Should progressive churches accommodate? Or should they challenge the culture?

The central thesis of adaptive change is that in order to thrive in a new environment churches and other institutions need to change their patterns. Accommodation to the culture therefore seems to be the key to vitality and growth. Three books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual Home.

A contrarian’s point of view, however, is presented by Paul, the church’s first theologian. Not accommodation but radical challenge was his prescriptive counsel to the churches, or so John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed assert in their book In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.

“The Roman Empire,” they claim, “was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.”  Paul, however, a Jewish visionary inspired by Jesus, “opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.

Crossan and Reed believe that Paul’s challenge is as great today as it was then. “Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is, unjust and oppressive.”

At the heart of Roman civilization was an “imperial theology” which was persuasively expressed wherever Roman military power held sway by two elements.

The imperial cult (or patterns of public religious activity) “which housed deified emperors in temples from Thessalonica to Ephesus,” and which was able to include the gods of conquered peoples in the galaxy of Roman deities.

The cult of luxury, “which brought urban amenities in the form of aqueducts, baths, and entertainments to cities from Asia to Syria.”

Central to Paul’s alternative vision of life in the world was his presentation of Christ as the alternative to Caesar. Since the Caesars were elevated to divine status, as gods in this world and the next, Paul also emphasized strands of the Christian tradition that interpreted Jesus as Son of God, as the embodiment in human form of the very God whom Jews had proclaimed from ancient times.

Among the major characteristics of Roman civilization were a significantly unequal distribution of the basic commodities of life and a distribution of power and privilege that was radically hierarchical. Paul’s vision of the world God intended, a world that Paul believed was already present, included an equally radical redistribution of resources and power. At every point, he could point to Jesus as exemplar of this alternative view of life in the world.

Both of these elements of Paul’s social vision were to be expressed uncompromisingly in the life of the church.

For Crossan and Reed, the most illuminating and decisive biblical text is Galatians 3:27-28, in which Paul asserts that because they had been “clothed with Christ” there could no longer be divisions of race, gender, or social status “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul recognized that Christians lived in Caesar’s world and reluctantly acknowledged that they might need to accommodate themselves to patterns of behavior in that world. With great force, however, he insisted that these accommodations should never be tolerated in the church itself.

The imperial cult in contemporary American life is not as explicitly religious as it was in Paul’s Roman world. The statue of our sixteenth president in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, for example, inspires deep feelings of respect rather than the reverence that was expected when gazing upon statues of the divinized emperors in temples all around the Roman world. Yet to read some of the literature about Lincoln long ago, and perhaps even more about Ronald Reagan of recent date, one could believe that the line between honor and reverence is easily (and often) crossed.

Furthermore, there is a tendency in many churches today to link material gain—the amenities of life made possible by the American version of capitalism—with the gospel. In some strange way, following Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, becomes the way to enjoy a prosperous and comfortable life.

Even as they work at adaptive change, therefore, church leaders need to be thoughtful in their efforts to transform the culture of Christian worship.

Perhaps the central question is this: what accommodations are legitimate as we deal with the need to live effectively in our world? Stated in contrasting fashion: What should we seek to change? And what must ever be the same?

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2 Responses to Should progressive churches accommodate? Or should they challenge the culture?

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks for this Keith. This is a difficult challenge for us as Americans who too often equate our culture with God’s realm. Indeed, the Disciples, at least A. Campbell, viewed US History in in a postmillennial way as a sign of God’s progressive vision. We’ve accommodated to such an extent that we no longer see the difference between our nation (or our vision of the nation) and the Realm of God!

    But, how does one live out the Pauline radical vision knowing that he believed that the “end was near” and we know that the end hasn’t come yet? To what extent must we make peace with the empire?

    I think I’d like to reprint this on my blog!!

  2. [...] The tension between culture and Christian community is the central issue in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, which contains the New Testament’s most sustained exposition of worship. In their book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed devote a long chapter to this discussion, using the title “Who and What Controls Your Banquet?” At the heart of Paul’s exposition, they write, are two visions of moral community and two theologies on which these visions are based. (To read more about these two theologies, check my column posted April 19, 2011.) [...]

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