‘right’. Meg moved with her husband Jack to Synanon’s Tomales Bay facility in Northern California.
Charles Dederich was the founder of Synanon. Dederich believed that the problem was addiction when it came to drug and alcohol use. He came to believe that the root problem was society. He desired to build a new community to show the whole world a better way of living.
Meg and Jack gave their son Jason to the care of the Synanon community schools. Jason and the other children were taught that allegiance must be given first to Dederich and then to parents.
Time passed and negative publicity began to hurt the organization. Synanon moved to protect itself by declaring that they were a religion. Dederich became the deity figure. Loyalty tests like shaving one’s head became the norm. Abortions and vasectomies were ordered so that members could get better housing, job assignments, and other benefits.
Dederich developed an internal police force called the Imperial Marines. He forced couples to split and marry other members in three-year stints. Meg escaped and her son Jason turned on her. Hundreds of children lost their childhood to Synanon’s communal nurseries. Hundreds of parents lost their families, their children’s love and affection, and years of their lives to Charles Dederich’s idea of utopia.
Colson uses this story to illustrate the great myth utopianism presents. Human nature is not intrinsically good and cannot form the basis of a perfect society. Synanon missed sin just as Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot did. Indeed, absolute power does corrupt absolutely.
There were two choices in one’s perspective of the world according to Colson: 1) Acknowledge a transcendent standard and your accountability before a holy God for your sin. This will make it possible for an ordered and morally responsible society. While my eschatology will not allow for this, many Christians tend to disagree. 2) Or one maintains that he is inherently good. This, in turn, creates moral anarchy and opens the door to tyranny.
Colson wrote that Christian schools can do much to help children formulate a right worldview. Christian education does not propagate utopian ideals. God speaks through His Word. He reveals an objective standard of truth and morality for mankind. What are those truths? Colson highlighted three: 1) Children are not merely biological organisms adapting to the environment; they are created in the image of God and bear all the dignity of beings capable of recognizing truth, goodness, and beauty. 2) Parents must recognize a child’s capacity for selfishness and willfulness. 3) Education is one of the ways we seek to reverse the effects of the Fall and restore humanity to its original dignity and purpose. Again, notice Colson’s eschatological bent.
How shall we live? Colson believed that Christians need to understand biblical truth and have the courage to live it out in order to redeem culture or create a new culture. He affirmed that Christianity is the only accurate road map of reality. The only real solution to our sin problem is spiritual. Christianity provides the power to transform the world. Colson believed we must live by embracing God’s truth, understand the physical and moral order God created, lovingly contend for God’s truth with our neighbors, and then have the courage to live it out in every walk and area of life.
Although there are certainly major problems with Colson’s compromise with the error of Roman Catholicism, Fundamentalist believers ought to be thankful to him for such a cogent and passionate plea for God’s people to engage a lost and dying world and offer true hope based upon the message of redemption. We may even disagree regarding his optimism about the end-times, but we are indebted to him for his illustrative and well-researched material in many of his books and on many of his Break Point radio programs.