Sunday, June 25, 2017

Seminary CM6: The Church and Culture

This is the sixth 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. In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr published what soon became a classic work of theology and mission, Christ and Culture. In this book, Niebuhr suggested that the various ways in which Christianity interacts with culture can be captured in five basic approaches.

1. Christ against culture
The first is Christianity in opposition to the surrounding culture. Those with this approach typically try to withdraw from culture as much as possible. Culture is seen as antithetical to Christianity.

2. Christ of culture
A second approach virtually assimilates Christianity to the culture. The values of the culture become the values of Christianity. This approach blurs into whatever the surrounding culture is and does not have a clear or distinctive Christian identity.

The other three approaches are mixtures of the first two and are together categorized by Niebuhr as "Christ above culture."

3. Christ and culture 
Niebuhr calls this one a synthesis of Christ and culture, so we might call it Christ and culture. It tries to combine Christ and culture in some way that considers them both valid in various ways. I have often thought of the American impulse to "civil religion" as an example of this sort of synthesis--baseball, hot dogs, and Jesus waving an American flag.

4. Christ and culture in paradox
The opposite impulse toward a synthesis is to keep Christ and culture separate without trying to synthesize them. Perhaps one is Christian in church but Christless the rest of the week. We are both sinner and saint at the same time.

5. Christ the transformer of culture
For Niebuhr, this is a "conversionist" approach. We accept in culture whatever we can accept and then work to transform the rest to conform to Christianity.

2. Understandably, these categories--and Niebuhr's implementation of them, have been substantially critiqued over the last fifty years. For example, it is impossible for someone to remove him or herself from culture. All human existence is enculturated, "incarnated," as it were. The question of withdrawal is one of degree of removal and the question of assimilation is one of degree of assimilation.

So the Amish are not completely removed from the surrounding culture. In many respects, they have simply locked themselves into a past time when they were more acculturated. That is to say, they tried to stop changing with where culture was at in a previous point in history, at which time they were far more acculturated than they are now. Some holiness groups have followed a similar path, locking themselves into the dress standards of an earlier era in the early to mid-1900s. At that time, however, they were more acculturated in their clothing.

In this respect, Christianity at any time and place is always on some level a synthesis of the kingdom core with the surrounding culture.

3. A second observation is that different times and places call for different stances toward the world around us. "For everything there is a season" (Eccl. 3:1). You could argue that we are always in exile because the world stands under the power of Sin and thus we are always "strangers and exiles on the earth" (Heb. 11:13). Similarly, you could argue that we are always meant to be a force for good in the world, both in spreading the good news (Matt. 28:19) and in just plain doing good (Gal. 6:10).

But the degree to which we engage or withdraw will differ from time to time and place to place. There is a time to mostly blend in (1 Peter times) and there may be a time to conquer the land (Joshua times). In this respect, there is probably not a single stance that the church will take toward culture in every time and place.

4. Let me suggest some of the different stances toward culture that Christians may be called to take at various places and times.

1. Cultural Take-Over
There certainly have been times and places where Christians have taken over the culture or at least tried. [1] In ancient Israel, Joshua was commanded to take over the land of Canaan, and throughout the monarchy, Israel was in control of its land. After Constantine and Theodosius in the 300s AD, Christianity became the dominant force in the Roman Empire, and Christianity dominated the culture of Europe from then till the present.

In Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin made his understanding of Christianity the law of the city. Similarly, in Puritan, New England, the Puritan understanding of right and wrong was the law of the land. Many fundamentalist Christians in the United States are zealous to see American law mirror various elements of their moral understanding.

There's an important caution here. Since true Christians are strangers and aliens on the earth, since narrow is the way and only a minority finds it (Matt. 7:14), it seems unlikely that the true people of God were never coterminous with Israel, Geneva, New England, or American fundamentalism today. That is to say, only a minority of Israelites were truly the people of God. Only some of those in Geneva and New England were true Christians. And we must reckon with the likelihood that most of those who have called themselves Christians in America probably are not. The rise of the "nones" today may in part simply be a peeling away of those who were never true believers in the first place.

Most of those who to take over a culture probably do not really represent God. When any religion takes over a culture, oppression is usually close behind. Whether it be sharia law in Muslim contexts or fundamentalist law in America, these impulses largely amount to power-hungry human beings using religion as a tool to control others.

God does not rule the world in this way at this time. When people reject him currently, he "lets them go" (Rom. 1:24, 26). The very fact that most in the world are not Christians proves that God does not rule this world with an iron fist at this time. Those Muslim extremists who use terrorism to exact destruction on the world are missing a fundamental fact--if God was as they think he is, he would not need their help. If God wanted to take over the world, he would. The fact that he lets evil continue shows that his way is not at this time to force the world to follow him. The same observation follows for fundamentalists whose agenda is to make US law mirror their understanding of the Bible.

On the other hand, when we see others being oppressed or others are in danger, this can be a time to step into culture and intervene. When the abolitionist movement tried to put an end to slavery, that was arguably an appropriate time for Christians to work for change. When Christians work to end abortion, this is arguably an example of Christians acting to protect others from harm. Even in these cases, though, there are different ways Christians can go about working for change.

2. Extreme Assimilation
You could argue that complete assimilation to the culture ceases to be Christian at all. "Liberalism" is sometimes painted into this category because "conservatism" and fundamentalism resist cultural change. But you might just as well say that conservatism mistakes the culture of the past for Christianity, that it is just as much an assimilation but to the culture of the past rather than the culture of the future.

In truth, liberalism and conservatism often both are emphasizing core Christian values--they are just emphasizing different ones. Those who emphasized the fundamentals in the early 1900s were emphasizing Christian values, namely, those of orthodox belief. But those who preached the social gospel--helping those in need--were also emphasizing a Christian value.

So it is today. Republican Christians tend to emphasize God's justice, God's stance for life, and for a biblical sense of family. Democratic Christians tend to emphasize God's love and his concern for the needy and marginalized. Both at least think that they are standing true to the essence of Scripture.

I would argue that it is actually the "Christ and culture in paradox" perspective that reflects the real assimilation danger. This is when a person says Christian things on Sunday, but it has no impact on his or her life during the week. This person may say the right things in church, may even see themselves as a defender of ideas. But when it comes to the kingdom core, it isn't present in their lives.

3. Principled Assimilation
1 Peter represents a different kind of assimilation situation. 1 Peter was written at a time of Christian suffering. Rome is pictured as "Babylon," that foreign power that once destroyed Jerusalem (5:13). The suffering was so bad that Peter talks of the judgment having begun with the house of God (4:17). The key verse of the letter instructs its "strangers and exiles" to live good lives among the nations in this time of suffering (2:11-12).

Accordingly, 1 Peter is a kind of defensive strategy. [2] It instructs slaves to endure unjust masters. It instructs wives of unbelieving husbands to be good first century wives. That is to say, Peter instructs Christians to assimilate to the culture of the first century without compromising their faith.

There is no sense of changing the culture to the kingdom ideal. That simply wasn't in the cards. Rather they assimilate in a principled way.

4. Separation ("In but not of")
The situation was not that dire when Paul wrote his letters. Nor were matters at a flash point when Jesus was ministering in Galilee. Yet Paul and Jesus had no agenda to take over the secular powers of their context either. Both of them modeled what we might call an "in the world but not of the world" approach.

Paul saw matters of the church and matters of the world as two separate worlds but he only really belonged to one of them. His citizenship was in heaven (Phil. 3:20) even though he was a Roman citizen. It was his job as an apostle to exercise authority on his churches, even to participate in judgment, but it was God's job to judge the world at this point in time (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:12-13).

Paul thus does not try to stop sexual immorality in the world. He does not try to get the Romans to enact laws against divorce or homosexual practice. But he insists on stopping sexual immorality within the church.

Jesus similarly divides the earth into two kingdoms. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mark 12:17). Jesus is not legitimating the Roman empire. He is simply pointing out that its parallel world has nothing to do with the kingdom. It is a different world. Followers live in both worlds but really only belong to one of them.

5. Withdrawal
Some of course take the separation in identity of #4 and take it to a physical withdrawal. The Shakers, the Oneida colony, other Christian groups have removed themselves physically from the surrounding culture.

In the Bible, Israel itself is an example of this withdrawal, in a way. This is what the conquering of the land was about. This is what the food laws were probably about. Not eating pork was not probably about hygiene, but about distinguishing Israel from the Philistines and their gods.

It seems that this option is rarely open for believers, although there may be a place and time for it. If we are to be witnesses to Christ in the world, it is hard to see how this option fulfills that task very well.

6. Influence
At all times and places, Christians are thus witnesses. We should not often try to take over the culture. We should never assimilate ourselves into oblivion. We are never "of the world" even though we are in it. We should not often completely withdraw.

But we should always be witnesses. We should always be trying to lead others into the kingdom of God. We should always stand against oppression. We should always be a positive influence on the cultures we are in, whether they are hostile to us or threaten to allure us with their comfort.

Next Sunday: Culture 7: Our Global Context

[1] My category here is an extreme version of Niebuhr's conversionist "Christ transformer of culture."

[2] Scot McKnight, 1 Peter. NIV Application Commentary.

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

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