Faith is always contextualized within culture, and therefore the church must continually discern how to be light and salt in its given context. Each generation has not only the challenge but the responsibility to engage in serious reflection. There are always generational rifts where past norms come into conflict with innovation. Each new era brings its own vocabulary, music, understanding of the world, dress, and much more. As difficult as it may be, we must differentiate between our cultural preferences and our theological affirmations.
This is particularly an issue in North America. We are seeing the transformation of our culture in a much more accelerated fashion than what has been seen in the past. Immigration, multiculturalism, and pluralism are reshaping cultural norms. As we move farther away from World War II and the subsequent Cold War, nationalism—a self-awareness of Americans as an elect people ultimately rooted in independence and Christianity—is waning and along with it the accompanying traditional values that once were shared between society and the church. Not only so, but the advances of technology and communications are pushing societal change at an unbelievable pace.
So what does this mean for the church? What do we salvage from culture? What is useful for the church? What is harmful? What can we redeem for our own purposes? How much leniency can we have with regard to cultural expressions from church to church or from minister to minister? Do we abandon or modify previous responses to culture as we seek to respond to today’s culture? Are there any boundaries at all?
The church has always been faced with the issue of culture. The gospel story is filled with cultural nuances from first-century Palestine. The first dispute in the church was between widows of two different cultures. The first major conference in the church was focused on how to proclaim the gospel in foreign cultures. The epistles often address issues that arose from culture.
The priority of theology
Theology is our starting point. Theology is the basis upon which everything rests. It is imperative that we have a solid theological foundation from which we minister. Simply put, theology tells us what is true about God, humans, sin, redemption, the created order, and eternity. Until we can articulate theologically what is true about these things, we are not prepared to have a conversation about culture, methods, politics, preferences, or anything else for that matter. Just as a successful organization aligns all its activities with its mission or vision statement, so a minister and church aligns everything with theology. Everything we do must be consistent with our theology. This does not mean that every program or method is itself theological, but it must be consistent with our professed theological affirmations.
Theology is also the starting point in maintaining fellowship with one another. Until we have discussed theology, discussing matters like vocabulary, attire for worship, music, service formats, and preaching styles is not very helpful. A brisk discussion of theology very well could either end the conversation, for some may realize that they have different theological positions, or it could open up new horizons for conversation as we explore practical ways to flesh out our theology in practical ministry and lifestyle in diverse contexts.
Theology is universal.
It is important to remember that theology is universal. Sound theological positions that are true today were also true in the first century. Theological truth is equally true for all people no matter their cultural, geographical, or historical location. Accordingly, what is theologically true for North Americans is also true for Ethiopians and Russians. Whatever we affirm to be theologically true for Western capitalists must also be true for Chinese Christians cloistered in house churches. There obviously will be different ways of living out our faith in various contexts, but the underlying theological affirmations will not change. In this regard it is helpful and humbling for North Americans to remember that a majority of Christians, including Oneness Pentecostals, live outside of North America and Western Europe. Our theology must work in these places too.
Theology transcends patriotism, politics, and economics.
It is true that theology influences and works itself out in many areas of life; however, that is not the same as saying that all these things, themselves, are theological. Theology transcends what one thinks about pacifism, nationalism, ecology, globalization, immigration, concealed handguns, and other concerns. Now this is not to say that theology does not have a bearing upon these things, for in many cases, it does. (God is deeply concerned about what we do with neighbors and money.)
Positions on patriotism, politics, and economics should never divide fellow believers unless there is a clear theological difference on an underlying core doctrine. A white man in his sixties from the rural South is likely to have very different views from a twenty-something who is the grandson of immigrants in the urban Northeast. Both can be fully American and fully Apostolic, while their opinions can be drastically different, and both can hold credentials with the UPCI and unite around the gospel. At the risk of over-simplifying complicated issues, let us look at two examples.
Global warming. A sound theology of creation will certainly bring one to a sense of stewardship over creation, but it will not render a verdict on whether the earth is warming, and if it is, whether human activity is a factor. This is left to the realm of science and politics. Opinions on global warming vary among Christians. Some believe the earth is warming as a result of human activity. Others do not believe the earth is warming, or if it is, it is not the result of human activity. Both positions cite supporting data. Both positions have the backing of scientists. Both positions are often situated in a particular political context. There is no biblically correct position on global warming. Accordingly, there is no reason why we cannot, and should not, see a wide range of opinions on global warming within the church. Further, there is no need to castigate a fellow believer who has a different opinion on this matter.
Social action. Before we condemn or condone social outreach on a political level, either writing it off as an expression of liberalism or affirming it as a good gesture, we would be better served in the church to have a theological conversation about Christian ethics. Scripture has a lot to say about the poor, the needy, the underprivileged, love, and care for one’s neighbor. Clearly there are many ways to interpret these passages, but any opinion that is rooted primarily outside theology should not divide believers.
Theology transcends culture.
As stated above, multiculturalism complicates things, for there are numerous subcultures in North America. In the United States, for example, there is an overarching American culture, regional cultures (Northeast, Midwest, Deep South, etc.), state cultures, city (urban) cultures, town (rural) cultures, and overlapping all these are family and ethnic cultures. Even still, these categories are sweeping generalizations. All these could be subdivided many times.
Theology must always stand above culture, constantly critiquing and judging. Culture must never be elevated to the status of theology. All of our religious beliefs must be rooted in theology and then expressed in ways that are meaningful in our respective cultures, but we cannot elevate cultural expressions and preferences and make them theological.
One example that could be cited is attire for worship. In some subcultures wearing jeans to church would be disrespectful and would show one’s cavalier attitude toward God. This was true across the board thirty years ago. Wearing jeans in worship still could send this message depending on where one is located and what are the norms for that location. However, it is false to make a generalized claim that jeans are universally inappropriate for worship. In today’s multicultural world, many executives no longer wear suites. In many places formal attire no longer represents what it once did. Now, people even wear casual attire to watch a symphony or opera. In fact, for some, a suit would be inappropriate for worship for it is considered to be the garb of Wall Street and Corporate America, the very symbols of greed and materialism. Others would appeal to the costliness of suits and say that jeans are much more consistent with the simplicity and modesty that Christians ought to exhibit.
No doubt there are various opinions on this, but whatever opinions we may have about such things are mostly rooted in cultural preferences, not theology.
Theology transcends methods.
Church methods and theology are like oil and water: one will always be on top; one will always be in service to the other. But once again, believers should not divide over differences of opinion with regard to method unless there is a clear theological difference behind the method. But we must be careful that our methods truly are consistent with our theological affirmations or else they will betray us. (This is the topic of the next article in this series.)
Why are we talking about this?
If we do not keep theology as our priority we run the risk of passing judgment on those with different political or cultural preferences, even though they are doctrinally apostolic. That would be a tragedy. The flip-side of the coin is this: many have indeed changed their methods and changed a lot of cultural expressions in their churches. If this is truly a cultural preference, no harm has been done. However, we have many—too many—examples from our own history where people began with simple, cultural and methodological changes, all the while assuring us that they still believed our theology, only to eventually wind up making huge theological changes and leaving us. These situations have usually caused a lot of hurt and mistrust. So when we see drastic shifts in church methods or preferences for new cultural expressions, we naturally are concerned.
We all need to be honest with ourselves. If we want to have more relevant cultural expressions in our churches, we need to be honest about our true motives and intentions. If we are indeed wrestling with our doctrinal positions, we need to have the courage to say so, get counsel from trusted elders, and try to reconcile ourselves with the apostles’ doctrine. If we cannot reconcile ourselves to this, we should move on. That is the ethical thing to do. Likewise, if a fellow minister opts for cultural expressions and methods which are different from our own, and if he is committed to apostolic doctrine, we should encourage him in his work; he is doing the work of the kingdom.
So what do you believe?
To make theology a priority means that we need a well-thought-out theology. Do you know what you believe? If you have never written a personal statement of faith, you should. You should take the effort to commit to writing those things that are most important. These questions may help.
What is non-negotiable?
What must I preach in order to be consistent with the New Testament?
What must a sinner believe and do in order to be converted?
What are the marks of maturity in a Christian’s life?
What spiritual disciplines should be exhibited in the life of a mature Christian?
In what ways should a Christian live a separated lifestyle from the world?
What is my obligation to the church?
What is my obligation to the world?
What could cause me to break fellowship with another Apostolic?
What would I be willing to give my life for?
Do I have a solid, biblical basis for these positions?
How do my beliefs compare to the Articles of Faith of the UPCI?
Do I have anyone I can talk to about doctrinal concerns?
This article was simultaneously published in the May-June 2009 Forward.
© Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.