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Culture, Truth and Community

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A few of my thoughts adapted from an exchange with a friend:

One of my principal difficulties with the Church of Christ is in their normative hermeneutic of 1st century practice. By that I mean that the practices of the first century are to be continued without change as immutable Law of God, world without end, amen. This quickly devolves, and I think without much possibility of exception, into a rigid, legalistic quibble just as we see it today, as if propagation of the form will somehow reproduce the same results. It cannot possibly do so.

I don’t see it that way any more. In my view the practices must be understood and then contextualized. I don’t mean that the Gospel is relativized at all, but that the expression of the church in a given culture should adapt accordingly.

Just how that is to be done is a matter of many different interpretations. I think that is okay, within reason of course. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all-for-all-time ecclesiastical culture.

A particular trap is being relevant, rather than living out a radical discipleship to the principles of Jesus. There seems to be much of that these days. A sign on a church I passed around New Years said something like this: “A new year… got God in your life?” As if he were some essential accoutrement of a healthy balanced lifestyle. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but that seems to totally miss what Jesus had to say.

A truth that I think I have distilled from my time in Italy is that most people confuse their culture with truth. I trust that is reasonably self-explanatory. That is, most do not ever come to understand that their cultural expression of a particular truth is not truth itself, and that there may be many other ways that some truth may be validly expressed. I think that is why many groups are so insular, or at least have been traditionally. To alter the culture becomes tantamount to altering truth. This I think is the source of many useless squabbles in which we grew up regarding the order of song/prayer/song/communion/sermon and so forth.

Leaving that certainty is difficult; many cannot make it. It is hard work to discern how Jesus would respond today, but ultimately I think it is the only way that we can vitally live the Gospel out in our various settings.

A quick example. The early church practiced a charitable equality well into the 2nd century and probably beyond. I found this in the first apology of Justin Martyr recently; a voluntary collection was taken and distributed to those in need. That is precisely what the collection of I Corinthians was about. It was not just a new law, it was to be a purposive support of those in the larger church that were in need, in that instance Jerusalem. On my view the operative term is ‘purpose,’ not ‘first day of the week.’

That requires a radical shift in thinking in which I don’t live for myself, but for the community, both local and global. It also demands mature leadership and oversight to determine real needs and try to direct the life of the community to those needs. That is what Paul talks about in II Cor. 8, the whole chapter; his conclusion is that there may be equity in the church, in which within the larger body each is about supplying the needs of others.

That is the expression of the Gospel in the church as an eschatological community, not a just a weekly collection. The difference between those two ways of understanding that practice is vast.

John started it all. If you have two shirts, give one to someone who needs it. If someone forces you to do something, do that much again willingly. Why? It isn’t law, that sort of living/giving comes out of a radically altered view of the church as the present manifestation of the eschatological community-to-come, in which equity is to be lived out. The Good Samaritan story is the same ethic: live that way toward all. It isn’t at all that good works save; my Christology is far more robust than that. Yet, when by the Spirit we are changed to think as he does, we will begin to live that out as well.

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