After last week’s article was posted, I received an email from an individual who was concerned that I was placing blame on the Church for the sorry state of the American culture. He took exception to this thesis and offered a different explanation as to why the culture is the way it is. I believe his point of contention, although well intended, is shared by many in the Christian community and stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Church in its God-given mandates to take dominion (Gen. 1:28) and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). Here is what he wrote (quoted in full and as received):
I frequently hear that the state of our culture is an indictment of the church. Are you so absolutely sure? Jeremiah was a faithful man in his generation. He spoke the truth. The problem was, nobody would listen to him. Noah is called a preacher of righteousnes in the bible. The problem was, nobody would listen to him. Jesus was the light of the world in his generation and for all generations. The problem still is that the world loved darkness rather than light. Not enough of the Jewish people would listem to him and the promised judgement fell. So I would be a little more cautious about judging God’s messengers, which we , the church now our. Many people, more than we will ever know, are faithful witnesses, but they do it quietly, under the radar screen. They witness as they have the opportunity, but not enough listen. So please stop beating the sheep. The seed is being planted, but as the parable would seem to indicate, three-fourths of it never reaches maturity. Please think about that the next time you sit down to write.
First off, the main premise of this man’s response is spot-on. The world has shut its ears to the message that the Church is peddling; first-century Israel was no different in this regard: “He came unto His own and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). While I do not deny that the world doesn’t listen when the Church speaks, we need to seriously ask ourselves if the Church is actually giving the Gospel? Is there more to the Gospel than “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” Does the Church have a larger responsibility than witnessing “as they have the opportunity?” Is “they won’t listen” a valid reason for the Church’s ineffectiveness, or is it a self-perpetuating cycle?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his first-century audience that they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16). Unless someone wants to make the point that this passage only applies to those who were within earshot of Jesus on that day and no one else, we must make the connection that the Church is now the “salt and light” of which He spoke. If we make this connection, as I would hope that my email questioner would, we must take a closer look at this passage and try to determine what this means for us, nearly 2000 years later. First, we must realize that there is both a physical and a spiritual application to this passage. We are the salt “of the earth," but the light “of the world.” Salt is something tangible and physical, while light is intangible and difficult to explain. In fact, modern science still can’t decide if light is a particle, a wave, or both. For our purposes though, we can agree that salt has a physical application (seasoning and preserving) and light has a spiritual application (chasing away darkness).
Most modern exegesis of this well-known passage stops at this point. Even though this is enough to make our point that the Church is the moral compass and change agent of the culture at large, we would be dishonest if we didn’t look deeper at the “salt” concept that Jesus uses as an example. In Leviticus 2:13 we read: “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Also, in Numbers 18:19: “All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD to you and your descendants with you.” And in Ezekiel 43:24: “You shall present them before the LORD, and the priests shall throw salt on them, and they shall offer them up as a burnt offering to the LORD.” These salt references from the OT involve offerings that the priestly class (the Levites) made for the people. In 2 Chronicles 13:5 we learn that the salt represents God’s covenant: “Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the rule over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?” The promise of His covenant with David is represented with salt. Jesus came from the line of David, yet even David calls Him Lord (Mark 12:35-37). The apostle Peter tells us that we (the Church) are the priests of the New Covenant (1 Peter 2:5-9), so our offerings should be covered with salt as well.
But what about the light? In Proverbs 4:18 we read: “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.” If we read back earlier in this proverb we find Solomon contrasting the darkness of the wicked with the light of the righteous. Similarly, we find a promise of the conquering mission of “the light” in Isaiah 58: “Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard… Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Is. 58:8, 12).
The church cannot ignore the fact that she has been given dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28; Matt. 28: 18-20), and that her “dominion” activities (or lack thereof) will set the pace for all of mankind’s cultural pursuits. We need to keep in mind that culture is far more than simply movies, music, and magazines. In reality, culture is the outward expression of the core beliefs of individuals; it is truly “religion externalized.” And this externalization is made manifest in everything that individuals do in this world, whether for God or against Him. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17).
In his letter to the Church at Colossae, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that Jesus is both the Creator (1:16-17) and the Reconciler (1:20) of heaven and earth. It was God the Father’s good pleasure to send Jesus into the world as a physical and spiritual reminder that He owns it all and we are mere stewards. The culture that we create “down here” is a tangible outworking of our willingness to comply with or rebel against this cosmic truth. John Frame summarizes it well: “Creation is what God makes, culture is what we make.” And what we make is intimately connected with what we believe.
When God created in the first chapter of Genesis, He set a pattern that we continue to follow with the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 and the Great Commission of Matthew 28. In the first three days of creation, God made the environment, i.e. air, sea, and land, and filled them on days four, five, and six with birds, fish, and animals. When He made man—His crown of creation—He gave him dominion, or stewardship, over everything that He had made. He told man to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” When Jesus gave His final commission to His disciples He told them: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” It should be fairly obvious that these two mandates are essentially saying the same thing. Both include being fruitful and multiplying (physically and spiritually) and taking dominion over what God has made. When we make disciples and teach them all that Jesus has commanded, we are not only fulfilling the dominion mandate, but increasing it. When more Christians inhabit the earth, the cultural implications are clear. We take dominion by first subduing our environment and then by multiplying ourselves, both physically (with children and grandchildren) and spiritually (with converts and disciples).
Because we have been given dominion over the earth by the very Creator Himself, failure is not an option. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 clearly makes this point. God expects us to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth for His glory. It is our responsibility to clear the weeds, plow the ground, and plant cultural flowers as He has ordained. The fact that we didn’t make the mess is not an excuse. When my children are sitting around our living room knee-deep in toys and puzzle pieces, it is not an option for them to claim that they didn’t make the mess. As stewards of the house that God has graciously given us (not to mention the toys with which to make a mess!), we, as a family, have an obligation to keep it clean and orderly, regardless of whether or not one of the neighbor boys is actually the cause of the mess. The same is true in the larger matters of the culture. We can waste a bunch of time trying to point fingers at the philosophy of Nietzsche, or Marx, or Darwin to account for the cultural rot we see around us, or we can actually get to work transplanting the weeds with flowers. Rather than frantically searching the humanist landscape for a scrap of transcendental truth, we must be doing the hard work of actually taking dominion. The church has lost sight of this most basic and simple principle. The world will only begin to take notice when we get serious about our God-given mandates.