Saturday, March 04, 2006

What the American Church Needs to Know, Part 2

The second thing my missionary mentors proposed as an answer to my question regarding the American Church was this: "Make sure that whatever you determine to be a biblical absolute is actually an absolute, and not merely culture."

Of course, I had to ask for further explanation, and as they talked, it became very apparent that this issues was one which has brought much pain and confusion to those who promote the Name of Christ is foreign cultures. They explained that too many American Christians have come to believe that "cultural" styles and preferences are actually biblical absolutes to be recognized and held in all cultures, at all times. For example, the drinking of wine is, in some American circles, believed to be the equivelent of illegal drug use, or even the use of pornography. Simply put, wine has no righteous use in the life of the believer. Many American fundamentalist believers would read that sentence and respond "of course." Yet, it is clear in the Bible that wine can be used righteously; it is drunkenness that is forbidden. And while American believers and church leaders have every right to shape their practice according to what they believe is the wisest principle - total abstinence - given the misuse of alchohol in America, it is clear that such a practice is neither demanded, nor exemplified in the Scriptures. Thus, what may be wise in one setting is not absolute in another. To make the wisdom of one culture the biblical absolute of all others is not only culturally arrogant, but also biblically wrong.

In France, where my wife and I just enjoyed several wonderful days among the hillsides and valleys of Provence, the drinking of wine is only considered wrong among the increasing number of North African Muslims who have flooded into the country. In an interesting irony, we found that the evangelical believers drank wine, while the Muslims did not. Case in point: We attended a Saturday evening outreach event sponsored by an evangelical French church. They spent the day making pizzas, baked them in an old wood-burning pizza oven, and then opened their doors to a large group of unbelievers - several from North Africa - who came along with the Christians who had invited them. My wife and I marvelled at the way the evening went, as believers and their unbelieving friends sat for long hours around tables discussing some pre-determined questions dealing with the true issues of life. It was an amazing thing to watch. But what matters in the discussion here is that when they put up the food tables, and began bringing out the pizza and beverages, the wine was put alongside the Coke, and as people filed through, they took the beverage of their choice. In an evangelical French church committed to the inspiration of the Word, and the Lordship of Christ wine and Coke were considered culturally equal. That picture will be forever imprinted on my brain: Coke and Merlot . . . side by side . . . and no none cried "heresy!"

I am sure this is only one (and probably one of the most inconsequential, really) of a number of significant beliefs that one culture holds as absolute, but which are not absolute in Scripture. It appears that the task of the foreign missionary is made all the more difficult when the cultural preferences of their supporting churches back in America are turned into biblical "oughts" and then placed as handcuffs around the wrists of those ministering in a foreign culture.

As I sat with these men, I realized right away that they were not complainers. They weren't whining, they weren't "dumping" on me as the convenient representative of all things American. They were truly trying to answer my question. Were they bearing the scars of "friendly fire" steming from the shots they had taken from well-intentioned, but biblically ignorant American pastors? Yes, but they were overwhelmingly winsome. It was apparent that they had bigger priorities than fighting back against what were clearly discouraging directives from home. They were there, not to find an easy place to gain ministerial fame; they were there to bring the Word of God to bear on the lives of real people living in a culture almost entirely devoid of Gospel witness.

I had to admit that, during the discussion, those men moved from peers to heroes. And I guess that is something else the American church needs to know.


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