The Church Engaging in Culture

I’m currently reading Stanley Hauerwas’ and William Willimon’s work, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. The book was published 23 years ago, so one might argue it’s a bit outdated. But it basically looks at how the church is to engage in culture, especially the church in America engaging in American culture.

In the second chapter of this book, Hauerwas and Willimon reflect on some thoughts of Anabaptist-Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder. Yoder is most known for his defence of Christian pacifism. In one particular work, Yoder distinguishes between 3 perspectives on church: 1) the activist church, 2) the conversionist church and 3) the confessing church. Yoder argues favourably for the confessing church.

Hauerwas and Willimon do not agree with every detail of Yoder’s in respect to the confessing church, but they go on to share their own perspective of what the confessing church should be like. And I was quite gripped by their thoughts in regards to what is church:

The confessing church, like the conversionist church, also calls people to conversion, but it depicts that conversion as a long process of being baptismally engrafted into a new people, an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure called church. It seeks to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and can never be, lacking the gift of faith and vision, which is ours in Christ. The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.

They continue:

The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world. The confessing church moves from the activist church’s acceptance of the culture with a few qualifications, to rejection of the culture with a few exceptions. The confessing church can participate in secular movements against war, against hunger, and against other forms of inhumanity, but it sees this as part of its necessary proclamatory action. The church knows that its most credible form of witness (and the most “effective” thing it can do for the world) is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith. (p46)

I’m sure we could nuance a few things here, as well as elaborate on a few others. But this has given some hearty things to chew on.

In all, I think Hauerwas and Willimon are getting at the ‘bigger’ picture of the church engaging in culture, the socio-political context. Not down into some of the nitty-gritty details. But, overall, I think it is a beautiful sketch of what it means to be the church, the ekklesia, the people of God in our world.

Please share your own feedback if you have any.

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6 thoughts on “The Church Engaging in Culture

  1. I almost cried when I read this. I count myself ‘in the line’ of the Anabaptists but these clear words have stirred me deeply. I have been engaging with some Emerging Church writers notably Mclaren (New kind of Christianity) and a number of individuals regarding the ‘gay’ issue and have been utterly shocked at how many younger Evangelicals are prepared to trade off so much to be more acceptable and avoid difficulty and dissonnace with current society. We are the ekklesia not the world a welcome call to faithfulness in our difference not our sameness.

    • JT –

      With the US elections, I have been thinking more about how the church can faithfully engage in a socio-political context. These thoughts from the book are continuing to challenge how to think about these issues. It’s not easy, even just thinking how to be the church as an act of speaking in the culture.

  2. Hey Scott, I reviewed this book for one of the units in my Bachelor of Theology this semester. 🙂

    –Good points:
    * Their use of Yoder (though I felt Barth was a stronger influence on their work)
    * Their observation that ‘we become, in whatever culture we find ourselves, resident aliens’
    * Their rejection of the idea that ‘with an adopted and domesticated gospel, we could fit American values into a loosely Christian framework, and… thereby be culturally significant’
    * Their conclusion that there can be no legitimate ‘synthesis between the church and the world’
    * Their assertion that Christians should rediscover the reasons why the church is separate from the world and challenge the assumptions which typically lie beneath Christian socio-political activism
    * Their critique of Niebhur’s false dichotomy (the ‘world–affirming “church”‘ versus the ‘world-denying “sect”‘)
    * Their definition of the ‘confessing church’ as an ecclesiological witness for Christ rather than an agent of socio-political change

    –Bad points:
    * Their critique of Kant’s deontological model, which was misleading and unfair
    * Their negative view of apologetics
    * Their cultural preconceptions and political bias (incredibly, liberal theology and ‘liberal democracy’ are variously held responsible for every moral failing of the modern church from capitulation under Hitler to the bombing of Hiroshima, yet these sweeping accusations are never substantiated)

    Overall, I believe Hauerwas and Willimon offer a compelling argument for a modern church which preaches an ancient message without losing sight of its contemporary mission; a church which eschews political involvement and cultural relativism while resisting any temptation to ‘change the world.’

  3. This is one of my favourite sections:

    –‘We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church.

    Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.

    The church gives us the interpretive skills, a truthful understanding whereby we first see the world for what it is. People often complain that the political agenda of conservative Christians looks suspiciously like the political agenda of conservative secularists—the Republican party on its knees. And it seems inconceivable that an agency of any mainline, Protestant denomination should espouse some social position unlike that of the most liberal Democrats.

    The church is the dull exponent of conventional secular political ideas with a vaguely religious tint. Political theologies, whether of the left or of the right, want to maintain Christendom, wherein the church justifies itself as a helpful, if sometimes complaining, prop for the state.’

  4. I like this. I don’t really grasp all the nuances of the subject, but I like the overall direction it goes.

    I’ve feel opposed to a church model that attempts to “change the world”. The church nor the government has the capability to “legislate” morality or ethics. Correct morality and ethics comes from a correct worldview, and that cannot be “forced” onto someone, it has to come from within.

    We can join with the world to help those who suffer due to the incorrect morality or ethics of others, because we can’t help but be involved with that. It’s part of being the feet and hands of Christ and loving “the least of these”. But we don’t do it to CHANGE people. We do it to show people what TRUE change looks like, where it comes from.

    When the church does what it should be doing, caring for others, no matter how bad their “sin” may be, showing the grace that Christ showed people when he was on earth, then people will SEEK us out to find out our “secret”. It may be a slower and not as “one size fits all” as traditional evangelism, but I think it’s the model God had in mind for the church.

    We change the world by introducing the world to the love of Christ. They will seek out and find the source of that love and His love in them changes them thus changing the world.

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