Paul to the church at Corinth (ancient Roman fountain image source):
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.
Philip Yancey finishes off part three of his book Vanishing Grace asking the question “How should we live?” He quotes part of this passage from 1 Cor. 5 in his discussion, but not the whole. Yet Yancey’s discussion brought the whole to my mind as I read. “God will judge those outside.” This isn’t a threat to be proclaimed. We aren’t called to prophesy doom and destruction. Rather it is an admonition to Christians to mind their own business, so to speak. We are to focus on being a community of contrast and a light to the nations. This requires a spirit of discernment within the church rather than judgment of those outside.
Yancey opens the chapter with a story where his book club was discussing a book about a patriarch of a Muslim family (written by a Muslim author) who confines his wife to home for 30 years, sexually assaults the servants, and forbids his daughters an education. Yet some of the women in his group, ardent feminists at home, hardly reacted. “It’s a different culture,” they said, “we can’t impose our values on it.” (p. 218) Yancey, on the other hand, contended that this was simply wrong. There is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil. It isn’t all cultural and it isn’t all up to personal preference.
Yancey argues that our Western culture is adrift from moral foundations. Now this doesn’t mean that it is immoral or amoral, just that without some sense of good and evil it is hard to know where to look for guidance. At one time Christianity provided a moral foundation for Western culture, but this is losing sway. Neither the church nor Christians were ever perfect and many will claim that this loss of influence is a good thing. But it is still a loss. We don’t need religion to behave morally. However, we do need some kind of “religion” to defend any morality on an intellectual level. (I use the word religion here in the sense that Stephen Jay Gould used it – a moral philosophy, not necessarily a belief in any god or any supernatural realm.)
Christians should, we would think, be poised to provide some guidance, even in a post-Christian culture. Unfortunately we tend to focus on the wrong things. We “muddle the message of grace by piously casting judgment on society.” Through this we alienate people. Yancey recounts a radio personality who described how floods in Colorado were God’s vengeance for the sins of America, and notes “I could list scores of such moral pronouncements that foster an “us against the world” mentality rather than an “us bring grace to the world.” (p. 227)
Christians are called to lead the way – but not by prophesying doom, or by legislating morality.
How differently would the world view Christians if we concentrated on our own failings rather than on society’s? As I read the New Testament I am struck by how little attention it gives to the faults of the surrounding culture. Jesus and Paul say nothing about violent gladiator games or infanticide, both common practices among the Romans. In a telling passage, the apostle Paul responds fiercely to a report of incest in the Corinthian church. He urges strong action against those involved but quickly clarifies, “not at all meaning the people of this world. …What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (p. 228)
We devote an inordinate amount of time to judging those outside the church, and drive people away. Christians have no business being self-righteous and trying to impose this on others. It works to draw a crowd, but at a cost. “High-minded moralism and shrill pronouncements of judgment may help fundraising, but they undermine a gospel of grace.” (p. 229) Yancey uses the focus on homosexuality as an example. I can tell you from experience that this tendency to prophetic judgment and imposition of values undermines the attempt to preach a gospel of grace in the community where I live and among my friends and colleagues.
There is an alternative. We can be a community of contrast as Yancey points out.
I heard an Australian pastor say that Christians often speak to the broader culture in the same way the prophets addressed Jerusalem, calling it back to spiritual revival. Actually, he said, we should be thinking of it more like Athens, a cosmopolitan secular society that views us as a marginal cult. We know how the apostle Paul spoke to Athens in his day, by seeking common ground and awakening a thirst already present in his audience. He used a similar approach with pagan Rome and Corinth, encouraging believers to become a community of contrast that shows the world a better way to live.
… Yes Christians have a role to play in bringing clarity to moral issues, but only if we listen well, live well, and engage well with the rest of society. (p. 230)
Yancey discusses a few examples where Christians have brought clarity to moral issues from Christian conviction, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. are two examples, but there are more.
He concludes the chapter:
Individuals an societies are not the helpless victims of heredity. We have the power to change – not by looking “down” to nature but “up” to God, who consistently calls us forward to become the people we were designed to be. A confused world urgently needs a model of what that looks like. If Christians fail to provide that model, who will? (p. 234)
There is much more in this chapter, I’ve only touched on a particular thread of ideas. But this is more than enough to start a conversation.
Should we view ourselves as prophets addressing Jerusalem calling the chosen people back to God?
Is there a better image and model? How can Christians provide a model?
What does it mean to be a community of contrast?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.