The Gospel & Culture

“…there are features of every culture which are not incompatible with the lordship of Christ, and which therefore need not be threatened or discarded but rather preserved and transformed. Messenger of the gospel need to develop  deep understanding of the local culture, and a genuine appreciation of it. Only then will they be able to perceive whether the resistance is to some unavoidable challenge of Jesus Christ or to some threat to the culture which, whether imaginary or real, is not necessary.” – The Lausanne Committe, The Willowbank Report

If you read my blog regularly, or talk to me about missions work and the apologetic behind it, you know that I often talk about it’s relationship with cultures. Specifically, I think it’s amazingly important to recognize two facts (that are hinted in the previous quote) regarding the Gospel’s interaction with any culture. The Gospel (not necessarily the people bringing the message, but the Gospel itself) will do two things:

  1. Affirm some things in that culture.
  2. Oppose and condemn other things in that culture.

The Gospel is a respecter of cultures, but not blindly. The Gospel may affirm our American ideal of charity, openness and honesty, but it opposes our desire for comfort, utter safety and self-sufficiency. Much ink has been spilled and electrons inconvenienced on the topic of missionaries historic insensitivity, utter disdain for and destruction of cultures – particularly those of peoples who were lower on whatever socio-political structure the current empire was enforcing; but they were overwhelmingly wrong and destroyed and distorted cultures that many would say echoed the creativity of their mutual Creator.

My thoughts on the whole Koran-burning thing.

Very few of you will be surprised to learn that I’m opposed to it.

So, the rundown as I can gather at this point is that the Dove Outreach Center and it’s pastor Terry Jones were/are planning a Koran burning tomorrow to “celebrate” 9/11 and to take a stand against radical Islam.

I can come up with a few reasons why this is a bad idea:

  1. It really does put people at risk. From the men and women in the armed services overseas to missionaries that are serving in Muslim-majority countries. It places them in harms way for what amounts to a publicity stunt.
  2. It does not forward the Gospel. One of the purposes of any Christian church is to bring people to a point of considering the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This stunt does the opposite. Muslims who are considering their beliefs about Jesus will likely be pushed away and it fuels only more animosity toward the fail within most of the general populace that we’re trying to reach. The only people that you might please are already Christians (or at least call themselves one) – and that is grossly self-serving.
  3. I don’t quote Rick Warren much, but his quote on today’s topic is good, “Book burning is a cowardly act by those afraid their beliefs aren’t strong enough to attract if people are allowed a choice.” It communicates that Christianity fears other religions’ beliefs – that they might be so right that believers will be convinced away from the Gospel they have been saved through.
  4. [EDIT: Added at 11:18 AM] The church previously partnered with Westboro Baptist Church and agrees with them, it seems, on how to “preach the truth of the Bible.” Westboro does not preach the truth of the Bible. They are a non-Christian cult who misrepresent God and the Gospel of grace.

My last reason is communicated in a Photoshopped image that a friend of mine made:

Ironic picture of Terry Jones and a Bible misquote.

image by John Biddle

That and how dare anyone profane the name of Terry Jones?!

Christianity and (Organized) Teetotaling

About a month ago I visited a message board that I used to post on all the time, it’s mostly frequented by members of my home town’s hardcore and punk community. The conversation swirls predictably around politics, bands, tattoos, show reviews and reminiscing about the mid-90s (my personal favorite topic). Someone posted something regarding the straight edge movement that caught my eye, the poster claimed that it:

[borrows its] ascetic ideology unwittingly from the teachings of early Christianity (asceticism, refraining from worldly activities like drugs and alcohol, the imagery of remaining “pure”, etc.)

I had two reactions, the first being reminded of my high school days when I did claim to be straight edge (lifestyle that strictly abstains from drugs, tobacco, and alcohol – and often other substances such as caffeine)  and I specifically claimed it in relation to my faith. Secondly, I was struck by how mistaken he was about not only straight edge’s roots, but the teachings of early Christianity. I immediately was drawn to Colossians 2:16, 20-23:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Paul’s teaching in here seems to directly oppose ascetic abstinence based on rules applied externally by a teacher, a philosophy or a rule laid down by a group. The New Testament’s teaching seems to be fully on the side of liberty in these areas – with caveats.

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…

It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Rom 14:3-4, 13-17, 21-23

This chapter is one of my favorites because it covers the idea of abstinence from every angle. It speaks to those who feel free to try things, it speaks to those who feel constrained by God to abstain, it speaks even to those who are unsure and those who have a tendency to be enslaved.

How would I boil the passage down? If you feel liberty before the Lord to partake in an activity that is legal, that is consistent with the rest of your life, that is not likely to make someone else confused or be tempted into sin, and not otherwise prohibited by the Scriptures – do it with faith and thanksgiving to God. If you are unsure or convicted that you should not – abstain in faith and thanksgiving to God without judgment on the one who would choose to partake.

Ultimately, there are three Gospel-motivations ties in here: faith, love and liberty. The prime motivation has to be faith – do you trust the Holy Spirit to convict you of what is right and what is wrong and are you actively listening for His voice? Secondly, are you sure that you are caring for the people and community around you and making sure not to trip up those who are unsure about this particular activity? And lastly, are you living your life out of the liberty that the Resurrection of  Christ affords us?

God has called us away from simplistic sets of rules and ascetic methods to ensure our faithfulness and obedience to Him – “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” In Christ we must live in moment-by-moment interaction with the Holy Spirit so that if we are on the cusp of sin we are able to hear His voice and turn from it, but secure that if He does not “check” us that we live in liberty and freedom.

“do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil…”

It is important to point out that the New Testament does call believers to live lives of self-control (2 Peter 1:5-8), free from drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18) and dissipation (Luke 21:34). Also, followers of Christ are called to be obedient to the restrictions and laws of the land that God has called or caused them to dwell in (Romans 13:1).