Saturday, October 8, 2016
By Bruce R. Ashford
As Americans face an increasingly hostile and post-Christian culture, we must clearly define who we are and how we should approach our social and cultural contexts. As I see it, Christians tend to choose one of four mindsets: Bomb Shelter, Ultimate Fighter, Chameleon, and Kingdom Preview. Each of the first two mindsets has grasped some important biblical truths, but applied them incorrectly, the third view chooses what is perhaps the “path of least resistance,” while the last mindset is one which applies biblical principles appropriately.
The Christian Community as Bomb Shelter
In a post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian context, many of us will be tempted to view our Christian community as a bomb shelter. Our beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be castigated by the political and cultural elite, by the broader population, and even by many Christian leaders.
Under such an ideological assault, Christians sometimes have a collective anxiety attack. Our dominant mood tends to be protective, conceiving of our community as a bomb shelter protecting itself from aerial assault, or perhaps a monastery where one can withdraw from the contingencies of contemporary existence, or even better a perpetual yoga retreat where we can empty our minds of empirical realities.
Believers with this mentality have good intentions. They want to preserve the call to holiness, recognizing that the church is under attack and that therefore we should hold fast to what we have (Rev 3:11).
However, this mentality is misguided, arising from a timid fear of man, and is spurred more by secular wisdom than by biblical faith, by faithless fear than by Christian courage and vitality. It views the church as a walled city rather than a living being, as a safe deposit box rather than a conduit of spiritual power. It externalizes godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls, rather than understanding that godlessness is a disease of the soul which can never be walled out. It tends toward legalism, publishing all manner of bans in order to build a “hedge” around the gospel.
The Christian Community as Ultimate Fighter
The Ultimate Fighter mentality shares much in common with the Bomb Shelter mentality, but deals with its anxiety in a different manner. It tends to view the Christian’s responsibility toward cultural engagement exclusively and comprehensively as that of a street fighter. The Fighters’ weapons are beliefs, feelings, and values which are wielded in the name of spiritual warfare. Unlike those hiding in the bomb shelter, the Fighters venture forth into the surrounding society and culture, seeking awareness of its movements and creeds so that it might assault it with lethal apologetic and polemical force.
Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against what is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Eph 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12), resist the devil (Jms 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Cor 10:4-5). However, this mentality is misguided to the extent that it wrongly applies the principles above. The fault of the Ultimate Fighter Christian (UFC) is not that it wants to fight, but that it suggests that the entirety of the Christian life is nothing but war. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers, but those unbelievers are not only enemies of God, but also drowning men in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the sick. The Christian life is surely a battle, but it is no less a joy, an adventure, and a trust. In other words, the Christian must indeed fight, but that is not the only thing he does; his battling is done from within the broader context of the entire Christian life and directed primarily toward the spiritual forces of the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).
The Christian Community as Chameleon
Christians with a Chameleon mindset tend to view their cultural contexts as neutral. They might disagree with aspects of it, but on the whole they find it an ally rather than a threat. They tend to interact comfortably and uncritically with the reigning social, cultural, and political trends of the day. Unlike those with the Ultimate Fighter and Bomb Shelter mentalities, they incorporate the dominant culture easily into their lives and churches. These Christians tend to build churches that are institutional chameleons, if you will. Their churches change colors as the cultural context changes colors.
Christians with this mindset rightly recognize that culture is something ordained by God, something that is not inherently bad (Gen 2:15). They recognize that God enables all humans everywhere to produce cultures that exhibit real aspects of truth, goodness, and beauty (Is 60:11; Rev 21:24). However, this mentality fails to see the way in which every culture and every aspect of a culture is warped and distorted because of sin. When Christians adopt the “chameleon” mindset, they deny the Bible its rightful place as the standard by which every culture should be judged, and they deny Christians the ability to be prophetic voices. Usually, they end up sacrificing Christian doctrine and morality on the altar of cultural acceptance. In other words, this mindset ends up undermining the Christian faith.
The Christian Community as a Preview of the Kingdom
The best mindset for the Christian to take is one in which we are a preview of God’s coming kingdom. In the midst of unbelief and even persecution, we determine to live our lives as seamless tapestries of word and deed (Col 3:17). We proclaim Christ and the gospel with our lips (word) and we promote Christ and the gospel with our lives (deed). In so doing, our life “previews” a future era when we will live together with Christ on the new heavens and earth, when we will flourish in our relationship to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation (Col 1:20; Rev 21).
One way of describing this mindset is to say that Christians should always be pointing in five directions. We look upward toward God, showing the world that God alone—rather than idols such as sex, money, and power—is worthy of worship. We look inward to our own corporate church life, seeking to love each other in a way that will compel outsiders to want to be a part of our Christ-centered community. We look backward toward creation, seeking to live the way God designed us to live when he created us. We look forward to the end times, when we will live in perfect relationship with God and with each other. We look outward to the nations, inviting them to embrace Christ by believing on the gospel.
Under this view, every aspect of life is rife with potential for witness. If Christ is Lord over everything, then we can do everything in our lives in a way that is shaped toward Christ. I like the way the great Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, when he wrote, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”
Absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered on Sunday morning for worship, but also as the church scattered into the world in our work, leisure, and community life. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).
In fact, when a person enters any arena of culture, she should ask several questions: (1) What is God’s creational design for this aspect of culture? (2) How has sin warped and distorted this aspect of culture? (3) How can I, as a Christian, redirect this aspect of culture toward Christ? In asking and answering these questions, Christians learn to live their lives holistically as an attractive preview of the kingdom. In that kingdom, there will be no more pain or tears, no more sin or the consequences of sin. In that kingdom, we will be in right relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. There is no greater calling in life than to live as a preview of that kingdom.