This blog is one in a series of reflections on chapters in the book Called to Community.
As we continue to reflect on the essays in Called to Community, we join Howard Snyder who observes the distinctions in the early church from the culture that surrounded it. This anthem of counter-culturalism was an anthem of many a youth conference and camp. Growing up in youth programs that stressed a uniquely fashioned concept of the command to "be in the world, but not of it" led me to the threshold of many a camp bonfire with my secular paraphernalia in tow. But what does it mean to be "counter-cultural" and what did it mean for the early church?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who certainly had a lived experience with counter-cultural Christianity, observes that at the heart of community identity is an inseparability from Christ that is transforming the individual through identity formation. "The fellowship between Jesus and his disciples covered every aspect of their daily life. Within the fellowship of Christ’s disciples the life of each individual was part of the life of the brotherhood. This common life bears living testimony to the concrete humanity of the Son of God … In the Christian life the individual disciple and the body of Jesus belong inseparably together." (44) We observed in the latest blog in this series how this identity in Christ resulted in a new reality both for individuals and communal life. But how does the gospel make us counter-cultural as a unified but diverse people?
Snyder notes John Stotts' observation that a full acceptance of Jesus teaching would lead to an authentic Christian counterculture. "Instead of doing this, the church throughout history has too often developed clever ways of explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said or why his teachings are not to be applied to the present time." (50-51) But if we were to heed the teachings of Jesus and the example of the early church, Snyder notes that the contrast community would possess both a positive and negative aspect: negative because it is against the dominant culture; positive because "the church offers a genuine alternative to the dominant culture." (51)
So what does a counter-cultural church look like? Here are five observations from Scripture provided by Snyder:
1. John 15:18-19 - In the world, not of it: "disciples must maintain a critical tension …Christians are neither to withdraw from the world nor to become one with it … We are to maintain that tension against the strong pull to a more comfortable position either out of the world or totally of the world. This is the tension of incarnation." (51-2)
2. Romans 12:2 - Conformed to Christ, not the world: "So here conformity to Christ means nonconformity to the world’s culture. The church is not only ‘other than’ but ‘contrary to’ the world." (52)
3. Luke 12:29-32 - The flock of the kingdom: "What an amazing contrast of weakness and strength - a flock and a kingdom! … As a covenant community, the church has pledged itself to live by the values of God’s kingdom and to renounce the values of the world’s culture. This is the basis for its concern with justice, truth, reconciliation, and God’s new order." (52-3)
4. John 17:18 - Sent into the world: The task is not to influence people "just to the church but to the full kingdom and economy of God … The church is not merely to be in the world; it is to pursue the mission of God in the world.
5. Revelation 21:23-27 - The glory of the nations: "This suggests a positive evaluation of cultural diversity and of human cultural works. All that is good in human works … will be brought into the city of God … God will somehow gather all our cultural works, purify them, and use them in his kingdom. This means Christians themselves have a positive contribution to make to culture." (53-4)
There is a tension between how we engage in the spiritual warfare that inhabits our dominant culture while also participating in and embracing cultural redemption. This redemption is because of the cross and Christ’s inauguration of the Kingdom. This means that while we do battle with the darkness we are called to be people of the light who engage in a restorative process already threaded through the culture we occupy and contribute to. Snyder warns: "The danger of a counter-cultural model is that it may lead inward, away from worldly engagement. The antidote to this danger is a deep consciousness that the church exists for the kingdom." (54) And if the church exists for the kingdom, then how we "do" church and understand church is ultimately shaped by a common mission, common creed, and common life.
Bonhoeffer noted that the shared possessions and elimination of need in the early church was a "pattern of common life" that began with "freedom, joy, and the power of the Holy Spirit." (45) The individual’s new identity in Christ was the catalyst for this "pattern of common life" that resulted in such abundance. "The church can never tolerate any limits set to the love and service of the brethren. For where the brother is, there is the body of Christ, and there is his church." (47) I once read a book on hospitality in the restaurant business. The success of this author resulted from his work in the food service industry and how it was reinvented by a simple formula: they first mastered showing hospitality to themselves (the wait staff, hosts, kitchen staff, owners, etc) and as a result, they were then able to go out as a unit to provide award winning hospitality to their customers. While the book has zero ties to any religious concept or application, the picture is transferable. Are we struggling to join in Christ’s restorative work in the world because we have failed to begin with our closest community?
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence. -Dallas Willard