Friday, April 1, 2011

The Church and Culture (Part 1)

One of the great obstacles to the mission of the church is the church. The church can become so busy and preoccupied with herself that she sees her mission as an "add-on," an appendix to her ministry rather than central to her life and purpose. This is not a modern problem, but has been a struggle since the church's earliest days.
In the book of Acts, Jesus commissioned the church to be His witness in "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Yet, for the most part, the church stayed in a holy huddle in Jerusalem until God scattered the church through persecution (Acts 8:1-4).
Yet, even after this, in the "glory days" of the early church, there was still resistance to God's mission. We live nearly 20 centuries after the days of the early church. Since we already know the rest of the story, it is hard for us to imagine how precarious the early Christian movement actually was in the book of Acts. Yet, the early church nearly imploded over the issue of mission.
Paul was commissioned by Jesus Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles. No one was openly opposed to this. In fact, the early Jewish Christians were very open to reaching out to the great unwashed herd, as long as the Gentiles adopted Jewish cultural practices.
Therein lies the rub. Paul saw great success in his ministry to the Gentiles. However, when these Gentile Christians were converted, they remained Gentiles. They did not adopt Jewish cultural practices. They did not observe the Jewish holy days. They did not adopt Jewish dress. They did not observe the Jewish dietary laws and, worst of all, they did not get circumcised. This was scandalous to many back in Jerusalem. It caused such an uproar that Paul was recalled back to Jerusalem and the church had to convene its first council (Acts 15). Tensions were high at the Jerusalem Council. The mission of the church was hanging in the balance. On the one side where those who said that Gentiles could follow Jesus, as long as they became like the Jews. On the other side was Paul, who said that the Gentiles did not need to adopt Jewish customs, only the Christian faith. If, in the providence of God, Peter had not offered such a compelling speech, the mission of the church would have been lost and the early church would have blown apart. Of course, God did not allow that to happen, but the stakes were that high.
No doubt, the presence of Gentiles in the church made many of the Jewish believers uncomfortable. Can you imagine what it was like the first time someone brought pork to a covered dish dinner? How do you think the elderly Jewish man who from childhood had observed the law reacted when he had to sit next to a Gentile at church who did not even observe the Levitical law on cleanliness? It must have been scandalous to these early Christians. These unwashed Gentiles were coming in to THEIR church and doing all sorts of things that a good Jew would never do.
I wonder if they had battles about music. I do not know anything about 1st century music, but I am sure the musical forms of Greek and Roman culture were different from the musical forms of the Middle East. We do know that the Jews of that era (and the centuries before) objected strongly to the hellenization of their culture. Can you imagine how those early Jews felt when their beloved psalms were sung to hellenized music and even sung in Greek? Such a thing never would have happened in the synagogue.
This is a bit speculative. What is not speculative is that the early church struggled greatly with the issue of mission and adapting their ministry to reach a Gentile culture. Even the Apostle Peter, the same man who had a direct vision for God about the inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 10), and who gave such a stirring speech at the Jerusalem Council, had great difficulty not looking down his nose at the uncouth Gentiles. He wouldn't even sit at the same table as them until Paul rebuked him for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2).
The issue then, as it is now, is this: what is more important to the church--maintaining the cultural purity of the church which is so prized by its members, or the mission of the church? This is not an issue of theological or biblical compromise. The truth of Scripture must shape culture, not be shaped by it. The church must not allow the world to squeeze it into its mold (Romans 12:1-2). Yet, when the church clings to its culture over against its mission, it has become worldly. A neglect of mission is itself theological compromise. When the church insists that her beloved cultural forms, the ones not mandated by Scripture, are more important than the mission given to her by her Lord, then the church has lost her way.
In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul reminds us of the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. He writes, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor so that you through His poverty might become rich." Paul writes these words to inspire the early Christians to sacrifice for the sake of others. The same principle applies to the mission of the church. If Jesus was willing to give up His comfort in order to reach us, shouldn't we be willing to give up our personal preferences and cultural forms for the purpose of reaching others?

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