Does the Church Need to Change?

Does the church need to change? With only a bit of thought, almost everyone would say yes. The real question, however, is how it should do so. While I don’t mean to suggest there are only two options, I think it’s fair to say that there are at least two major perspectives that people employ in evaluating their conclusions. And while the following summaries won’t approach anything but the barest introduction, I hope they’ll provide the basic contours for thought and discussion.

The first view sees the Christian faith, rightly understood, as both true and timelessly relevant. It maintains that the gospel has a definite content, a content that leads necessarily to certain implications. Because this deposit of truth is tied to character and purposes of God himself, it remains true regardless of who believes and endorses it. That being said, the culture into which Christian truth must speak does change, presenting those who follow Christ with constantly evolving challenges to communicating and living out the gospel in a faithful manner. Given these things, the church must be constantly willing to change in two respects: (1) it should reform when it (inevitably, given its limited and fallen nature) finds itself straying from belief and practice consistent with God’s revealed nature and will, and (2) it should respond nimbly to changing cultural conditions and challenges in order to share and safeguard Christian belief.

The alternative view sees Christianity and the church as a collection of beliefs and practices that have been conditioned by numerous factors: including the perspective, culture, values, and circumstances of those involved. To put it another way, Christianity’s very nature has always been shaped in part by those who have ascribed to it. As such, that nature can and even needs to change with changing circumstances. While people in an ancient culture may have had definite ideas about God and how to follow him, their views don’t necessarily fit in a modern technological society with its scientific and ethical developments. What once was taboo might now be understood as completely acceptable. Even our perception of who God is should be reexamined in light of current sensibilities. In fact, to remain compelling, the church must accommodate itself to the surrounding culture. To do otherwise is to dwindle and even risk extinction. Each generation, or even each individual, needs to determine what the church should cling to and what it should leave aside.

I acknowledge no one is likely to hold either of these perspectives with complete consistently. Still, anyone who has visited ESI for very long will recognize that we ascribe to the first. And while I think there are many reasons to support this view, today I’ll limit myself to one rather large historical anecdote.

The early church wasn’t born into a vacuum. It quickly moved out from its predominantly Jewish context and into the wider world of the Roman Empire. There, it was only one more religion among almost countless others. The pagan pantheons were still present, as well as regional and household gods. There were also the more intellectually refined schools of the philosophers and the mystery religions for those who were attracted to knowledge and experiences gained only through a process of initiation. And finally, there was the Emperor cult, which often required only a nod of allegiance and submission to the Roman emperor—a civic “cement” for the Empires many different peoples and cultures.

The ethics of the Greco-Roman world were a challenge to the nascent church as well. Sexual immorality of all kinds was rampant. Unwanted infants were aborted or routinely exposed. There was a serious discrepancy between what the wider culture considered to be virtue and “success” and what Jesus and the apostles had taught about the same.

On top of all this, Dr. David Calhoun, in one of his lectures on ancient church history, mentions that, at one time or another, the early church was accused of cannibalism, disruption of business, incest, being anti-family, being attractive chiefly to the lower classes, atheism (!), novelty, being unpatriotic, and causing natural disasters.

All this is to say that there was no shortage of chances for Christians to feel pressure to change what they taught and how they lived. There were countless opportunities for them to blend in just a bit better, to identify increasingly with everything they saw around them.

Mostly, however, the church didn’t do that. Yes, Christians sought to appropriate the learning and wisdom of pagan culture. They emphasized elements of commonality. They borrowed expressions and concepts in attempt to commend its truth more effectively. They participated in many of the cultural institutions and vocations of the day. And while this is all completely appropriate, it’s rarely easy. As a result, many chapters of the church’s history are understandably messy.

But along with this, many in the church fought continually to preserve Christianity’s distinctive and essential beliefs. And they were faithful to live them out, even though doing so at times meant persecution and death. No one was ever perfect, understand, but many were consistently faithful.

And what happened? Temples to the Greco-Roman gods are now tourist attractions rather than places of worship. I doubt any of us knows someone who has been initiated into the mystery cult of Isis. The Roman Empire has long since collapsed. But the Christian church remains vibrant and growing in too many places to count. And it’s being introduced to more and more people groups and cultures every day.

Dr. Calhoun offers a compelling evaluation in another of the aforementioned lectures:

[Many] have said that in the modern world for Christianity to survive it must give up its claims to exclusiveness and make common cause with other religions. But the reason it survived and grew, even flourished in the early church was that it did not do that. If it had done that it would have long since disappeared from history.

And a bit later:

Christianity was victorious because the early Christians outlived, out-thought, and out-died the world around them.

Faced with similar choices to those that came before us, what will we do in our own time? Will we embrace change for the sake of accommodating current sensibilities? Or will our change be for the sake of continual reformation and greater effectiveness?

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