Monday, August 22, 2011

Are Christians Called to Culture War?

'P1100971' photo (c) 2010, Charlotte Cooper - license:

Two years ago I wrote a few posts in which I engaged with Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. I never addressed one of the undercurrents of the book, but today I'm going to do so because it popped up again in a recent blog post about male and female roles, Taking Dominion. Taking Dominion is on the blog of Justin Taylor, but it is a guest post by Robert Sagers and is an interview of Mark Chanski.

What's the undercurrent Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Taking Dominion have in common? Christians are to be counter cultural.

In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Duncan and Stinson say, "The church has been called to counter and bless the culture" (xi). In Taking Dominion, Chanski said, "[The church should be] unapologetically countercultural in our teaching of the Scriptures." Both of these quotes are justifying a heated opposition to feminism, something that I find bewildering. Sure, feminists are wrong about some things. But feminists are also right about a lot of things. So why do we throw the baby out with the bath water? Because we are gridlocked in a stubborn culture war.

Above and beyond the feminism debate, I want to address the issue of being "called" to be counter cultural. Opposing “the culture of the day” is often something I have heard we should do as Christians. So, let’s examine what that means.

First, a few things don't sit well with me:

1) Both of the above quotes seem to indicate a lack of understanding regarding the fact that we live among dozens of cultures as Americans. Shall we simultaneously be counter cultural to each separate culture? That’s quite difficult since they are often opposed to one another.

2) It is implied that Christians should be counter cultural regardless of what values are upheld by the culture. But acting in that way only encourages pride, stunts the growth of the Church, and ignores the Spirit of God at work among all peoples. In fact, the Church can learn a lot from nonChristians, and if nonChristians agree en masse about something, that's called culture. And sometimes nonChristian culture is right. Many cultures without the influence of the Church, for instance, are right about the importance of respect for their elders. Other cultures are right about personal liberty in the face of oppression. So to be blindly counter cultural ignores the image of God emblazoned on each and every culture. Somewhere in each culture, He's there. We must learn to recognize those aspects, learn from them, and use them as inroads for the Gospel.

3) Perhaps more embedded in the counter cultural stance of the Church is the message that you nonChristians, not us Christians, are full of worldly culture. A false dichotomy is established: You need redeeming while we are agents of redemption. The implication is that either a) the Church is cultureless or b) the Church has its own holy culture, and c) the Church is susceptible to the disease of contemporary culture and must always fight it.

And that is a major problem.

A) It is not true that the Church is cultureless. Culture is everywhere, even in God’s established Church. When tutoring some middle school students years ago, they asked me to define the word culture. The best thing I could come up with on the spot was the explanation that culture is those things in your life that seem normal to your family or friends but abnormal to other people. That definitely isn’t the most sophisticated definition of culture, but I think it is helpful. The Church is full of behaviors and values that are abnormal to people outside (and often inside) our community. To say that any group of human beings can be cultureless is to be ignorant of what culture is.

B) In addition, it is impossible for the Church to be culturally holy. My argument for this is not theological as much as it is practical. The global Church is multicultural, and many of the cultures among our own brothers and sisters are contradictory to one another. Cultures within the American church alone oppose one another. On a global scale, the differences among cultures of the Church are overwhelming. So which one is right? American middle-class Southern Baptist culture? New England upper-class Presbyterian (PCA) culture? Kenyan poverty-escaping Pentecostal culture? Chinese house-church culture? They certainly don’t all agree.

C) I wholeheartedly agree that the Church is susceptible to the influence of worldly culture. But I disagree just as wholeheartedly that worldly culture is “out there” and is advancing into the Church unless we fight it. Because neither A nor B is true, it holds that the Church is culturally imperfect just as the world is. So the problem with our view of the disease of culture is not that it exists, but where it exists. The Church should be made up of people who point to themselves and say, "Me. It's me. I am the problem with the world." When Christians, as His representatives on Earth, fail to recognize the sin in our own hearts, even the cultural sin, we mar His image and bring ill repute to His name. Yes, there is sin in the world that we should fight. But we must always look to find the sin in ourselves first. When pastors, authors, and teachers encourage us to counter contemporary culture without regard for the broken cultures within the Church, we look like a bunch of finger-pointing hypocrites.

 I agree completely that the Church should be outside of culture, and even counter to it at times. But being counter cultural should not be the aim of Christians and Christian teaching. We should be advancing God’s redemption first into our own hearts and then into the heart of each and every culture on the globe. But God’s redemption certainly doesn’t look like the exact opposite of whatever culture you are in. To be blindly counter cultural regardless of the context is to make an idol of culture by shaping the Gospel around it instead of shaping our cultures around the Gospel.

Instead of simply being countercultural, let’s counter the fallen and broken aspects of all cultures, even Church cultures. But while we do so, let’s honor and build upon the redemptive glimpses of God that we find.

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