I have been contemplating the words from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which he asks God that his followers remain in the world, but that they be not of the world. There is, of course, an inherent tension in these words; a tension that has troubled Christians for centuries. What is the role of Christians in society?
There are some Christians who view the relationship the church should have with the world as one of separation, isolation, and abandonment. Inherent in this approach is an understanding of the world as evil, and culture as the tool of evil. In this view, human societies are lost to sin and have no hope of redemption as societies. Heaven is the reality of God’s will for humans, and thus we ought to separate ourselves from the culture in which we live.
Another approach is one in which Christians engage culture, but only for the purpose of being intolerant and judgmental. Those who take this approach seek to use power, especially political power, to force what they believe to be Christian ideals onto the culture. Indeed, these types of groups force Christianity itself on to culture.
But are these faithful responses we ought to have to culture? Do any of these correspond to the ideas expressed by the teachings of Jesus? I would say no.
Being followers of Jesus means many things for us, but in the context of the question we are asking, it means that though we may be different in the way we understand God from those around us, and we may see the world differently than many in our culture do, and we may have different ideas about what makes a moral society, we can be faithful to our own calling as God’s people by working with others to seek the common good of all. Indeed, I would argue that seeking the common good is exactly what authenticates our faith to the world.
But, I have also come to understand that there is a need for us to recapture the practice of humility within the Christian tradition. There is no doubt that the Christian church has had many centuries of power over the western world, but I think what we are seeing among some Christians in our own political context is appalling. These Christian groups that are seeking power and seeking to push our culture toward a theocracy do not represent the Jesus that is represented in our sacred text; the Jesus who came in humility and service, not in power and might.
Jesus calls us to embrace that same humility and to reflect that humility not only through our actions towards those around us and our embrace all people, but also in our admitting that though we deeply believe in our God and in the teachings of our faith, we do not have all the answers, and we can be dead wrong about things; things about which the very world we think we ought to escape may be very right.
For example, take the Civil Rights Movement in the south and the failure of many white Christians in the south to embrace this movement, citing their religion as the basis for their bigotry. It was the changes in our culture that lead to correct changes in those churches as many of them, but of course, not all of them, moved from being racist congregations to embracing African Americans as full and fellow believers. Once changes in our culture were being made that recognized the rights of all races, then many of those Christians who were against the Civil Rights Movement began to rethink their own theological understanding and rethink their reading of scripture.
Or, take the women’s movement. During a time when women were fighting for equal rights, and when women began to take on important roles in the larger society, the church resisted this, and many denominations refused to allow women to be ordained or to serve as ministers. Some still do. But, as women began to take on these important roles in society, some denominations changed their policies and teachings about women ordination. Again, the progression that was taking place in the larger society caused Christians to rethink their readings of scripture and to reevaluate their theological teachings about role of women in the church.
And, more recently, the push for equality for gays and lesbians in our culture has led a few denominations to at least debate the issue, whereas years before, this issue would not have been on the table. Some denominations have even taken progressive steps on this issue, and polls show that more and more Christians are supporting the rights for same sex marriage. These transformations began outside the church, but Christians who desire justice and fairness have found support for their new positions in their own traditions and in the re-reading of scripture.
What I am trying to say in these examples is that these changes that have brought more justice and equality to these groups of people, though still having far to go, were changes that happened within the culture; within the world some Christians believe we are to stand against.
Does this mean that we are abandoning scripture as the authority for all church doctrine and policies, and replacing it with what the world believes to be moral? I would say no.
Scripture still holds primacy of place for normative Christian faith and practice, and serves as the foundational authority for the church in its existence in the world. But scripture must be interpreted in light of reason and experience. Scripture is what the human biblical author believed to be the revelation of God to his specific historical situation. Yet, scripture lives on through its interpretation in future generations, who must rely on reason and experience to formulate meaning for the church in each specific context.
This means that although the text of scripture continually serves as a basis of authority for the church’s faith and practice, each generation and locality of the church must find its own interpretations that are in conversation with scripture, but that are open to reason and experience. In this way, the Bible remains valid as a source of Christian faith and practice, but the literal interpretation of the Bible now has a rational filter through which the text can be sifted so that it remains relevant to an ever changing world.
And thus, as we read scripture and as we think about church teachings and doctrines, we should be reminded that those outside our Christian faith have a lot to teach us Christians who can be so myopic and narrow-minded in our views to the extent that we care little for the rights of others; rights that we have. In this way, the world serves not as a dangerous place for Christians, but as a place in which Christians can, along with all others, seek the truth that sets us free.
The central command of Jesus to us is not to be morally superior to others in our beliefs, nor to separate ourselves from this world, nor to stand in judgment of the world. The central command of Jesus to us is to love; to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies. If we practice this love with great authenticity, then the issues we face that at first seem questionable to us because of our faith, may become more acceptable if we see the people involved through eyes of love, fairness and justice.