The Body of Christ faces many challenges as it moves forward in the 21st Century. The most significant issues facing the church flow from its ongoing encounter with culture in general and the post-modern worldview in particular. Already we can see a diversity of responses on the part of Christians, individually and collectively, to the post-modern society and it is my prayer that we may find new, creative ways to exist (or co-exist) in the context of the rapidly changing world in which we live.
My greatest desire is that we can avoid the sins of the past, especially what I have come to call the “sin of polarization.” I call this type of polarization a sin because it is, no matter eloquently it may be rationalized, an act of wanton disobedience to Christ’s call for unity among believers. If the word sin can be translated as “missing the mark,” then assuredly, this type of polarization into opposing camps fits the bill.
In order to gain a bit of perspective, let’s take a bit of a historical detour. During the two to three centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people were facing a situation not wholly unlike the cultural dilemma the church finds itself in today. For the Jews, the issue centered on how to respond to the dominance of Greek culture in the world in which they lived.
Alexander the Great conquered Palestine around 333 B.C. and, like all the many other lands he placed under his banner, he set about turning the existing culture into a Greek culture. “Hellenization” was the general term used for this process of creating a more unified cultural base that transcended national and ethic borders. The Jews were no exception to this process.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, here is how the Jewish people as a whole responded to the influx of Greek culture. Space does not permit for a detailed extrapolation, but what follows is a brief examination of the basic responses of the Israelites. A large majority of people simply went along with the process and adapted to the Greek culture, absorbing and adopting much of the Greek worldview and social milieu. At the other extreme, a very small number of Jews thought the best way to deal with the encroaching Greek mindset was to withdraw entirely and that is exactly what they did. These were the Essenes, who set about becoming communities of desert recluses with minimal contact with their Greek (and later Roman) occupiers.
A third group, the Pharisees, took another approach. Although not as geographically extreme as the Essenes, the Pharisees were perhaps more extreme in terms of their cultural response. The Pharisees thought it imperative that the Jewish people preserve their identity as the “Chosen People” of God and went about this by stressing a strict, legalistic observation of Jewish law. For the Pharisees, the cardinal principle that identified the Jews as a people was the law, and the religious leaders set about defining this law in a precise and narrow manner. Living according to detail of the law was the guiding principle of the Pharisees and it was with this group of religious legalists that Jesus often came into conflict.
With that brief historical backdrop, let’s fast-forward to the 20th Century and what was happening in American Christianity. Since the latter part of the 19th Century, German Idealism became a dominant cultural philosophy in Western Europe and also America. Soon this worldview infiltrated Christianity as well and this gave rise to what came to be known as “Liberal Theology,” a view that stressed historical analysis and higher criticism of scripture and a more scientific worldview as well. Although this school of thought brought to light many important facts and made significant contributions to the church, it also had its drawbacks.
As a reaction to the flood of liberal theology in the church, Fundamentalism was born. This group of well-meaning believers sought to find truth in the inerrancy of scripture and the traditional Christian creeds. As the 20th Century progressed, these two groups became increasingly antagonistic toward one another and, in the long run, seemed to almost present two different religions that had little in common with each other. About the only three broad brush strokes these two camps shared were Jesus, the Bible, and the Church. The liberal/fundamentalist views on this trinity of Christian basics, however, were vastly different.
By the waning days of the last century, the Body of Christ was anything but unified and in saying that I am not even taking into account the Catholic Church. This deep chasm of disunity existed within the confines of Protestantism itself.
Just as one faction of Jewish society centuries before had adopted the values and practices of the occupying Greek culture (and later the Roman culture as well), the liberal Christians of the 20th Century imbibed deeply the modern and post-modern cultural milieu in which it found itself. The result of this adaptation has been borne out in numerous studies, particularly those conducted by the Barna Group and the Gallup Polls. This group of Christians cannot be discerned from the surrounding culture at large. It is as if the Post-Modern Culture has swallowed the liberal leaning Mainline Church whole. Before the conservative/fundamentalist segment starts its chant of “I told you so,” they best check on themselves.
Like the Pharisees of old, many fundamentalist Christian groups began to separate from the advancing culture by wrapping themselves in the mantle of legalism. Although the leaders of these groups often firmly denied this, in point of fact, these groups of Christians became highly legalistic and rigid in their outlook. The interesting thing, however, is the studies mentioned earlier revealed that the members of these groups had also taken on much of the worldview of the culture around them. In many studies, with the exception of church attendance and Bible reading, it was also hard to discern the fundamentalist –conservatives – and yes – the evangelicals from the post-modern world in terms of values and behaviors.
Now, as the Body of Christ moves forward in the new century, we seem to be in somewhat of a state of limbo. With the possible exception of the “Emergent Church” movement, there seems to be a lack of passion for the changes that are necessary if the church is to survive.
So, how can the church avoid the mistakes of the past century, as well as the Jewish world at the time of Christ, and march forth with a more positive approach to the existing culture? Moreover, what will such a church look like?
It is to these issues we will turn in Part Two.
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved