Monday, June 19, 2017

Cultural Christianity

June 19, 2017

Tucked away in the story of the sad string of Israel’s apostate kings is a summary of the reasons the nation was carried into captivity. It would be easy to miss, but in 2 Kings 17:33-34, one line stands out: “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods - according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away. To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the LORD…”

I used to wonder how people who had experienced so many miraculous deliverances could so easily abandon God for the gods of their neighbors. Not anymore. It happens all the time, and usually in the same way. When in 1 Kings 12 Jeroboam rebelled against the nascent Davidic dynasty, he worried that the worship that was centralized in Jerusalem would undermine his power. If the people under his rule traveled to Jerusalem to worship, they might decide they preferred life in the southern kingdom, so he had two golden calves cast, installing one in the north and the other in the south. Presenting them to his people, he said, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” It was subtle, and it was effective. The Hebrew word for our generic “God” is ‘Elohim,’ which can also mean ‘gods’ (plural). It was nuanced, but it worked. He had successfully wedded the LORD, the God (Elohim) of Israel, with his fabrication which had its roots in Canaanite culture.

We do the same thing today when we baptize cultural norms with a Christian overlay, creating a cultural religion that blesses whatever we choose to do. The writer of 2 Kings said it well; “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods.” I fear that I have done the same thing more often than I would like to admit. 

I am a conservative Christian who has spent most of my adult life in what has been a predominately liberal denomination. While this has presented its share of challenges, one thing I appreciate about my more liberal colleagues is how they keep me honest. They are not shy about challenging conservative Christianity’s cozy relationship with conservative politics. For example, though I am a life member of the NRA, I have a hard time imagining Jesus aligned with the organization and it politics. On the other hand, I would offer the same challenge to my more liberal (they currently prefer the designation ‘progressive’) colleagues when it comes to their espousal of the political agenda of the left. Either way, it is all too easy to chose our agenda and bless it in the name of God.

In Sunday School this week, we began a study of 2 Thessalonians, in which Paul commends the people for their love for each other and their perseverance in persecution. I observed that we seem to need the latter in order to maintain the former. Growing up, my brother and I were often mortal enemies…until a mutual outside threat united us in common bond. Too many churches have imploded over internal issues that would never have arisen had they understood the nature of the culture around them. We’ve been deceived into believing that our culture is friendly to Christianity. It is, if that Christianity is willing to accommodate the culture, much as did Jeroboam. We are often all too willing to worship the LORD, while serving our own gods. 

So today, I am grateful for my liberal colleagues who keep my feet to the fire. And for the Scriptures that convict me when I fail to live up to its standards. And for the love, patience, and forgiveness of our Lord, who commands us to “come boldly to [his] throne of grace that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need.”(Hebrews 4:16).

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