I notice this morning on Facebook a strong post about the future of our church re the possibility of our theology on marriage changing the character of our church (and 70 comments to date in the exchange following!). What now for our church as we engage over the next two years in re-examining our theology of marriage?
Here is one question I think we should be thinking about (and there are many more to consider, some of which may be considered in future posts):
What is the state of the society in which we seek to be the visible church of God?
Historically, the church has always made some adaptation towards the way society is, even as it has also sought, variously, to prophetically critique society, as well as to convert people to Jesus Christ.
Just yesterday I had the fortunate and privileged experience of being part of a small group of local academics in an informal session with visiting New Testament scholar Darrell Bock, a specialist in Luke-Acts studies. One of the points Darrell made about Luke-Acts is that it functioned as 'sociological legitimation' of the early Christian movement. On the one hand showing that it had ancient and respectable roots in Judaism. On the other hand showing that through no particular fault of its own it had become separated from Judaism while seeking to be a responsible religious movement within the Roman Empire.
In Western society (at least), the church also stands in need of 'sociological legitimation'. That is, we need to be seen to be respectable, responsible, and reasonable. Not least, because the progress of the gospel depends on people making some sense of it: the gospel is different, but it is no virtue if it is deemed to be weird; belonging to the church has to make some kind of sense (e.g. because it is a friendly, supportive, caring community) and have a certain transparency (witness, by contrast, the alarm which cults and sects create in our society); and the church has to make some kind of contribution to the common good (not least to be a legitimated body, the contrast being Islamic societies where churches are more or less illegal, precisely because they threaten the common good of those societies as 'total' Islamic communities).
From this perspective, liberal/progressive tendencies in Western churches lean over backwards to be respectable, responsible and reasonable, while conservative tendencies in the same churches lean over backwards not to be unfaithful to what was once respectable, responsible and reasonable. One question for the latter being whether some shift is required because society has changed - a question which simply has to be asked for the sake of conservative integrity because examples abound of conservatives making some shifts to adapt to a changing world.
A question for the former, however, is whether leaning over backwards for the sake of sociological legitimation is precisely at the expense of the existence of the church itself.
That's enough for now, save to make one further observation out of some remarks Darrell Bock made: Luke took great pains in the telling of the story of the early church to tell us that this church held together across many tensions. It was the church of Hebrew speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews, of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, of Jerusalem and Rome, of Peter and Paul. I loved Darrell's observation that when the crucial Jerusalem council was held over the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians, it is the doyen of Jewish Christianity, James the brother of Jesus (and writer of the Letter of James) to whom Luke gives the lead role in proposing the compromise which will hold the two factions together.
What is our Luke-Acts story for the Western church today, for ACANZP?