Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Acts 19 and Cultural Controversy

I've been preaching a short series of sermons on Acts 19.8-41 which details some of Paul's ministry in Ephesus.  This past week I focused on verses 23-27.
23 About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning the Way. 
24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, was bringing no little business to the craftsmen; 
25 these he gathered together with the workmen of similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business. 
26 “You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. 
27 “Not only is there danger that this trade of ours fall into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis be regarded as worthless and that she whom all of Asia and the world worship will even be dethroned from her magnificence.” 

Here are some of the things I mentioned in my sermon:
1.  The reception of the gospel in Ephesus caused controversy.  Verse 23 states very clearly: "About this time there occurred no small disturbance concerning the Way."  This had its origin in the fact that many people were turning to Christ and forsaking their past pagan practices (see vv. 18-19).  These conversions were marked by real change that produces a different lifestyle.  There is a fundamental change in orientation to life that puts these new believers out of step with the dominant cultural institutions, systems, and symbols.  

2.  There is a financial impact.  After awhile the numbers become noticeable on the economic system of Ephesus.  Demetrius is the ring leader in sparking the controversy.  It is instructive to listen in on his comments and see his perspective.  He is concerned about the potential impact of Paul's message.  He recognizes that Paul is the focal point behind this teaching that is persuading many to re-orient their beliefs and practices.  The important point to stress is that this economic impact was not Paul's chief goal.  He did not enter the city with desires to harm the economic system.  His chief desire was to preach Christ Jesus and the needed response of turning from vain idols to serve the living God.  A by-product of this message and the faithful response it engendered was an economic impact.

3.  It is also interesting to note how Demetrius characterizes Paul's message.  He states it as follows: "gods made with hands are no gods at all."  This is what Demetrius heard.  Of course, Paul's message encompassed more than this.  From what we know of Paul's preaching he spoke of Christ Jesus, the cross of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ.  He did speak of the folly of idols (Acts 14.15; 17.24-29; 1 Thess. 19b) and this is what Demetrius focuses upon since this is the portion of the message that most directly challenges his idolatry.  
Taking these three points from the text it is instructive to seek out contemporary applications in regards to our culture.  As this is done, however, careful attention must be given to the differing cultural contexts of our time and the Paul's time in Ephesus.

Ephesus was a thoroughly pagan environment steeped in institutional idolatry and magic.  This is not true of modern America.  American culture has been fed by the streams of Christendom.  Francis Schaeffer used to speak of America's past as having a "Christian consensus or ethos" (The Great Evangelical Disaster in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer vol. 4, p. 330).  More recently Michael Goheen has written of Western civilization as being "salted and shaped by the gospel to some degree for a long time" (A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story, p. 212).  This fact creates numerous differences between Paul's culture and our in current day America.  Leslie Newbigin, in discussing 1 Peter, drew attention to some of these differences that should be honored.  Michael Goheen summarizes Newbigin's discussion this way:
Newbigin warned of three "vast differences" between Peter's time and ours that makes an application of Peter's words to our situation complex: (1) the church in Peter's time was a tiny minority with no responsibility for the political order, whereas today the church has power and influence in public life; (2) between their time and ours the entire story of the rise and fall of Christendom has dramatically changed the situation; and (3) today's culture allows an element of choice in these institutions, for example, in whom we marry, whom we work for, and whom we elect to positions of political authority.
Goheen then adds:
The church today is a minority and has lost cultural power in recent decades.  Western culture today is more hostile to Christian faith than it was in the past.  Nevertheless, the church still holds a degree of financial, political, and cultural power, and must learn to use that influence precisely as critical participants in culture.  (A Light to the Nations, pp. 188-189) 
With those differences in culture in mind we can take the issue of homosexuality--particularly the battle over "gay marriage"--and watch for some of the parallels that were found in Acts 19 above.  As I mentioned in my sermon, this is not the only issue to be considered but it is a live issue that is before the church and our culture.

First, among some young evangelicals there is growing weariness with the "culture wars."  For example, Rachel Held Evans recently wrote these words in response to North Carolina's passing a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman ("Amendment One" as it was called):

My generation is tired of the culture wars. 
We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for. 

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.  
Let's leave to the side the misleading rhetoric of "advancing the kingdom through politics and power."  Let's also leave to the side, for purposes of this essay, her movement beyond "the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours" (like the apostle Paul!).  What Rachel Evans (and those for whom she is a voice) needs to be told--and told gently and in a safe manner--is that the Christian proclamation and faithful responses to it will cause cultural controversy.  This is nothing new as seen from Acts 19.  Brian Mattson accurately responded to Rachel Evans post with these words:
I read Rachel's post with a great deal of sadness.  The dissonance between her sentimentalism and the claims of the gospel in the New Testament is extreme.  Listen: the early church grew in the midst of the Roman Empire.  Can we please stop this whole "things are so different now!" mentality?  Religious pluralism, sexual autonomy and license is nothing new.  The church has faced the situation before.  This is not some unprecedented turn of events.  
And many people were literally fed to lions because they refused to give up their "culture war," opposing things like worshiping the Emperor and gladiatorial contests and polygamy and homosexuality and infant exposure.
Second, and corresponding to point 2 above from Acts 19, the goal is not marginalize individuals or a segment of society.  This is what is usually claimed against those who seek to uphold the traditional view of marriage and stop any redefinition that would include same-sex couples to "marry."  The goal is stand for God's perspective on marriage in the public square.  The church, as Michael Goheen mentioned, still has some cultural and political authority.  It can and should use this to wisely, and, hopefully winsomely, speak the truth about the wisdom and goodness of God's view of marriage.  This view of marriage has been recognized and upheld in our judicial reasoning in the past.  Christians should seek to strengthen those institutions that have upheld and reinforced God's goodness and wisdom.

Third, what is it the world is saying about our message?  We saw above that although Paul preached Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection what the world (Demetrius) heard with clarity was that piece of Paul's message that most clearly and directly challenged the idolatry of their time.  No one draws the conclusion that somehow Paul was failing to preach Jesus or love people simply because there were some (many?) who heard the challenge against their sin.  So it is in our time.  Rachel Held Evans again provides the example here from her post referenced above.  She started out that blog post with these words:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith
Now to be sure, Christians have not always spoken well when speaking of the faith.  We need to speak more about Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection.  We need to speak in love and demonstrate love in tangible ways.  All that is granted.  Yet, the fact of this statistic as quoted by Rachel Evans is not necessarily indicative of a failure on the part of the church.  Just like Paul, the contemporary evangelical church does speak about Jesus.  We hold to more and speak of more than the ethics of sexuality.  But the fact that the world says it hears our stance on human sexuality (and not our teaching on Jesus) is not necessarily an indication of failure.  It may be the case that the world is hearing with clarity precisely that portion of Christian truth that is calling into question the contemporary idol of sexual anarchy.

In confirmation of this consider this question: Why is it that the first phrase these non-Christians in the Barna study had was not "compassion for the poor?"  The objective facts would tend toward this conclusion.  Last year David French did some research into this issue.  He wrote about his findings in a blog post entitled Are Christians Obsessed with Gays and Abortion?  He looked at the receipts for four "culture war" organizations (Alliance Defense Fund, Family Research Council, National Right to Life, and Americans United for Life) and found that their combined income was $60 million combined.  Even adding in Focus on the Family with their $135 million still yields a total less than $200 million.  Then French looked the receipts for three Christian organizations that are focused on helping the poor and malnourished (World Vision, Compassion International, and Samaritan's Purse) and found their combined total to be $2.1 billion.  By the measure of what Christians do with their money--and Jesus said this was an indicator of where our heart and treasure are!--Christians are more actively engaged in fighting poverty around the world.  Now why isn't this mentioned?  Why is this not known?  Regardless of the answers to those questions the fact remains that simply because the world tells us that our message, as they are hearing it, is "antihomosexual" it not reason to think that the church is failing in it's gospel proclamation.  As stated above, perhaps they are focusing on that part of God's truth that is most challenging our culture's idolatry.