The Church has been facing a crisis for some time now, a crisis surrounding the question of relevance. Its critics claim that the Church and the Gospel have ceased being relevant and meaningful. Many have sought to answer this crisis by searching for ways to connect with the culture outside the Church, a challenge to say the least. Some programs and plans may have limited success in drawing some into the Church, but the question regarding the crisis needs some kind of answer: why has the Church and the Gospel lost its relevance in a world so desperately in need of both Christ’s community and message? Part of the answer, though it is surely a complicated one, lies in understanding that Christians are called to a way of life. Their style of living is to be culturally distinct from the world they find themselves in. It is this way of life that makes the Church the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The Church needs to recall its spiritual culture and live according to it in order to be relevant, which will give the treasure of the gospel which they hold real meaning in today’s world.
To be in the world but not of the world can be understood to mean that our way of living in this world is based on the spiritual culture of the kingdom of heaven and not according to the culture of the world. It means that our way of living is based on a paradigm that views the world from a kingdom point of view. The Church cannot think of itself in terms of being an institution and hope to be relevant. It has to offer more than a religious system in order to impact the world. We need to understand that the community of Christ itself is to be the touch point between the world and the Church. It is only as Christians as individuals live a distinctly Christian style of life that they can hope to share and reveal the Gospel. The ability to live this way of life comes from being a part of true community with others. We grow in our understanding of the Christian way of life when we are part of Christian community.
I know many Christians who view going to church as either a waste of time or simply unnecessary. When asked why, they usually answer that they find fellowship with other Christians outside of a church meeting fulfills their spiritual needs. Whether that is entirely true or not is another topic, but what does become clear is what they are thirsty for. They want and need community and relationship, not religion as such. Now if there are Christians who feel this way, how much more so those who are not? The only connection that many non-Christians will ever have with the Church and the Gospel are the Christians they meet. If we are not living a Christian style of life then they will not experience or encounter Christ, the Gospel, through us. If they do not encounter a different paradigm, a different culture, then they will not experience or encounter the presence of the kingdom in their lives.
We begin to see that the spiritual culture of the kingdom and the style of living that it should engender are the means by which the Church and the Gospel can be relevant and meaningful in a darkened world in need of our salt and light. The challenge begins with us, the Church. Will we be those who live a in the culture of the kingdom or will we be Christians who believe in Jesus, but ascribe to the world culture we live in?
The title of this chapter ought to be becoming clear now, for part of the Church’s crisis today has arisen out of our divided loyalties to the world and the kingdom. The spiritual reality is that there actually is no room for divided loyalties in the kingdom of heaven. We cannot serve two masters.
We encounter the struggle for our loyalty to the kingdom every day. Our loyalties are vied for on two fronts. World culture attempts to demand our loyalty while we are offered loyalty to the kingdom of heaven.
Good Advice vs. Good News
Christians face a choice of loyalty when they consider the implications of the Gospel. The picture is fairly simple, either the Gospel is truly the way of life that Jesus has revealed to us or it is merely good advice on how to live. The second choice reduces the Gospel to an option while the first
raises it to a true form of spirituality brave enough to say, “This is the only option, this is the way to live always.” When we treat the Gospel as optional advice we rob it of its power and render it ineffective. It allows spiritual space for living a different way of life no aligned with the spiritual culture of the kingdom. When we treat the Gospel as good advice we set aside the lordship of Christ and do as we please, ignoring the presence of his Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit will always be guiding us to live according to the way of the Gospel, to live according t the spiritual culture of the kingdom. To love our enemies, for example, is an issue of loyalty to the kingdom. It is difficult to love our enemies and easy to avoid if the Gospel is held only as optional advice. If we choose loyalty to the kingdom first we will have the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to do what is seemingly impossible and love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. There is no other choice or way of living for those whose loyalty is to the kingdom and its culture. The Gospel is good news because it is the revelation of this way of living. When our loyalty fails in the form of optional good advice our Gospel fails to have real power and inevitably becomes irrelevant to the world.
World culture would prefer it if we would treat the Gospel as optional good advice, and will even tolerate the Gospel as an acceptable system of ethics. Yet the spiritual culture of the kingdom precludes this choice and reveals the Gospel as more than a system. It is to be that which forms the Christian style of life, the sole way to live. To put it in the strongest terms, to love God and love your neighbor is a gospel command, not to be considered a flexible option. This way of thinking lies at the heart of the issue of divided loyalties. Christians cannot buy into the illusion of optional faith, choosing from situation to situation if they will live according to the good news or not. They must choose to live according to the spiritual culture of the kingdom in all situations always. This what it means to be a disciple and to follow Christ.
Freedom vs. Submission
In the contrast between world and kingdom culture there is a great tension between the concept of freedom. To be free is an integral value in world culture. To be free is also an integral value in kingdom culture, for as Jesus says “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.” A major theme of the Gospel is that men live in spiritual slavery from which they are to be freed through the redemption of Christ. So what is true freedom? What the world calls freedom is not truly freedom but illusion. World culture sees freedom in terms of being able to do as you please when you please serving your own self interest, in other words being your own master. This is a very old lie that should be familiar to those who know the story of Eden. Such freedom only perpetuates spiritual bondage, for the reality is that to be one’s own master doing whatever pleases them is rooted in sin, specifically the sin of rebellion. What is rooted in sin can only lead to death and thus this freedom is not freedom but slavery and imprisonment.
In the spiritual culture of the kingdom freedom comes through submission. This reality may be culturally offensive to the world because it does not conform to its understanding of what it means to be free. Yet there is no greater picture of human freedom than that seen in Eden before the Fall. Adam and Eve lived in the fullness of shalom with God, each other and creation. They lived in submission to the order that God had put in place and were truly free. The Fall was very much a loss of freedom as well as the introduction of sin into the human experience. The Gospel and the essence of kingdom culture is about the restoration of that freedom. To be set free from the destruction and death of sin; to be set free from the kingdom of darkness which derives its power from the act of rebellion in the garden; to be set free from the illusion of freedom offered by world culture; to be set free from spiritual darkness; and to be set free from the cycle of broken relationships with God, each other, and even creation. This is the freedom offered in the kingdom. The spiritual culture of the kingdom is about living in freedom. It reveals a way of life that leads to a spiritual life of freedom not influenced or affected by situation. This freedom comes through submission to our king and savior Jesus. Through our submission to him we live in the freedom of his kingdom. Submission is like a door through which we enter that spiritual reality and leave behind the illusions of world culture. When we cede our throne to Christ we are freed from being our own rebellious masters and we are freed from the oppression of the kingdom of darkness. Now that spiritual enemy contends with the king of heaven instead of dominating us who have no power outside of Christ to defend against it. Christians then, must choose between loyalty and submission to Jesus the king and loyalty to the illusion of world culture, which tells them that to be their own masters is to be free.
The Law of Love
Love forms the core of the spiritual culture of the kingdom. Matthew 22:34-40 is the cultural basis of the kingdom. The New Testament writers expand on and stress this core extensively. There is one law in the kingdom of heaven and that is to love. Love God and love people sums the law up. As my friend Ward likes to say “Love God, love people, and let him sort out the rest.” Our loyalty to this cultural value is imperative and cannot be viewed as optional. It is this value more than any other that makes kingdom culture distinct from world culture. The community of Christ is to love God, not harbor anger, bitterness, or blame towards him. We are to love him with all our being; spirit, heart, soul, mind, fingers, toes, foreheads etc… We cannot give away our loyalty and love to other ‘gods’ whatever those may be whether spiritual or material. So too we are called to love others. This may be the more difficult command for some. It is people after all who cause us pain, disappointment, fear, anger, frustration etc… Yet to love others is a command, not an option in the culture of the kingdom. It is a love that must have its roots in the first command for it is by our love for God that we become people able to love others even in the most difficult of encounters with them. Loyalty to the love of world culture leads us to love those who love us, but loyalty to kingdom culture leads us to love those who hate us. Two radically different paradigms and cultural values. The choice is straightforward even if the challenge is difficult. To choose this loyalty to the kingdom requires a deep love for God. The importance of loving others cannot be overstated, for it is on this value that the Church is most often judged. When the Christian style of life is not marked by love it causes the world to view the community of Christ as a closed system of belief that does not accept others, does not care about others, and judges them as being unfit for God’s love. As a result the Gospel vanishes into thin air. Without love the Church has no means of touching the world culture around it and becomes just one more irrelevant religious institution instead of a powerful spiritual community that is the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
As the Church has taken on the role of a moral watchdog it has forgotten its first calling to love. When the Church sits as judge proclaiming judgment for sin and social failure in the world as its primary ministry without any hint of the love of God for broken humanity, a dangerous error has occurred. Not only does this not advance the Gospel, it alienates the very people in need of the Gospel. A Church that sees itself as Judge has adopted world culture instead of kingdom culture where Jesus is the only one given authority to judge. If the community of Christ is to love its enemies, then it follows that they should be showing love to sinners and the broken people of the world. God has touched all Christians through his mercy and love, for these triumph over judgment. When the Church does not fulfill its call to be the prophetic sign pointing to the love and mercy of God it has lost sight of its role in the earth.
The law of love is at the center of Christian thought and faith, for it is the central value of the culture of the kingdom. It is this law that ought to be the guiding influence of the Christian paradigm. Anything less opens the doors to divided loyalties and systems of religion that have little to do with Jesus, his Gospel, or his kingdom.
Individualism vs. Community
Another tension between world culture and kingdom culture is the view each takes of community and the individual. World culture encourages us to view ourselves as the central figure in our lives. Others come second to our needs, our goals, our dreams and hopes. Yet in kingdom culture the reverse is encouraged. Others are to be seen as more important than ourselves; their needs, their goals, their dreams and hopes are our concern. The community of Christ, the Church, is to be a culture of community. We live our lives connected to each other instead of as separate little worlds. John 17 is perhaps the clearest expression of this kingdom value. Jesus has restored shalom through his death and his resurrection. Through him the wholeness of relationship that was lost has been restored, he has made it possible for his people to become those who live in true community. Now we can have an unbroken relationship with our heavenly Father because he has redeemed us and removed from us our sin through his death on the cross. With the restoration of shalom we are now able to live out the calling he places on his community to be those who love one another. The community of Christ is empowered by his Spirit to participate in a profound community, not a profound individualism marked by isolation. His very desire for us expressed in John 17:20-23 is that we should know him deeply and have incredibly deep relationships with our fellow believers. Listen to what he says:
My prayer is not for them
alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their
message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in
you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have
sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be
one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to
complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even
as you have loved me.
These are extraordinary words for they describe a profound depth of relationship both with God and with others. As followers of Jesus, and being those who love him, we are called to embrace his vision for his community. We are to be those who love God and who love others always looking to establish and further relationships of oneness and unity with God and each other.
Jesus expresses the mission or purpose of being the true community of Christ in the above verses as well. If we are a community of shalom we reveal to the world through our love for God and one another the truth of the Gospel. People will know that God sent his Son to us and that he loves us because of the unique relationships we have with one another marked by love and unity. This is evangelism in its most simple form. It is as though Jesus is saying to us “Listen, be my kind of people and the truth of who I am and who my Father is will be revealed.” So we must ask ourselves are we people who live in shalom with God and with one another? Do we have a paradigm that is filled with the hope of true community life? Do we value what Jesus values so much? Are we willing to love one another in the profound way that he calls us to? We need to be willing to become those who will be participants in establishing true community where we are. We need to realize that we as the community of Christ are the vessels through which God has chosen to spread shalom throughout the earth once again. If we do not embrace his vision for community then the earth suffers because we are not fulfilling the calling he has given us.
In the end we see that the Christian style of life is one of community. Commitment to love one another and live in unity together is the primary and most powerful testimony the Church has been given. In this way it reveals the truth of the Gospel reality of the risen Christ, for where true community exists it is an undeniable revelation of Jesus Christ and the love of God for humanity. True community directly acts as a counter force to the self-centred values of world culture.
While we could continue to discuss numerous examples of divided loyalties and the differences between world culture and kingdom culture (ie materialism vs. spiritual reality, forgiveness vs. revenge, etc…) the point has already been made. Kingdom culture is a spiritual culture that makes the community of Christ a distinct people with a distinct culture. This culture should lead us into a vibrant spirituality that profoundly effects the style of life that we live as we choose loyalty to the kingdom over loyalty to the world.