Culture as ‘high culture.’ So, then, going to the theater is more ‘cultured’ than going to the movies; art galleries more cultured than comic strips; etc. Whether any of those sorts of distinctions are really objective in their value judgments is another whole discussion, and one that we need not get sidetracked into at this point.
Culture as ‘our culture.’ So by the word ‘culture’ is then meant the particular set of circumstances, values, history, assumptions that go up to making the social environment in which we happen to live – locally, nationally. Sometimes there are particular subsets that are not geographically defined. You can have a culture that is global but defined by socio-economic brackets.
Culture as ‘culture wars.’ This is a specifically American-derived definition that relates to a battle between those who are more conservative morally, religiously, and those who are more progressive.
Of these three things, the one I am going to focus on is #2. That does not mean that it will not impinge on other discussion related to #1 or #3, but that the focal point – I think the critical focal point – is that of #2. Hence the title of this piece: “Calling Our Culture to God.”
Within this topic, I believe there are three significant models that we need to consider. I am not intending to answer long academic questions about how exactly Christ and culture interrelate, nor am I intending to answer all the difficult problems that vex contemporary Christians immersed in contemporary culture. Instead, I am intending to provide us with three models, which give us questions that we can ask about any particular matter, and that will help us arrive at the right answer. In a sense, this is a Socratic method paper: I want to ask the right question, and then let the right answers emerge from that. So then, three models regarding calling our culture to God: first, a question; second, a spectrum; third, a vision.
- A Question: Are We in Acts 4 or Romans 13?
I have long been fascinated by the different response of Christians in the New Testament to secular authorities. It seems to me that there are two models presented, and that behind the two models there is an important question then left for us to ask. Are we in an Acts 4 kind of situation, or are we in a Romans 13 kind of situation? You will remember that in Acts the early disciples are hauled before the authorities and told to no longer speak or teach in the name of Christ. Their response is unequivocal: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right for us to obey man rather than God, for we cannot help but speak about the things we have seen and heard.” In other words, they blow a well measured theological raspberry at the authorities of their day in Jerusalem, and carry on preaching anyway.
But there is another model in the New Testament, and that is what I call the Romans 13 model. There, you will remember, Paul tells the Roman Christians to submit to their authorities, to pay taxes, and generally to be good citizens. This is all the more remarkable because it is quite likely that the particular authority he is requesting the Roman Christians to submit to is none other than Emperor Nero. Granted, it is possible this was written during what historians (somewhat dubiously) call ‘his good years’, that is at the start of his reign. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that Paul told the early Christians at Rome to submit to Nero. This was no democratic regime. This was a dictatorship, and became one of the most notoriously evil dictatorship known to human history.
So my question in recent days has become: Are we in an Acts 4 situation or a Romans 13 situation? The reason why I think it is critically important that we ask and answer that question accurately is because of the witness of history. During the early days of the Nazi regime, the church under its oppressive domination did not always respond with the civil disobedience that we would have wished it did. Later Bonhoeffer became justly famous for his participation in, as an ordained cleric, an attempt to assassinate Hitler. In other words, it is clearly not easy
to discern whether we are in an Acts 4 or Romans 13 situation.
At one level, we may ask, “Are we being told to stop preaching Christ crucified and risen?” If we are, then we are clearly in an Acts 4 situation. We keep on preaching anyway. If we are not, though, it does not necessarily follow that we are in a Romans 13 situation. It is important to remember that Paul had managed to forge a relationship with the Roman authorities at the time through Gallio’s intervention in Corinth (recorded in Acts 18) – Gallio whose brother was Seneca, who was for a while tutor to Nero (during his so-called good years). At this point it is possible that Roman authorities viewed the early Christian movement as a legitimate expression of ancient religion and effectively was protecting it against persecution. Later, all that would change. Plus, if we could be a fly on the wall during the discussions that must have taken place during the Nazi regime in many a Christian household, we would have heard discussion about whether or not they should publicly oppose the Nazis, given that for a while, in some shape or form, they were still allowed to function as a church.
Discernment on such matters, early discernment at a time when slighter touch on the rudder can still make a difference, is no easy matter, and will come after counsel (with many advisers there is wisdom), prayer, searching of the Scriptures, and dependence on the Spirit. I do not here present the answer. I do believe that the right question to ask is: Are we in an Acts 4 situation or a Romans 13 situation? If it is the former, we enact disobedience to the authorities and preach the gospel in word and live it out in deed. If it is the latter, we pray for those in authority (as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 2), keep on preaching, and behave as good citizens grateful that the gospel is allowed to be preached.
- A Spectrum: Salt and Light
Jesus’ famous advice in Mathew 5:13-16 is that his followers are to be salt and light. Coming in context as a result of the experience of the beatitudes that Jesus has just pronounced, it seems to me that this salt and light description expositionally means the following. Jesus is saying that we are to be the salt of the earth, meaning that we are to be the moral preservatives of the globe, and that we are to be the light of the world, meaning that we are to the spiritual illuminators of the globe. In other words, Christians have the dual function of being moral preservatives and spiritual illuminators. It comes with the nature of being a real, born again, regenerate, beatitude blessed, follower of Jesus. “You are,” Jesus says – this is something about who we are as followers of Jesus. Because the world is sinful, it is constantly tending towards moral decay. Salt at the time was primarily used as a preservative, to stop meat going bad. By telling his disciples that they were the salt of the earth, Jesus is saying that part of the role of being a Christian is to act as a moral preservative. Christians are to have the kind of influence in society that delay its moral decay. They are global moral preservatives. Christians also, though, are spiritual illuminators, the light of the world. They are not only preventing society going bad by their moral influence, they are also pointing people to Jesus by shining his light. That light shining includes deeds (which Jesus specifically mentions in the context), but ‘deeds’ include more than merely ‘actions’ but also the speech-act of the whole of a Christian life. We are talking about verbal witness accompanied by appropriate Christian lifestyle and advocacy for mercy ministries all wrapped into what a Christian is as someone who shines their light so people glorify God as they see Jesus’ work in that person and understand the source of that work being the power of the good news proclaimed.
Now, it seems to me that we are all called to be both salt and light, but that in the spectrum of Christian appropriate calling and gifting, some of us and some ministries will be more ‘salty’ and others more ‘light.’ Given the prominence of particular cultural issues, there will be occasions when Christians will sense a calling towards prophetic, ‘salty’ engagement, urging moral reform and the like. At the same time, within the spectrum of Christian engagement with the world, there will be others who will be more likely to have a more specific, or more emphasized, light kind of ministry, and instead of emphasizing prophetic calls to the culture to be more moral, will reach out to those who are less moral and seek to win them for Christ. They will be more likely to model Jesus’ pattern of eating with sinners and befriending them, than of Jesus’ pattern of calling down judgment on Chorazin and Bethsaida. All Christians have an intrinsic function of being salt and light, as little Christs in their own representative role to the world, but no individual Christian or individual ministry fully represents the totality of that witness, and so it is likely, acceptable, and indeed in all likelihood a good thing that certain ministries will emphasize different points on the spectrum of being salt and light.
So we have a question, Acts 4 or Romans 13, that we can use as an evaluation. We have a spectrum, salt and light, that we can likewise use as a model to guide as to our particular role with relation to any issue.
- A Vision: The City of God
It is critically important that we bring to bear on this issue of responding to culture a good ecclesiology. The city of God is a frequently used metaphor in the Bible for God’s people, the church. How does the church relate to all of this? My thinking around this gestated and got shaped eventually by thinking more and more about the church in Augustine’s time and the context of his writing of his famous tome The City of God
. This book was being written as Rome – what the secularists at the time called ‘the eternal city’ – had undergone its first of several sackings, and it was becoming evident that the world as they knew it was falling apart, at worst, or at best radically changing. In this context, Augustine advanced a nuanced, complicated vision which had (I think) an essential point and repercussion which was massively successful – for a while. I first read The City of God
when I was 20 with my supervisor, a professor at King’s College Cambridge, and I’ve loved the book ever since. Recently I delved back into later antiquity and then European history so combined with that I could get a sense of what happened to Augustine’s vision.
My sense of this, and how it relates to this discussion, is roughly speaking (and highly simplified and summarized) the following. It seems to me that, along with innumerable other theological discussions in Augustine’s The City of God
, he was basically calling the church to realize that it had a responsibility now to be the city. There’s another more popular-level book written about how the Irish saved civilization. That book tells the true story of how the Irish monastic movement, pre-Roman Catholic High Middle Ages, maintained study, manuscripts, and the like so that when civilization reemerged after the barbarian destructions of Rome, there was an intellectual resource for rebuilding civilization. I think at the heart of Augustine’s The City of God
is a call to the church to be the city — to realize that with the chaos coming along, the church needed to be the place where there was an eternal city, and that it could function as a place of learning culture engagement and all the rest.
As far as I can tell, for many years the church took that task on and basically succeeded. It then began to decay and, indeed, kill various reformers who attempted to challenge its decadence, drunk on its own power and wealth. Until the classic moment when Erasmus visited Rome and was told by the pope at the time, “See, Peter can no longer say ‘silver and gold have I none,'” and Erasmus replied, “Neither can he say ‘pick up your mat and walk.'” It had gotten depowered spiritually. Along came the Reformation. And you know the rest of the story.
My point is that the city of God, the church, is God’s best home for revival, renewal, evangelism. We need to think of investing in the city as investing in the church.
At the same time, we also need to realize there is (what a Presbyterian pastor friend once told me) a ‘spirituality’ of the church. That is the church, when it gathers, has a particular purpose, a unique opportunity to do a unique thing. Nothing else can do what the church does when it gathers. It is essential that the church guards this purpose of what we at College Church call “proclaiming the gospel.” This is the spirituality of the local church. At the same time, the church also scatters to witness, work, and engage at business, in government and in university. What happens when we gather equips us for that engagement. So we do not need to, nor should we, engage in direct political party involvement when we gather. What we do is we equip each other through the proclamation of the Word so that we are refreshed, empowered, have our minds shaped more into the mind of Christ, so that we are enabled then to go and be salt and light, figure out when we are in an Acts 4 mode and when in a Romans 13 mode, and do that as the city of God, the church, as it scatters, with our various callings, ministries, involvements.
So, again, what I am trying to do is to provide us with a historically rooted, biblical driven, set of three models, a triad, Trinitarian if you like, framework for evaluating different matters. I am not trying to give us the answer to everything. In my view, it is dangerous when pastors pontificate on matters that frankly are beyond their calling. My job is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. In this way, at this time, I think I have seen from Scripture these three tools. Perhaps that is a better word than models — tools. I say they are historically rooted, because history gives us a chance to see how particular ideas work out in similar situations. What I think I can see is that the city of God vision calls us as individuals, in this generation, to re-invest in the local church, for the vision of the city of God, eternal, invisible, universal, and local, to have a gospel impact on salvation, in ‘light’ witness as well as through ‘salty’ kind of witness, too. I think that vision helps call this generation to realize that their good ambition to see social justice like-initiatives can be matched with a vision of the city of God and the local church. I also think I see a key question related to whether we are in an Acts 4 or Romans 13 kind of situation. And I think the salt-light spectrum allows us to affirm different kinds of ministries without inappropriately judging or excluding those who believe the same things about particular moral matters but may have slightly different callings to engage in slightly different ways.
These models, these tools, have been helpful for me as I have thought through a renewed sense of vision for the church, and as I have thought through the way to respond to different cultural issues presented to me, and my own particular role within the various matters that are current right now. I hope they will be helpful to you, too.
by Josh Moody