I’ve previously shown you a drawing I made more than fifty years ago that has a powerful message for me today. Well, today I want to look back many more years than that to see what the church has to tell us today about engaging productively with our culture.
From the previous post, we know that anyone wanting to influence culture must be partly outside the mainstream of that culture. That is, they must be counter-cultural in some way in order to have something new to contribute.
So if the church wants to influence culture, it must maintain its own cultural distinctiveness in thought and deed. Fortunately, Christians have three aids to help us do this: our theology, the Holy Spirit, and the church itself.
Theology: A strong foundation
Christian theology gives us a very distinctive understanding of the world and how it works. For example, our theology of the human person gives us a very high view of human life, seeing humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. We have a lot to say to society about life itself and our relationships with each other because we believe:
- Male and female, we are created in God’s image
- We were made a little lower than God, and crowned with glory and majesty
- We all stand as equals before God. Even our political rulers stand equally with us under God.
- Life is a gift from God, who knows people even before they are born (eg., Psa 139:13-16, Isa 49:1, Gal 1:15)
- The termination of a life is abhorrent to God
If we don’t know what we believe, we will inevitably lose our distinctiveness and become just like our culture, such as by adopting secular attitudes about power and status. This is why Christians need theological vitality. It gives us a strong foundation.
The Holy Spirit: Our creative guide
Having a strong theological foundation is great, but then the question becomes “What do we do with our theology?” Fortunately, Christians are not left to our own devices to figure out how to apply our theology to present day circumstances. We have the Holy Spirit as our guide.The Holy Spirit is the reason why our Bible is not just an historical record, but is a living book that speaks freshly to us today.
When we reflect on our theology and our culture, it is vital that we do so through the correct lens. If we think about theology from within existing culture, we could read it the way we want to read it. But the Holy Spirit helps us do our theological reflection from God’s perspective, and then decide what action to take. If society is moving towards God’s eschatological future, then we support it. If it isn’t, then we critique it and offer a better way.
In the case of how society thinks about human life, the Greco-Roman culture in the first century was quite at odds with the Christian perspective. In distinction to the high view of life taken by Christians, the non-Christian culture had a very low view of human life; it was cheap and expendable.
The perception of all human beings as equal, and equally valuable, as persons worthy of respect and equal treatment before the law, is a relatively rare and recent achievement in human history. The concept that women, children, racial minorities, immigrants, refugees and the poor are to be treated not only equally but with special concern because of their frequent marginalization and vulnerability is a central biblical teaching rarely actualized in public life. Glen Stassen & David Gushee in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context
Here are a couple of examples of what the early Christians challenged in their society based on their theology of the human person and how the Spirit led them to assess their culture.
Infanticide was common in Rome and Greece (and also in China, Japan, Brazil, Africa, and among the Inuit).1 It was so common in ancient Greece that it was blamed for its population decline. Children were left exposed outside or thrown into rivers and left to die, and no one had a moral problem with it.
Christians alone stood firmly against the killing of babies because it was murder, because Jesus gave them importance by saying they should not be hindered in coming to him, and because children are seen as a blessing throughout Scripture.
Subjugation of women
Greek and Roman women had essentially no rights and no freedom. Plutarch wrote that Greek men keep their wives “under lock and key.” The average Athenian woman had the social status of a slave. Greek girls were not educated and throughout her entire life, a female was not allowed to speak in public at all. Neither were Roman women. When some Roman women entered the Forum (which they were not allowed to enter) to protest and ask for a law to be repealed (breaking convention by speaking in public), Cato asked, “Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home?”2
A Roman girl grew up under patria potestas, a law that gave the man who led a household complete control over all members of his household (including the power of life and death). A woman could not own property, receive any inheritance, or have any freedom until the male head of her household died.
A Christian who is not spiritually sensitive may not be able to discern the Spirit’s leading in how to assess society against Christian theology. This is why I’ve also said that all Christians must have spiritual vitality. If we can’t sense the Spirit’s leading, we’re basically on our own to decide what we think is the appropriate interpretation and application of theology.
The Church: A community in action
When Christians understand their theology and discern what the Spirit has to say about culture in light of that theology, it is time to take action. In terms of infanticide and the place of women in society, there was nothing to affirm, so the church had to take action to move society closer to God’s ideal. Here’s what they did.
In the ancient writings of the church, infanticide was soundly condemned. Within fifty years or so of becoming a legal religion, Christians were able to persuade the Roman emperor to outlaw infanticide. Until that time, children who were not directly killed by their parents were usually exposed or thrown into a river, and Christians rescued them and adopted them as their own.
Subjugation of women
To improve the lot of women, the church modeled what their role in society should be. The resulting effect of the church on the status of women was revolutionary. The church gave women the only opportunity they had to hold leadership roles and be socially active outside the family home. Female leaders in the church are frequently mentioned in the New Testament, including among them Col 4:15, 1 Cor 16:19, and Rom 16:1-3.
Women were evangelists and missionaries, and they were a significant factor in the early church’s spiritual and numerical growth. An early church father, Chrysostom, writing in the late 300s, wrote “The women of those days were more spirited than men.” Historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote “In the ages of persecution female figures occupy many of the foremost places and ranks of martyrdom.” Another historian wrote “Christendom dare not forget that it was primarily the female sex that for the greater part brought about its rapid growth. It was the evangelistic zeal of women in the early years of the church, and later, which won the weak and the mighty.”3
Christianity was responsible for the repeal of the patria potestas law in 374. Women no longer needed their father’s permission to marry (and whom to marry), they held substantially the same property rights as their husbands, and the veil was done away with. This is why women flocked to the ancient church. It was liberating!
The early church is a great example for us today. It knew its theology, discerned the Spirit’s leadership, and then put their ideas into action to demonstrate Christian values at work for the good of the marginalized, the oppressed, and in fact for all members of their society.
Given the many issues which challenge our society today, which ones are you most passionate about? Which ones relate closest to your ministry’s mission? What part might you or your ministry play in helping our society move a little closer to God’s ideal?
Key Thought: An authentic Christian faith leads to social improvement ideas.