Sunday, June 04, 2017

Seminary CM5: The Kingdom Core

This is the fifth post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
1. Cultures differ significantly from each other and the biblical cultures differed significantly from us. Is there not some "kingdom core" that transcends culture? Is there not some timeless truth and practice that applies in all times and all places?

We cannot reiterate enough the fact that all human thought is ensconced in culture and that all biblical thought was incarnated in culture. What we are really talking about here are truths and practices that apply to all cultures rather than ones that transcend culture. We are asking about omni-cultural truths and practices.

Perhaps more importantly, we are asking about standards by which we can judge elements of culture. The danger here is that we so very often cannot distinguish our culture from this kingdom core. It seems beyond question that a large amount of what Christian missionaries from the United States have exported to the world over the last couple centuries has had as much of American culture in it as it has the gospel. No doubt we can attribute some contemporary mission failure to an inability to discern cultural elements in the way the mission was conducted.

2. So what is the kingdom core? It is perhaps easiest to address ethics and practices first, rather than beliefs. The reason is that the New Testament is so clear on what the fundamental Christian ethic is. From Jesus to Paul to John to James, the New Testament is unanimous in its sense that loving God and loving our neighbor/enemy is the kingdom ethic. [1] It is not its core. It is the whole of the ethic.

Any appropriation of the Bible that conflicts with the love of God and the love of neighbor is a misappropriation of Scripture!

Love is a universal human value. All cultures have some sense of what love is. It is thus an omni-cultural ethic. To be sure, different cultures understand it slightly differently. What is considered unloving can differ somewhat from culture to culture. American culture right now probably has a very weak sense of love, one that befits our world of vast convenience and ease. We thus probably under-appreciate the harder aspects of love that are intrinsic to cultures and sub-cultures where life is much more difficult.

Another warning applies to the impulse to use the concept of loving God as a way to wiggle out of loving our enemy or neighbor. Someone might say, "I cannot show love to my enemy at this point because my love of God trumps it here." This is a trick of Satan. Love of God never requires us to act hatefully toward our enemy, although a misinterpretation of the Bible might.

Love has to do with bringing good to others. It has to do with action rather than feeling. I can love someone that I do not like. Justice does not conflict with love. Justice can be redemptive toward an individual. And justice can be protective of a group of people. Finally, justice can be protective of the order of things. In none of these cases is justice unloving.

The love of God is about giving him priority in all things and in letting nothing in our life get in the way of loyalty to him. However, God is not threatened by the disobedience of his creation. In the mystery of his will he has created the world with the possibility of such disobedience. He thus does not always shut down opposition to him immediately, nor does he command us to do so. Nevertheless, the love of others suggests that we will help them find God and will protect others if we can.

3. So the "law of love" is at the essence of the kingdom core--what our attitudes and actions should be. How that love plays itself out will differ somewhat from time to time, culture to culture, sub-culture to sub-culture. For example, it is hard for me to imagine that the law of love can play out very well in American culture in a way that insists men must rule over women. In my world, love insists that husband and wife be of equal value and authority in the home.

Yet it was not universally so in the world of the New Testament. The household codes of Colossians and Ephesians, the instructions of 1 Peter to a persecuted church, these were accommodations to first century culture. The kingdom core suggests that if we find ourselves in a world where we can more fully implement Galatians 3:28, we should.

Yet there are many cultures around the world where the household codes seem to fit the cultural context neatly. Husband-headship in those contexts does not conflict with the love of neighbor. Accordingly, Christians in each time and place must "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). Those of us from different cultures will often not be able to see what love exactly looks like for them.

4. What of beliefs? Certainly Scripture is a sacrament of transformation for all cultures. No matter where we live, God will help his people see what they need to see in Scripture.

There is however a core, a commonly held set of beliefs derived from Scripture that Christians have agreed on for millennia. These are especially found in the core creeds of Christendom.
  • God exists and is active in the world (cf. Heb. 11:6).
  • Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus in fact is God (e.g., John 1:1). 
  • Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5). Humanity stands under the power of Sin and under the prospect of judgment (Rom. 3:23), but through Christ, God has provided a way of salvation from final judgment (Rom. 6:23; 10:9).
  • There is thus eternal life to be gained through Christ (John 3:16).
  • Those who have the Spirit of God within them constitute the people of God (1 Cor. 3:16).
  • Scripture is the canon, a divinely appointed meeting place for God to inform and by which to form us (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is the primary source of our story and our symbols as Christians.
5. The way these beliefs play themselves out in various cultures may differ a little. The symbols that speak the most strongly may differ. Indeed, these things differ from denomination to denomination in my own culture. The impulse to say, "This is the core," is almost always more restrictive than it is for God.

It is ultimately the charge of Christians in a particular culture or sub-culture to determine how the gospel might play out. The importance is that those decisions are made full of faith. And of course, we can be wrong!

Next Sunday: Culture 6: The Church and Culture

[1] Cf. Matt. 22:34-40; 5:43-48; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; 1 John 4:7-8; Jas 2:8.

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

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