Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Cultural pendulum of purity

It's easy to adopt a revisionist view of missions history, believing our missionary forefathers stumbled through foreign lands with British blinkers on, blind to cultural sensitivities which have only been discovered by us in this global generation.

This assumption is arrogant and wrong. From the very beginning of the spread of the early church we find Paul relating the gospel first to Jews in the synagogue with a narrative they understood, then to to the Gentiles, adapting his story to point to the same Jesus. His Athenian preaching is well noted as a masterpiece of bridge building cultural awareness.

Later, some of the early church Fathers used the philosophical worldview of their day as a launch pad to communicate the gospel. Origen's strategy was simple. In his own words, he used philosophy 'in the same way the Egyptians were plundered by the people of Israel.' Their wilderness tabernacle was built by instructions given by God to Moses, but it was constructed with materials and treasures taken from a pagan society, redeemed to enable worship of God.

The danger was the same in Origen's day of carelessly swallowing all other aspects of culture, unthinkingly incorporating them into the thought and practise of the Christian life. 'There are those who from their Greek studies produce heretical ideas and set them up like the Golden Calf in Bethel.' In other words, these golden riches and ideas also came out of Egypt with God's people. Some things were right to assimilate into worship - other things most certainly were not!

Perhaps because of this danger with discernment, contemporaries of Origen like Tertullian advocated the opposite view. It was surely better as a Christian to withdraw from Greco-Roman life than to try to mix but become tainted by paganism?

All this is ancient history, but it is startlingly relevant in our generation. It is also helpful for us to recognise that we are in no way the first to face these cultural thought dilemmas. Each successive generation has swung like a pendulum, reacting to the excesses of the age before - over engagement with culture leading to unthinking excess and compromise - then reactive withdrawal, culminating in purity but also stagnation.

In 'Post Christian' Europe, the pendulum is rightly swinging away from rhe withdrawal and isolation of a pious but dead religious church, to an engagement phase that seeks to reach the unchurched and the un-boundaried with the same old message of the gospel. Only time will tell whether our rush for relevance and connectivity is fruitful missionally without compromising purity.

(This post is the 2nd on culture, following a post on 25 Oct 2012)

1 comment:

  1. Great article, food for thought! I think your motif of "plundering Egypt" is powerful for two reasons. Firstly, Israel were given great freedom in plundering. There are pointers towards the true purpose of this in Revelation 21:24 "...the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into [the New Jerusalem]." I think this shows that not only can we be redemptive, but we are expected to be redemptive for God's glory. The harvest of God's Kingdom is not just souls saved but also all the fruits of righteousness that have filled the Earth through God’s blessings, particularly through Christ and the Kingdom of God. His blessings have increasingly affected people and as a result even secular culture is full of his glory, in the same way that Egypt was full of gold. I think a failure to claim these things for God's glory is an abdication of the Church's duty and allows God’s enemies to wrongly claim the treasures of Christ as their own. The flourishing of righteousness as a fruit of the Kingdom enables us to be more optimistic than Tertullian or Origen were about the purpose and priority of a redemptive approach.
    I think the second thing is that the building of the golden calf was an obvious, avoidable, rebellious act of idolatry. God, and Moses, expected the people to have known better and they held them accountable for their actions. There is a parallel in 1 Corinthians 10 of Paul calling for this discernment from one of his church plants. I think that if we have clarity in defining the Gospel and its purpose, as in the Early Church, then discernment is easy and relevance and connectivity should be fruitful rather than dangerous. I think where the Church has fallen short of this in the past is in its understanding of the purpose of the gospel. If it is just to save people from judgement then whatever gets people to make a decision for Christ is legitimate. If however the purpose of the gospel is not only salvation eternally but “to call people… to the obedience that comes from faith” (Roman 1:5) then our approach has to uphold that obedience, the holiness and righteousness of God’s covenant people. Additionally, just as righteousness has flourished in the world since Christ, so also has wickedness. With these things in mind I think what is redeemable about our culture is probably more restricted than some would like to suggest.

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