11 September 2006

Substance, Style, and Compromise: Engaging Culture as the Church

As I continue reflecting on the emergence of Emergent and company, and how I will lead in the local church in the coming years as God gives opportunity, I am continually confronted with my own reactionary traditionalism which is set in its own ways to the neglect of engaging culture as Christ would have me. So I'm trying to get a framework for ministry which is both faithful and relevant, remembering Mark Dever's comment (see below) that the fundamental dividing live among pastors today is between those who pursue relevance and assume faithfulness and those who pursue faithfulness and assume relevance (the latter of which I myself am breaking free from).

Here is where I am right now: As regards substance, no compromise. As regards style, every compromise.

To use Dever's categories, no compromise on faithfulness but every compromise on relevance. In theology dogmatism, in practice latitude. In what we believe, hold fast; in how we express that belief, hold loosely.

Practically, then, we must allow no drifting in things essential. We must clearly teach from the pulpit penal substitutionary atonement; justification by grace alone through faith alone; the centrality of the glory of God; the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer's account; the utter sovereignty of God in all things; God's exhaustive foreknowledge of all events, including the sinful actions of will-endowed creatures; the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; miracles and other supernatural phenomena as real in the Bible and real today; the inability of unregenerate human hearts to believe in and love Christ; God's election of his people before they are born and have done anything good or bad; Christ's death as savingly effective for these, his people; the inevitable willingness and desire of the human heart to cherish and live for Christ in the wake of God turning their heart of stone into a heart of flesh; and the necessary final entrance into God's glorious presence of those who have had such heart surgery.

In substance, no compromise.

On the other hand, we must allow every freedom in things peripheral, or non-essential. For the sake of our unbelieving world and culture, and in the pattern of the incarnation of Christ himself, and in the footsteps of the Apostle who became all things to all people (1 Cor 9), we must provide clear freedom for questions such as worship style; degree of liturgy involved in local church services; forms of expression (hands lifted, hands not lifted, etc.); preaching length and style (conversational, manuscript-reading, etc.); evangelism methods (one-on-one, street preaching, the degree to which a relationship must exist before presenting gospel truth, etc.); method and mode of baptism (paedo-baptism, baptistic; sprinkling, immersion; note I did NOT say that baptism is peripheral, but how it is done); water or wine, bread or crackers in the Lord's Supper; and the question of the function of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit in the Church today.

In style, every compromise.

One reason this is so hard for us, I think, is that we all tend to have a bent one way or the other: we either have an inclination to never compromise, or to always compromise. One or the other is our 'default' mode of operation. Left in neutral, we inevitably slide toward either dogmatism or latitude. We all lean toward the error of either no compromise in doctrine or practice, on the one hand (pride-fueled), or the error of every compromise in practice and doctrine on the other (fear-fueled). And what I am suggesting is that we have one attitude toward doctrine/substance but the opposite attitude toward practice/style.

Maybe this sounds like ecclesiological schizophrenia. How can we have two different mindsets within one person? Shouldn't we just be content with how God has naturally wired us?

It's a good question. I've wrestled with it myself. And yes, we should praise God that he has created each of us to uniquely, in different ways, image forth his Son. But as I have reflected I am coming to see that the two are in fact inextricably joined, because if our doctrine is true, biblical substance, this itself will lead to latitude in style. Robust theology is the root, not the enemy, of liberty in practice. This is because at the heart of true doctrine is grace, a grace that gets worked out in all manner of ways practically speaking, not least in an issue like worship style in church. To sing of grace while resenting how the church is singing it is an oxymoron. If we truly live out a biblical theology, we will allow for any change in practice, in the name of cultural accommodation, so long as it does not tamper with the essentials.

Finally, then, is this in the Scripture? Yes.

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath [style]. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ [substance]." -Col 2:16-17

"Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong [substance]. Let all that you do be done in love [style]." -1 Cor 16:13-14

Substance, no compromise: 1 Cor 8:5-6
Style, every compromise: 1 Cor 8:7-13

Substance, no compromise: Gal 1-4
Style, every compromise: Gal 5-6 (cf. "freedom," 5:1f)

God help us to be those who love sound doctrine and, as a result, allow for every freedom in how that doctrine expresses itself. In substance, no compromise. In style, every compromise.

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