A Kingdom Pure for Love

cemetery-1796635_640By Greg Forster; part six of a series.

“They told us, ‘this is our culture,’ but we told them, ‘this is God’s word.'”

I was hearing a talk from a leader in the fortification-paradigm church I used to attend. As I stressed in my last post, this church did a great job of helping people overcome addictions and enslaving sins. The call to holiness is one thing the faith and work movement needs to learn to do more effectively, and it can learn a lot from fortification-paradigm churches.

The subject of this talk was how faith requires us to challenge the way our culture does things. And most of the talk was great – it was actually the best talk of the retreat we were on, by a long shot.

But then there was the stuff about Africa.

This church has a brotherly and very fruitful relationship with a sizeable local ministry in Africa, but – like all good relationships – there was huge tension at first. The speaker was recounting to us how, when a team from our church first went over to this ministry, they discovered that the men and women ate meals separately.

This was the dominant and largely unquestioned practice, you see, in the majority-Muslim area where this ministry operated. And it struck the team from our church as disrespectful to women.

The speaker described how they had urged their African brothers to eat meals with their wives. And it quickly became clear to me why it had not gone well.

“They told us, ‘this is our culture,’ but we told them, ‘this is God’s word.'”

Treating women with dignity and respect is, indeed, God’s word. How that kind of clear moral imperative gets instantiated in any particular culture is quite another matter, one that does not – one that, by the nature of the case, cannot – carry the same kind of authority the Bible carries. This is the key area where fortification-paradigm churches need to grow.

The confrontation over eating meals with women apparently grew somewhat intense. Praise God, an African leader stood up and said: “Gentlemen, Paul says all things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Eating apart from our wives is lawful for us, but it would not hurt us to consider whether it is beneficial.” That seems to have defused the situation.

The happy ending to the story is that, over time, this local ministry not only started eating co-ed meals, but actually adopted respectful treatment of women as a key issue they champion. They hold seminars for pastors across their region during which they (among much else) help them understand the ways in which their culture has trained them to treat their wives without respect, and how the gospel calls them to change it.

I have seen some very moving testimonies from the pastor’s wives about this, about how their lives have changed since their husbands came to understand how the gospel calls them to love their wives. So score one for the transformational imperative of the fortification paradigm!

But it’s pretty clear that there was room for improvement in the way the issue was handled at first. The underlying problem here is a failure to understand that there is no expression of the gospel, or of Christian faith and life, that is not culturally contextualized.

I’m going to call the failure to recognize this “cultural puritanism.” (I hate to use that term because I actually like Puritanism when it’s seeking purity by the right standard! It’s when our own cultural instantiation of the gospel becomes the standard that puritanism goes wrong.)

With cultural puritanism, the (by itself very right and needed) demand for transformation of life begins to go wrong in several ways:

  • We may demand changes from others that aren’t needed, such as teetotalism or withdrawing from public schools. In that particular church, having your kids in public schools was not necessarily frowned upon, but having them in a Christian school or homeschooling them was definitely taken as a mark of spiritual distinction!
  • We may absolutize our own culturally relative expressions of gospel faithfulness. Loyalty to a Christian subculture slowly displaces loyalty to Christ.
  • When these two combine, we may become imperialistic, identifying what others do as “your culture” and what we do as “God’s word.” This is especially uncomfortable if “we” are white westerners going over to Africa, in the wake of centuries of colonial oppression, telling them that their way of life is “culture” while our way of life is “God’s word.”

This whole line of thought tends to be frightening for the fortification mind. It implies a lack of clear certainty and stability about anything – where, he tends to ask, is the solid ground? For the fortificationist, the whole point of the church is the clarity and stability in God’s word and Spirit that it provides.

But the lesson of Pentecost is that we need not seek – indeed, we must not seek – a transcultural expression of the gospel. Before Pentecost, the gospel was expressed in the culture of Israel. After Pentecost, it is expressed in all cultures. Clarity and stability come, to the extent that they come at all, from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the church’s community of holy love. To the extent that some things remain unclear and unstable even as we rely on the Spirit, we should not seek artificial clarity and stability from other sources. We should trust the Spirit to carry us through uncertainty and instability, as he carried Abram into the wilderness and Israel through the desert.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will discuss how fortification-paradigm churches can overcome cultural puritanism.

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