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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 100–106 

Church Identity: Blurred but Recoverable

Levi Keidel

Jesus stated his intention that the Church be a burning lamp on a table, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. This defines its identity. He also stated that the gates of Hades would never overcome it (Matt. 16:18). This assures its perpetuity. In more contemporary terms, Jesus is saying that the Church must be a conspicuous counter-culture entity relevant to its social environment, and that its impact would be perpetual.

Loss of identity and relevance . . . extinction.

He also declared that a covered lamp and insipid salt are worthless. He warned that when a socio-cultural entity (KJV: “nation”) does not bear fruit to its Lord, it stands under judgment and its duties will be transferred to others (Matt. 21:43-44).

Archaeological relics in the sandblown deserts of Turkey are mute evidence that, in fact, when a Church loses its identity and relevance, it suffers extinction. Today a once-powerful church in Europe is suffering the identical fate. The same inexorable axiom is now working in the North American setting.

If faithfulness to Christ and survival itself hinge upon the Church’s existence as a conspicuous counter-culture relevant to its socio-cultural environment, then what are major hazards to the Church’s {101} separate identity in North America today? I recognize three.

Hazards to a Separate Identity

Materialism

Materialism among us is not only fact; it is folly. In the light of Jesus’ expressed intentions, for the Church to buy into the upward-mobility syndrome is flagrantly sinful. It effectively negates the claim that the Church is a counter-culture concerned with addressing the needs of its social milieu.

A church is comprised of believers, persons who first take cues from their leaders on how discipleship is to be fleshed out in our contemporary world. To allow ourselves to be sucked into the vortex of ever-expanding consumerism is simply antithetical to the model left us by Jesus Christ.

There is nothing in Scripture licensing us to accumulate for ourselves unlimited resources, or to widen the chasm separating the world’s growing masses of poor (for whom Jesus had special compassion) from a diminishing minority of rich (whom Jesus warned and rebuked), or to enjoy a lifestyle by direct consequence of which we suffocate in our own garbage.

Malcolm Muggeridge laments, “I tell you in all seriousness that in my opinion posterity will find the utmost difficulty in believing that people belonging to a technologically developed civilization like ours could possibly have tolerated such a situation in the world . . . The Christian Church is inevitably involved in this death of our civilization. I can see it very clearly. If you consider the death symptoms, the foremost is an increasing preoccupation with the material things of life. Here the Churches go with the popular trend, and endorse, and even enhance, our affluent society’s materialist standards.” 1

Religious pluralism

This phenomenon has produced a radical shift in the profile of global Christianity. No longer can we perceive ourselves as the “Christian West” sending missionaries to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Animist peoples “out there.” That classic perception is now effectively reversed. Christians no longer constitute a majority in the West. People of those distant non-Christian religions are now among us. {102}

Their temples and mosques are found in all of our larger cities. Their children study in our public schools. In 1988 46.9 per cent of the students in the Vancouver school system spoke English as second language. 2 In 1987 49 per cent of Toronto’s Secondary School students did not speak English as their mother tongue. 3 Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District speak 104 languages. 4

Their numbers increase. Their immigration, clandestine or official, has been on the increase. Their annual birth rates are more than double our own. Their numbers increase by consequence of their proselytizing efforts. In the U.S. Hindus can have chaplains in the military services; Buddhist scriptures are now being placed in motels alongside Gideon Bibles; Muslims number 6 million, with 34 mosques in Chicago alone.

In a society of growing religious pluralism, how can the Christian Church maintain its unique identity as the salt of the earth? How do we genuinely accept and affirm the person of a religious conviction other than Christianity, without abandoning our own faith commitments to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ? How do we respond to efforts of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to convert us and our children?

A further blurring of our identity in a pluralistic society comes as a result of western Christianity losing a preferred status it has enjoyed for 1600 years. A favoritism by civil government for Christianity was initiated by Constantine in A.D. 313 and has continued as an unbroken tradition up to the recent past. Western democracies, upon their emergence, affirmed the Judaeo-Christian tradition as their common foundation stone in matters of jurisprudence and ethics.

This tradition was embodied in the Canadian Charter of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights. Because Christianity was the dominant religious expression, those rights issued in a legalized Sabbath; in a Christian-oriented public education program (viz. prayers, Bible readings, Christmas programs); and the display of Christian holiday symbols on public buildings.

But Christians no longer constitute a majority in our society. Democratic government, by its very nature, must guarantee equal rights to the plurality of religious expressions. Consequently, Christianity must be denied its long preferred status, and take its place alongside other religions in the free market of ideas. {103}

Secularism

A secularist worldview gained ascendancy in western thinking with the “Death of God” movement in the late 1960’s. Its growth has been fostered by all those forces in our society which increasingly shift focus away from the supernatural to the purely natural, from personal dependence to independence, and from church involvement to anonymity. Secularism attracts persons who hold a strong belief assuring a prosperous future for human society.

Secularism, more than other forces, may pose the greatest threat to the Church maintaining its separate identity. While pluralism leaves open an option for Christianity, secularism does not. It denies the supernatural, the transcendent, the spiritual. It insures that the borders of reality contain only that which the human mind perceives as reality. It closes all windows to other worlds. As the price for assuring a future for human society, it insists on a hegemony over all other ideologies. The Humanist Manifesto II (1973) reads:

These are the times for men and women of good will to further the building of a peaceful and prosperous world. We urge that parochial loyalties and inflexible moral and religious ideas be transcended. We urge the recognition of the common humanity of all people. We further urge the use of reason and compassion to produce the kind of world we want . . . At the present juncture in history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable; it transcends the narrow allegiances of church, state, party, class, or race in moving toward a wider vision of human potentiality . . . Humanism thus interpreted is a moral force that has time on its side. 5

Author Robert Webber calls humanism the plague of the West. He writes, “Humanists argue that the nature of the universe makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic basis for human values. This viewpoint finds contemporary expression in the decline of moral absolutes and the emergence of moral relativity.” 6

Os Guinness describes secularization as “. . . the acid rain of the spirit, atmospheric cancer of the mind and imagination . . . Washed down shower by shower, the deadliest destroyer of religious life the world has ever seen.” 7

RECOVERING RELEVANCE: SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM THE PAST

If the Church’s survival hinges upon its identity as a counter-culture relevant to its environment, and if the above forces imperil its survival, what should be done to re-enforce its identity and to recover its relevance? What would a faithful Church look like? Has no precedent been set for us?

There has. During the first three centuries the Church represented a minority group living in an environment of a disproportionately distributed wealth, cultural pluralism, and human deification. The Church not only surmounted those challenges; it became a missionizing force that changed the entire religious landscape. From our perspective, what made that possible? At the risk of oversimplification, I submit four qualities that made the difference.

1) Early Christians rendered supreme obedience to Jesus Christ alone, abhorring the intrusion of idolatry in any form.

Polycarp of Smyrna refused to swear by Caesar, saying, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has never done me any harm. How could I blaspheme my King and Saviour?” He was burned at the stake. 8 Polycarp was but one of many who would not compromise their loyalty to Jesus Christ.

2) Their compassion impelled them to address the social and spiritual needs of others at all costs.

Let the record of the past be heard. “Everything the Church owned at that time actually belonged to the poor . . . Every meeting served to support bereft women and children, the sick and the destitute . . . To enable themselves to help others, Christians took the hardest privations upon themselves . . . Christian women of rank gave away their property and became beggars . . . Julian, the antichristian Emperor, had to admit that ‘the godless Galileans feed our poor in addition to their own.” 9

“Eusebius reports how those men, consumed with burning love and fulfilling the mission charge of Jesus, distributed their possessions among the poor and set out on an uninterrupted journey to speak of Christ to those who had never {105} heard about Him” 10

3) They maintained holiness of personal character in an environment of moral debauchery.

“(They) dare lay at our door all the infamous things they are conscious of in themselves . . . Adulterers and corrupters of boys want to defame us who live in virginity or in strictly monagamic marriages! How can we possibly kill anyone when we cannot even look on lest we are polluted with the guilt of murder and sacrilege? How can we possibly kill anyone, we who call those women murderers who take drugs to induce abortion, we who say they will have to give account before God one day? We are convinced that with God nothing goes unexamined . . . We have, therefore, every reason to detest even the slightest sin.” 11

Christians’ refusal to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar was deemed by Rome as treason.

4) The Church readily endured persecution.

Polycarp, as cited above, refused his executioners’ fastening him to the stake by nails. “Let me be,” he said. “He who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me the strength to remain at the stake unflinching, without the security of your nails.” And so it was. 12 This is but one glimpse of the Church’s well-documented suffering under Rome.

It is noteworthy that the above four qualities were specifically modelled by sixteenth-century Anabaptists as well. We claim them as our forebears and our example. The life of the early church and also that of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists places before leaders the question, what steps should be taken to assure the Church’s survival and relevance in our own culture and time?

ENDNOTES

  1. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (London: William Collins Sons and Co., 1969) p. 113, 196.
  2. Sharon Reid, 1988 Survey of Pupils for whom English Is a Second Language in Vancouver Schools.
  3. Interview with Dr. Susan Ziegler, Research Manager, Board of Education, Toronto.
  4. Hans Kasdorf, “Mission Future: Issues We Face,” Global Mission Consultation, Fresno, CA (Jan. 21-23, 1988), p. 10.
  5. Human Manifestos I and II (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1973), p. 23.
  6. Robert E. Webber, The Church in the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), p. 218. {106}
  7. Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 60.
  8. Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians After the Death of the Apostles (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough, 1972), p. 68.
  9. Ibid., p. 17, quoting Marcarius Magnes, Aprocriticus III.5, Porphyry Fragment No. 58 in Harnack’s edition, p. 82. (Harnack ET, vol. 2, pp. 74-75).
  10. Ibid., p. 38 quoting Eusebius III. 37.
  11. Ibid., pp. 119-120 quoting Athenagoras, A Plea Regarding Christians, pp. 32-35.
  12. Ibid., p. 70 quoting The Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, encyclical letter from community of Smyrna on Feb. 22, 156, author unknown.
Levi Keidel, for thirty years a missionary in Zaire, instructs in mission at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, British Columbia.

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