Dealing With Tough Cultural Issues

In light of last weeks post, and in particular responding to Hester’s comments about course language and such, I started thinking about how Christians deal with clashes between the Christian ethic and the cultural ethic. How do we come across? How are we supposed to come across?

Invariably I hear “outsiders” constantly complain that Christians are “judgmental”. The passage they generally have in mind is Matthew 7, when Jesus says “Judge Not”:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:1-6, ESV)

They will say that Christian judgement is full of hypocrisy, and frankly they don’t understand our blatant contradiction of Jesus teaching.

Most Christians understand this passage a little differently and do not see it is a blanket prohibition on judging, but rather that we must not judge without first understanding, accepting, and dealing with our own sin. In fact, in another passage, Paul is quite clear that Christians are to judge:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, ESV)

But oh, there’s a big rub here: are we supposed to be judging the world? There is no ambiguity here, we are not. Our judgement is for within the church: those who identify as believers and are involved in big scandalous sin (in the first verse of 1 Corinthians 5, Paul describes the person he’s talking about as being involved in sexual immortality “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans”). But outside the walls of the church, we can, and should, let God handle it.

In fact, I think looking at the life of Jesus we see this lived out perfectly (no surprise there!). If you read the Gospels with close attention to who Jesus treats gently and who he treats harshly, his harshness is always used for the hypocritical religious leadership, not the unrighteous outsiders. Yes, Jesus got angry enough to wield a whip, but it was within the temple he did so, not in the market. This aspect of Jesus life was the inspiration for the song Nothing Less– that we in the evangelical church would not distort the truth by living devoid of love:

Tell me when did we become

So confident that we are strong

Upholding every law but that of love?

When did we accept the lie

That compassion can be pushed aside

When the truth demands we give both light and love

Nothing less could ever be enough

As the church, our mission is to bring light to the world. We cannot let this light be marred by such grievous sin that our message becomes distorted.  When scandals like sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church or Sovereign Grace Ministries occur, we need to be open about judging and dealing with the sin in our own ranks. If we do not, we risk being seen as a threat of darkness rather than a hope of light.

So given that we are to judge within the church but not the world, how are we to interact when it comes to difficult issues, especially when we are convinced that the values of the world do not line up with scripture? Should we withdraw away, slink into the shadows, and give up? Is this consistent with the Great Commission?

There isn’t a lot of scripture showing the clash between Christians and non-religious. Usually the emphasis in the New Testament is on dealing with corrupt religious leadership. However, there is one place where we have an account of Paul clearly dealing with unbelievers: his sermon at Mars Hill in Athens:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:22-34, ESV)

I find this evangelism by Paul very interesting, almost more for what he doesn’t say than what he does. Paul is addressing a culture completely ignorant of Jesus and the Gospel. They are involved in all manner of sinful lifestyle, sensuous and idolatrous. American culture has nothing on these folks. But while he clearly identifies that they are in rebellion against God and need to repent, he doesn’t spend his time enumerating and publicly lambasting their individual sinful behaviors; instead he shows understanding of their philosophy and search for meaning, and then provides an answer in the Gospel. In fact, he shows them that they already had part of the truth, but that he could complete the picture for them. In one of the most sinful epicenters in history, he didn’t spend time trying to convince them of their sinfulness, but rather showing them the answer to the true yearning of their hearts. Many rejected him, but some wanted to know more.

Many people will say we have to be absolutely clear on issues like homosexuality so that people know their sin and therefore how to repent, but this is where I must differ. I think the issue behind all sin is where our hearts lie: in idolatry against God. I believe Paul didn’t explain to the Athenians their sins because  he assumed their deceitful hearts already knew. He didn’t show sick people their sickness, but rather the cure. And no, not everyone responded. People mocked him. But some believed. I think the same is true in modern culture. Deep down, people are aware that they are sick and need a healer. They may not be willing to admit it, but that is beyond our mission. Our job is to identify and present the healer.

I understand that when issues become political to the point where we are forced to behave in ways that are against our beliefs (for example, being coerced by law to participate in a homosexual wedding), we end up having to take a stand. When we are asked a direct question, we may have to be clear about exactly what we believe (though there are times that Jesus avoided direct questions because it was not yet an appropriate time to answer; we do not always have to answer). But we must keep in mind that the world is not ours to judge: our mission there is to make disciples. The more we can focus on identifying hope to the world and how to receive that hope, the better. And to be clear, the hope for a person entrapped by any sin is not to perform better and sin less, but to earnestly seek Jesus and turn from an idolatry of self.

My friend Jenny Hintze on Facebook recently wrote these words, and I think they have incredible wisdom:

If we saved whatever tough conversations or difficult thoughts that we have for face to face conversations with those whom we have earned the right to speak freely with, we would have a lot less thoughts to share.

I imagine that Paul in Athens had to have a lot of “tough conversations” with folks who came seeking Jesus. Maybe there were those who wanted to respond, but had a lot of sinful habits and idols accumulated over the years. Those tough conversations do have to happen, and I know they aren’t easy, but at the least they can take into consideration the real person, who has an identity, hurt, pain, and hope, and not end up devolving into vitriolic soundbites hurled across ideological walls.

So my answer to dealing with tough cultural issue is to follow Jenny’s advice: let’s be very open about hope and what it takes to grab hold of it, not feeling that we have to be ashamed of our beliefs, but focusing as much as we can on earning the right to have face to face conversations. I think that’s what Paul did on Mars Hill, and I think it’s the pattern for most effectively dealing with culture clash between God’s ethic and the ethic of the world.