An Interview with Charles Colson
Charles Colson is founder (1976) and Chairman of the Board of Prison Fellowship and Prison Fellowship International.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Colson was a captain in the US Marine Corps, a partner in a law firm, and special counsel to President Richard Nixon. He served seven months of a one-to-three-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a Watergate-related charge in 1974. He converted to Christianity in August 1973, as documented in his book Born Again. Colson then used the royalties from the book to begin Prison Fellowship, an outreach organization assisting prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims, and affected families.
Since then, Colson has visited more than 600 prisons in 40 countries and, with the help of nearly 50,000 volunteers, has built Prison Fellowship into the world’s largest prison outreach ministry, serving the spiritual and practical needs of prisoners in 83 countries including the United States. In 1983 Colson founded Justice Fellowship®, an organization dedicated to working with legislators and policymakers to enact restorative justice principles. In 1989, he founded Neighbors Who Care®, a community-based support system for victims of crime.
In 1993 Colson received the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and donated the prize to Prison Fellowship.
Nearly 5 million copies of his 15 books have been sold in the United States. (All royalties from these books are donated to Prison Fellowship.) Titles include Loving God (Zondervan, 1983), Who Speaks for God? (Crossway Books, 1985), Kingdoms in Conflict (Zondervan/Morrow, 1987), The Body (with Ellen Santilli Vaughn; Word, 1992), How Now Shall We Live? (with Nancy Pearcey; Zondervan, 1999).
He is also a syndicated columnist and has contributed articles to magazines and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. Colson’s daily radio commentary, “Breakpoint,” has a weekly listening audience of 3 million people.
Colson also has worked with Richard J. Neuhaus and J. I. Packer on Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a series of initiatives to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians.
Touchstone editors James M. Kushiner and David Mills interviewed Chuck Colson at Cambridge University in 1998, while attending Oxbridge ’98, a conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s birth. Mr. Colson was a plenary speaker (“C. S. Lewis: Mere Christian, Twentieth-Century Prophet”) and also led a workshop, referred to during the interview. Some small changes have been made in the transcript for the sake of clarity and completeness.
Touchstone: You’ve been a figure in public life and in church life. I’ve heard you speak on Christian unity and the persecution of Christians, and you’ve written about cultural engagement as well as a book on the Church. What would you say is the greatest challenge that Christians are facing as they go into the twenty-first century?
Charles Colson: There are two great issues. One would be the unity of the Church, of all believers. The Church has to be constantly in a state of seeking reformation and unity. In other words, it has to be constantly reforming itself and constantly trying to come closer together to fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Unity is the condition God created. Disunity works against God’s purposes.
Until we’re really one, the world will not know that Christ was sent by the Father. And so we have to work towards that always—not settling for a lowest common denominator, but always working in the service of Truth. We must try to bring people together in their beliefs, capitalizing on and strengthening the things that we believe in together, and keeping in perspective the things on which we disagree.
Number two would be to recognize that the Church in the postmodern era has to have a biblical worldview. It has to be able to see the implications of Christian faith lived out in every area of life. We cannot simply believe that we’re saved and go into our churches and feed ourselves on the Bible and ignore the state of the culture around us.
What are some of the things we need to do to meet the challenges?
CC: Well, ECT [Evangelicals and Catholics Together] is the kind of project we work on, and the conferences that you and others have sponsored are very helpful. If we come together as brothers and understand one another as brothers and begin to talk about our differences, we suddenly discover that many of the code words that have been used to divide us really don’t apply in the way we thought they did. We begin to come closer together.
This actually happened in the Reformation, as you know. Calvin and Catholic representatives came together and found some agreement on justification, but they fell apart on the matter of the Eucharist.
But we should continue to work towards more discussion at the grass roots. Richard Neuhaus and I got word recently that there’s an ECT group formed in Ireland, and Jim Packer is going over to speak to them.
Things like that cause you to rejoice—as do things like what has happened in Rome with the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and Cardinal Cassidy’s statements about the prospects for healing between the denominations. It’s going to take a lot of education and a long time. It’s probably going to take the passing of a generation. We have to keep working for it.
You mentioned earlier “Not settling for a lowest common denominator.” I’ve heard often at this conference comments about “all the things that bind us together,” yet I’ve sensed even here there are some very deep things that divide.
CC: Oh, yes.
Such as the women’s ordination question, which came up today in your workshop, or the proper response to feminism, or how we should engage the culture or political issues.
CC: Well, there will always be differences. The Church has never been of one mind about all of these things, even though we’re trying to be of one mind and one heart. We’ve always had these kinds of differences. And as I said today, over the centuries, the pendulum has swung on the whole question of church and state and civic engagement. That’s okay. But we need to be able to engage one another in a loving spirit and work together as Christians to try to understand one another better.
A fellow came up to me yesterday after I had been talking about ECT and said, “But what are you going to do about the question of revealed Truth?” And I said, “That’s all we’re working with—revealed Truth. We’re simply taking the Scriptures. We’re not taking any translations. We’re working from the original Greek and Hebrew, and we’re dealing with revealed Truth.” “Oh, you can’t be,” he said. I said, “Why can’t we be?” He said, “Because you would never come to an agreement.” (laughs)
Obviously he was so locked into his position that unity among professing Christians is an impossibility that he couldn’t possibly see the prospects for open and honest conversation—a mindset not uncommon in the Church. It’s going to take education and a long period of nudging people away from that. Evangelicals are going to learn Packer’s wonderful phrase, “It’s true that we’re not saved by works, but it’s also true that we’re not saved by words. We’re saved by the living Christ.”
In terms of cultural engagement, the renewal of society, and all that, is our task very much hindered, perhaps fatally so, because of the divisions in the Church?
CC: Well, not fatally so, because we’re bridging the gaps. But our cultural engagement is weakened today because of the gross ineptitude of much of what is called the new religious right—it does not know how to handle politics, and it often puts its political agenda ahead of the Christian agenda. It is divided among itself, among the organizations involved—even over the question of religious liberty.
We’re often very unsophisticated in our approach, and that, we confess, hampers us. The biggest thing that hampers us is that we had this Pollyannaish idea in the eighties that we could solve all of the political problems by electing Christians. And when that fell apart, disillusionment set in in the churches. Now Christians are saying, “Oh, let’s just build our churches.” That, to me, is the great threat—that people will turn away from political engagement, that there will be another fundamentalist retreat. That would weaken us, and that’s one of the things that Neuhaus and I work hardest on, to try to keep the grass roots involved, with hope and with the belief that they can make a difference.
I have several questions that came up in the discussions today. Do you think there’s such a thing as a Christian mind, or rather simply Christian minds?
CC: Oh, I heard that discussion. I do think there is a Christian mind. There is a way of seeing or apprehending reality that is generally Christian. As different people embrace Christian Truth, that Christian mind will have permutations on it. On what I would call the second tier of issues, or lesser issues, people will see things in somewhat different ways. But those differences don’t go to the heart of the presuppositions of a biblical worldview.
There must be a Christian mind. I think the speaker [who said there was no Christian mind] was talking about the individual Christian thinking “Christianly” about issues. The fact of the matter is that there is a Christian mind. That thinking starts with Creation and it goes to the Fall and then to Redemption and then to the incarnation of Christian Truth as it’s lived out by people in culture.
What relation do “issues” like abortion and homosexuality have to the Christian mind? The speaker’s argument was that these things are not part of the Christian mind, and therefore they are somewhat optional and are up for grabs.
CC: That is a position that I desperately wanted to challenge him on, but then I thought, no, I can’t do that. I’m a plenary speaker and I’ve got a closing session on Friday.
But you can at an interview.
CC: (laughs) I “can at an interview.” He was dead wrong, because he said that there are several Christian worldviews, which is a very relativistic way of looking at Christian Truth. If you look at Genesis, you see the contours of the Christian worldview. You see Creation, the Fall, and the promise of Redemption.
You can’t say God created Man and Woman in his image and that he was well-pleased with the creation and also say that the Christian mind can accept treating life with anything less than the full sanctity of having been created by God. And therefore I believe that those positions are not optional. Now, there are prudential differences in how we act on this common understanding in a society. I think we would all have to agree that every child should be welcomed in life and protected from the moment of conception, and that should be a policy in every society.
And it certainly is a proposition that follows inexorably from the belief that life is created. If it is not created, if it is the product of some chance collision, then there is no point in protecting it at any point. Why protect us sitting here? I’m sixty-six, I’ve done my time. Why waste the money to put me on Social Security? So I don’t believe support for things like abortion is an optional position.
As to how you go about solving some problems, yes, those are all prudential questions. As to how you go about taking care of the poor, for example, Ron Sider and I might have different opinions, but we would certainly agree that you should be taking care of the poor. Ron and I found we agree on many things except when he gets into economics.
But I think the fundamental propositions of a biblical worldview, its fundamental contours, inevitably lead you to certain moral conclusions, and those moral conclusions cannot be up for grabs. There will be some questions on the periphery—the forms of government, the forms of the structures, the ways in which services are provided—that are up for grabs. You could be a Christian socialist, or you could be a Christian capitalist, but you could not be Christian pro-choicer.
Take one of Lewis’s examples: Some religions think you can have one wife, and some religions think you can have five, but no one has ever thought that you can have any woman you wanted.
CC: (laughs) A very good phrase!
Why do Christians pursue, then, Christians like us, questions like abortion and homosexuality and not, say, feeding the poor?
CC: Those are the issues that have been thrust upon us in the culture war in which we are the defending forces, not the aggressors.
On the question of women’s ordination, today you noted your opposition. Do you perceive any consequences of women’s ordination for the Church?
CC: One of the consequences, of course, is the breakdown of the biblical structure, the biblical way in which the Church is structured in order to point towards God the Father. And so, yes, you begin to open the doors to all sorts of perversions. It isn’t so much the question of ordination, it isn’t so much the question of women carrying out responsibilities within the Church. It is the question of breaking down the order of the Church, which is structured—as Packer argues much better than I ever could—biblically.
And the principled objections to women’s ordination are reinforced by practical ones. Once you begin to undermine this structure, you open the door to all sorts of other transgressions, you open the door to all sorts of other distortions. You don’t necessarily get Gaia worship, which is a little preposterous, but in much more subtle ways we begin to see that structure changing. And the feminization of the Church is a real problem. It always has been a problem because so much of the Church is so heavily weighted towards women to begin with. If you take away the male authority structure, you’ll see an even further feminization of the Church, which to me, is a grave danger on a pragmatic ground.
You mentioned the order of the Church. Yet there are many Christians in America today who don’t really think much . . .
. . . about the idea of the Church at all.
CC: The “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” Right.
What would you recommend to address that?
CC: That’s why I wrote the book, The Body. What appalls me is—I guess I haven’t figured this out yet; I probably will not live long enough to figure it out. I write books about the Church, that one sold half a million copies in hardback and was a huge success, people study them, and they prepare Bible studies about them, yet—all the things I warned about keep getting worse!
What do those people do who’ve read that book? Did they say, “Gosh, there’s another nice, interesting book by Chuck Colson. Be sure to put it on our coffee table, and if we ever see him, we’ll get him to autograph it”? Don’t they internalize it and appropriate it and decide that “I’m going to do something with this”?
A perfect illustration: In The Body, I set the ground rules, the framework for Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Leading Evangelicals endorsed the book. Everybody endorsed the book. Then we came out with ECT as a separate paper and they went apoplectic. I don’t think they really read the book. I wonder what people think. I think they read all this stuff, and it’s like television, like the passing scene. They don’t pay any attention to it and they don’t take it personally.
Well, do you think, then, that many conservative Christians, of the sort here and otherwise, have internalized the postmodernist style or mode?
CC: Oh my, postmodernism has affected the Church profoundly! Just listen to Professor Paul Gooch. Yesterday he gave a very postmodern, relativistic view of Christian worldviews. This begins to break down discipline and authority and the idea of transcendent law that we discover—as opposed to the law that we make up for ourselves. It begins to change the whole way we see things.
It’s the reason we see the constant pressures for the democratization of the Catholic Church. “How dare this pope come here and tell us how we should live?” Well, that’s what popes do! (laughs) If you want to be a Catholic, you have to acknowledge that’s what the pope does.
Have you seen the cartoon of someone scowling at his minister outside the door of the church, with the minister saying, “You don’t understand; it’s my job to make you feel guilty”?
CC: (laughs) That’s a good one!
I heard you use the term “backyard apologetics.” Could you explain that?
CC: I like the term “backyard apologetics.” It means that the way that you change the culture is from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. It’s what Christians do over the barbecue grill when you have your neighbor over and you explain to him why you’re not homophobic because you’re opposed to gay rights. Or when you talk about all the other issues. Evolution, for example, is an issue for which Christians can be equipped to deal with their secular neighbors.
Where you have the best opportunity to change the culture is when you’re out to dinner with your neighbor or you’re talking over the backyard fence about these kinds of questions—casually and comfortably, not in a formal debate, and not in any way threatening, just one neighbor talking to another neighbor about what makes sense about life. This, to me, is how you change a society. And that’s why I believe individual Christians have to be equipped to do this.
And so that really is for modern Americans a calling. Everyone is told to study his Bible and say his prayers, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say you have to do your apologetics practice every day.
CC: That’s because they have not read the new book I’ve been writing. It shows that Christianity is about far more than salvation and Bible study and even personal discipleship and even church membership. It is your obligation to see the world through God’s eyes and then to begin to equip yourself not only to articulate Christian Truth, but also to be able to defend Christian Truth.
And you have to be able to explain why you believe what you believe, lovingly and gently. I think this is every Christian’s duty. I think the fact that George Barna found that only 12 percent of Evangelicals knew what a worldview was, is a shocking statistic. A scant 12 percent could give an adequate definition, but only 4 percent said they needed to know anything about it. Shocking! And that’s among Evangelicals!
Well, you know the polls show that most Evangelicals believe that truth is relative.
CC: Sixty-seven percent in the last poll.
Could you say something about Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Christian calling to the prisoner, which is one ministry we’ve neglected. Having worked with prisoners myself, I know we have neglected prisoners in the prisons.
CC: Probably the most lasting, the most significant legacy of my life will be having awakened the Church to its responsibility to care about the prisoners, of which there are 1.7 million in America today. The most lasting legacy of my life, I suspect, will be the Prison Fellowship movement, which currently has 45,000 trained volunteers.
We go into prisons, we work with convicts as they get out, we mentor them. We’re running a Christian prison in Texas—we actually run it. We also run aftercare programs in a number of cities, most successfully, so far, in Detroit, where we have about a 65 percent success rate with drug addicts who otherwise have a 95 percent failure rate.
The biggest thing is energizing the Church to recognize its responsibility to reach out to “the least of these.” Prisoners are the least of the least, generally speaking. They are the most marginalized in our society. They lose their civil liberties, they live in absolutely dreadful conditions, and they’re stigmatized for life. We don’t give them a second chance. There is no second chance. So I hope we’ve woken up the Church to that—I think we have. People talk to me about the prison ministry constantly, so I think it has made an impact.
Yes, even I have delivered Christmas presents to the children of prisoners in your Angel Tree program.
CC: Have you? Isn’t it a wonderful thing to be a part of? I take my grandchildren every year, and we sit with those kids receiving the gifts—I just love it. Angel Tree reached just under 500,000 kids last year, and I hope we can break that this year and get to over half a million. We also send about 15,000 of those kids to camp. I hope to have that number increased.
So I have my apologetics, my writing, my mischief like ECT, but ultimately my legacy will be that which gives me the moral authority to speak on all these other issues. And that is to try to bring the Church back to do what the Church ought to do and what only the Church can do—finding broken lives who desperately need to hear the gospel and to share it with them and let them know Christ’s love. It’s also what I enjoy the most. Given my druthers, I would rather preach in a prison than do anything else.
Readers interested in Prison Fellowship Ministries may call 1-703-478-0100 or write PO Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. Angel Tree inquirers may call 1-800-398-HOPE. Prison Fellowship has a website that includes information about Neighbors Who Care, BreakPoint, Justice Fellowship, and other related ministries.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Backyard Apologetics” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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