Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Complex Relationship of Chickens and Eggs


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.


  1. My internship congregation was a huge Norwegian Congregation in Seattle. It was often seen as the place to go when you had a question about the neighborhood or "the community" needed guidance. When I-5 was built, the church was separated from it's community. And it lost it's role as a guide in the community. This happened primarily because of I-5. But I think the church today has only itself to blame if it is out of touch with the world around it. In the community where I serve the community needs a united voice from the local pastors but there is little chance that this will happen because so many pastors are concerned about their own congregations and cannot see how together we can be stronger. The church can have a stronger voice in culture when it stands together. But since the prevailing attitude in our culture is that "I am taking my ball and going home" there is no way that I am following the culture on that. The church needs to be more inclusive and diverse and we need to reclaim our voice as an authority in our communities instead of just complaining that the churches' wishes are no longer honored. Sorry, I don't right blogs but that comment might count.