Pilgrims and Strangers: A Christian Cultural Perspective
by Rick Shrader
A few years ago, R.C. Sproul wrote, “Adjusting to the customs and worldview of one’s environment is one of the strongest pressures people experience. To be ‘out of it’ culturally is often considered the nadir of social achievement.”1 Unfortunately, this bothers most Christians and, because it does, they have spent over half a century defining and redefining the non-biblical word “culture” so that they can justify fitting comfortably into the world, a place that is at enmity with God. Oswald Chambers said, “To be a friend of the world means that we take the world as it is and are perfectly delighted with it—the world is all right and we are very happy in it.”2 Similarly, Os Guinness wrote, “At the end of the line, Christian assumptions are absorbed by the modern ones. The gospel has been assimilated to the shape of the culture, often without a remainder.”3
Older writers most often spoke of culture as something that needs to be lifted to a higher plane (i.e., to be “cultured”). Almost sixty years ago, T.S. Eliot wrote,
It is only when we imagine our culture as it ought to be, if our society were really a Christian society, that we can dare to speak of Christian culture as the highest culture; it is only by referring to all the phases of this culture, which has been the culture of Europe, that we can affirm that it is the highest culture that the world has ever known.4
Today, however, such a statement is taken as bigoted or even racist. Why? Because now culture is seen as the way things are; life as we have to take it. It has no moral right and wrong to it; it is all neutral. So even when we refer to “pop culture” with all of its obvious moral failures, we still are to accept it as an atmosphere that just is; something that was inherited perhaps, but certainly not made.
Take the difference between nature and culture as an example of how things have changed. We used to speak of nature as something inviolate (because God created it) and culture as something we are to change and to make better. But now, these have been reversed: culture is considered inviolate (it just is; we can’t do anything about it) and we are attempting to change nature and the environment all the time. This is another way in which God’s work is profaned and man’s work is exalted.
The contemporary church today has surrendered to the culture and yet talks about transforming the culture. But while the largest part of culture (the sinful outworking of man’s nature, i.e., the “world”) controls the church, the church is seeking to transform the smaller parts of culture (social and political issues). The New Testament church is to be in the world but not of the world. The ship can be in the sea but when the sea gets in the ship it is in trouble. Yet the church has a spiritual job to do. Its job is the conversion of the individual through the gospel of Jesus Christ and sanctification of the individual believer through the local church. These converts become salt and light in culture.
Many believers disagree about the local church’s responsibility in the world. The theological liberal view of a social or political gospel grew out of poor hermeneutics that changed either theocratic or kingdom passages into New Testament church mandates. The social and political action views, however, are just not in the New Testament neither by precept nor practice. The church has a spiritual job to do which, if done biblically, will fill society with Spirit-filled believers who will affect the culture for good. This spiritual responsibility is taught through many analogies in the New Testament. Here are seven such analogies.
Pilgrims and Strangers – The positional element
The apostle Peter addressed his readers as pilgrims and strangers in his first epistle (1 Pet. 2:11). He called them sojourners also (1:17). In the words of the song, this world is not our home, we’re just passing through. The Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11:13 were also strangers and pilgrims on the earth and looked for a permanent home in the next life, a better country, that is, a heavenly (11:16). Had they been like many today, they could have been mindful of that country from whence they came out (11:15) and become too attached to the old culture and way of life.
Someone always complains about Christians who seem too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. But, of course, that would be to accuse God Himself Who tells us to be heavenly minded! No, as one said, they serve earth best who love heaven most. We are like Bunyan’s pilgrim who was on a journey through the world in order to reach the heavenly kingdom. If John Bunyan himself had not understood this he could not have spent years in prison for preaching the gospel, and then, of course, he would not have written Pilgrim’s Progress, a picture of his own spiritual journey. A pilgrim doesn’t become too attached to the land through which he’s passing. While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).
Ambassadors – The technical element
Paul’s well-known passage is 2 Cor. 5:19-21 in which he tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. An ambassador is one who lives in a foreign country in order to do business for the homeland. This business is technical and important. Paul continued the message of the ambassador, for he hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (5:21).
Peter describes the ambassador’s job as an apologist. Be ready always to give an answer (apologia) to every man that asketh you a reason (logon) of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15). For this reason, Paul also encouraged, God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7).
Heralders – The vulnerable element
A herald was a person who reported the words of the king to his subjects. It was a “herald” (Dan. 3:4) who cried aloud for Nebuchadnezzar’s people to bow before the idol. Paul called himself a herald when he used the word “preacher” in 1 and 2 Timothy. This word, kerux, refers to the man himself who does the heralding (2 Tim. 1:11, I am appointed a preacher). Paul told Timothy to do the work of a herald, a preacher, when he told him to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). The action of doing what a herald should do is kerruso, “to preach.” The message itself is a further word, kerygma, that by me the preaching might be fully known (2 Tim. 4:17). This English word is still defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “the apostolic preaching that Jesus is the Christ.”
I say this is the vulnerable element because a herald places himself in front of sometimes hostile people with his King’s message which he has no right to change or barter. He must give it as the King wrote it and accept whatever repercussions come his way. Today’s heralders have failed far too often to be loyal to the King and to the text.
Soldiers – The aggressive element
The New Testament is replete with soldiering analogies. That world was filled with soldiers marching up and down the streets, boarding sailing vessels at every port, and generally keeping the peace in every town. Paul charged Timothy (probably the pastor in Ephesus, an important port city for transporting Roman soldiers) to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier (2 Tim. 2:3-4). Similarly, Paul charged the Ephesian church to take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand (Eph. 6:13).
The soldier’s armor is described in Eph. 6:14-17 by relating the physical armor of a Roman soldier to the spiritual armor of a Christian. As believers, we don’t seek any physical fighting (though military enlistment is certainly not forbidden). The Christian is not to give in or give up or run from the spiritual fight that goes on against Satan and his demons. This includes the ongoing battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the end, Paul himself said, I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).
Peculiar People – The odd element
Peter called believers, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people (1 Pet. 2:9). The word “peculiar” actually means “purchased,” i.e., believers have been set apart as God’s personal possession. This does not eliminate the meanings of our English word “peculiar” which can mean both unique and odd. In chapter four, Peter told his readers that one’s lost friends with whom he used to carouse, will think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you (1 Pet. 4:4).
The New Testament plainly teaches that God’s people stand out in this world and culture by outward and inward differences. We are not to be conformed (skema, the schematic or outward design) to the world and we’re also to be transformed (morpho?, changed internally) from the inside out by the will of God. For all of the talk of contemporary Christians being transformers and infiltrators of today’s culture, they have utterly failed to have the courage to be different.
Lambs – The passive element
We are sent out by Christ as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). And though there are wolves in sheep’s clothing, we are still to be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient; in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves (2 Tim. 2:24-25). It’s not that Christians are total pacifists, but we are to be like Christ who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously (1 Pet. 2:23). Isaiah said of Him, a bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench; he shall bring forth judgment unto truth (Isa. 42:3). Surely the world has seen enough strikers and brawlers who feign to represent the gentle Son of God. Jesus said that if we will lift Him up, as a Savior crucified in seeming weakness, He would draw men to Himself through us.
Church – The secluded element
The local church is the place of retreat for the Christian. It is the place where believers can let down their guard and do, before God, what Christians do. They should not have to please the unsaved if they happen in to their service. Rather, the best place for a nonbeliever to be is among Christians doing what Christians do: praying, singing hymns, fellowshipping, teaching and preaching, and taking the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 14:23-25 where such a person repents because of what he sees going on in church!).
If our churches were more focused on building up the saints, affirming parents trying to raise godly children, letting God’s house be a house of prayer rather than a den of thieves, God’s people would be much better equipped to go out into the world as salt and light and affect their culture for godliness. They would also be better equipped to carry out effective Spirit-filled evangelism.
And So . . . .
New Testament Christians have clear directives as to how to affect their culture. The real battle is being fought in the minds of God’s people. In effect, can we decrease that He may increase?
Charles Spurgeon said,
It is better to be the least in the kingdom of heaven, than the greatest out of it. The lowest degree of grace is superior to the noblest development of unregenerate nature. Where the Holy Ghost implants divine life in the soul, there is a precious deposit which none of the refinements of education can equal.5