Pastor-theologians must educate their people about culture, for culture is in the full-time business of educating people and forming their humanity (culture cultivates!) Culture educates by programming certain types of behavior (e.g., consumerism) and by inculcating certain beliefs and values (e.g., patriotism). We can go further: Culture is in the full-time business of spiritual formation, cultivating humanity. Culture ultimately educates not minds but hearts. –Kevin J. Vanhoozer in The Pastor as Public Theologian
The professors at Lexington Theological Seminary would debate various premises as part of their weekly meeting. One continuing discussion centered around the church’s relationship with the larger culture, with “culture” being defined as the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize the society. “Could the culture be ‘Christian,’” they asked, “or was the church inevitably in conflict with culture?”
Some argued it is possible for the faith to so transform the society’s values and practices that it is de facto Christian even if many or even most of its citizens are not. Others argued that the church is always contesting with culture because the allegiances demanded by each are different—the first to God and the second to the culture itself.
As you might guess from the above quote, I would have sided with the latter group. If we take original sin seriously and culture is a product of sinful human beings, then it will never fully align with the kingdom of God until Christ’s return. That does not mean we should withdrawal from culture like the Amish. Nor does it mean that we should adopt the culture like those who assume the culture is always right and the church wrong. Instead, our first task is to be the church in society. We are to be the people of God who understand God’s plan of salvation and live as witnesses to it. We are to see the world through the lens of creation, redemption, and consummation and praise God for it. We are measure everything by its relationship to God’s plan for the world. Sometimes that may mean supporting the culture but most often it means standing on its fringes so we can critique it.
The challenge of being the church in society is that the culture is to us what water is to a fish. It is the water in which we swim, so to speak, and so we can easily become so immersed in it that we fail to see its toxicity. We find ourselves accepting certain premises or beliefs because “everyone” accepts them rather than the fact they comport with the Judeo-Christian tradition. We can find ourselves engaging in behaviors because they are socially acceptable or perfectly legal rather than consistent with the biblical faith handed down to us. That is not an endorsement of biblical legalism, but it is to say that God’s word and the example of those who have practiced it faithfully in the past ought to be the authority by which we measure and interact with culture. Without it, “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
On Sunday, we are going to linger a bit longer with the Apostle Paul, specifically his visit to Athens in Acts 17. What he saw there were culture idols not unlike our own. He can help us better understand the culture around us and how we, as Christians, are to respond to it.
I hope you will join us for worship and for the Thanksgiving Luncheon afterward. The meal will be provided, but we are asking everyone to bring canned goods or other food items for our ministry partner, CCSC.
► On a more personal note, I want to thank all who have prayed for and expressed your concern for our church and school staffs following the shooting earlier this week. Your love has been evident. I also want to say again how impressed I was by the way our staffs and volunteers ministered amid the chaos. They were calm and compassionate, attentive without hovering and clearly Spirit-led. Few will know all they did, but you should be very proud of them.