Questioning Where Christian Values Stop and Cultural Desires Begin
Have you ever met a person who claimed to be a fan of hockey but couldn’t be bothered to learn the rules? One of those people who yells “Shoot!” every time someone on their team crosses the opposition’s blue line? Someone who hasn’t quite wrapped his or her mind around the finer points of legal hand-passing or hybrid icing?
“What’s that weird rectangle thing behind the goalie net?” they might ask.
And with a heavy sigh, we say: “That’s the trapezoid. The goalie can’t touch the puck behind the net except inside the trapezoid.”
“Why not?” they ask.
And before you know it, you’ve just entered a conversation far larger than the rules of hockey. Pretty soon you hear yourself talking about the legacy of legendary net-minder and prolific passer Martin Brodeur, recalling what hockey was like before the 2004-05 NHL lockout (next question: “What’s a lockout?”), what it’s like now, whether or not it was fair to expert puck-handing goaltenders, and whether or not there’s more or less skill in the game as a result of these rule changes.
And pretty soon you’ve missed half the game just trying to explain what hockey is. It can be annoying! At some level, there’s an expectation that if you claim to be a hockey fan, you should at the very least know the rules.
But what about being a Christian? If you’re reading this, you’ve probably confessed to being a follower of Jesus at some point or another. But, just like the clueless hockey fan, how much do you know about the fan club that you claim to be a part of? Just what do Christians believe, anyway?
“Jesus,” we might say, half-jokingly as part of some super funny self-aware bit of ironic humour, for giving the ‘classic Sunday School answer.’ Hilarious.
“The Trinity,” we might add if we’re feeling a little bolder, but probably still hoping that nobody asks us to explain it in too much detail.
“Well, John 3:16 says…” we might say with a cringe, hoping that somehow we’ve managed to find the one person in the discovered world who hasn’t heard the most famous Bible passage of all time.
A  study from Ligonier Ministries finds that a majority of 3,000 American adults surveyed believe at least one of three key heresies, as reported by Christianity Today.
Two-thirds of those surveyed disagree that the smallest sin is worthy of eternal damnation.
More than half believe that worshipping alone or with one’s family is a sufficient replacement for regular church attendance. Less than one third of those surveyed expressed disagreement of any kind.
And finally, nearly 60 per cent of respondents believe that the Holy Spirit is not a personal being, but rather a force, according to the study.
First off, although the survey deals with American respondents, let’s assume that we as Canadians are not all that much different, painful as that might be.
The aforementioned examples are but a few of the popular heresies that have seemingly been adopted by large segments of the Christian population. We could go on and on with others, but the point is that this is troubling — or at least it should be. But for whatever reason, we seem remarkably okay with giving our fellow believers a free pass on not knowing the finer points about their beliefs, worldviews, ideologies, etc. Why is this? I mean, if it were something important like hockey, we’d never suffer such foolishness. But who can be bothered to learn all that doctrine stuff? That’ll make your head hurt, we tell ourselves.
Obviously, we are not all called to be theologians, and it’s probably better that we aren’t, to be honest. A group composed entirely of experts is sure to pose its own set of problems in the same way a group of laypersons would, though those challenges would manifest in assuredly different ways. A faith of cold intellectual orthodoxy is perhaps no less unhealthy than a faith of misplaced feel-good heresies, as painful as that might be for some of us to admit.
This of course is not to say that theologians are incapable of deep spiritual vibrancy in their faith lives — it’s not like being a person of sound theology by definition means being a hardliner moralist or embody the classic stereotype of the ‘Bible-thumper.’ Similarly, being a person of grace and understanding doesn’t mean we need to let cultural values replace Christian values, as the survey suggests might already be at work.
“Ligonier cites relativism for such a ‘casual outlook,’” writes Jeremy Weber for Christianity Today, adding that in the survey, 60 per cent of Americans “agree that ‘religious belief is a matter of personal opinion [and] not about objective truth,’” with slightly fewer than one-third of Evangelicals saying the same thing.
This means that whether we realize it or not, our views of theology are being affected by the culture around us, some of which might align with Christian belief, but some which most certainly does not. In an article for Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson writes, “the trends of secular society to a significant degree have seeped into the religious fabric of culture,” a phenomenon he refers to as “societal osmosis,” wherein the environmental influences of culture “silently and slowly move from one realm to another.”
It should be noted that voices such as Jackson’s, while deeply reverent of tradition and rightly cautious towards the blending of Christian and cultural values, can and often do lead to a rejection of anything modern, such as casual dress in church and singing accompanied by instruments. This, to some, might seem a step too far the other direction, which is why we should remember that the idea of right belief and practice is still an ongoing conversation.
So why does this even matter? Who’s to say whether it’s even important that we remain steadfast on core doctrine and abstain from believing that which has typically been labelled heresy? Couldn’t we just update the rules to reflect what the things we now believe, and just call that Christian faith?
“Isn’t it time the Church joined the 21st Century?” we might ask indignantly.
Let’s go back to our hockey example for a minute, acknowledging that yes, rules like the two-line pass, tag-up offside can and do change all the time. But I would argue that in this analogy, rule changes like these are more akin to individual churches or denominations deciding to accept things like women in leadership or serve wine at communion instead of grape juice. Some of the practices may have changed, but the fundamental essence is still the same.
But when you start deciding that hockey is a game not played on ice but rather a field, or that hockey is not played with a puck and stick, but rather a ball and basket, we’ve fundamentally created something fundamentally different. What we have here is no longer hockey.
Similarly, when we decide that God accepts the faith of all religions as faith towards Him, or that Jesus was created by God the Father and is subservient to Him, or that being rooted in a Christian community is merely an optional component of Christian faith, what we have is no longer true Christianity. Something essential has been added, removed, or changed within the D.N.A. of our faith.
Of course, we’re all prone to being misguided or mistaken when it comes to not knowing what we should know about our own beliefs or practices. After all, hockey still needs referees inasmuch as Christianity needs clergy and theologians, both for purposes of correction. That we might err is not the problem — our greatest fault is being willfully disobedient or indifferent to our mistakes, to the extent that we refuse to take any corrective action.
Stanley Porter, an author and president of McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, says that it’s important that leaders be taught to express proper theological teaching, and that institutions like seminaries, perhaps now more than ever, are needed to inform orthodoxy among those professing to be Christians.
“People are viewing theological education differently,” he says in a 2012 article for ChristianWeek, adding that churches have a tendency towards shaping leaders in a way reflective of their ethos as an individual church, rather than the Church universal.
“Sometimes churches think they can educate people better [than seminary]—I don’t think they’re right,” he said.
Porter’s colleague, Old Testament professor August Konkel agrees. After serving in church ministry for 12 years, Konkel was led to further his theological education for purposes of better serving in ministry. He would go on to become the president of Providence University College and translate the Book of Job for the New Living Translation.
Konkel cites the Apostle Paul as an example of the focus of clear thinking and orthodoxy, rather than conforming to cultural sentiments and values or allowing those to permeate Christian faith. He also rejects the idea that it’s more important that believers take up the hands-and-feet work of the Church rather than be informed on the specifics of what the Church actually believes.
“You won’t be much of hands and you won’t be much of feet if they’re not governed by a mind that knows how to direct them,” he said.
I’ll admit that for myself, I’ve been prone to considering myself more of a ‘doer’ and less of a thinker, and certainly not one who knows the ins-and-outs of systematic theology. But at a core level, we can’t simply be people who act without thinking, or people who act for no other reason that to adhere to some sense of feeling good about ourselves as people. Service goes deeper than that. Faith goes deeper than that.
We cannot divorce ourselves from the work that has already been accomplished by those who’ve come before us. We must realize that people have been wrestling with Jesus’ call for centuries. And while culture to some extent has always played a role in the interpretation of mission, we must question where Christian values stop and cultural desires begin, and recognize that though sometimes similar, the two may be at odds with one another and force us to choose between what feels good, and what is good.
As servants of Christ, we’re called to understand the difference.