The culture war is not only being waged between Christians and an increasingly Godless culture. It is now splitting churches.
United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Neb., performed a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple. The denomination's official guidelines, the Social Principles, clearly state that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Nevertheless, Mr. Creech was acquitted by the Methodist Judicial Council, which ruled that the Social Principles are only advisory.
The church's international Council of Bishops disagreed, pointing out that the Social Principles are part of the church law encoded in the Book of Discipline. The members of Mr. Creech's church also disagreed, laypeople often being more conservative than their pastors. They have asked for another pastor.
The highest judicial board in the denomination has agreed to rule on just how binding the Social Principles are supposed to be. In the meantime, scores of pastors and local churches are threatening to leave the 9.5 million-member denomination over what they perceive as an increasingly liberal church bureaucracy enamored of the gay-rights movement.
John Christie, pastor of Mission City Methodist Church in Santa Clara, Calif., goes so far as to say there are two religions in the United Methodist Church: "One based on scripture and one that feels we are in a new age with new truths."
Local churches are increasingly torn over what have been called "worship wars." In an effort to be culture-friendly, more and more churches are throwing out their traditional hymns and orders of service in favor of pop music, big screen videos, and motivational speeches.
Some churches offer different services to accommodate every musical taste. In some churches, parishioners can choose between a rock 'n' roll service and a country music service. Some midwestern congregations are experimenting with polka liturgies.
A church in England has taken the next step in cultural accommodation. Since people in today's culture like to sleep in on the Sabbath, meetings are held on Tuesday nights. To get around the church's stodgy moral image, smoking and drinking are permitted during the service. Since today's generation feels uncomfortable in a traditional church building, they meet in a pub. Since no one sits in rows anymore, they sit around tables. Since people do not do group singing anymore, there are no hymns. Since people today are not used to being just talked at, there is no sermon. Since people today do not recognize authority figures, there is no minister. They sit around and decide for themselves what they would like to discuss.
How such a church service is different from what goes on anyway in a London pub is not clear. The group, known as "Holy Joes," was started by David Tomlinson, author of a book entitled The Post-Evangelical, which argues that the church must adapt to the new postmodern culture.
Such eagerness to please the non-believers upsets traditionalists, who often feel their church has been wrested away from them. Ironically, it often sparks amused contempt from non-Christians. Obviously, the church today is in a new cultural situation. But attempts to address the new culture often beg the theological question: What is the relationship supposed to be between the church and culture?
The Bible warns against "worldliness." The children of Israel got into big trouble when they imitated their pagan neighbors-and brought their altars and images into the Temple. Somehow, Christians are supposed to be "in" the world, but not "of" the world (John 17:14-18).
Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book Christ and Culture, points out that there are four ways churches approach their culture.
"Culture above Christ" is the way of liberal theology. This view holds that Christianity must constantly change and adapt according to the dictates of the prevailing culture. In the words of the slogan of the National Council of Churches, "the world sets the agenda for the church."
There are thus many kinds of liberal theology. During the Enlightenment, many churches sought a religion based on reason alone. Romanticism brought a new theology based on subjective feelings. In the first half of the century, liberals were saying that "modern man" is so science-oriented that he cannot believe in the supernatural, so modernist theologians "demythologized" the Bible and turned Christianity into a progressive social creed. Today, postmodernists have little problem with the supernatural as such, so the new liberalism consists of accommodation to today's pop culture, intellectual relativism, and moral tolerance.
Liberal theologies do not last for long, because in their craving to make the church culturally relevant, they end up making it irrelevant. When the church is wholly swallowed up by the secular culture, why go to church? If the church has nothing to say other than what the culture is already saying, why not just wallow in the secular culture?
Mr. Niebuhr's other possibilities have more gumption. "Christ above Culture" recognizes God's transcendence and encourages Christians to change their societies according to God's transcendent moral law. The danger of this view comes when Christians make the old mistake, as many of his contemporaries did, of trying to make Jesus a merely political messiah, instead of the way to eternal life. Utopias can never happen in a fallen world, and the church is to keep a spiritual focus.
"Christ against Culture" means that Christians separate themselves from the sinful world. This view recognizes the stark difference between the church and the non-believers. The danger comes when the church is reduced to a culture of its own, which will inevitably be plagued with the same weaknesses of every other culture. Besides, the Bible teaches that Christians are to be "in" the world, as a force for good, rather than withdrawing from the battle.
Niebuhr calls the final possibility "Christ and Culture in paradox"-Luther called it the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms. God is sovereign over both the church and the culture, but he governs them in two different ways. The church is the company of those called by the gospel for eternal life, ruled by his Word. Just as God rules his natural creation by the laws of nature, he rules human cultures by his power, his providence, and the moral law that he wrote upon the hearts even of Gentiles. God works through human institutions-families, governments, laws, economic structures-even of unbelievers.
Christians are citizens of both realms. As such, their life in the church draws them closer to God; their life in the secular world is an arena for them to live out their vocations in active service to others. Christians, being citizens of both kingdoms, are under the different rules of both. A prisoner converting to Christianity is forgiven and becomes a citizen of God's eternal Kingdom, but must still pay the penalty for his-or her-crimes against the earthly kingdom.
Christians, in this view, are to be engaged in their cultures-actively working to correct the evils of their societies-while, at the same time, being distinct from those cultures. The church is not to be a cultural follower; rather, the church is supposed to save people from their Godless culture, discipling them into the mind of Christ, and equipping them to influence their culture according to God's will. Otherwise, instead of the church evangelizing the world, the world will have evangelized the church.