Friday, April 9, 2010

Cultural Conformity


I have a manila file folder labeled "Blogfodder." There has been a brochure from Lutheran CORE in it for a few weeks now. You can, for the time being, view a .pdf file of the brochure here. I would call your attention in particular to a paragraph that says:

The decisions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on human sexuality and ministry policies that contradict what the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has confessed down through the centuries and across all cultures highlight the theological crisis in Lutheranism in North America. However, the fact that the ELCA is willing to allow pastors to be in same-sex relationships is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a deep and pervasive underlying problem: a culture-conforming theology alien to the classical Christian tradition that has invaded major sectors of the ELCA.

Shortly after the CORE brochure arrived in the mail, I blogged about an ELCA congregation in Montana that is joining the LCMC. Wayne Arnst, a spokesperson for the congregation accused the ELCA of adopting a "Gospel of inclusion." One of the replies to that post came from Michael, who wrote:

Perhaps a better phrasing for Mr. Arnst would be "Gospel of Conformity"?

Apparently "conformity" has become a buzzword in some circles. I take the charge of "culture-conformance" to mean that the ELCA has abandoned the values of someone's orthodoxy and adopted the values of the prevailing culture. This is an interesting argument.

From my reading in the fields of historical Jesus scholarship, Christian origins, and New Testament studies I have come to think that the first followers of Jesus were a profoundly counter-cultural bunch. They stood outside the mainstream culture of Galilee, Judea and the Roman empire.

When thinking about counter-cultures, there are two things to consider. First, a counter-culture is a culture unto itself. Second, counter-cultures cannot sustain themselves indefinitely. They will either be destroyed by the prevailing culture, absorbed into the prevailing culture, or become the prevailing culture. (This is not an exhaustive list of possibilities, but it is sufficient for my purposes.)

By the end of the New Testament era, as it became evident that the parousia (that is, the so-called "Second Coming" of Christ) was delayed, Christianity began to trench in for the long haul. The Christian movement was well on its way to becoming the Church. This was the period of what Norman Perrin called "Emergent Catholicism." Christianity began to adopt the values of the prevailing Roman culture. By the time the last books of the New Testament were written, the Church was adopting a hierarchical organization and women were being excluded from leadership roles. In other words, the nascent Church was conforming to culture.

In the year 325, the Church took what was probably its greatest leap into culture-conformance. This was the year that the emperor Constantine assembled the bishops of the Church at Nicea to hammer out an official body of doctrine. Constantine wanted the Church to adopt a uniform theology for the good of his Empire. The Council of Nicea gave us what would forever after be the orthodox doctrine of the Church.

Though I myself am thoroughly Nicene in confession, I see an irony in all of this. Those who portray themselves as Lutheranism's doughty defenders of orthodox tradition accuse the ELCA of culture conformance while themselves proclaiming the doctrines that came from the Church's greatest culture-conforming moment.

More to come.

The picture accompanying this post is an image of the First Council of Nicea. Prominent among those haloed heads is Emperor Constantine, noted by his crown and royal robes. I found the picture at this website.

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