Posts tagged ‘Spirit of the Age’

How the Church Can Change

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“The God I know is not concrete or specific,” wrote Bishop John Shelby Spong in the opening to his famous and controversial 1999 book, Why Christianity Must Change or DieHe continued by outlining a litany of grievances against Christian orthodoxy.  For instance, calling God “Father” bothered the bishop, who labeled this title as “so male, so dated,” and accused Christianity of using this title to “consistently justify its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity.”  He also took issue with the idea that God would be omniscient, writing:

The Bible, the Church’s sacred textbook, portrays the God of antiquity as acting in ways that violate both our knowledge and our sensibilities today.  If an all-knowing God had really made many of the assumptions that the Bible makes, then this God would be revealed as hopelessly ignorant.  For many biblical assumptions are today dismissed as quite simply wrong.  Sickness, for example, does not result from sin being punished.  Nor does a cure result from our prayers for God’s intervention or from the sense that we have been sufficiently chastised so that the punishment of our sickness might cease.

The only solution, in Bishop Spong’s opinion, was to give up on Theism in search of “another God language.”  In other words, everything in the Christian faith, right down to God Himself, had to change.

Bishop Spong’s two-decade-old sentiments continue to influence our contemporary conversations.  Take, for instance, the comment from California Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi who, when debating the different ways in which people address same-sex attraction, said, “The faith community, like anyone else, needs to evolve with the times.”

The argument that the Christian faith must change is regularly bolstered by the assertion that the Christian message already has changed.  “Christians used to support slavery,” one person might say, “and they changed their view on that.  So why shouldn’t they change their view on ____________?”  One can fill in the blank with whatever fashionable cause célèbre they want.  The divinity of Christ.  The ethics of human life.  The call to love the marginalized.  The contours of human sexuality.

It is true that some Christians have changed their views – not only on slavery, but on other things as well.  But this does not mean that the teachings of Christ have changed.  Christ, for instance, did not celebrate oppressive systems like slavery.  He came, instead, to bring us out of slavery into a new exodus, accomplished by the cross (cf. Luke 9:31).  Christ, then, never changed His view on the evils of slavery.  Christians, however, have been changed by the teachings of Christ.

There are two ways to understand how change in the Church should work.  Either the Christian faith itself should be revised to keep up with the times or Christians themselves can be refined as they study timeless truth in Scripture.  The first understanding makes the faith subservient to the times and its narcissistic celebration of self.  The second understanding makes Christians subservient to the Scriptures and their forming work throughout the centuries.  The Scriptures make it clear which understanding of change they support:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)

Christians should continually be “transformed into Christ’s image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  It would be a tragedy if we were the same people today that we were a decade ago.  By God’s grace and the Spirit’s power, our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should all be growing.  Christians should change.  The Christian faith, however, should not.

The motto of the Reformation was 1 Peter 1:25: Verbum Domini manet in aeternum.  “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”  The Reformers did not want to change the faith, but they did want people to be changed by the faith.  Their goal was to proclaim and explain the faith as it stood – and as it still stands – in the Word of the Lord to the blessing and benefit of all who would receive it.

So, as the Church continues to change, let’s make sure the right thing in the Church is changing – us.

May 27, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

When Cultures Clash

Society 1Three weeks ago on this blog, I shared a quote from The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax that I think brilliantly summarizes a radical shift in our culture:

A generation ago, a person’s religious observance was a public matter, a defining characteristic of one’s identity, while a person’s sexual activity was something private.  Today, this situation is reversed.  A person’s sexual behavior is now considered a defining characteristic of identity, a public matter to be affirmed (even subsidized) by others, while religious observance is private and personal, relegated to places of worship and not able to infringe upon or impact the public square.

The culture clash today is less about the role of religion in business or politics, and more about which vision of humanity best leads to flourishing and should therefore be enshrined in or favored by law.[1]

Sex has become a – if not the – defining characteristic for many in our society.  I recently read an article about a professor who, in a women’s studies course, asked the class to write down the moment they realized they were gay, straight, bisexual, or queer.[2]  For many, one’s sexual awakening has become their road to Emmaus.  It is nothing less than their conversion experience.  I grew up Baptist, and the question I was often asked was, “When did you ask Jesus into your heart?”  Now the question is, “When did you have your sexual awakening?”  Sexuality is what gives many their meaning, purpose, and identity.

As I wrote three weeks ago, as a Christian, I cannot define myself in the way so many in our society have chosen to define themselves.  I must define myself by Christ and His Gospel.  I am, however, well aware that when I define myself in this way, I offend a whole host of societal sensibilities, especially as they pertain to sexuality.

As I’ve been pondering this clash of values, I’ve come to realize that Jesus faced much the same situation.  First century society was rife with sexual standards that were radically different from His.  Take for instance, the emperor of Rome during Jesus’ day, Tiberius Caesar, who, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, enjoyed watching group sex.[3]  This type of sexual licentiousness is, thankfully, offensive to many in our day, but, sadly, nevertheless acceptable and practiced among some.  So how did Jesus respond to sexual ethics that contradicted His own?

First, Jesus was ethically rigorous.  Jesus didn’t compromise His sexual standards in an effort win allies or appear tolerant.  I think of Jesus’ clash with the religious leaders over divorce.  In a world where many religious teachers taught that it was acceptable for a man “to divorce his wife for any and every reason,” Jesus responds, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3, 9).  This sexual standard was so rigorous that Jesus’ own disciples exclaimed, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10).

It was William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, who famously quipped: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”[4]  Jesus was not interested in conforming to the sexual spirit of His age.  We should not be interested in conforming either.

But there is another side to Jesus’ engagement with the sexual spirit of His society.  For at the same time that Jesus was ethically rigorous, He was also relationally generous.  In other words, even if people were in lifestyles He could not condone, He did not shun them.  He loved them.  I think of the woman at the well in John 4.  Or the woman caught in adultery in John 8.  Or the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume in Luke 7.  Jesus cared deeply for these people.  We should too – even if they do not share our ethical commitments.

A faithful Christian response to the sexual standards of our society, then, demands that we answer two questions.  First, where do we stand?  Have we compromised biblical sexual standards to kowtow to the spirit of our age?  If so, no less than the living Lord commands that we hold the line.  But second, who are our friends?  Do we generously befriend those who do not think or live like we do?  If our friends are only those who share our ethical commitments, we have traded Jesus’ love for quarantined law.  And that helps no one.

As Christians, we need both ethical standards and relational grace.  I hope you have both.  You should.  Jesus has given you both.  After all, how do you think He befriended you?

_____________________________

[1] Trevin Wax, “The Supreme Court Agrees With Hobby Lobby, But Your Neighbor Probably Doesn’t,” The Gospel Coalition (6.30.2014).

[2] W. Blue, “When Did You Know You Were Gay?Psychology Today (7.15.2014).

[3] Suetonius, Life of Tiberius 43.

[4] Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christians Believe (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2014), 48.

July 28, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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