Against privatized Christianity – the cosmic Lordship of Christ…
Contemporary Christianity has been shaped profoundly by the modern assumption that all religion is to be restricted to the personal and private realms of life. Christianity has not disappeared. Rather, it has been relocated with the result that the public arena is devoid of any substantial Christian influence. We now have a “naked public square,” in the words of Richard John Neuhaus.
But this arrangement is contrary to one of the foundational messages of Christianity: The Lordship of Christ extends over all creation. This message is unwelcomed by Christians and seculars alike. For us Christians, a serious consideration of the Lordship of Christ demands reassessment and then repentance for buying into the privatizing assumption of the modern world. For the seculars, the possibility of a publically engaged Christianity stands in polar opposition to their passion for the naked public square.
What to do? Help in answering this question can be found in a two-part essay by Ken Myers, founder of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. In the following excerpt from the first part of “The Church and Cultural Discernment,” Ken lays the groundwork for a discussion of the dualism that is the essence of privatized Christianity.
Facing up to the fact that our message has cultural consequences that may not be welcome is part of what happens when we recognize that the Church is not simply a fellowship of spiritually, internally, invisibly renewed people. We are instead a people who recognize the cosmic Lordship of Christ, who strive to configure our lives as best we can in ways that conform to the kinds of creatures we were originally made to be, and in whom by God’s grace our full humanity will eventually be realized.
Our Lord is the Lord of all Creation; his miracles testify to that, as he calms winds, heals the sick, multiplies loaves and fishes, turns water into wine, raises the dead. He displays the same power and authority that we read about in all those Psalms. He is the Lord of the material world as well as of the spiritual world, commanding the demons and the weather with the same authority. And when he commissions the Church to pursue the vocation of discipleship, he begins by reasserting that authority. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Great Commission is not handed down by one who is qualified by virtue of his religious insights, or just because he paid the ultimate penalty for our sins. The commission given to the Church is in the context of Christ’s Lordship over the cosmos, and the Church’s work must always have that Lordship in view as it makes disciples, teaching them to observe everything the cosmic Lord has commanded. He is not just the Lord over their emotional lives or over their family lives. He is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and his disciples need to be trained to honor that sovereignty everywhere.
The apostle Paul would later summarize the redemptive work of Christ as “a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The order of the cosmos, including the order of human life on the earth in all of its cultural ramifications, finds its purpose and meaning and worth in Christ. Through the blood of his cross, all things are reconciled to God, whether on earth or in heaven.
This is not language that gives the impression that the gospel is just about transforming our inner lives. Christ, the Lord of Creation, is also the second Adam, the one through whom all the purposes of God for humanity in Creation can be rescued and, in the word of Irenaeus, recapitulated, literally, receive a new head.
And God’s purposes for humanity are not private and merely spiritual. “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Till the garden and care for it; name the animals.” Wendell Berry has noted that culture begins in agriculture. We engage the Creation to survive, to discover its capacities, to enable it to flourish, and to discover creative opportunities for our own flourishing. Bread and wine, the divinely instituted means of communion with God, are cultural as well as agricultural products. Our task in Creation and in the New Creation ushered in by the Last Adam is to serve God in all aspects of our cultural lives.
But just as our blessedness finds cultural forms, so does our fallenness. Cultural institutions can honor our nature and the order of Creation, but they can also distort or twist or deny who we are and what the world is. When the Church is carelessly pragmatic about its cultural engagement, it misses out on the opportunity to fulfill God’s wonderful intentions for humanity, and it runs the risk of giving its blessing to corrupted cultural structures.
Throughout its history, the Church has succumbed to the temptation to adapt its message and practice to fit the culture surrounding it. When this has happened there have sometimes been short-term benefits, followed by generations of long-term problems and losses. It may not always be possible to discern when cultural engagement becomes cultural captivity. But the only way we can hope to do so is by applying ourselves to thinking about life after evangelism. We need to be convinced that life after evangelism matters, that is, that the shape of our cultural life can be evaluated in terms beyond practical convenience and allegedly neutral personal preferences.
“The Church and Cultural Discernment: Distinguishing Engagement from Captivity” was published in Reconsiderations, a publication of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, which serves the campus of the University of Florida. Part I is here, and Part II is here.
Ken Myers is host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, one of the best sources for understanding contemporary culture and the challenges it presents to the Christian Church. For a better introduction to Ken’s work, please go here and click on “Journal” and then on “Free Sample Issue.”