The Church AS Culture
Ken Myers, from the new, long introduction to the republication of his classic book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Pop Culture:
In the years since I wrote this book, I have come to appreciate the theological arguments (and the various historical studies) which insist that the Church should properly understand itself as a people: not a club or a clinic or a show or a service provider, but something more like a nation, a polis.
The Church is not simply in the business of getting individuals saved. The Church’s task is to nurture and shape its members into disciples, who observe everything their Lord—the Lord of heaven and earth—has commanded.
Of course, the Church must be eagerly active to bring in new members. But it must deliberately be a body the membership in which makes a difference. It must offer a way of life—a culture—which is distinct from the world’s ways. And it must seek to baptize its new members into Christ and into his body, which means that they must be exhorted to abandon their old memberships and allegiances.
In a conversation I had several years ago with D. H. Williams—now a professor at Baylor University who teaches the work of the early Church fathers—we talked about how seriously the early Church’s supervision of new converts took this process of enculturating its members.
In the process of teaching, or catechizing new Christians . . . it was taken with great seriousness that the commitment that they were making was a corporate one, and an exclusive one. And that it entailed a body of meaning that in many ways was inviting them to become members of a counterculture, from the one in which they had converted from. And even the catechetical process itself begins to raise important questions about the church as culture. That you are de facto encouraging the new Christian to learn a new vocabulary, a new sense of what is the highest, the good, and the beautiful; that there really are true things and false things; that there really are certain moral lines to be drawn in the sand, and that you may struggle with these, and part of the struggle is very good.”
Church historian Robert Louis Wilken made a very similar case in an interview given (not, sadly, to me) in 1998 in which he reflected on the early Church’s posture toward its cultural surroundings. Wilken pointed out that the principal way in which the early Church leaders sustained cultural influence was by discipling its members, by conveying to them that the call of the Gospel was a call to embrace a new way of life. The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building “its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.” The Church was not a body that “spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture.”
To speak of the Church as a culture is to use the word “culture” in a thicker way than it is often used today.
When Robert Louis Wilken writes of a Christian culture, he is referring to (in his words) the “pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.”
By referring to “a Christian people,” Wilken is reminding individualistic Americans that the Gospel is about the calling of a people, not the making of discrete and separate converts.
This view permeates the New Testament; using language that echoes texts in the Torah, St. Peter addresses Christian exiles in Asia Minor (and future generations of Christian believers) this way:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light, Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Theologian Peter Leithart has picked up on this theme in arguing that
In the New Testament, we do not find an essentially private gospel being applied to the public sphere, as if the public implications of the gospel were a second story built on the private ground floor. The gospel is the announcement of the Father’s formation, through His Son and the Spirit, of a new city—the city of God.
If this is the case, Leithart argues, then “The Church is not a club for religious people. The Church is a way of living together before God, a new way of being human together.”
This was surely the perspective of the early Church, though one wonders how common it is today. The assemblies of believers in the First Century and long after were not perceived to be resource centers for the promotion of merely private spirituality, they were not religious branches of the larger Greco-Roman project. Rather, the early Church lived with the formative conviction (in Leitharts’s phrase) “that God has established the eschatological order of human life in the midst of history, not perfectly but truly.”
Therefore, the Church’s life—the shared relationships and practices of the redeemed community—was truly a matter with public consequences. Leithart argues that these public consequences reflect the eschatological character of the Church.
The Church anticipates the form of the human race as it will be when it comes to maturity; she is the “already” of the new humanity that will be perfected in the “not yet” of the last day.
So conversion necessarily led to discipleship that had extensive consequences.
Conversion thus means turning from one way of life, one culture, to another. Conversion is the beginning of a “resocialization,” . . . and “inculturation” into the way of life practiced by the eschatological community.