By any definition, ours is a challenging time for the church of Jesus Christ. That challenge discourages some, and encourages others.
Among those of us stimulated by the challenge, it is a time to visit again the double responsibility the church has in relation to the world. On the one hand, we are sent into the world to live, to serve and to witness. On the other hand, we are called to avoid becoming too much of the world. We are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world, nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. It is a formidable challenge!
This is one of the major themes of the entire Bible, namely that God is calling out a people for himself. “Be holy,” says the Lord, “because I am holy.” This foundational theme is found in all parts of Holy Scripture.
God’s call is to a radical discipleship, a radical nonconformity to the surrounding culture. It is a call to embrace a decidedly Christian counterculture, a call to engagement without compromise. What are the challenges that threaten to swallow up followers of Christ? By my count, there are at least four.
‘Pluralism’ affirms that every ‘ism’ has its own independent validity, and an equal right to our respect. It rejects unique Christian claims to finality and uniqueness, and condemns as arrogance the attempt to convert anyone (let alone everybody) to what it sees as merely our opinions.
How should God’s people respond to the spirit of pluralism? I would hope with great humility, and with no hint of personal or institutional superiority. We must continue to affirm the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ. Christ alone is unique in his incarnation, in his atoning death, and in his resurrection. Jesus is uniquely competent to save sinners. There is nobody like Jesus. Jesus has no rival, and no successor.
A second secular challenge that confronts disciples of Christ is that of “materialism.” Materialism is not simply an acceptance of the reality of the material world. If that were the case, all Christians would be materialists, since we believe that God has created the material world and made its blessings available to us. Material yes, but Christianity is not materialistic.
Materialism is a preoccupation with material things, and it can smother spiritual life. Jesus told us not to store up treasures on earth, and warned against covetousness. The apostle Paul urges us to develop a lifestyle of simplicity, generosity and contentment, drawing on his own experience of having learned to be content in whatever circumstance he was. We would be wise to travel light. We will indeed take nothing with us.
A third contemporary challenge which threatens us and to which we must not surrender is the insidious spirit of “ethical relativism.” All around us, moral standards are being eroded. Most people seem confused as to whether there are any absolutes that remain. Relativism has permeated culture, and is seeping into the church.
Radical disciples of Jesus Christ are called to respectful nonparticipation. The essential question before the church is: Who is Lord? Is the church the lord of Jesus Christ so that it has liberty to edit and to manipulate, accepting what it likes and rejecting what it dislikes? Or, is Jesus Christ our Lord, so that we believe and obey Christ alone?
Here then are two cultures and two value systems, two standards and two lifestyles. On the one side, there is the fashion of the world around us; on the other side the revealed, good and pleasing will of God.
Finally is the challenge of Narcissism. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who caught sight of his reflection in a pond, fell in love with his own image, toppled into the water, and drowned. Narcissism is an excessive love for oneself, an unbounded admiration of “self.”
What should our attitude be toward ourselves? It is, Holy Scripture says, a combination of self-affirmation and self-denial – affirming everything in us that comes to us from our creation and redemption, and denying everything that can be traced to our sin.
No feeble-minded conformity, but radical nonconformity is the call of Christ. Over against the challenge of pluralism, we are to stand up for the uniqueness of Christ. Over against the challenge of materialism, we are called to simplicity. Over against the challenge of relativism, we are to be obedient to Christ alone. Over against the challenge of narcissism, we are to be a community of love for others as self.
We are intended to be like Christ, “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Romans 8:29).
The Rev. David Dobi is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Greenville.