The local church in a changing world
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles