Caesar Salad: How can Christians negotiate the current cultural landscape?
December 4, 2012
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
<![CDATA[‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’ This is the famous pronouncement of the Master in response to a particularly intense period of Pharisaic grilling. But what precisely does it mean as Christians in America negotiate a cultural landscape that appears less friendly to traditional Christian values and the message of the gospel than in the recent past? The blogosphere is not short of answers, but I suggest that 1 John, in particular, provides a compelling look at the right way to respond. In the context in which John was writing, there was an incipient ‘Gnosticism’ that was advocating a toned down spirituality, denying that Jesus was the Christ in ‘flesh’, and therefore that it was possible to be spiritual without actual practical commitment to the local church or, indeed, without practising righteousness. In other words, in response to pressures from a pagan environment, the church was susceptible to a form of teaching that allowed it to live in a less combative fashion with its neighbours — understandable in its own right — but by means of denying core doctrines (‘Jesus is the Christ’) and core moral behaviour (‘practising righteousness’).
Four waysJohn’s response to this problem is illuminating in many ways, but let me outline just four. One, he responds with evident love. His tone is not shrill, far less aggressive, or militant: he is not a ‘shock jock’, ‘in your face’, ‘combative’, angry theologian or pastor. He calls them ‘beloved’ and ‘dear children’ over and over again. Two, he responds by going back to the ‘beginning’: what is it, he says in effect, that Jesus said about this? How would the Master respond? What did he say? He is emphatically not advocating some sort of ‘new theology’, but restating what Jesus said and applying it to a fresh situation. Three, he insists, albeit gently, but with absolute clarity, that the doctrine that Jesus is the Christ and the practice of love one another and righteousness are both non-negotiables. Four, with that ballast of a conviction in place, he then encourages the believers to stand firm and ‘Abide in him’. In other words, John is attempting to make sure that the church retains its identity, and that it does so by retaining its sense of unique message and distinct righteousness. He wants the church to retain its identity as a church on mission with a message that is life changing, culture altering, and for all nations. And he wants the church’s core identity also to be retained by an unwavering commitment to core practices of righteousness. If the world does not know us, remember, dear children, it is because it did not know him. John is not against missional attempts to engage culture: far from it, he wants them to keep on proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ. What he is against is a fortress mentality that no longer seeks to take the gospel to our neighbours, and a godless syncretism that reacts to pressures from outside by aping the moral lifestyle of paganism.
Changing churchThere are many things about church ‘culture’ that must change as the ‘culture’ around it changes. Unnecessary stumbling blocks, cultural ‘tics’ that display a lack of familiarity with the concerns of the host culture for the missional church. Much work still needs to be done in this area, as this is an ongoing challenge for anyone seeking to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. Nonetheless, John in his letter is taking the matter of contextualisation to a changing culture from another angle, and one which is equally important and less commonly articulated today. That is, when it comes to central doctrine and clear matters of practical righteousness, the church must not contextualise. If it does, it has nothing unique to offer or bring to the table. It must in these ways be a ‘counter-culture’. And in these ways for the church to change the world, the church must not be changed by the world. Still, tough as this balance is to achieve, all of us should be encouraged: historically, the church tends to thrive when it wakes up and realises again that there is a clear spiritual battle in front of it. And if you want to dig deeper into theological reflection on the matter, you could do worse than dusting off that weighty tome, Augustine’s The City of God. ************** The above article was written for Evangelicals Now and published in their news publication for December 2012.]]>
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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