Monday, January 08, 2007

Church and Culture, 4

So far, in post one we've laid out experiential, theological and pastoral reason for thinking about the question “What relationship is the church to have to culture?”

In post two, we attempted a definition and exposition of "human culture." That definition read: "The human production of ways of living and belief, generally intended by its adherents as an expression of the good or excellent life, passed on to other members of a significantly-sized common group." With this definition we were after the man-centered, speculative nature of human culture.

In the third post, we argued that there were really only two cultures: the culture of man and the culture of God. We defined the "culture of God" as: "The God defined ways of living and belief, which authoritatively defines the good or excellent life, entered into not by natural means such as generational transmission, but through a supernatural act of adoption carried out by God himself." We argued that the two-culture framework can be seen throughout Scripture beginning with the primeval history of Genesis 1-11. And we suggested at least four implications of this framework for church praxis.

The definition we've proposed for the "culture of God" is obviously supernatural in origin and character. Here's where the term "culture" is a difficult label, infused as it is with so many man-centered notions. But if we hold to the God-centered, supernatural character of God's culture for the people of God, I think it pinches our thinking in at least three ways.

First of all, we must maintain that those who really and truly participate in the culture do so by a supernatural act of God. In other words, only the regenerate may live the culture that God determines in any true sense and with any eternal benefit.

I gather this from the Bible's teaching from beginning to end. But a few representative passages or themes:
  • Participation in the life of God, in the kingdom and family of God, is not acquired through human will or natural birth (John 1:13; 3:3-8,).
  • Even some who appear to be in the people of God may not be. We're told quite clearly that not all Israel are indeed Israel, not all are children because they are the seed of Abraham, the children of the flesh are not the children of God (Rom. 9:6-8). It is possible to know all the advantages of life in the society of God's people, and not truly possess them (Rom. 9:3-8).
  • The discontinuity and superiority of the New Covenant, and entrance into that covenant by an inward circumcision through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:28-29), requires that the propagation of the culture be supernatural and not merely through natural transmission from one generation to the next.
In plain English: since man doesn't enter the new life and culture of God naturally, and since national or ethnic identity doesn't guarantee participation in the new life and culture of God, but only a supernatural act of God in the conversion and redemption of sinners does, we can and should not think that the culture of God will be developed, strengthened or transmitted the way a natural culture is. Since the unregenerate do not please God because of their lack of faith (Heb. 11:6), and the natural mind is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:6-8) and unable to receive the things of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:11-14), the advancement of the culture of God will come at the hand of the spiritually-minded, the people of faith, those whose minds and affections are set on the things of God.

This isn't to say that others are not in many ways blessed through the culture of the redeemed people of God. God's people are salt and light; they illumine and season the people and circumstances around them. The Lord exercises a restraining and a reforming influence through His people and their involvement with the world. However, constructing a "godly culture" may only be completed by the godly in fellowship with the godly, that is, by the redeemed and regenerate church.

Okay... the second pinch in our thinking caused by our definition of God's culture. If I didn't lose a lot of good friends with the first 'pinch,' I think I may here.

Since God's culture isn't created or replicated by natural means... and since man's culture is, in the end, opposed to the things of God... I don't think it's a legitimate aim of the people of God (church qua church) to preserve the culture of man. Setting aside for a moment the cultural trappings that are indifferent, those remaining aspects of man's culture meant to convey some meaning, aesthetic, ethics, etc. that do not have God as their aim, particularly the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ, must not be alloyed together with the aesthetics, ethics, meanings, purposes of God in, for, and through His people. And where we can identify some ethnic heritage that does glorify God (say... a Scottish Reformer whose writings are edifying), they must be held up not primarily or even secondarily as "Scottish" but as a gift to all of Christ's people, as a Christ-ian, from the race of Christ.

Said more plainly: the church isn't the place we go to preserve ethnic heritage. God is doing that in some meaningful fashion even as He saves men from every nation. But nowhere in Scripture are we told it's the church's responsibility to serve as custodian and protector of natural custom, tradition, and culture. It would be better for entire ethnic cultural traditions to perish and everyone from those cultures be saved... than for churches to focus on the integration or preservation of human cultural traditions and occlude the soul-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps that choice of options sounds like a straw man to some. Let me know if you think so. But when I count the number of African-Americans I've seen (just the ones I've seen) avoid or leave solid, Gospel-preaching, predominantly White churches for profoundly weaker, Gospel-denying Black churches because they didn't "fit in" culturally, or the number of Whites who are unwilling to join solid, Gospel-preaching, predominantly African-American churches because of the cultural differences... this straw man acquires marrow, bone, flesh and muscle in my mind. We're burying the Gospel from the lost in pits marked culture, ethnicity, and tradition. We're making the Word of God of no effect through the traditions of men.

The church, in its expression of human culture (again... not matters indifferent, but matters touching upon meaningful aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, etc), must be as mere as possible. She must not assume any cultural tradition to be "neutral." No manmade culture is neutral in its disposition toward God or toward other cultural traditions. If the culture that God creates is supernatural in its origin and character, we need to steadily pour that culture into the church while draining the manmade ways of life we assume to be so valuable and helpful. Better that we burn up man's culture like so much wood, hay and stubble... and commit ourselves to refining the silver and gold of the life and ways of Jesus Christ.

A third and final pinch. Self-love is almost always idolatrous. What's there to love? We were like the people of Noah's day: "every thought and inclination of our hearts was only evil all the time". We were the unlovely, individually and culturally ("all people had corrupted their way on the earth," Gen. 6:12).

Apart from the grace of God that saves men, we would be utterly ruined. That grace comes to men of all ethnos, and it makes of them one new man. Given that there's nothing for us to boast in in our flesh, and that the grace of God makes the redeemed one new humanity... there can be no legitimate preferential treatment or preferences for ones own ethnic group. Such preferences may be natural... but that's just another way of saying "fallen" or "carnal." There is no legitimate reason, positive or negative, for me to love the people of God less aggressively or committedly as I do "my kinsmen according to the flesh." None. To do so is to break the commandment of our Lord (John 13:34-35; Eph. 4:1-6).

The first order of business in addressing the question of how the church relates to the culture is to reject inordinate affection for the culture and adopt an anthropology that centers our affections first on Christ, then on His "race."


Anonymous said...


Amen, brother.

I'm not surprised 0 comments, but you hit the nail on the head.


Anonymous said...

Thanks your posts. I say amen, amen and amen!