Friday, January 10, 2014

Christians, Culture, and Moral Conduct

There is no New Testament mandate directing the Christian community to shape the moral values of a godless culture apart from the actions of living and preaching the gospel visibly and flagrantly. Modern western Christianity is predominantly a naturalistic, rationalistic, moralistic system utterly oblivious of the supernatural basis that defined ancient biblical Christianity, and for centuries, historic orthodox Christianity. The modern western religion that has come to be known as Christianity is little more than naturalistic, rationalistic deism. The most basic components for how Christians know divine truth, specifically, biblical faith coupled with Spirit illumination, are utterly foreign concepts to most people in modern culture who refer to themselves as Christians. The biblical teaching that our basis for truly knowing God is beyond the veil of human reason sounds strange to most professing Christians in western culture, and I would suppose, to most other cultures as well. This naturalistic, rationalistic orientation of the Christian religion has instinctively led many professing churches to consider the mission of the Christian church from more of a social, moral, and temporal emphasis.

Recently I heard a rant over the new trend to legalize polygamy. Al Mohler rightly pointed out that those gay marriage proponents that called the polygamy argument the product of extremists were dead wrong. That being the case I want to bring you back what I believe is the appropriate attitude regarding ungodly behavior and values in the culture.

First, in his prologue, John is very lucid in his description of how an ungodly culture, living under the curse of God and abiding in His wrath responds to true light: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (Jn. 1:5) It is thought that John is alluding to Isa. 9:2, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.” Similarly, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the forces of light and darkness were engaged in mortal combat, but light was predestined to triumph.[1] 
Light and darkness are no equally matched duality, but in the titanic battle between Jesus and Satan, Jesus, “the light,” emerges as the overwhelming victor.[2] 
There is no question that darkness and light occupy the same culture in many of the world’s cultures. Those in whom Christ dwells, the Christian community, are the children of the light. The unbelievers that reject Christ are referred as children of darkness.

The second point is that a little later in his gospel, John informs us why ungodly cultures prefer the darkness rather than the light: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.[3] 

The world not only loves the darkness, but they also are fearful that their evil deeds will be exposed if they step into the light. Sinners love their sin. If you thought gay marriage, and polygamy and abortion are human rights issues, you could not be more mistaken. These are all sin issues, issues of a very dark, godless culture that seeks to have things its own way. No amount of social or political activism will change the darkness in our culture to light.

What then is the Christian to do? Are we to wrangle over sinners living sinful lifestyles? Our response should not be one of simple outrage over the attack on the family, or even on the lives of innocent unborn babies. Our shock should be the utter contempt in which God is held. But that shock should be an expected shock if you will pardon the oxymoron. Paul had an emotional response to the idolatry he witnessed in Athens, but it was predictable. What should we do? How should we think about this when we are alone and contemplating the evil around us? What should we do about it? Should we talk about it? Should we vote about it? Should we seek to force the godless culture to live by godly values if at all possible? What exactly is the Christian community to do about the godless cultures in which they find themselves?

Many modern politically active Christians claim that political activism is the equivalent of letting our "light shine" and of being "the salt of the earth." Others believe these good works are the outward behaviors of righteous living. I am convinced by Jesus' reference to the Law that He was alluding to righteous living. Jesus says we are the salt of the earth. Scholars are not sure what Jesus was referring to specifically when He called us the salt of the earth. He could have been alluding to rock formations that contain sodium chloride. These were used to preserve meat. He could have been alluding to the salt collected from the Dead Sea through the process of evaporation. He could have had in mind the salt blocks used by Arab bakers to line the floor of their ovens. “Jesus may be citing a well-known proverbial saying. When rebuffing a trick question, Rabbi Joshua ben Haniniah (c. a.d. 90) apparently alludes to a proverbial saying when he asks, “Can salt lose its flavor?” The context of the saying implies that it is impossible for salt to lose its flavor, because he parallels the saying by asking, “Does the mule (being sterile) bear young?” (b. Bek. 8b). Sterile mules can no more bear young than can salt lose its flavor.”[4]

In other words, one cannot be light and darkness both at the same time and in the same place. This would point to the fact that the disciples of Christ could not possess the qualities of a disciple and not possess the qualities of a disciple at the same time. The fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5 comes to mind.
Peter tells his audience to “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.” (1 Peter 2:12) Paul emphasizes this sort of conduct in 2Cor. 8:21, “for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.”[5] 
In a culture obsessed with shame and honor, Greco-Roman writers were quick to emphasize that leaders and other beneficiaries of the public trust must be open and of irreproachable moral credentials. Judaism also stressed that charity collectors must act irreproachably to prevent even false accusations.[6] 
Outward moral reform was clearly not in view in the gospels, nor is it found anywhere in the writings or rhetoric of the NT sermons. Paul tells us to “prove ourselves blameless and innocent children of God above reproach in the midst of an immoral generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:15)

The biblical mandate for the Christian is to live a certain lifestyle before the world, not necessarily to tell a godless culture that it must comply with Christian principles or else. The Christian message is the gospel of repentance. The “or else” has nothing to do with temporal punishment and everything to do with the coming wrath of a Holy God. We will continue to write about the wrong-headed thinking of so many Christians as it relates to how we are to think about and interact with the respective godless cultures in which we find ourselves. The goal of the Christian life is to honor God before men. That means being the light and the salt He has called us to be and unflinchingly proclaiming the gospel of Christ, making disciples everywhere we go!

In summary then, Jesus and His apostles left us with clear instructions to live a life that was above reproach, to let our light shine, to hold to a standard of ethics that was of immeasurable worth. He commanded us to proclaim that gospel without apology. He instructed us to walk in love toward one another and those without, to be at peace with each other, and to walk in unity. He even commanded us, as part of our living in this life, to be continuously making disciples. But not one time did Jesus ever suggest, imply, infer, or even hint that our aim, our goal as a community was to impact the morality of the culture in which we find ourselves. The idea that Christianity has a divine imperative to shape the moral values of a godless and immoral culture in any way other than through godly living and preaching the gospel is a modern impulse derived from a rationalistic and naturalistic view of the Christian religion.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jn 1:5.
[2] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: John, Acts., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 7.
[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Jn 3:19.
[4] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 36.
[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 2 Co 8:21.
[6] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 2 Co 8:20–21.

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