MARSHALL—The church should give the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God, but cultural accommodation and nationalism prevent American congregations from fulfilling their calling, theologian Roger Olson said.
“The church is not to be a launching pad for Christian empire—American or otherwise—but God’s alternative social order within the fallen world ruled by powers and principalities, challenging them with light dispelling their darkness, not the might of power and force,” he said.
The social order the church should prefigure represents “an upside-down kingdom,” said Olson, the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.
Olson delivered the T.B. Maston Foundation Lectures in Christian ethics at East Texas Baptist University, named to honor the legacy of the trailblazing 20th century Baptist ethics professor.
Renounce cultural accommodation
To fulfill its calling in the countercultural kingdom of God, the church “must shake off and resist, abandon and renounce, cultural accommodation for the sake of respectability,” he insisted. That includes congregations in Texas and the so-called Bible Belt, he noted.
“Many Christians in our cultural context have come to think that—at some time and still in some ways—our culture is already Christianized, which is as much to say it is the realization of God’s kingdom on earth,” Olson said.
“Many ‘culture warrior’ Christians, of course, target particular threats to that Christ-and-culture synthesis—abortion, homosexuality, pornography, the teaching of evolution in schools and many other issues. The great irony is that in many churches populated by these good people, capital punishment, divorce, lascivious entertainment, gambling and Social Darwinism are accepted as normal, if not actually good.”
Churches need to examine their attitudes toward culture, including politics, he warned.
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“Embracing a secular social and political ideology is also a form of cultural accommodation,” he said. “To a very large extent, secular-minded, godless political powers have co-opted both conservative and liberal churches for their causes. The churches have too willingly, perhaps unknowingly, sacrificed their prophetic kingdom-oriented consciousness and social order for participation in secular power politics, gaining thereby a self-righteous self-image and respectability with some portion of the culture.”
Reject power and privilege
Congregations need to reject power and privilege and become “churches of the poor,” Olson asserted. As one example, he cited The Church Under the Bridge, a congregation of homeless people and others that meets beneath the Interstate-35 overpass near Baylor, led by Jimmy Dorrell, founder of Mission Waco.
“Becoming churches of the poor … does not necessarily mean worshipping under Interstate overpasses, but it surely does mean eschewing privilege based on social status in the eyes of the fallen world and putting at our center of interest the lowly, the meek and neglected people, whoever they may be in our particular neighborhood or town,” he said.
American churches also must stand against violence, except when used to protect the innocent, Olson insisted. Even then, violence is “at best a necessary evil and not something to celebrate,” he asserted.
“Our world, even our culture, is saturated with violence—so saturated that we easily become inured to it and jaded by it,” he said. “Churches of Jesus Christ, however, ought to be peace-loving and peacemaking communities governed by a preferential option for peace.”
Turn away from consumerism
Furthermore, American Christians should “resist accommodation to the culture of individualistic consumerism and obsession with entertainment,” Olson said.
“Shopping malls are our culture’s equivalents of Greek and Roman pagan temples. … Television, movies and sports events have become our culture’s equivalents of the Roman circuses and gladiator contests in the arenas and coliseums of the ancient world. Our culture worships designer clothes, expensive cars and the latest technologies for entertainment,” he said. “These are our culture’s gods.”
Churches should offer an alternative community characterized by countercultural values, Olson asserted.
Christ’s followers should see themselves as “kingdom citizens in enemy-occupied territory—the Christian colony in a fundamentally pagan culture,” he insisted.
Choose patriotism over nationalism
Christians rightly can practice “passionate patriotism”—celebrating one’s country as a gift from God, Olson said. But they must reject nationalism characterized by “uncritical and even enthusiastic embrace of a nation-state as sacred,” he asserted.
“I worry that patriotism and nationalism are being confused when I hear about ‘American exceptionalism,’ especially when that is used to justify whatever America does on the world stage and to claim that America can morally act in ways we Americans would condemn if done by other countries,” Olson said.
“Nationalists—including many Christians—confuse God’s blessing America in special ways with God sanctioning American atrocities, imperialism, lavish luxury and rejection of desperate outsiders as unworthy of our embrace.”
Choose life, practice humility
Life and humility represent two values of God’s kingdom not shared by America’s social order, Olson asserted.
“Abortion-on-demand and capital punishment both contradict the kingdom of God, which is about life,” he said. “The kingdom of God calls us to preserve the life of the weakest members of our communities. Nobody is weaker than a fetus. The kingdom of God calls us to restorative justice even for the most wicked members of our community.”
Neither an ethic that exalts “choice” and “personal freedom” over innocent life nor an ethic that views the execution of convicted murderers almost as “a sacrament” is consistent with the kingdom of God, he insisted.
“As a Christian guided by the critical principle of the kingdom of God, I cannot justify any unnecessary killing,” Olson said. “Every person killed, whether guilty or innocent, is a person for whom Christ died and therefore loved by God. And by killing him or her, we are usurping God’s place—assuming that God has no plan in that person’s future.”
American culture obsessed with power, wealth, status, arrogant pride, conspicuous consumption and the cult of celebrity contradicts the kingdom of God, rooted and grounded in humility, he added.
“We should have genuine heroes instead of celebrities,” Olson said. “We should celebrate self-sacrificing service instead of arrogance based on fame, wealth and status.”