Culture and Change
“Mature Christians and Christians in places of responsibility, must summon the courage to distinguish, under the Holy Spirit, between unchangeable biblical truth and the things which have merely become comfortable for us. Often one hears people speak of “the simple gospel only,” when in reality they do not really care enough… to face what preaching the simple gospel may mean in a changing and complex situation.”
-Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There
I like this quote because implicit in it is the realization that there are both changeable and unchangeable parts in Christianity. Schaeffer saw that as the “changing and complex situation” we live in changed over time so too would Christianity have to change to fit it. Schaeffer wrote much about how he was afraid that Christianity did not see the changes in the world around it and so did not fully adjust itself to address those changes. In his mind this is a terrible thing because the Church continues to build up defenses on fronts at which there is no longer any battle raging, meanwhile other areas of the truth are under attack without anyone even seeing or fully understanding what is going on. But there is a danger here that it is clear that Schaeffer sees if you read the rest of the book, that is the danger of acting as though the church were a chameleon and is most truly fulfilling its calling when it fully blends in with its surroundings. As Christianity is in one sense changeable it is in another sense unchangeable. To embrace either one to the exclusion of the other is to risk either becoming irrelevant to the present culture or indistinguishable from it. In both cases the church loses the power to “preach the gospel in exactly the area where it is under attack,” in which case “it has not preached the gospel at all.” In the first scenario it loses that power because the culture has begun to ask different questions (and ask them desperately) than the church is holding out answers to. In the second scenario it loses its power because the church will begin speak with the voice of the culture, using all the same language but with the meaning of the words hollowed out to fit what the culture already values, and so it will be unable to awaken the world in any of the places where it sleepily walks toward slaughter.
So how does the church walk the line between the changeable and the unchangeable when “cliffs lie on either side,” as Schaeffer said? He seems to say that the church must have the courage to look honestly at itself see those places where it is holding out a message that for any reason falls short of the full gospel. If that honest looks reveals something that needs to change, then the church must have the courage to make those changes. But in doing this it must avoid the danger of bowing to another master than God. The pitfall which is present if Christians begin to act as though the truth were entirely changeable is that something else becomes the master, something else begins to dictate what is true and how that truth must be lived out other than God’s revelation. The culture, however much it changes, must never hold supremacy. What our culture values at the time is not the grid by which we understand what scripture is saying or who God has revealed himself to be, the reverse is true. God’s revelation is the standard by which we judge what is true in culture and where culture has taken the truth and twisted it and begun to live by a different gospel.
At times parts of culture will agree with parts of Christianity, and at other times there will be sharp disagreement. The important thing is that we never make the mistake of marrying culture and Christianity in our minds and being more loyal to our own cultural biases than to the gospel. Yes, Christianity must be relevant to the culture that it exists in, but relevancy is not king; Christ is King. No cultural movement is the groom to which the church is promised, that place belongs to another and that is the promise the church must remain faithful to.