Posts Tagged With: culture

Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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1 Peter 3: False Expectations Produce Disillusionment

It is interesting that no New Testament writer nor Jesus ever talked about living life in a predominantly Christian culture.  Maybe that was because the Romans were so powerful, so dominating that they could not imagine life beyond the Roman Empire (can those of us who live in America imagine a post-American world?).  Or maybe this was a realization on their part that true Christianity will never be the dominant culture of a whole community.  Christianity has always been and is intended to be a “contrast community” to whatever is the prevailing way of life.  But what about medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was essentially the government?  What about John Calvin’s Geneva during the Renaissance period?  What about 1950s America?  Weren’t these Christian cultures?  I would still argue that you had enough humanity mixed in with the divinity that what existed was not completely what God intended.  The medieval Catholic Church spawned the Crusades.  The Calvinists marginalized non-Calvinists.  The 1950s in America were a low point for race relations, even between Christians.

Were we really expecting that the way of Christ would be the norm?  Christ himself was not accepted by the majority of people he encountered.   Nonetheless, yes, I think part of the problem with suffering that comes from persecution is that we have been expecting Christianity to be the norm.  We had convinced ourselves that our culture (I am especially thinking about western countries) was predominantly Christian in the past and this is the way it still should be.  Of course, we were forgetting that American Christianity was heavily influenced by the hate of the 50s, the revolt against authority and the glorification of individual in the 60s, the lifestyle experimentation and redefinition of the 70s, the greed of the 80s, the rootless angst of the 90s, the exploitation and celebrity idolatry of the 2000s, and now the fear of outsiders in the 2010s.  We pine away for the better days of yesteryear, but the reality of those days do not actually measure up to our memories.

Peter gives different instructions for what to expect from society, instructions that presuppose a different way of seeing reality, instructions that would be good to remember today in a world that is increasingly more hostile to institutional Christianity and the way God has called His people to live in this world.

Sanctify the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to make a reply to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.  Do it, though, with gentleness and respect.  Hold on to a good conscience, so that when people revile your good behavior in the Messiah they may be ashamed. (3:15-16)

Maybe part of our perceived suffering comes from false expectations.  We are expecting to be the “moral majority.”  We want to be the ruling class.  We want our way of life to be the norm.  That only makes any rejection of our ways feel like the beginning of the slippery slope to moral degradation.  It makes demeaning caricatures of Christians on television feel like disenfranchisement.  It makes us feel marginalized and persecuted.  But maybe God has always imagined that his people will be a set apart people, a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” “strangers and resident aliens” (2:9, 11) different from the cultural norm and therefore easy targets for derision, or questioning at least.

With that change in perspective our job in life is very easy: be ready to explain our alternative way of thinking and living.  And by all means enter into that dialogue with kindness, gentleness, and respect.  Leave the fiery rhetoric to talk show hosts.  Refuse to stoop to the demeaning attitudes and labeling that our opponents use.  Avoid any tactic that resorts to power and coercion and legislation to enforce our thinking and behavior.  Above all, we should be the people who do all of this with such goodness that people will be ashamed at how ugly their approaches look in comparison.

What do you think?  

Categories: 1 Peter | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

BONUS: An Introduction to the Corinthian Letters

I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead.  Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church.  We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined).  We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians.  Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else.  As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.

Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.

Holy living in an unholy culture:  Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul.  The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served.  On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing.  This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters.  This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice.  There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality.  Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.

Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring:  Wisdom was key to the Greek culture.  At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development.  Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem.  As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well.  This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit.  A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred.  Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.

Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead:  There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many.  Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.

Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem:  Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city.  Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.

Having to defend this apostolic authority:  Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians.  This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth.  The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders.  More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him.  They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled.  Paul responds will great passion and fire.  For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.

So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life.  This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.

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