Sunday, May 31, 2009

Christ & Culture Revisited: Church & State, Definitions

Carson begins by noting this is the debate that many people are thinking about when they think about Christ and culture. This is true for me. He also says that to fit under one of Niebuhr’s categories is to be overly-reductionistic in our understandings of Christ and culture. The first section of this chapter deals with definitions. He does this a lot in the book. I suppose it is helpful for a scholar, but sometimes I wish he’d just lay it out and go for it. I understand why he doesn’t – clarity, and all. I’ll lay down some conclusions and then we’ll move forward in the next post. Here he seeks to define – or discuss the difficulties in defining – religion, church, and nation/state.

Religion in the ancient world was related to “the cult.” That doesn’t mean what current culture would define as aberrant teaching. Rather, it refers to the practices of the temple or place of worship. It is a sedentary religion. That is not what historic Christianity started as. It started as a movement that had a vision for life that moved people to a mission. It was counter-cultural. As it succeeded it became more of a “cult” (in the technical sense). It’s hard to be counter-cultural when you dominate the culture. But religion is used by people differently. Some secular worldviews are considered “religious” because they have a vision for life for all people. Carson settles that it is best to let each define religion their own way and discern what is meant from the context.

Next, Carson seeks to define the church. He has some good descriptions of what the church is and he doesn’t think it is just two or three people together at a bus stop sharing Scripture together. It is a body of people on mission together (structure is negotiable) doing the things that churches do (worship, Scripture, communion, prayer, etc…). The church has a mission and responsibilities, but he seems to distinguish between church responsibilities and Christian responsibilities. For example, there is an important social engagement that Christians are called to, but it may not be the church’s responsibility. The church should facilitate and encourage people to fulfill the vision of justice, but it should be separate from what the church itself does. This seems to be counter-cultural with much of the social justice emphasis these days. (Note: Carson is not anti-social justice. It just seems that he thinks this is something the church should encourage and provide for on the side – outside the auspices of “church”).

Finally, Carson defines the nation/state. Not sure where the controversy is here. He does note that the nation/state has become the supreme entity whereas there was more intermingling of authority and “religion” in the ancient models. Now the state is largely secular and that has significant implications for the church/state relationship.

More coming soon.


Mick Porter said...


This is an interesting post - particularly Carson's view on social justice working outside of the church.

I can see why he says it, but it also seems to me that justice itself is a theme that flows from the gospel, and that Jesus came to proclaim "good news to the poor".

I've been working on a DVD to try to help people wrestle with some of these themes ( which is why this interests me.

Justin said...

Thanks for stopping by Mick. I'll be sure to check out your work soon. Carson mentions the distniction between church and Christians later in the book as well. I'm not sure what to make of it or if he develops the idea more elsewhere. He states it as a pretty clear distinction.

One thought is that he is talking about "church" in the sense that they take communion, worship, pray, and study together (Acts 2.42-47). They still have responsibilities to care for the poor, etc..., but the corporate time is "church."

I'm not sure Carson would say it that way, but that's how it's fitting together in my head at this point. (Not that that's saying much!)