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|10th October, 1999|
We are all influenced by our culture. That cultural influence impacts even our Christian faith unknown to most of us. Some cultural influences in Australian society today are setting the tone for our community values and political policies.
We are dominated more by economic policies than anything else. For the last two decades the defining principle in our culture has been that we improve our quality of life by improving our standard of living. Our focus has been on material benefit, and expecting from Governments policies that would deliver us a better standard of life. Our national economy has never been so good, and we are economically better off than ever.
Yet polls show that people are pessimistic. Researcher Hugh Mackay has said "People believe that Australia's future is bright, but they are troubled by the feeling that so much emphasis is placed on the need for economic growth - and personal wealth - that quality of life is often a casualty." Governments hold as a top priority improvement of economic standards. Yet people say their top priorities are not prosperity but quality of family life, security of employment, and personal care when in ill-health. Culture tells us there is an economic solution to our problems. Experience tells us the supposed solution is actually the problem. Some cultural influences in the Australian Church today are more insidious. In the last two weeks I have listened carefully to several Church leaders. Each referred to cultural mores being essential Christianity rather than to Biblical mores.
For example, I heard of two leaders speaking not of Christianity but spirituality. That is a cultural expression that has become political correct. They were promoting spirituality not Christianity, Jesus not the church. These church leaders are speaking as if we can divide spirituality from Christianity and Jesus from the church. They obviously have not thought through their statements. Geoffrey Robertson would have made mincemeat of their logic in a hypothetical. Jesus did not come to improve the quality of our spirituality. This is new age philosophy. God was not incarnate among us to improve our spirituality, but to save us from our sins. He incorporates us into His body, the Church. You cannot have Him without His body the Church, and spirituality, without Christianity, is an empty shell.
I have heard one deriding those who stress the uniqueness of our faith saying we should accept the beliefs of all people as being equally valid. They call this pluralism. But pluralism is the enemy of Christianity. It denies the words of Jesus "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It denies the significance of the Cross and His shed blood for the sins of the world. It denies the authority of Scripture. All religions are not equal. We do not all worship the same God and we are all not heading for the same destination. You cannot be a Christian and a pluralist at the same time. But this is a culturally accepted concept. These viewpoints are opposed to traditional Christian faith. I heard another say the church needs to be inclusive of all people and their behaviour.
In a prayer, one person said we have to accept, within church leadership, people regardless of their culture, behaviour, whether they were gay or straight, immoral or people with HIV-Aids. Everyone agrees that such people are welcome in the church. But the prayer was welcoming into church leadership such people without any changes in their behaviour. The whole Biblical concept of being born again, of being saved from sin and of living a life of holiness, was ignored.
I have heard our culture is one of whatever anyone thinks or feels is valid for that person regardless of the Body of Christ as a community of faith. Their philosophy of individualism denies the discipline of the community and promotes as true whatever an individual may think or feel. A national church leader said we must accept the life-stories of people as basic for the way our church is ordered. What was important was their experience should be heard and become the basis of our church order. But the church's order and faith is under the authority, not of people's feelings and experience, but of Scripture.
There is a need today for Christians to stress Christianity as our key commitment not spirituality. We need to stress the uniqueness of our faith rather than the pluralism of others' beliefs. We need to stress our openness to all other people without the acceptance of their standards of behaviour. We need to stress the sense of the church as a community rather than the priority of individualism. We need to stress the authority of Scripture rather than the authority of a life-story.
1. THE CULTURE CONFLICT.
We come from distinctive cultural backgrounds and we must learn the difference between what stems from our cultural heritage and what is essential to our faith. What is essential will abide, and what is cultural may change. You may have grown up at a time when it was said you could not be saved unless you abstained from using make-up, avoided picture theatres, ballroom dancing and billiards! For people add their own cultural ideas. But there is a difference between faith and culture. We need to learn that lesson for the new century. We tend to Christianise our culture. We take our behaviour patterns and baptise them, saying, "That is Christian." But there is a difference between what is essential to the faith and what is simply cultural.
When Paul entered the great cities of the Mediterranean world in the first century, he spoke to the citizens of each city understanding their culture. The early church faced the issue constantly as the Jewish culture tried to contaminate the essence of Christianity. They insisted Jewish cultural traditions had to be observed by Christians. This included having all baby boys circumcised, not eating shellfish and pork, and having all food kosher killed. When Christianity spread into the areas we today call Turkey, Greece and Rome it faced a new set of cultural demands. This included the acceptance of slavery, Emperor worship and oaths of loyalty to the state. Paul had a clarity of vision when it came to seeing what was essentially Christian and what was merely a reflection of the culture of the times. We need Paul's clarity of vision today.
At the time of Paul's visit, Athens was in the twilight of the Greek civilisation. She would never recover her glory. Athens had great art, sculpture and architecture. The Parthenon, commenced in 447BC, even to this day, remains one of the world's most pleasing buildings. All about were other temples, theatres, the agora or marketplaces, and the magnificent colonnades of the Stoa of Attulus. Paul walked through these columns debating with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He climbed Mar's Hill, and spoke to the Aeropagus Council. In Sydney, many of our public buildings reflect those of Athens. We lecture on Greek philosophy. Classical Greek, unspoken for 2000 years, is still taught in some of our colleges and universities. As we approach a new century, we must determine what in our culture aids the spread of the Gospel, and what dilutes it to the standards of the world about.
2. SPEAKING TO CONTEMPORARY CULTURE.
If you examine the sermon of Paul to the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia, you would find that Paul starts with the history of the Jews in Egypt, covers their national development, their expectation of the Messiah, and points to the death and resurrection of Jesus as Messiah, and their need to repent and believe. Yet when Paul entered Athens his approach was totally different. He appreciated their culture, spoke their language, and marched to the beat of their drum. V16-17 He spoke to Greeks as people who worshipped God. They had a spirituality. v18a He joined the philosophers in their debates and with the Stoics and Epicureans, who walked in the Stoa of Attulus.
Paul was not afraid to talk about his beliefs in the context of other faiths. 18b-21 He indicated his own unique religious beliefs. He preached "Jesus and the resurrection." v22-23 He acknowledged their religious attitudes: "I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious." He indicated the statues dedicated to gods. "As I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written "To an Unknown God." That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you." He did not preach pluralism. He did not attempt to increase their spirituality. He was proclaiming the uniqueness of Jesus who died for them and was raised by the power of God. He started with their culture and moved to Christianity.
v24-27 He preached that God was the Lord of heaven and earth as the Stoics argued and that such a God did not live in the beautiful temples surrounding them, as the Epicureans argued. v28 He quotes their well known poets. He quotes two poets including Aratus who came from the same area of the Empire as did Paul. "It is as some of your own poets have said..."v29-30 He moves from local interests to the everlasting God. The Creator and ever-present provider for them all, demands from us righteous living and has fixed a day of judgement for us all, calling upon us to turn from our wicked ways. He was not accepting their life-story and immoral ways. Instead v31 He leads to Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Like every good preacher, Paul leads his hearers to the Gospel, and to their response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
v32-34 He found a typical response. Some scoffed. Some wanted to hear more. Some believed. It is ironic, that of all the famous philosophers and debaters in the Royal Stoa that day, only three names are known in history and they were the three believers in Jesus Christ: Paul, Dionysios and Damaris.
How wise of Paul, to adapt his message to the city in which he was speaking; to direct his address to the mind-set and philosophy of his hearers; to scratch them where they were itching. But how much wiser than contemporary church leaders! He refused to dilute the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the cultural traditions and standards of his day. He did not give away the essence of the Christian faith in the hope that compromise and change would increase their spirituality. Instead he stressed Christianity. We need to stress the uniqueness of our faith rather than the pluralism of others' beliefs. We need to stress our openness to all other people without the acceptance of their standards of behaviour. We need to stress the sense of the church as a community rather than the priority of individualism. We need to stress the authority of Scripture rather than the authority of a life-story.
As we enter a new millennium, we must hold to the cohesion of Christian culture rather than dilute the faith with the passing trends of modern culture. We understand our culture and to speak to it. Like the Athenians, some scoff at us; some want to hear us some more; and some believe. That's the response in the volatile city. But we hold fast to the faith.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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