“Counter-cultural” isn’t enough

Maybe it’s a natural result of being a part of a conservative, even ‘fundamentalist’ group. Maybe it’s a result of the ‘culture wars’ – even ‘across the pond’ here in the UK, the language and attitudes are contagious. Whatever the reason, when I hear that something is ‘counter-cultural’, there’s a part of me that wants in, even if it’s something that the church I grew up in (or the one I’m a part of now) would never condone.

It’s easy to paint Jesus as simply a counter-cultural revolutionary, condemning everything in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world around him. It’s probably equally easy to depict him as condoning almost everything in his context, as making minor evolutionary adjustments to his context, but that would be quite a different church culture to the ones I’m familiar with. We can get addicted to the myth that either Jesus (and all Christians) are opposed to everything in culture, or pleased with it all. For me, the danger lies in ‘counter-culturalism’ – the mistaken belief that if it’s counter to contemporary culture, it must in fact be good, beautiful or just.

The danger with ‘counter-culturalism’ is two-fold, I believe.* Firstly, we can disassociate ourselves so completely from the world that we have no real witness to it. But more importantly, we can run the risk of accepting ideas, theologies, practices that are neither good, beautiful or just, simply because they are counter-cultural.

Anyone with the merest moment of clarity can realise that obviously not every single possible thing that contemporary British culture (or any other local culture at any other time period in history) is evil to be rejected. The reality is, no matter what our feelings on the world around us are, we do share some values as well as air with our fellow citizens. As much as we might try to demonise ‘The World’ (with capitals, note!), we’re not so unlike them, especially when it comes to the ‘9 to 5’.

And yet it seems to be a major strut in the arguments for many of the issues in the ‘culture wars’ that we must be counter-cultural, whether it’s a question of the value of an unborn child, the value of a person of different sexuality or the value of a female. This post cannot possibly engage with all these issues (or the many others it may trip up on along the way), but linking up with the #mutuality2012 conversation that Rachel Held Evans has kicked off on her blog, I want to think about egalitarianism. (See RHE’s great summary blog post on the terms egalitarian and complementarian if you want to check what exactly is meant.)

I’ve made it quite clear, being counter-cultural is no reason to accept a doctrine, it’s not even a partial support among many others. It’s an appeal to a culture that opposes another culture – it’s pietism, separatism, pharisee-ism. It’s a secret code for ‘if you agree with me, you’re in, you’re one of us’, a reminder that so often our identities are shaped by who we are not more than who we are or want to be. By agreeing with one side or the other in the conversation, I feel superior to the ones who I have labelled as ‘slaves to culture’, rejecting them as ‘living in the world’.

So let’s forget ‘being counter-cultural’ as a way to decide whether to support an idea or not (remembering that both sides think that they can claim the title ‘counter-cultural’ in this conversation) and think about what are valid reasons for being either complementarian or egalitarian.

It all comes down to the Gospel. No, it’s not a ‘Gospel issue’, in that I have no problem in sharing fellowship with those who think very differently on the subject, but it does all come down to how you understand the Gospel – the Gospel must be the key thing that shapes our understanding of our Christian lives.

The Gospel is the good news of Jesus, put quite simply. It’s the good news that all that Israel was meant to be but could never become and more has come to be in Jesus and through Jesus. It is, above all, the story of how that has become and is becoming true, a story that in some senses is incomplete, while in others we know the ending. It’s a story that shapes our lives with with direction and intent rather than legalism. In fact, when it comes to Law, Jesus is very clear: it’s better to appear to break the rules in order to advance justice and inclusiveness. It seems that all the laws that are to encourage separateness are nullified, every barrier broken down, every division removed.

Holiness in the Old Testament is often about bowls and other objects that are specially for the service of God in the Tabernacle and Temple. Often, that kind of holiness is defined as being separated from profane or evil uses. Yet in the New Testament, I think holiness is more about being used by God in his great task of bringing new life and wholeness than about separation from evil.

Separations and divisions make religion easy to manage and monitor, but this new kind of holiness is much messier. It is the untamed action of the Spirit, ignoring our proprieties, making a mockery of carefully cultivated hierarchies. The Spirit of Pentecost urges us to go where the life of resurrection is – just as Paul does.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 NIV

Notice that the paragraph doesn’t end with the famous first sentence, verse 8. The good, beautiful and just things, the things learned, received, heard from or seen in Paul are to be put into practice. This isn’t an instruction to pointless musing on nice stuff, but a way of testing what will be put into practice.

For me, the reasons for being an egalitarian are not simply about culture and counter-culture, or based on one or two ‘proof texts’ but based on the broader narrative of the good news of Jesus. His life, both his ministry before the cross and his resurrection life that animates the church, is about justice, inclusiveness and wholeness. It’s about (mutual) submission, not (violent) power. Life is more important that leadership in the kingdom. Things that are good, beautiful and just far outweigh the rules of this culture and its counter-cultures or any others.

Egalitarianism is a justice issue. Go where the life is, join in. And the God of peace will be with you.

* There are the inverse dangers to cultural accommodation, I grant you: identifying so closely with the world that you have no prophetic voice left to speak with, and accepting things in the culture that are neither good, beautiful or just simply because we’re used to them. Beware of both positions, seek first the kingdom!

This post is part of a ‘synchroblog’, my way of adding my voice to the chorus of both men and women who advocate real equality in the church and all aspects of Christian life, linking in with Rachel Held Evans and many others. Follow the masses of posts on twitter: #mutuality2012, add your voice there and in the comments.