Many Colors: How are we to view culture?

Posted: September 7, 2010 in church and culture, many colors, Uncategorized

Over the past decade, I have had a number of conversations with pastors who were beginning to engage on the issue of race in the context of the church.  Some are attempting to develop multi-ethnic/multi-cultural churches.  Others are struggling with whether multi-ethnic churches were in their future.  I have noticed that two dominant themes emerge in my conversation with the wide range of Christians on the topic of multi-ethnic churches

The first perspective claims that we are all the same and that racial and cultural differences do not matter.  Commonplace phrases include:

“We’re all the same race – the human race.”

“We don’t have a race problem at our church. We’re all one in Christ.”

“People put too much emphasis on culture . . . we should be about the culture of Jesus, not human culture.”

“We’re really trying to form a new culture at our church, one that goes beyond everyone’s original culture”

The second perspective also has its set of catch phrases:

“We have too many issues in our own community.”

“We’re just not ready, it’s too difficult of a task to try be a multi-ethnic community.”

“Multi-ethnic churches don’t grow, if we want to grow as a church, we need to be with people like ourselves”

Professor Willie Jennings of Duke Divinity School finds in these two different streams, the manifestation of two historical heresies. The first perspective reflects the docetic heresy, while the second perspective reflects an adoptionist heresy.

The docetic perspective is the theological heresy that Jesus was not human at all. There were strains of the gnostic heresy in the docetic perspective.  Flesh and matter were evil. Jesus could not have been encased in flesh, since flesh is evil.  Therefore, Jesus was fully spirit and his physical body was an illusion.  The docetic perspective stems from the inability to deal with differences. Human limitations and differences were a problem to overcome and to be eradicated rather than something to be renewed.  The docetic antagonism towards the flesh yields an antagonism towards anything of the flesh.  Racial and cultural identity (arising from the material world) should be obliterated, rather than affirmed.

The adoptionist perspective is the theological heresy that Jesus was born fully human and was later adopted by God as His son by virtue of Jesus’ supernatural devotion to God.  The awareness of this adoption occurred at the moment of Jesus’ baptism.  Declared a heresy in the second century, adoptionism was refuted by the First Nicean Council – hence the Nicean Creeds assertion that Jesus was eternally- begotten of the Father.  Adoptionism places a priority on one’s social location and identity and places high emphasis on one’s context.  Because one’s social location and identity are centralized, Christianity gets added on as an extra ingredient. Christianity is subservient to one’s culture, race and ethnicity which hold a primary, central position.

So one perspective exalts culture while another position diminishes it.  Both perspectives are heretical. Neither path is an appealing option.

I find that evangelical Christianity struggles with how to best deal with culture.  We tend to cover the gamut of perspectives ranging from the docetic to the adoptionist.  In Many Colors, I try to address the need to have a healthy perspective on culture.  A perspective that does not disparage or diminish culture.  At the same time does not elevate culture beyond its rightful place.  Part of the process of planting and developing multi-ethnic/multi-cultural churches requires a deeper theology of culture.  Working towards a deeper theology of culture provides a starting point for developing cultural intelligence for a changing church.

For more on the topic, See:

  1. Wayne Park says:

    I think at heart the merits of Trinitarian theo / Christology is that it presents the ontological dissonance we are constantly so uncomfortable with, that is to say, how can three be equally and constantly one?

    That, for me, is the heart of the race dialogue. How can a people so different be united? Must there be a class struggle to be the primary (face) up top (modalism)? Are minorities brought up into the dialogue only to be stopped just short of the door (a kind of social arianism)? Or is the conversation going to continue to weigh in favor of the doctrine of incarnation at the expense of the doctrine of ascension?

    I don’t think we humans will ever be able to achieve the perfect union that is the ontological Trinity. But at least we have a model, and it would be a shame if we couldn’t learn from it, or at least try.

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