Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cultural Renewal, the Church and Tim Keller

In the wake of mass defections from the church, especially among the youth, the question of the church has received renewed interest: “What is the church and what is its role?” Consequently, more radical definitions are gaining attention – “an instrument for cultural renewal,” “a conversation,” “a protective place of nurturing.”

Despite the many definitions regarding the mission of the church, Scripture is remarkably consistent. The church is the Body of Christ, created out of the Gospel and for the Gospel.

Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to the good seed of the Gospel, which, when sowed in the right soil, produces a great harvest (Matthew 13). His Great Commission directed His disciples to sow this seed of the Gospel:

  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20) 
Making disciples depended upon spreading this Good News. Growth and maturity required the same truth-food:

  • To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Embracing the Gospel had profound consequences. This is partially why the post-resurrection church devoted themselves to the teachings of the Apostles (Acts 2:42; 4:33). Paul committed the Ephesian elders "to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)

By the Spirit, the Word of the Gospel can transform us and provide a bounteous inheritance. It both saves and edifies. Therefore Paul warned that any real growth had to be according to the Gospel of our Lord (1 Cor. 3:11), which required diligent protection.

The implanted Gospel is transformational and therefore should also affect the fields in which it grows. The Gospel has already transformed society. Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, in a review in the Sunday Times of Niall Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, carries a quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in which he tries to account for the success of the West, to date:

  • “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.
  • “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.
  • “Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.
  • “But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.”
 The Gospel and salvation carry powerful implications. Therefore, I cannot fault pastor and writer Tim Keller too strongly in stating:

  • The whole purpose of salvation is to cleanse and purify this material world.
  • The whole purpose of salvation is to make the world a great place.
  • God sees this world as not a temporary means to salvation…But salvation is a temporary means to the end of this material creation, to the renewal of creation.
  • Saving souls is a means to an end of cultural renewal. (Spoken at an “Entrepreneur’s Forum” sponsored by Redeemer PCA: 
We are not only saved to enjoy and worship our Savior forever; we are also saved for the great privilege of serving. The second Great Commandment highlights our responsibility to our fellow human beings, to love our neighbor as ourselves. One way to do this is to protect our environment – both physical and vocational.

Keller is correct to insist that the Gospel and salvation have a purpose. When we truncate the Gospel by forgetting this purpose, we make the church seem irrelevant and loose our influence within a society that fails to see our influence.

Keller correctly points out that if our concern is evangelism, we should be interested in cultural/societal renewal. It often happens that when the transformational power is brought to bear upon society that eyes will open and mouths will cease spewing forth their invectives.

However, Keller goes too far in a number of ways. To say that the “whole purpose of salvation is to make the world a great place,” misses much of the big picture – our own transformed lives, proclamation of the Gospel, the New Heavens and the New Earth, and our relationships with others and with our Savior.

Besides, if cultural renewal is to be our goal, Keller fails to give sufficient attention to the mighty outpourings of the Spirit, which have transformed society. Indian Scholar Vishal Mangalwadi writes about the powerful revival, nurtured by the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield:

  • The biblical revival affected the lives of politicians. Edmund Burke and William Pitt were better men because of their Bible-believing friends. They helped redefine the civilized world…Perceval, Lord Liverpool, Abraham Lincoln, Gladstone, and the Prince Consort, among others, acknowledged the influence of the Great Awakening. The biblical revival, beginning among the outcast masses, was the midwife of the spirit and character values that have created and sustained free institutions throughout the English-speaking world. England after Wesley saw many of his century’s evils eradicated, because hundreds of thousands became Christians. Their hearts were changed, as were their minds and attitudes, and so society – the public realm – was affected. (The Book that Made your World)
  • The following improvements came in a direct line of descent from the Wesleyan revival. First was the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the industrial workers in England. Then came factory schools, ragged schools, the humanizing of the prison system, the reform of the penal code, the forming of the Salvation Army, the Religious Tract Society, the Pastoral Aid Society, the London City Mission, Muller’s Homes, Fegan’s Homes, the National Children’s Home and Orphanages, the forming of evening classes and polytechnics, Agnes Weston’s Soldier’ and Sailor’s Rest, YMCAs, Barnardo’s Homes, the NSPCC, the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the list goes on. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people behind these movements were Christians.
Perhaps even more troubling is what Keller omits from the game-plan. When we send troops into battle, we not only instill them with a transcendent vision for what they can accomplish, but also the dangers and hardships they will have to endure along the road. Jesus warned His troops:

  • "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” (John 15:18-20)
However, this kind of warning seems to be noticeably absent from Keller’s marching orders. Instead, there is little warning about the devices of the enemy, and there is little acknowledgment that they are enemies of the Gospel (Rom. 8:5-8).
Keller is not alone in minimizing certain “distasteful” Gospel truths – truths that portray the radical distinction between the saved and the unsaved. Emergent Church pastor, speaker and writer, Doug Pagitt, puts it this way:

  • We are connected to each other as well. Christians like to talk about community, yet the dualistic [us-them] assumptions surrounding our theology make it almost impossible for us to experience true community. As long as we hold on to “us” and “them” categories of seeing the world, we live behind a barricade that prevents us from joining in with God and others in real and meaningful ways. And it doesn’t really matter who we decide “them” is – the non-Christians, the sinners, the liberals, the conservatives, the Jews, the Catholics, that weird church on the other side of town. Division is division, no matter how righteous we want to make it sound. (A Christianity Worth Believing, 91-92)
Although I have never heard Keller to speak in this extreme manner, the absence in his teaching of any “dualistic assumptions”  – saved vs. unsaved, children of light vs. children of darkness (1 Cor. 2:14; John 3:19-20), new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) vs. children of the devil (John 8:41-44), Body of Christ vs. the world –  is deafening. 

To operate in the world, we have to understand the world. The New Testament is filled with warnings about the wicked heart of man, the resultant false teachings of the world, and the threat they pose to the church (Mat. 7:15; Mark 8:15; 13:5-6; Col. 2:8; Titus 1:9-11; Rev. 2:2, 14).

Consequently, cultural renewal without the necessary Gospel-truth-tools becomes a ticket to assimilation. Many go forth from Keller’s church armed with the idea that if they can just love enough, the world will see the light and want Christ. However, it was the world that crucified the Christ, the perfect model of love.

There is little appreciation of the fact that salvation is a supernatural gift to us who dwell in abject darkness and are enemies of God (Rom. 8:5-8; 5:9-10). Consequently, without being born again, the world will merely become more arrogant and hardened to the Gospel in the midst of their improved environment. This means that we should be very guarded in our optimism about changing the world.

However, the Redeemerites are ill-equipped to deal with this reality. They go forth as the unarmed Russian troops had during the First World War as they stormed the German invaders, hoping to pick up a fallen gun as they bravely made their charge. Redeemerites fail to perceive the radical distinction between saved and unsaved and face an enemy they cannot see or understand. They think that if they simply party with the world, they will be accepted and the world will accept their faith. Instead, it is more likely that the salt will loose its saltiness.

As an example of social renewal, Keller admits that we cannot simply join the Harvard faculty and expect to change it. However, he suggests an alternative – we can create a “think-tank” to influence them.

However, as long as Christians remain ill-equipped, the influence runs in the other direction. We send our Christian youth to the university, even many “Christian” ones, and they return as secular clones, either lost to the church or so badly compromised that they are almost indistinguishable from the secular world. Meanwhile, they are convinced that they have been enlightened and therefore look down on Evangelicals.

Evangelism – the proclamation of the Gospel – also seems to be conspicuously missing from Keller’s program. Understandably, it can be argued that since the Gospel has been so thoroughly discredited in the West, we first have to earn the right to be heard. This is reasonable, but this doesn’t seem to be part of Keller’s strategy. Instead, he pejoratively refers to evangelism as “increasing the tribe” – in other words, the in-group, the “us vs. them” mentality.

Instead, Scripture refers to the proclamation of Gospel as central and indispensable:

  • That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:15-16)
It is sad that we have become ashamed of the Gospel, because of all the contempt poured out upon it. However, it is hubristic to think that we can change society without its proclamation. Besides, such an expectation would place an intolerable burden upon us to look and act better than others so that they will want what we have.

Instead, we are a motley crew. God has chosen the rejects of this world so that boasting would then become difficult (1 Cor. 1:26-29). As hard as I try, I must admit that many unbelievers look better than me and perhaps in this life, they always will. This is partially because our impressions are limited to the mere appearance of things (1 Sam. 16:7). Consequently, if my evangelistic hope rests upon the superiority of my character, my hope is a false one – one that will be disappointed.

Instead, our hope is in the proclamation of Gospel and the Spirit who validates it in those who are being saved. Through this, we are a “sweet smelling savor,” but this miraculous savor seems to be exclusively associated with the presentation of the Gospel (2 Cor. 2:14-17). Therefore, if we trust in God, we are constrained to trust in His methods, even if despised by the world. To go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6) in this regards – to place our hope in other methods – is to place our hope in ourselves. This is a hope that will suffer a hasty demise.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in social projects. However, we must do so with right expectations, preparations and methods. If we want to have a sanctifying influence on this world, we cannot dismiss Jesus’ means of sanctification:

  • You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3)
  • Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17)
What then is the church? According to Paul, it is “God's household…the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Above all else, the church is about the ministry of the Gospel!

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