Sunday, July 19, 2015

E7. The Church is in the world but not of the world.

This is the seventh post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
The Church is in the world but not of the world.

1. If visible churches and denominations cannot be equated with the Church, still less can any earthly government or state be equated with the Church. The Church is an invisible Church, and cannot be equated with any particular visible organization.

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr presented a number of differing perspectives on how Christianity ideally relates to the culture in which it finds itself. [1] These ranged from those who accommodated Christianity to culture and gave culture the upper hand ("Christ in culture") to those who wanted Christianity to dominate the surrounding culture ("Christ over culture"). Two other points of view were those that saw Christ in culture in inevitable conflict ("Christ against culture") and those who simply saw these two as two different worlds with two different mindsets, both of which we have to live in ("Christ and culture in paradox"). The ideal, he believed, was for Christ to transform culture.

We can summarize these five perspectives as:
  • Christ in culture - Christianity accommodates culture
  • Christ over culture - Christianity dominates culture
  • Christ against culture - Christianity will always be isolated from culture
  • Christ and culture in paradox - We live in two worlds and obey the conflicting rules of both
  • Christ transforms culture - Christianity influences culture for the better
While we would hope that Christianity is always having some positive, transformative effect on its surrounding culture, the dominant stance of Christianity at any one time and place has most to do with the prevailing attitude of the surrounding culture toward it. Similarly, sometimes it is understandable if different individuals take different positions toward the surrounding culture at the same time.

2. We can identify times in history when Christians have predictably taken one particular stance toward the surrounding culture. For example, there are clearly times when the surrounding culture is hostile to Christ and Christians understandably assume a "Christ against culture" stance. This was more or less the position in which the early church found itself.

So Paul tells the believers at Corinth that God will judge the world and they should leave it be (1 Cor. 5:12-13). They should not take conflicts within the church to the Roman authorities (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Instead, he takes an isolationist, "Christ against culture" stance. The church should take care of its own affairs and leave the affairs of the world to itself. As Jesus said, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17).

3. This may sound like "Christ and culture in paradox," but it is not. This second perspective is usually associated with the Lutheran tradition. It has the sense that we as Christians sometimes have to do unChristian things when we are in the world. So when we are in the world, we sin, but we have to.

We think of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have participated in the assassination attempt on Hitler even though he did not believe it was morally right to kill someone. [2] It is a paradox, but to him it was the nature of our current situation that we are both sinner and saint at the same time. The key, Luther said, is that we are always repenting.

This position, however, is neither biblical nor theologically sound. Not all ethical principles are absolutes. When two moral principles are in conflict, we must choose one and make an exception to the other. This choice does not inevitably involve sin. In other words, it could have been, in the situation of Hitler, morally right to make an exception to the principle not to kill another.

There have been times in history when various figures have done things that would normally be considered immoral or at least less than the ideal, but they have done so for the perpetuation of Christianity. Would there be a church in Russia today if its archbishop had not dirtied himself in the early days of communism?

This is a very shady zone, and one where a person is prone to make excuses. Should you have rather become a martyr ("Christ against culture") than act as you did? I find this perspective the most potentially problematic of them all.

4. Is there a point where Christianity is rightly shaped by the surrounding culture? It inevitably is, whether we like it or not. Much of 1 Peter arguably is the accommodation of early Christians to the social norms of the surrounding culture. Rather than the initially radical, "in Christ there is no longer male and female" (Gal. 3:28; Acts 2:17), 1 Peter tells Christians to hunker down and conform to the norms of the day to avoid unnecessary persecution. Slaves obey unjust masters (1 Pet. 2:18-19). Wives submit to unbelieving husbands (3:1).

Moral principles are always played out in context. The same moral principle in one context can play out in a contradictory way in another. Is it acting respectable for a husband to direct his wife's every move or to act with complete equality in authority? The culture determines which course of action is the respectable one.

5. At times Christianity has assumed a "Christ over culture" position of dominance. Obviously this position is only possible when a Christian group has enough power to exert its authority over the rest of the culture. This was the case throughout much of church history when the Roman Catholic Church held a power that was parallel to that of all worldly authority. It has been the case in countries or states where various forms of Protestant Christianity were able to exert their dominance.

In the United States, we call the Christ over culture position "civil religion." [3] It is a Christian culture that has difficulty distinguishing between patriotism, nationalism, and faith. Issues of nation become issues of Christianity, and issues of Christianity become issues of nation. Take, for example, the question of homosexuality in laws of state. Are there any aspects of this issue that make it a "secular" issue and an issue for a non-Christian environment? Civil religion will not see the distinction and see it as Christian to try to make the laws of state mirror Christian ethical principles.

Similarly, is it particularly Christian to support a country's military? One might rather suspect that Christians would more naturally be wary of a wing of state poised to enact violence and force. Yet the military is regularly celebrated in church across America. Here is an example where issues of the state have become issues of "faith." We put the American flag in our churches because we cannot see a distinction between God and country.

From a Wesleyan-Arminian standpoint, God desires individuals to choose him rather than to force people to serve him. This dynamic has direct implications for the ideal state. The ideal state would obviously be one in which believers can freely live out their faith. The ideal state would be one in which believers can freely and profitably conduct the mission of God. The ideal state is one that protects its citizens from harming themselves and each other, "love of neighbor" played out on a societal scale.

But the ideal state would also be a context in which individuals can choose God freely rather than being compelled to do so. Rather than fight to the death over issues of faith when it is clear that secular forces in broader society are against us, we "give them up" (Rom. 1:28). It is easy to forget that the Church is not the state and go on to make unnecessary enemies for the Church because we are convinced that our faith should dominate.

Whenever Christ and state overlap too much, Christ usually does not end up ruling the state but, rather, notions of Christ get infected with the world and the corruption of power. When Christianity is in power--or when any religion is in power--oppression seems to result inevitably. Those in power inevitably cannot distinguish their own ideas from God's. It is thus not Christianity that comes to be in power but one particular, cultural version of it.

6. Christianity is thus best "in the world, but not of it." Yes, there are times when Christians should fight for the concrete protection of others. Yes, there is a time to submit to something less than ideal. We should always be an influence for good and for the positive transformation of society.

This is a consistent theme in the New Testament, which found itself in a "Christ against culture" situation. We confess that we are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" (Heb. 11:13). We look to a coming homeland and city (11:14, 16). We are citizens of a different country (Phil. 3:20).

This fundamental reality is not an excuse for us to leave the world mentally. We are still here. There is good that can be done here. We cannot use our ultimate citizenship as a cop-out to do nothing or to disengage when we can be a transformative influence for good. There are clearly times when God does change the world now for good through Christian influence. It is simply to say that our level of engagement will differ depending on the nature of our context in history.

7. A related question is then the extent to which the visible church coincides with the true, invisible Church. Is the visible church a "hospital for sinners or a haven for saints"? [4] Certainly the true Church only consists of "saints" (that is, those who have been made holy through the blood of Christ). Yet the mission of God through the Church is to reconcile the world, and in that sense the Church had better be engaged in leading "sinners" to healing.

A visible church that only serves "saints" is not engaged in mission, while a church that only engages "sinners" is a doorway that leads to nowhere. [5] Its visible manifestation never gets off the porch and into the house.

Clearly as there are many different members in the body of Christ, there are some churches that are more engaged in mission and there are some churches that are more engaged in the other tasks of the Church (e.g., worship, discipleship, fellowship). If a visible church goes to either extreme, it faces dangers. The purely missional church may see its "saints" evaporate like a puddle of water under a hot sun. The ingrown church may see its "saints" die away like a plant that never bears seeds.

The healthy, visible church is both in the world and not of the world. It is in the world engaged in God's mission. But it is also not of the world in its worship and discipleship.

The church is in the world and is a transformative influence on its context as the opportunity for engagement arises. But it is ultimately not of the world and should not in any way be confused with the state or aspire to impose its will on the secular state.

Next Sunday: E8. The Church has worship as its most important task.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1951).

[2] Although see now Mark Theissen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering his Call to Peacemaking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). They argue that Bonhoeffer did not participate in the plot.

[3] The classic work here is an article by Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 1–21.

[4] Source unknown.

[5] The "seeker-sensitive" church does well as a doorway. Its services are something like the triage or emergency room of a hospital. But unless discipleship structures are also in place, the prognosis for long term healing and health is not good.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

A complex issue, for sure. Thanks for your thoughts.