June 29, 2012

We're to Engage The Culture Not Conform To It

    Evangelism and Culture

"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

The implication from this verse is that we are to go out into the world like fisherman and catch people and pull them out from the sin of the world.  In reality we are pulling them into isolated boats or islands of Christianity in a sea of wickedness as this world is the Devil's own. Sadly, we do not often do this. Instead of pulling the people from the sin of the world system...the sin of the world system pulls the Christian in into its depravity. It pulls us overboard into the depths and we quickly get pulled under and flail trying to get back into the Christian boat. It would've been better if we hadn't hung our head over the bow when the sin of the world makes our boat pitch and turn in turbulent seas. Better to stand in the center of Gods will near the Captain and perfecter of our Faith: Jesus Christ. 

If we look closely, many practices within Christianity today do not have Biblical foundations. Some trace their origins to paganism or are of uncertain origin. We can think of the veneration of saints, or feasts like Christmas or Easter. As the church evangelized the Barbarians, it was met with the challenge of how to deal with pagan practices, whether to accommodate them, Christianize them, or simply outright eliminate it.  Is there anything we can learn from medieval evangelistic practice?

Yes, I believe there is quite a bit that can be learned and what we learn from them can be brought forward or contemporized to help us avoid making the same mistakes now (as we are already doing in some cases).

During the period of the Imperial Church 313-476AD, worship increased in wealth and pretentiousness but spiritually suffered. Ceremonies/forms of paganism crept into the worship. Old heathen feasts became church festivals with a change in name and location only. We begin to see the adoration of Mary and veneration of the saints, etc. (Hulbert 62). What started as an honest attempt to give honor to those who came before turned into something much more dangerous. Honoring people is fine, elevating them and deifying them is not. This is not biblical as all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). Sadly, this is often the proclivity of mankind. Although man is commanded to be theocentric, because of man’s fallen nature, we always drift towards man-centered behavior attempting to make ourselves gods.

It is during the Imperial Church period I believe we begin to see the onset of the world transforming the church, not the church transforming the world (anti-Romans 12:2). The piety, holiness and humility or the earlier ages which were fruits of the Spirit of the true church gave way to things like ambition, pride and arrogance which are not fruits of the Spirit-nor are they Christian. It is here that we see the dividing line that needs to be made between Culture/Church or State/Church. It is biblical to maintain this division in light of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and the Scribes: “Render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and God what’s God’s”. In other words, obey the authorities of this world until they attempt to trump God our put themselves in God’s place. This is where the early church went rogue. It wasn’t Constantine’s acceptance of the Church that changed it but the hearts of those that were no longer under persecution because of the Edict of Milan and subsequent changes in the church. They now had time and energy to devote to things that were more self-centered rather than Church centered.

It is always a challenge to engage the culture/world system without becoming part of the culture / world system. A church under persecution often fights to keep the world out because it is hostile but when the world is friendly, we let it in without being discretionary and this is to our detriment. Just because we have it easy does not give us license to become lazy with doctrine and practice. We are to be vigilant regardless (1 Corinthians 16:13, 2 Peter 2, etc.)

In our rush to convert or evangelize the world we often absorb so much of it that we end up selling out to it and this what we see in the medieval evangelistic practices (Cairns 153). This is usually to the detriment of the Church, not to culture. I believe it could’ve been done in a more controlled and quality manner in a series of “weeding out”. Mass conversions don’t necessarily make real Christians, it just make large groups of people call themselves Christians due to either the socio-political benefits or doing so to “fit in”. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality and this is what we saw then and it is what we see now when numbers are more important than people soul’s. Christianity is a change of the heart and mind, not just outward actions. Outward actions should be a reflection or manifestation of what is within. They are the effects not the means.

Romans 12 is clear, we’re to engage the culture, not become the culture. We’re to renew our minds, not remove them to “fit in”. To blindly attempt to convert people without sound theology behind the conversion cannot be considered true evangelism with intent to make true adherents. Jesus told us in the Great Commission that we are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, “and teaching them to obey everything He commanded us.” If we are attempting to convert without educating people from the Bible we are not fulfilling the Great Commission as it was given to us by Jesus. What's worse is we are really encouraging a form of syncretism if we add in other religious "embellishments" to get people to convert to a false version of Christianity which in reality probably isn't even Christian. As such we need to engage culture carefully and biblically. We can accept people of the culture into the church but as 1 Corinthians 6:11 says: “such were some of you.” We need to expect people to change to the tenants of the Christian Faith, not the other way around. We cannot add their pagan practices and rituals to our faith. This is no different than what we see in the Interfaithism movement today.

In the end we need to avoid secular methods of engaging the “pagans”. This requires that we engage culture Biblically intent on redeeming them from their sin, not adding numbers to our ranks. Power doesn’t come from human numbers anyway (David’s census). We also need to do so humbly (Philippians 2) and this means we should pray reverently. If we interact with the culture with intent to convert them it then becomes an act of worship of God therefore bringing God glory. It is only when the Church stays wholly God-centered (theocentric) and does things with the sole motive of bringing glory to God in a Biblical manner that we can be assured of avoiding the mistakes of the past. In approaching people with intent to teach them of the God of the Bible in a redemptive manner we ourselves are working out our salvation.

Cairns, Earle Edwin. "Chapter 15: Hierarchical and Liturgical Developments." Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1996. 150-155. Print.

Hurlbut, Jesse Lyman. The Story of the Christian Church. Latest rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1970. Print.

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