This post is a part of a series where I am addressing the churchs mission as it pertains (or doesnt) to relevancy within culture. I am trying to build the majority of discussion around John Howard Yoders work in his For the Nations.”
In our previous discussion we looked at how relevancy is often the guiding question for church and mission. If we think of the question in terms of being an axel on a Ferris wheel, it might look something like this.
But I’ll argue a more theological and biblical starting point for understanding the churchs relationship to culture is to begin with the incarnation as a paradigm for the role of church in mission. In this way Jesus is the missionary par excellence, he is our model for missions more so than even Paul. Switching out the axel on our Ferris wheel for a Jesus Axel” we might have something more like this.
With this in mind lets look at what it was like for Jesus to interact with his culture as a missionary. John Howard Yoder names four options Jesus had for engaging with his cultural surroundings: realism, revolutionary violence, withdrawal, and establishment religion.
The Cultural Options of Jesus Time
- A. Realism is the position that believes we cannot start fresh, whatever our problems are, it’s too late to fix them. We need to aim for what is still possible and only what is within reason. This view seeks to see reality the way it really is and start from there. Yoder argues this is the way of the Herodians and Saducees of Jesus’ time (169). I would add this is the position of Reinhold Neibuhrs Christ and Culture.”
- B. Revolutionary violence was the path of the Zealots of Jesus day. These were men who drew their heritage from Joshua and the Maccabees and saw their role as a religio-political and military faction set apart to wage holy war against the evil of their day (171). In Jesus day the Zealots were after the Romans.
- C. The desert was the way of the Essenes. Like the monastics of the early church and more culturally conservative groups like the Amish in our time, the Essenes withdrew from the urban centers of the world in order to maintain holiness and purity. The mindset of withdrawal is focused on protecting the purity of the community and the individuals spiritual life in light of the powerfully forming influence of worldly” culture (173).
- D. And finally, establishment religion was the way of the Pharisees who lived in the urban world but sought to maintain their separateness mainly through religious practices and an oppressive and meticulous reading of the Torah (the word Pharisee means separate). They way they kept themselves apart was through rules and guidelines. But one of the Pharisees most pressing concerns was to avoid revolution by way of not causing any trouble to the Roman government.
The separation of the Pharisees is really not that clean. To avoid revolution means to take the side of the establishment. To say that the church should not meddle with the problem of open housing is to conclude that the house owner and the real estate agent, even if members of the churches, receive no concrete moral guidance from beyond themselves. To say that it is not the business of the church to second-guess the experts on details of political or military strategy, to have judgements on the moral legitimacy of particular laws, is to give ones blessing to whatever goes on” (174).
What created so much rub between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day then was, according to Yoder, the fact that he threatened their noninvolvement. Thus one way we can read the Pharisaic laws and interpretation of the Torah is by viewing their re-interpretation of Torah as a way of reading the Bible so as not to challenge the powers of their day.
Jesus in Culture
So which option did Jesus choose? A, B, C, D or none of the above? Yoder argues that Jesus rejected all these options and instead followed a more hebraic way of dealing with the question of faith and culture (in fact a majority of Yoders cultural understanding relies heavily on a thick understanding of the Hebraic way of life as Jewish life in the Old Testament). This perspective is sort of like seeing oneself as bi-cultural. Jesus gathered around him a distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them” (175). We could think of the early Jesus followers as a society-within-a-society. But it was a society that took its host culture very seriously, while at the same time not accepting its rules and virtues.
Ryan Bolger says,
Jesus did not reject culture; it is where he started with people. He engaged them and spoke their language. Jesus was not countercultural as much as he was nonconformed within culture. As a cultural insider, he embodied a message of life in those places where the culture advocated death. Jesus lived in two realms simultaneously–both within human culture and submitted to the reign of God.*
And Jesus formed his community around this same way of life. It was a community that lived out its life within the urban centers of their world, while having some very distinct practices about it that set it apart. Some of the practicers were voluntary community, there were no second-generation members.” It was a mixed society, racially, religiously (Pharisees, Saducees and Zealots are all known to have been among his lot), and economically. This new society lived by different rules because it lived under the reign of God. They were to deal with offenders through forgiveness, violence through suffering, leadership and domination through subordination and using the gifts of every person, and the corruption of society by creating a new order with the resources of the older tradition not destroying tradition altogether (175-177).
Together this Jesus community became a new people, a political and revolutionary people that rejected their contemporary options and accepted the way of the Kingdom of God. This community is what was and is called the ekklesia, or church. This ekklesia:
- Sought a new world that had not yet been fully realized; a response to realism.
- Rejected all forms of violence, a response to revolutionary violence.
- Was actively engaged in the life of the city and actively sought out the unclean” of their day, a response to the withdrawal from culture.
- Followed Jesus understanding (and interpretation) of the Torah as a way of life under the reign and rule of God (not some other political or religious leader), a response to the establishment religion of the Pharisees.
Jesus did not bring to faithful Israel any corrected ritual or any new theories about the being of God. He brought them a new peoplehood and a new way of living together. The very existence of such a group is itself a deep social chance. This very presence was such a threat that he had to be crucified but such a group is not only by its existence a novelty on the social scene, if it lives faithfully, it is also the most powerful tool of social change (177).
When we turn back to the question of todays church and culture we see that Jesus options are still our options, but we also see that Jesus way of a contrast society-within-a-society that lives within the reign and rule of God still challenges the church to reject a simplistic view of being relevant” in exchange for a much fuller account of who we as the people of God are to be in the 21st century.
*Ryan Bolger, Following Jesus Into Culture, in Jones and Paggitt, Emergent Manifesto of Hope,” page 132.