Cultural Norms

Like water is to fish, our culture is all around us, so we don't even notice it!

This chapter is developed from the unpublished book, Stop Going to Church and Become the Church, by John Alexander. It was the basis for part of a two-day Otago Ministers' Retreat led by Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips.

In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul gives us a glimpse of what the Church's purpose may be: it is to fulfil "the plan of the mystery, hidden for ages in God" (v9).Wow! And what might that plan be? He tells us in verse 10: "That through the Church the manifold wisdom of God now be made known to the principles and powers in the heavenly places."

Yes, this Church, which Paul calls the resurrected Body of Christ, is charged with this eternal purpose, and does so "filling the universe in all its parts," as he says at the end of chapter 1 of Ephesians.

Is this anything like our vision of the Church today? Is this the language that you and I use to talk about the Church? Is this in any way even part of our thought processes in twenty first century New Zealand? Or does the grandeur-the breath-taking wonder-of Paul's vision of the church point to what is missing in our notions of Church today?

How, you might ask, will we know when we are on the way to experiencing the Church in its fullest sense, in the sense that Paul described it in Ephesians? We'll know this when we are sharing our lives with other Christians in such a way as we depend on each other, and that we:

  • Love each other
  • Serve each other
  • Live in unity with each other
  • Speak the truth to each other in love.

This is not an easy lesson for people in our times. Becoming the Church is a lot harder for us than it was for first century Ephesians and all the others who have read Paul's words through the ages.

This is because our culture has lost the sense of the corporate. I use corporate in its secondary usage here, that of "relating to a unified body of individuals", rather than a "big corporation." This shift has put us at a real disadvantage in transforming the Church into the holy household, the temple-family, the living, interdependent body that reveals God to the wider community.

It is not our fault-we don't have any say into which culture we are born, or what the prevailing values are at the time we live. But we must face the fact that we find ourselves today living at a time of a profound cultural malaise. We live in a culture destructive of community building, detrimental to body forming, and unsupportive of self-sacrificial love.

Having been soaked in the values of the prevailing culture we invariably bring 21st century, individualistic glasses to the Bible, to our faith, and to our concept of church. We tend to see in the Bible only what our culture trains us to look for.

Instructions like those in Paul's letters are not primarily to guide individual Christians in their dealings with the world. They are about living with those to whom we are joined in the local church, bearing one and other in love, growing one and other up into the full stature of Christ.

Our confusion about such things grows out of deep cultural distortions that affect us all. These distortions are so basic to our culture that they are almost invisible to us, but they are like deadly viruses undermining the will and ability of Christians to come together and be the church.

John Alexander has summed up these distortions in the acronym FIRE-freedom, individualism, rights, and equality. These are the core values in Western cultures today. They are so pervasive, so universally accepted, that it is hard for us to imagine anything else. Let's define our terms:

  • Freedom. The freedom to choose one's future, to choose one's religion, to choose one's brand of laundry detergent, to choose one's electricity supply company-faith in one's personal freedom is a fundamental tenant throughout the Western world. Because I'm free to choose what's best for me , so what if I get bored with one church and switch to another? So what if I get a job in another town and change churches again? Where freedom is paramount, commitment is odd or unusual. So churches don't even require it. Eventually Christians sitting together in church have so few roots, so few connections that it becomes impossible to speak the truth, let alone in love.
  • Individualism. We sometimes poke fun at the self-sufficient Kiwi bloke who can fix any problem with a piece of number 8 wire, who never needs anyone's help-even asking someone for directions. But isn't the rugged individual of either sex our ideal? Hasn't our culture instilled in us the over-riding value in being in control of one's life, of being the master of one's destiny? How do we compare a society of such independent free-thinkers pursuing their own self-fulfilment with Jesus' instruction to deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow him? How do you get people whose culture teaches self-reliance to become profoundly inter-relational and loving?
  • Rights. There is no word for rights in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. This is a relatively new concept, more or less invented by Enlightenment philosophers, and put into practice by John Locke and the founding fathers of the American Revolution. Rights are self-proclaimed entitlements-entitlements we bitterly resent giving up. Rights denied create victims: joyless people who dwell on past injustices real or imagined. The assertion of rights creates anxiety, sets up competition, and destroys community. Talk of rights has no place in the Church but it is everywhere in our culture.
  • Equality. No doubt, God loves everyone equally. Also I would far rather live in a country where laws are applied equally to all people than where some are exempt. But equality does not mean we all have the same gifts more than it means we all have the same height. Some people are smarter than others, some are wiser, some are blessed with abilities to lead in certain ways. But in a culture like ours that takes equality too far, we don't want leaders we can follow. When they stick their heads up like tall poppies, we knock them down. We say, "I'm as good as you are-why should I listen to you?" There is no chance in such a climate for those given the gifts to lead the church, to use their gifts, to devote their lives to the body, and grow together with others into the full stature of Christ.

These basic values shape our thoughts, our beliefs, our vision for a better world. And they are everywhere. In a globalising world there are few places where FIRE values have not gained an insidious hold. Now FIRE is the cultural paradigm that virtually everyone agrees with. Young and old, liberal or conservative, socialist or capitalist, everyone concurs with FIRE without a second thought. FIRE is so widely accepted that it has become invisible, like water is to a fish.

Take an issue with moral or ethical implications and see FIRE at work. For example we post-modern Westeners may not agree on the acceptability of sex outside marriage. Liberals or conservatives may take very different positions. But nearly everybody agrees that adults must be free to decide on this for themselves, it is an individual's choice. After all, dictating the sexual behaviour of adults violates their rights. Who am I to tell you how to behave? Aren't we equals?

Some people say that we live at a time with no agreed-upon values. I think they're wrong. We have a thoroughly developed and almost universally accepted value system based on freedom, individualism, rights, and equality. The problem isn't that we don't have values. The problem is that our current values have pre-empted or stifled Biblical values. They aren't values that build community or create churches whose members speak the truth in love.

What then are we to learn from scripture to become the Church in a world consumed by FIRE? There are probably hints on every page, but I'll conclude with just a few verses from Paul's letter to the Colossians, (3:12-15).

"You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one and other and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against anyone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love which binds all things together in perfect unity. The peace which Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in one body. And be thankful."

"Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches"