Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 3 ©

As Francis Asbury (the first Methodist Bishop in America) began his great missionary work of sharing the gospel and spreading the Methodist/Wesleyan way of being Christian across the continent, he faced a monumental clash between Christ and Culture. Methodism was officially and doctrinally opposed to slavery. It was the great Methodist layman and member of Parliament William Wilberforce who lead the British movement to abolish slavery. Asbury himself courageously spoke out against the practice of slavery calling “for members to get rid of slaves and to abstain from the practice.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602551.html) And yet slowly the Methodist movement compromised on the subject, never endorsing slavery, but relaxing its discipline with regard to Methodists who owned slaves until finally the church divided over the issue. Why? The Methodist movement struggled to engage the culture with the gospel in all its fullness without fully resolving the issue.

Methodists rejected the temptation to stand “above culture” through spiritual indifferentism.  Simultaneously, Methodists refused to simply given in to Christ (“Christ of Culture”). As two separated denominations (three if we add The Methodist Protestant Church), Methodism existed as both being of the culture and seeking to transform it.

This is the third of four “blogs” exploring Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos. Numerous other historical examples abound of the struggle between following Christ and being engaged in the culture of the age. By way of example, Methodists embraced deeply the prohibition movement as a great cause to transform American to what was perceived as more faithful Christian living. It is worth noting that the cause of prohibition was not some squeamish puritanism run by maiden ladies (as has often been portrayed today) but largely grew out of the issue of spousal abuse. Excessive drinking was rampant in America at the time (far more than today) and often men would drink the paycheck away (commonly in response to the harsh working conditions they endured) and take out their frustrations on their wives and children at home.

Both abolition and prohibition are classic examples of how Christianity wrestles with human culture and society in a given context. Both were driven by biblical imperatives. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)  “Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.  Live honorably among the unbelievers.” (I Peter 2:11-12, CEB)

This tension between following Christ as Lord and Savior (the ruler of our lives!) and existing in a given culture and time has always been with us. As long as there are Christians in the world, there always will conflict between following Christ and yet being in the world. Last week I introduced H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous five typologies of how Christians have typically related to human society and culture; 1. Christ against Culture (Opposition), 2. Christ of Culture (Agreement), 3. Christ above Culture (Indifferentism), 4. Christ and Culture in paradox (Tension), 5. Christ transforming Culture (Transformation and Reformation).

While limited, Niebuhr’s distinctions offer us a helpful frame around which to think about how we relate the culture we live in today. It is important, vitally import (!), to remember that none of us are “pure” in a position. All Christians all across the spiritual, theological and denominational spectrum combine and mix our positions in a variety of ways depending on the time and issue we are struggling with.

In America we have lived through (along with most of what is euphemistically called Western civilization) a period of Christendom. It has been a time and age in which the Christian religion and Christian values held cultural dominance. In large measure there was a sense of Christ and Culture working together. Where sharp differences existed most Methodist adopted a strong understanding of Christ transforming culture (of which both the abolition of slavery and prohibition movement are examples). Presciently John Davidson Hunter has reminded us in his masterful To Change the World that the long term drift of mainline denominations has largely been to give ground to emerging culture expressions in exchange for cultural acceptability. It is a poor bargain best abandoned. So too it is poor bargain to relate only the angry negative.

During the last half century or so, we have engaged in what pundits labeled as “the culture wars.” Christians themselves have been in sharp disagreement with each other. Those who perceive themselves to be largely progressive have often (though not always!) lined up on the liberal (or progressive) side of social debates. Seeking to transform culture, deep engagement was sought on great social issues such as institutional racism, war and peace, access to health care, immigration, poverty, etc. Likewise seeking to transform culture those coming have a more traditional evangelical (conservative stance) have often (though not always!) entered the debate at the point of personal morality issues like abortion, racism, government engagement in education, poverty, etc. Among Christians, both progressive and evangelical/traditional there has been much overlap. None-the-less it is reasonable to assert, with careful note of exceptions, that many more progressive Christians have allied themselves loosely with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and many more evangelical/conservative Christians have allied themselves with the more conservative cultural wing of the Republican Party. (It is interesting and perhaps instructive to reflect on how the Roman Catholic Church has moved across the battle lines depending on the issue. For instance on abortion it is aligned with the more conservative side and on immigration with the more progressive side.)

I cannot help but pause in this narrative to offer a personal admonition. Excessive Christian identification with any one political party is dangerous for the Christian witness. If Christ is truly Lord than his rule over our lives cuts across and to a certain degree against all human political movements. In the chaos of our time we need to adopt again the humility of Micah 6:8. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

My next blog will reflect on the current conflict between Christ and Culture involving human sexuality.

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