Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Church and Culture, 1

Here’s a question that seems to plague us today: “What relationship is the church to have to culture?”

In some fashion or another, most every Christian grapples with this question. Niehbur’s work Christ and Culture is a classic grappling with this issue. As is the case with many things, the opinions of Christians vary on this issue. Niehbur himself offered five responses in his framework. So, I don’t pretend an easy answer is available to us.

But, I do want to raise the question with what I hope will be a slightly different emphasis (maybe not, we’ll see). And that is, what is the relationship of the church qua church to culture? It’s an ecclesiological question rather than a question of individual Christian ethics or of Christology, though it touches on both of these as well. How should the people of God, as the people of God, understand and interact with the construct and reality called “culture”?

For me, this question flows out of a couple of streams. There is the stream of lived experience in the local church that seems to exalt cultural considerations to the level of, if not over, Christian identity. I think I see that or hear tells of that in most every “predominantly (fill in the ethnic blank) church” out there. And in those settings, where culture is so easily and often blended or associated with “race,” it is not surprising that an overwhelming number of churches struggle with the basic question of how Christians of differing ethnic backgrounds are to live together in the same church and how the “culture of the church” is to reflect either the majority group in local church A or be porous enough for minority groups to be a part of local church A. There is this basic identity conflict going on in the people of God.

Second, the question flows from a theological stream as well. This is most pressing for me. The Bible’s, and therefore God’s, vision of the church is a vision of multi-ethnic and multi-lingual unity. This vision simultaneously affirms “group identity distinctives” (at least at the level of ethnicity and language) and real, pervasive, unbreakable and ultimate unity with and in Christ Jesus. God is redeeming for himself one people out of all people. As a former racist, this is compelling and attractive and even necessary to me. That the visible local church seems so little bothered by how far we appear from God’s vision is distressing to me. I recognize the already—not yet tension we live in so many ways as Christians. But I think there is too much eagerness to bring that eschatology forward as an “excuse” not to do some sweaty, back-breaking, heart-searching, transparent thinking and work before God on this issue. Our ecclesiology, in too many cases, isn’t informing our practice.

Third, the question flows from a pastoral care stream. As someone who wants to pastor the church that Jesus is building, with all its glorious diversity and unity, I’m concerned that my own assumptions about life and cultural experiences will create limits in the pastoral task if I am not carefully discerning when it comes to church and culture. The Lord has given me the great privilege and stewardship, like many of you, of shepherding a congregation with folks from over 25 nations. The diversity is greater if we include ethnic groups rather than national boundaries. How do I practically care for people who may be brining such widely differing assumptions about life?

These are some of the concerns that motivate this series of posts, Lord willing. At root, I hope to entertain a series of questions, moving from the more fundamental to the more applied. Here’s a tentative list:
  1. What is “culture”?
  2. Is there such a thing as a distinctively Christian culture?
  3. How are the practices of the church (i.e., preaching, marriage counseling, and singing) to be shaped by either culture at large or a distinctively Christian culture?
  4. How should Christian people engage with non-Christian people and cultures? What are the terms and objectives of engagement?

Please, please, please join this conversation. What you read here will certainly not be “expert opinion”. Hopefully, this will be a conversation starter for some and a continuation for others. But please feel free to join in the discussion.

Grace and peace in Him who makes us one with himself.


Justin Buzzard said...

That's tough, attempting to define "culture." If culture is comprised of the beliefs, traditions, language, habits, economics, and region of a people, culture is as hard to define as the word "context." Culture is the air a people breath, the water they swim in.

Here on the San Francisco Peninsula it's staggering to me how many mini/diverse cultures exist on this one Peninsula. In my church there are scores of culture pockets represented each Sunday: wealthy Silicon Valley CEOs, lower income 2nd generation hispanics, middle class suburbanites, twentysomethings living in the heart of the city, etc.

Two theological truths that have been of help to me lately in thinking about how I ought to relate, and teach my church to relate, to this diverse San Francisco Peninsula culture are the Incarnation and the Ascension of Jesus.

As I ponder the Incarnation of Jesus I'm learning how to better dive in and engage with my neighbors at the coffee shop, on the jogging trail, on the downtown strip, at the gas station, etc. I'm learning more about how to simply be "in the midst" (Phil. 2) of the people, loving them, being one of them, etc. The Incarnation has been humbling me and my approach to the culture I find myself in.

And, as I ponder the Ascension of Jesus I'm reminded that Jesus' Incarnational engagement with culture was always one that had his Lordship and rule in view. Jesus didn't merely enter into and have conversations with the people of 1st century Palestine, he entered into this culture and this world in order to redeem it and assert his Lordship over it. He now sits at the right hand of the Father, ascended over the culture(s) I live and minister in.

Great post Thabiti. Looking forward to reading/learning more.

Matthew LaPine said...

Thabiti, I'm hooked. I'll join the conversation. This is an issue that I can't seem to stop talking about with those who are in the fundamentalist circles which I am a part of. I look forward to reading your posts.

Anonymous said...

I think your wise to approach this topic from both a historical/practical perspective and a theological perspecitve as well. I believe we bring many a priori assumptions with us when we take on issues such as race, ethnicity, culture, etc. I agree with you that God loves diversity. I agree that there can be unity within diversity. And there can be diveristy within unity as well.

The Lord will work in and through mankind, out of every tribe and tongue to bring about a gloriously diverse kingdom. I believe we best manifest God's love for diveristy by honoring it. The modern ideology of multicultrualism is in direct opposition to the building of a biblically informed culture. And so I don't see a tension in allowing for diveristy on the local level in churches. If a certain ethic group of people establish a biblically informed culture that reflects things such as there heritage that might not appeal to every Christian, have they really done something wrong? I don't think so. God expresses Himself in divers manners to divers people and His people need the foresight to understand He can and does work through us as we maintain and regulate His worship with the people and the cultural and ethnic heritage we find ourselves in.

p.s. You mention you are a former racist. How do you define "racism"?

FellowElder said...

Many people would say that "racism" must combine anitpathy toward people of a different color, ethnic group, etc and some form of power to control/oppress those people. I think "racism" is most easily defined by the first half of that idea. Hatred of a group of persons sharing a similar phenotype, ethnic distinctives or color, in my personal opinion, is racism. Farrakahn is no less a racist than say, David Duke, because he never held political power or office. Hatred of a class of men is racism in my book. Out of the abundance of the heart....

Anonymous said...

It would appear the biblical sin committed in what your calling racism is actually an unjust malice or hatred of your fellow man. I don't see the Scriptures drawing a distinction based on phenotype, ethnicity, color, etc. In other words, the sin is committed by the unrighteouness of the hatred, not the color of the person's skin to which it is directed. In this sense, I can unjustly hate someone of my own race and be just as guilty as if they are of another race, would you agree?

Along those lines, do you feel it is wrong for a person to show a special affinity for the race/ethnicity to which they belong, or even a sub-group of a race? For example, if you're of Oriental descent, can you have a love for you people/ your ancestry, your culture (presuming it's godly, not immoral)with no hatred towards others of a different race/culture, etc. and not be a "racist"?

FellowElder said...

To your first point, it might be good to understand racism as a particular form of misanthropy. That is, the umbrella category would be hatred (and I would add indifference as a milder form of hatred) of man without regard to race, ethnicity, etc. A particular of that category would be hatred of particular group(s) of man. So, one could hate all mankind and choose a hermit lifestyle, or one can only hate Hispanics or whites or Asians as a subset of "mankind." It's the second that's typically called racism. I agree that the Scriptures most often speak of the first category (hating fellow men), but we have to ask ourselves if that's at least in part due to the fact that the Scripture never teaches anything close to our modern conception of race. At any rate, I think we're on the same page with this. Would you agree?

As for your second paragraph... is the hypothetical person a Christian or non-Christian? I well understand how natural man can show such an affinity and it be a more or less legitimate expression of group identity. The tension, in my view, is when we're not talking about "natural man" but recreated man, the new spiritual ethnicity of the church. How then does such an affinity, if "permissible," express itself within that new self-understanding, that new identity in Christ? There's where the tension is in my view and there's where I think great discernment is needed.

Certainly one can appreciate their cultural and ethnic heritage and not simultaneously hate others with differing backgrounds. I'd argue that they SHOULD do so. I don't think that ethnicity is an accident of the Fall. I think God has definite, predetermined purposes in creating the diversity of the world, including human diversity. His wisdom will be revealed in the unity He produces with that diversity (Eph. 3:10). But we have to be careful that our celebrations and acknowledgement of that good gift from God isn't in competition with our loyalty to and identity in Christ. This is why I think this problem is fundamentally an identity crisis, sometimes mingled with a kind of group idolatry. I don't think the project of developing a theological anthropology is sufficiently complete because it hasn't addressed, to my knowledge, these issues effectively.


Anonymous said...

As to your first paragraph, I get concerned with the use of the term "racism". I don't doubt you once thought yourself a racist at some point. But it is a loaded term that serves a much more socio-political agenda than it does actually rooting out any evil. The push of modern secular culture for an amalmagated population seems contrary to God's design. Yet, anyone who understands and deems a certain degree of ethnic or racial integrity acceptable is often labeled a "racist" even though there may be no negative connotations to their view at all towards others of differing backgrounds.

As to the last point, I heartily agree that people should embrace their ethnic identity as given by and through God to serve His greater plans and purposes. And in some sense, I believe we have to say it is our responsibility to preserve and honor this identity, seeing it is God's handiwork, wouldn't you agree? I would also contend this can and should be accomplished, keeping God's redemptive purposes in mind, and a demonstration that all men are created in His image and should be respected as such. Finally, I agree most people are in a form of identity crisis. People don't know where they came from, therefore they don't know where they should be going. They have no sense of identity with family, with history, or with their own culture and heritage. This has left a tragic vaccuum which is being filled with the evils of "multiculturalism".

I believe Booker T.Washington, the great black leader of the 19th century America, was close to understanding what we're saying now when in speaking to the relationship that should exist between black and whites said;

"In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

I believe the rebuilding of a Godly culture may very well begin here.

FellowElder said...

A couple of responses. I didn't once think of myself as a racist, I was an avowed and committed racist. It's something the Lord delivered me from at conversion, and it still assures me of His powerful grace in my life. When I said I was a racist, that wasn't a warped self-image, low self-esteem, or a hyper-sensitive conscience speaking. That was the voice of one who, by God's grace, has been shown something of the depravity of his mind and heart in this area and freed from it. So, I know my own (old) heart and I can sometimes spot birds of a feather.

Certainly "racism" is a loaded term, one that's been misused quite a bit. But, the pattern of intentional bias that it attempts to identify is real; it has a long history and we're still dealing with it. There's no rational way of denying or justifying that.

Earlier, I thought we were on the same page regarding basic definitions. Your last comment leaves me doubting that. I would not contend that an "amalgamated population," as you put it, is "contrary to God's design." Nor would I consider any idea called "racial or ethnic integrity" as anything other than the kind of ethnic idolatry (racism) that plagues too many churches.

I do not think we need to "preserve and honor (ethnic) identity" in any indiscriminate way, or in any way that dishonors the end for which such identity is created, to glorify God. And certainly racial segregation, alienation, and exclusion are effects of fallen sinful man; it's neither God's design nor is it for His glory. You must remember, God has made all men from the same blood (Acts 17:26) and in His image (Gen. 1:26, 27). "Racial and ethnic integrity" is incompatible, to my mind, with this clear biblical emphasis and teaching on human commonality, especially in the church (which is my concern with this series of posts).

Moreover, how do you reconcile preservation of "ethnic integrity" with a sentiment like "evils of 'multiculturalism'?" Doesn't such preservation necessitate some kind of multiculturalist perspective (which isn't necessarily a subjective, relativist perspective)?

I want to be clear. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition speech, is not speaking for me. And I think history has already proven that his accomodationist approach to racial social segregation is a failed hypothesis. It's part of the ideological justification that has led us to such miserable racial confusion and turmoil inside the church and in the larger society.

Rebuilding (perhaps building) a godly society, I suspect, will look absolutely nothing like Washington's idea if the future we're headed to is "one new man" (Eph. 2), one new nation, one priesthood of all nations, tongues, etc. There is no way to arrive at Jesus' vision of the church by assuming a segregationist starting point. And such a starting point betrays the Cross, the Lord, and all things godly.


Anonymous said...

I apologize for the misunderstanding about your past. I certainly don't know what it is. I was simply pointing out the overuse and misuse of a term like racism. And I would agree that a great deal of sin has been committed by men who are biased and show malice and hatred of their fellowman based solely on racial identity. And like any sin, it must be confessed and repented of.

You appear to want to read more into my words than is there. For example, you say;

"I do not think we need to "preserve and honor (ethnic) identity" in any indiscriminate way, or in any way that dishonors the end for which such identity is created, to glorify God."

I never suggested this was to be done indiscriminately, or in a way contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. Rather I suggest we must always be ready and willing to recognize God's purposes in all things.

How do you reconcile these two statements?

"I don't think that ethnicity is an accident of the Fall. I think God has definite, predetermined purposes in creating the diversity of the world, including human diversity."


"And certainly racial segregation, alienation, and exclusion are effects of fallen sinful man; it's neither God's design nor is it for His glory."

My question would be, if God has created ethnic diveristy do we not have a responsiblity to honor and preserve it as such? I agree it can be and is abused, but so are many other things He's given us. It is our responsiblity to proceed according to His dictates.

Finally you ask a great and important question;

"how do you reconcile preservation of "ethnic integrity" with a sentiment like "evils of 'multiculturalism'?" Doesn't such preservation necessitate some kind of multiculturalist perspective (which isn't necessarily a subjective, relativist perspective)?"

If modern secular society defined multicultrualism as it should be defined: "many cultures", you'd be right in suggesting my contention for ethinic and racial integrity seems very similar. Yet, today's liberal social climate defines multiculturalism just the opposite as it should be. They use it as a term of almagation and assimilation, not Godly diveristy.(They often manipulate terms in this manner to accomplish liberal ungodly ends)

Thank you for the edifying discourse. I'm looking forward to the remainder of your series.

FellowElder said...

I should have asked a clarifying question or two before responded to your comments with definitions I assumed. Some of your language and phraseology is quite similar to language and phraseology I've often heard from less charitable persons than yourself. So, in the same way you were concerned about the use of the term "racism," some of the phrases you used set of my alarms as well. Please accept my apologies for in any way misrepresenting you, and I'll endeavor to work harder at mutual understanding before responding in the future.

As for your question: "My question would be, if God has created ethnic diveristy do we not have a responsiblity to honor and preserve it as such? I agree it can be and is abused, but so are many other things He's given us. It is our responsiblity to proceed according to His dictates."

I don't understand the Bible anywhere to dictate that we preserve ethnic diversity, if by that you mean some form of social segregation or something like prohibition against inter-ethnic marriage. I think what the Bible tells us is that God himself is preserving the diversity He desires through His sovereign redemption of man from every category. Our "responsibility," I think, is to obey the gospel and thus enter into the diverse-yet-one family of God.

I honestly believe the Fall affects our thinking on this issue in ways we're not always cognizant of. That many people of all ethnic groups even suppose that ethnic alienation is "good" is evidence, imho, of fallen thinking.

I don't think there's any contradiction between saying ethnicity or diversity in humanity is a good part of God's creation, on the one hand, and that human alienation based on ethnic distinctions is an effect of the Fall on the other. That alienation stems from the Fall is apparent in Gen. 3 and following, in the fig leaves of our first parents, in the fratricide of Cain, in Cain's subsequent fear of being murdered as a wanderer.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to criticize you, but I want to point out that everyone, including you and I, bring preconcieved notions to a discussion such as this that influence our immediate response to what we're reading. And emotions often run high. I have dealt with with issue a great deal and can appreciate your thoughtful approach. But I fear your assessment of my views are being influenced by previous experiences you've had with others. Please correct me if I'm wrong. I'm simply speculating by what you've already written.

In addition, as a whole, we are conditioned by modern society to respond a certain way to anyone who speaks positively about racial issues.

I don't believe the bible forbids inter-racial relationships. Usually, there are other cultural barriers that prevent effective relationships to develop across various ethnic and cultural lines. Birds of a feather flock together type stuff. People are natually drawn towards those who are like them. This may or may not be an affect of the Fall. For now, I don't believe it is. Many people though, have successfully crossed these lines and gone on to live fruitful lives.

Everyone believes this has to be a black and white issue, when very few issues are. They either say, you must have no racial intergration or there must be complete racial intergration despite any other considerations. What I'm suggesting is a sort of third option which allows for honest and lawful racial integrity (awareness) that respects respective heritage and cultrual issues that fall along racial lines. We don't have to be forced into an either/or situation.

Allow me to use myself as an example. It may help to explain the perspective from which I approach the matter. I am a man of Scot-Irish decent. I was born and raised in the southeren United States. I come from a long line of southeren men and women who trace their history back through the Revolutionary War. My entire cultural and ethnic make-up is comprised of Western European people. In addition I a Christian. I am Reformed. And I come from a long line of Christian men and women.

I don't see any conflict in preserving that which is good both in my familial and cultural heritage along side my Christian heritage. I hold no ill-will towards others who come from different parts of the world, who speak other languages, and who hold different things as valuable. I pray God blesses them and pours out His Spirit upon them. I strive to live at peace with all men.

Yet, I ask, where is the sin in holding dear to my heart, my heritage, my family, their history, and the history from whence I came? I don't hate anyone, but I do hold a special affinity for those who lived in such as way as to make me who I am today. I love all that is good that makes up the culture that bore me and shaped me. This is what I want to preserve through my children and my family. I want to pass down a Godly heritage, honoring those before me while looking forward to what God has in store, even unto a thousand generations.

FellowElder said...

Hi David,
I thank you for your thoughtful contribution as well. I may be projecting one experience onto you... that's my own. Much of what you've said so far re: "ethnic integrity" and the legitimacy of loving one's own, I've certainly said and defended before. I know my heart when I said such things, and perhaps that's what I'm hearing in your comments. I guess as a way of summarizing, here's my view:
1. All people are created in God's image.
2. Part of what that has to mean is that the human diversity we see is by design and not an after-thought in the mind of God.
3. Certainly eschatalogically, and I would pray increasingly in this life, the all-nations ethic and unity of the kingdom of God should be reflected in the worship of God's people and local church.
4. In my opinion, indifference to this vision of the church in this life is indifference to a central aspect of God's redemptive plan and the Savior's atonement for the elect.
5. Therefore, any perspective on culture that works against this vision is opposition to God's work.

This leaves wide room for what you're calling "ethnic integrity" or "honoring our culture, heritage, etc.". But it also calls us to be extremely careful that those efforts are carried out in the light of the Cross and that our hearts are evaluated by God's Word.


Anonymous said...

I think it is important to understand that in the consummated church, at the last day, the eschatological church is comprised of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. This presupposes some degree of tribal/ethnic diversity will have been maintained. How else could the former be true?

In response to your numbers:

1) Yes they are, and as image bearers of God they should be respected as such.

2)The diversity of mankind is a reflection of the trinitarian God we serve. He sees no conflict with diversity within unity. For this is His nature. I believe what we need to do, is ask oursleves how do we preserve our God-given diversity, while honoring our unity? Our eartly distinctions don't have to disappear the moment we enter into the Kingdom.

3)Again this refers to the idea that all nations are being drawn to God, as nations. There is nothing implicit in this glorious fact that has to suggest this is best accomplished by destroying our God-given differences.

4)I heartily agree here. We need to be very cognizant of why we do everything we do. Our worship of God must be informed by who we are in Christ, as well as who we are in Christ on earth, among men. Our earthly relationships matter. In other words, who else is best equipped to serve my people for Christ besides me?

5) Again we can agree. Those that attempt to emphasize separation to such a degree that it unnecessarily divides the Body of Christ are no longer doing His work, and are engaged in accomplishing their own ends.

I pray God will grant His church more men like yourself with a desire to engage our culture both intelligently and biblically.