As a young visiting preacher, I sat on the back row in an auditorium adult Bible class listening to a discussion of Romans 12. “Do not be conformed to this world…” the teacher read aloud. “How is it that we are conformed to the world?” he asked. The first voice to answer suggested that we are conformed to the world when we used “these new-fangled Bible translations.” He had thought about this. “If God had meant Bible study to be easy,” he editorialized, “he would not have given us the King James Version.” Impeccable logic.
I remembered this story as I read the numerous responses to my last two blogposts that suggested that my position was little more than trading cultural values for God’s values. I was simply conforming to the world.
This is an easy accusation, and in most cases is overly simplistic. At its worst, it’s the convenient charge to simply dismiss changes we don’t like, for instance, using translations other than the KJV.
First, all of us ignore certain biblical commands and injunctions. With regards to gender issues in the church, most ignore the injunctions against women braiding hair with gold or pearls and wearing expensive clothing even though these come precisely in the same context and under the same rationale that forbids a woman to teach a man. (Not to mention that some men most opposed to gender inclusion would be the last men to raise hands while praying, another related teaching in this text).
We know intuitively that not only do some things change from the world described by the Bible, but that they should. The big example here is slavery. The Bible assumes the institution of slavery and doesn’t condemn it. In fact, advice is given to slaves in order to make them good slaves. But I doubt any readers of this blog would say that slavery under any condition is an appropriate practice in our world, especially for Christians. But preachers in the South before the Civil War did argue that slavery was a part of a God-ordained social order and that those opposed to slavery were simply caving to societal pressures. Similar arguments were made during the civil rights movement. I read a book when I was in high school from the ACU library written by a Bible professor from another Christian college that argued that the civil rights movement was a communist strategy to weaken the moral fiber of America. Talk about conforming to the world! But I doubt many readers of this blog would view letting black people sit where they want on a bus to be a way we are conforming to the world.
But I think even bigger factors go unrecognized when the charge of conforming to the world are made. The fact is, the earliest Christians believed that part of the gospel’s genius was its ability to find expression in every human culture. It’s adaptability was what made Christianity a universal religion. It was a value of the gospel, a demonstration of the continuing relevance of the incarnation wherein God made himself known within the limits of time and space. I like Mark Heim’s declaration that we won’t know the full meaning of the gospel until it has gone every place in every time.
In other words, the earliest Christians didn’t view the cultural trappings of people receiving the gospel only as an inimical set of values that had to be overcome. Rather, they found ways in many cases to express the gospel in new and dynamic ways. Exhibit A that this is the case is the fact that the earliest Christians decided that the story of Jesus could be told in a language other than the one Jesus actually spoke. And as people who translate will tell you, the act of translation changes meanings. You lose things. You gain things. And this impulse continues. We all read in our native languages. None of us went to learn Greek or Hebrew as children so that we could understand our faith in its more pristine cultural idiom. Contrast our experience to that of most Muslims who pray in Arabic or to Jews who attend Hebrew school. In terms of an adaptive strategy vis-a-vis cultures, Christianity has always been aggressive.
So, Christianity is always learning to say yes and no to the things it finds in new cultural contexts. It doesn’t just say “yes,” and it doesn’t just say “no.” Take, for instance, the New Testament’s use of “household codes.” This refers to instruction typical in Greco-Roman societies that addressed household relations, e.g. master-slave, husband-wife, fathers-children. The New Testament writers use this common form, and by doing so, preserve in some ways the hierarchical distinctions being made between masters and slaves, husbands and wives, and fathers and children. So, they said yes to a cultural form they found because they too conceived of life in relation to a household.
But even in adapting to this form they challenged it. The clearest place where this takes place might be in Ephesians 4, where Paul introduces a household code with the phrase “Submit to one another, out of reverence for Christ.” All members of the household are called to submission, not just slaves, wives, and children. So, the earliest Christians are saying both yes and no to the world in which they are doing mission. They are adapting, but in a complex way.
This complexity is due to the fact that there is no clean distinction to be made between faith and culture. There is no part of the gospel that is not cultural, in the sense that the gospel is expressed through language and rituals and practices that are part and parcel of making meaning as humans. The church doesn’t stand outside of culture to determine beforehand what its relationship with it should be. It is always inescapably within it, making Christian meaning in ever-changing circumstances over time.
Now, this makes people nervous. If we are always making Christian sense from within culture, then how we will keep the faith. One way to deal with this complexity is to deny that it exists. And the most common form of denial is to turn the Bible into a fortress that stands over against the tide of culture. For the Bible to function that way, however, the cultural aspects have to be downplayed and the Bible has to speak with one voice on all matters. The Bible, however, won’t conform to these artificial standards.
The other way forward is to trust the living God to keep his people in each and every circumstance within the story of redemption the Bible tells in all of its rich complexity. This is to trust the Holy Spirit.
So, is my position on gender inclusion a conformity to the world? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly don’t think so. Am I just trading societies values for “biblical” values? Maybe, maybe not. But I do feel like I’m honoring the very way the earliest Christians thought about how the gospel adapted itself to every cultural context.