Dear Mar­tin,

Your let­ter came in the mail today, and I want to answer you right away. As always, your ques­tions are most penetrating. 

Yes, you are cor­rect in say­ing that it is God’s great pur­pose to form a divine com­mu­ni­ty of lov­ing and for­giv­ing per­sons from every class and stra­ta of soci­ety. A homo­ge­neous church is not God’s plan. You have hit it right on the head in con­clud­ing that the real basis of our uni­ty is Christ alone and not such mat­ters as life style, inter­ests, age, race or polit­i­cal per­sua­sion. A great amount of hurt has come in the church because of a fail­ure to under­stand this. Church splits have occurred — both emo­tion­al­ly and in real­i­ty — over things so pet­ty as dif­fer­ences in dress or wor­ship styles. 

You have come to the heart of the mat­ter when you ask why there is so lit­tle demon­stra­tion of a het­ero­ge­neous Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty. The answer is that, in the main, the Church is trapped in the gross sin of cul­tur­al captivity. 

In the book of Acts we see the sto­ry of how the Church strug­gled to break free of a Jew­ish Captivity. 

The Apos­tle Paul was at the fore­front of this bat­tle and saw the issue far more clear­ly than did the oth­er Apos­tles. That is why he opposed Peter’s racial and cul­tur­al exclu­sive­ness in the strongest pos­si­ble terms (Gala­tians 2:11 – 21). Paul also saw the oppo­site dan­ger of a Gen­tile Cap­tiv­i­ty of the Church, and he sought to avoid it, though his­to­ry shows that he failed. The high-water mark in Paul’s teach­ing on this mat­ter is Gala­tians 6:15: “…for nei­ther cir­cum­ci­sion (a Jew­ish Cap­tiv­i­ty) counts for any­thing, nor uncir­cum­ci­sion (a Gen­tile Cap­tiv­i­ty) but a new cre­ation.” The new cre­ation in Jesus Christ is essen­tial, the cul­tur­al mold incidental.

Nation­al­ism

In every cul­ture there are points at which the Gospel is con­tin­u­ous with that cul­ture and points at which it is dis­con­tin­u­ous. Wher­ev­er the cul­ture is a reflec­tion of true Bib­li­cal con­cerns, it should be sup­port­ed and applaud­ed; wher­ev­er the cul­ture is dis­con­tin­u­ous with the Gospel, we are called to wage the Lamb’s War to bring about its trans­for­ma­tion. One of the points at which the Gospel is always dis­con­tin­u­ous with the cul­ture is at the point of Nation­al­ism; that is, the exclu­sion of oth­ers on eth­nic and cul­tur­al grounds. Eth­nic and cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty is always the claim of Nation­al­ism; and this is the antithe­sis of the Gospel. One of the key mes­sages of the Tow­er of Babel sto­ry in the Old Tes­ta­ment is that Nation­al­ism is part of the fall­en nature. This is what is so dan­ger­ous about civ­il reli­gion, for civ­il reli­gion always ends up as the pro­mul­ga­tor of Nation­al­ism. Per­haps the most star­tling exam­ple of this was under the Third Reich where Nazi altars and bap­tisms became com­mon, and the Church had become the vir­tu­al peon of the State. But this has also occurred in oth­er coun­tries; and in Amer­i­ca under the influ­ence of Jef­fer­son and Lin­coln, a form of civ­il reli­gion was estab­lished. A spe­cif­ic exam­ple of how this has worked out today is the fact that the chap­lain­cy is a part of the mil­i­tary struc­ture, with the result that there are some moral issues that chap­lains sim­ply can­not talk about. (The way to solve this dif­fi­cul­ty is not to abol­ish the chap­lain­cy but to estab­lish a civil­ian chap­lain­cy.) To the extent that the Church of Jesus Christ capit­u­lates to civ­il reli­gion and its incip­i­ent Nation­al­ism, it is no longer prophet­ic nor Chris­t­ian and has fall­en into a cul­tur­al cap­tiv­i­ty. Civ­il reli­gion and Bib­li­cal faith are nev­er agree­able bedfellows.

Amer­i­can Subcultures 

The cul­tur­al cap­tiv­i­ty of the Church becomes glar­ing­ly evi­dent when con­front­ed with the var­i­ous sub­cul­tures of our soci­ety. In the first cen­tu­ry it was mat­ters such as cir­cum­ci­sion and sab­bath keep­ing; today it is such things as length of hair, style of dress or mode of speech — all essen­tial­ly triv­ial. Fur­ther, it should be not­ed that usu­al­ly the sub­cul­ture is just as dog­mat­ic and rigid as the dom­i­nate cul­ture. The truth of the mat­ter is that nei­ther are impor­tant; to trans­late Paul into a modem idiom, nei­ther short hair counts for any­thing nor long hair, but a new cre­ation.” One of the endur­ing tasks of the Church is to learn to dis­tin­guish between what is triv­ial and what is essential. 

Nev­er for­get, Mar­tin, that it is God’s eter­nal pur­pose to gath­er togeth­er a divine com­mu­ni­ty of for­giv­en and for­giv­ing per­sons from every class and race and cul­ture on earth. We are called to love one anoth­er with all our dif­fer­ences and demon­strate to the watch­ing world the pow­er of God. May we so live that the world may say of us as they did the ear­ly Church: Behold how they love one another.” 

Sin­cere­ly, Robert J. Catalyst 

Pub­lished in QUAK­ER LIFE in 1973.

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