A SECOND LOOK AT CULTURAL CONFORMITY
The relationship of the Church to culture is complex. (Though I believe that this is true everywhere, I am writing from a North American perspective.) Different Christian denominations negotiate their relationship to culture differently. The Amish, for example, have some necessary dealings with the prevailing culture, but have created a distinctive subculture in which they live apart. The holiness churches, such as the Church of the Nazarene, live embedded in the larger culture but reject some of its practices. Traditionally the holiness churches have eschewed drinking, card playing, movies and dancing. Lutherans, for the most part, have been fairly comfortable with culture, though historically there have been pietistic movements and trends.
The Lutheran church of my childhood was largely indistinguishable from the broader culture, mostly sharing its mores and values. It was in that church that I learned the Gospel of God's grace and the universality of God's love. It was there that I learned the virtues of Christian liberty, equality and respect.
The times of my life have seen dramatic social changes. I have witnessed the civil rights movement of the 60s, the feminist movement of the 70s, and now I observe the movement toward full inclusion of homosexuals and lesbians in both church and society. Each of these movements has met with resistance, sometimes vehement, sometimes violent. Still, the overall trajectory of our culture has been toward greater liberty, equality and respect, the same values that I learned in Sunday School.
Critics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decisions allowing same-sex partnered clergy have charged the ELCA with "cultural conformity." I find this a strange criticism. Coming from the Amish, or even a holiness denomination, it might make more sense. But taking it at face value, it raises a chicken-and-egg question:
Were the ELCA's decisions driven by the prevailing culture or has the prevailing culture been shaped by the churches' preaching of liberty, inclusiveness and respect?
I do not pretend that this is an easy question and I do not think that it is simply answered. The relationship of the Church to culture is complex. I suspect that, in this case, the two have exerted mutual influence.
As for the ELCA's critics, I hear in their arguments, an undercurrent of desire to return the church to a former state. A state of say, fifty years ago, when I was a child and the church was indistinguishable from the prevailing culture.
I am not quite done with this topic.
The 14th c. illustration was found here.