Monday, April 15, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Remembering how countercultural Christianity was ... as it becomes that way again

During the past several weeks there has been intense discussion in our society about the possibility of “homosexual marriage.”  No matter what decisions the Supreme Court arrives at regarding the cases before it, the nature of the public discourse about the issue makes it now seem inevitable that homosexual marriage will become a legal reality across our nation.  It may take longer in some places than in others, but I find it hard to imagine a scenario that will prevent it.


This redefinition of marriage is, in many ways, the culmination of changes that began with the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s as birth control allowed people to separate sex from children and marriage.  It will only add to the continuing breakdown of family in our country and the tremendous hardships it produces.  It will also bring new challenges to Church in the United States, similar to those now faced in Europe and Canada.  Defined as a “civil rights issue,” homosexual advocates will use this to silence all who hold a contrary position (for more on this, see, “Homosexual marriage changes nothing and it changes everything: A post-mortem on marriage in American culture”;

These are frustrating times for Christians.  We live in a world that rejects truth claims and creates its own “spirituality” by borrowing from many different sources.  It surrounds us with sexual immorality to such an extent that a person who is a virgin on their wedding night and doesn’t live together with their partner before marriage is considered odd.

However, seventeen hundred years of cultural acceptance and support of Christianity since the time of Constantine have caused us to forget how countercultural Christianity was in the beginning. In fact if you were going to make up a religion in the first century A.D. Mediterranean world, you could hardly have invented a more countercultural religion if you had tried.

For starters, Christianity arose out of Judaism.  It was founded upon the Scriptures of Israel and claimed to be the fulfillment of all that God had done with Israel in the past.  During the first decades of the Church, it was very difficult for outsiders to distinguish Christianity from Judaism (see the reaction of the Roman proconsul Gallio in Acts 18:12-17). Christianity appeared to be a sect of Judaism.

The Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion were looked down upon in the ancient world. They were odd because they only believed in one God – a God that they did not depict with images or idols.  They stood apart because of their practices such as the food laws they followed and Sabbath observance.  Their sexual morality stood at odds with the people around them because they rejected sexual relations outside of marriage and homosexuality.

Because of their grounding in the Old Testament, Christianity inherited many of these features.  They too were monotheistic and refused to worship any other God. The Greco-Roman world could not understand this because it was polytheistic and it was expected that a person would take up the worship of multiple gods.  It was a syncretistic world in which people drew upon different religions and philosophies as they created their own religious outlook.  Pagan religion was woven into the fabric of civil life, and anyone who would not take part in the pagan rituals was immediately considered to be opposed to the welfare of the city and empire.

If Judaism exclusively had only one God and did not have idols, at least they had a temple with a sacrificial cult. This was something that the pagan world understood.  Christianity had no temples and it had no sacrificial cult.  Instead it talked about eating and drinking the body and blood of a man – a fact that easily gave rise to rumors of cannibalism.

Christianity also continued the sexual ethics of the Old Testament.  It appears as a repeated emphasis in the New Testament such as when Paul wrote: “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-5; see also 1 Corinthians 5:1-12).

But these problems were merely ancillary to the fact that the center of the Christian faith was built upon a series of beliefs that were absurd to the Greco-Roman world.  Christianity was centered upon an individual who had died by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman government.  It worshipped someone who had died the death of a criminal and a rebel – who had died in the most humiliating form of death possible.  There is a very good reason that Paul said about Christ, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).  You could not choose less attractive figure to place at the center of your religion.


Then on top of this Christianity placed at the center of its belief something that ran directly contrary to the Greco-Roman worldview.  Coming out of Greek philosophy, for centuries the Greco-Roman world had operated on the assumption that the spiritual was good and the physical was bad (a belief that is usually described as “dualism; for more on this see, “Why do they believe the sacraments are only symbols?: Presuppositions in reading Scripture”;  Yet the heart of Christianity was the incarnation as it confessed, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It confessed that the Son of God had come in the flesh in the One who was true God and true man. 

This flew in the face Greco-Roman dualism.  Yet Christianity pushed even further by placing the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ the body as primary proof of its truth claims. Paul readily admitted, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:16-19).  However, for the Greco-Roman world bodily resurrection was the last thing a person would want.  The body was considered to be a prison that the soul needed to escape.  It was an absurd claim.  And then Christianity went further by claiming that the resurrection of the body was the eschatological goal for every believer.

Finally, the earliest and most basic Christian confession set it on a collision course with the Roman Empire.  The earliest Christian confession was “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The problem was that there was already someone who was called “Lord” – and he was the leader that controlled the Roman Empire.  The Roman emperor was “Lord.”  After, and even before his death in some parts of the empire, he was worshipped as a god.  The confession of Jesus as Lord could only end in one way – conflict with the Roman Empire. Either Jesus would be acknowledged as the true and ultimate Lord or the Emperor would. 

In all of these ways, Christianity began as a faith that was countercultural.  It was almost as if its founders were trying to guarantee its failure as it sought to spread faith in Jesus Christ “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).  And yet in spite of all these things God did work through the Gospel to create believers in Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit did call people to faith so that eventually, even the Roman emperor called upon Jesus as Lord.

As we look at the developments in the culture around us, we must recognize that the Church began as a countercultural faith.  To be sure, we do not want to have to stand in opposition to the world, and so it profoundly disturbs us to see the changes that are taking place.  A culture that used to support the Church now is increasingly opposed to it. The pace of this opposition seems to be accelerating.   

While we tend to notice overt things like harassment of college campus Christian groups, it is crucial to recognize that these are only symptoms of a far deeper and more serious problem.  Just as the Christian worldview stood in contradiction to much that was in the Greco-Roman one, so also the worldview of Christianity now stands in contradiction to that of twenty-first century western culture (see “Christianity after the new sexual worldview?”;

There have been many blessings of having western culture support Christianity. We also need to recognize that it has also had significant drawbacks … as people like Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers found out when they were sent into exile because they held orthodox views that contradicted the emperor.  Cultural support has bred “cultural Christianity.”  It bequeathed to us “Christmas and Easter Christians” and the obligation for pastors to provide Christian burial to members whose names are on a congregation roster but who had never received the Means of Grace for years before their death.  There are many things that are being lost that we should not mourn.

The great irony of Paul is that the “apostle to the Gentiles” was so successful that we no longer can really understand the most significant theological issue of the first century A.D. Church.  The question of whether Gentiles could be full fledged members of the people of God, and on what terms this could take place, was the single greatest issue that confronted the first generation of Christians (Acts 15).  Paul’s position has been so successful that we fail to grasp the radical character of his words, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). 

We understand that Gentiles are Christians.  What we often fail to understand is that western culture is not synonymous with the Church. It’s not even true that western Christians are synonymous with the Church.  Christ’s Church is far larger than that, and its strength has shifted during the course of two millennia.  The heart of Christianity in the pre-Constantinian Church was North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor.  Yet after events in the seventh century and the arrival of Islam, for more than a millennia Christians have only been a small minority in those lands. The heartland of Christianity moved to Europe for nearly a millennia and a half, yet now it too has succumbed to a secular paganism and Christians who are not Christians in name only are a minority.  As Luther described it … the cloud of the Gospel moves on.

It appears that the future for numerical growth and vitality for Christianity and Lutheranism is in the southern hemisphere.  Recently there have been a number of developments in Africa that are very exciting.  As the western church bodies like the ELCA continue down the path to apostasy, the chance for confessional Lutheranism to continue to grow on the continent of Africa seems very real.  Our job as LCMS Lutherans is to support these churches financially, especially in seminary education and training of pastors, to the greatest extent that we can. Our task is also to use one our greatest strengths, our theological education system, to support the theological training and development the leadership and teachers in those churches.  If the Lord does not return, perhaps the next millennia of Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular will belong to them.

Here in the United States we must recognize that Christianity is rapidly becoming as countercultural as it was in the first century A.D.  Its claims about God’s authoritative revelation in his inspired and inerrant Scriptures have been refuted in the minds of popular culture by the fruits of the Enlightenment and its development in modernity and post-modernity.  Its objective truth claims and willingness to distinguish truth from error are anathema to our twenty-first century world.  The scandal of particularity of God’s saving action for the entire cosmos in the person of Jesus Christ becomes all the more scandalous as religious pluralism grows. The corporate nature of the Christian faith does not compute in a culture where individualism has run wild.  Its creational theology seems absurd to a world where evolution is a fact. Its teachings about the use of God’s gift of sexuality seem pointless to a world that no longer believes in natural law and God’s ordering of creation.  The list could go on and on.

One soon learns from Church history that there has been no “golden era” in the history of the Church.  That being said, if I had been given a choice I would not have chosen the beginning of the twenty-first century as the time to do the majority of my ministry.  Yet we don’t choose where and when God places us.  No believer would have chosen to live in northern Israel in the ninth century B.C. when there were only seven thousand that had not bowed the knee to Baal, yet that is were God placed Elijah (2 Kings19:18).

I believe that we need to be realistic about what the twenty-first century will hold for us.  Things will get harder, not easier.  There will be more challenges, not fewer.  We will need to embrace the countercultural nature of the Christian faith and recognize ourselves for what we are. We must remember what our Lord said: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). It’s been quite awhile since the Church has overtly known the world’s hatred.  We are in the process of learning again what it looks like.

The institutional model of the Church that we have known will not be able to survive in a post-Christian world without significant modification.  Many of these adjustments are going to be painful.  Yet the Church was Christ’s Church in the time before Constantine and she will still be Christ’s Church in a post-Christian world.  The Church and the institution are not the same thing. We may miss some of “the way things used to be” and we may find future ways of doing things more challenging, but the Gospel and the Means of Grace will still be the marks of the Church (Augsburg Confession V).   Peter’s words written to first century A.D. Christians will still be true for us: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV).

We face this challenge knowing that the One who has called us out of the world and made us his people is the One who is the crucified and risen Lord.  Because of this we can live with confidence in the present as we look forward to the His return in glory on the Last Day when “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).  As we rediscover the countercultural character of Christianity in the midst of the post-Christian world, perhaps we will rediscover the intense eschatological expectation of the early Church and with full understanding will join them in the cry, “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” (1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20)

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