Yesterday I tried to talk about some ways to avoid and address criticism and in the end I was debating with myself about whether or not we should care about image. My answer didn’t fully satisfy even myself, but then I came across this article from Books and Culture, On Slippery Slopes, the Blogosphere, and (oh, yes) Women.
The article is basically author Susan Wise Bauer’s defense for her support of John Stackhouse’s Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender. That support caused her quite a bit of grief from folks who consider things like the ordination of women starting a direct slide to homosexual marriage which we all know is what triggers the apocalypse. But we’re not here to argue about gender roles or homosexuality, so let’s not.
What I am here to do is talk about how her exploration of Stackhouse’s arguments seem to apply to things like marketing and image and give me a slightly more satisfactory answer to my question.
Stackhouse’s arguments basically come down to the idea that the early church was instructed not to cause unnecessary offense to their surrounding culture. Stackhouse argues that these instructions do not mean that this is God’s ultimate plan. The best argument is slavery–Paul told slaves and masters to just stick it out so as not to completely disrupt culture (slavery was universal at the time). But overtime the overwhelming kingdom values that the captive shall be free overcame this temporary cultural issue.
“Paul tells them to honor the emperor (even if that emperor happens to be Nero). He tells them to pay taxes, to work with their hands. He tells slaves to be content, and not to strive for freedom.
“No evangelical could argue with any heat that these straightforward commands reflect God’s ultimate plan for his redeemed people. They are given so that the church of God can thrive in hostile surroundings–and so that the spread of the gospel will not be hindered.”
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Stackhouse makes the same argument for women. Being quiet in the church and not having leadership roles was a cultural concession. It was a way to get along with people. But this does not contradict the overriding value that women can be powerful leaders, just like men. Stackhouse says the issue comes down to knowing when to make cultural concessions and when not to.
“Would boycotting your taxes hinder the preaching of the Word? Then don’t do it. Would escaping from your master increase suspicion among the unsaved that the gospel is merely a cover for rebellion? Then don’t escape.”
Not Showering Can Hinder the Gospel
Likewise, would picketing gay rights groups hinder the spread of the gospel? Then maybe it’s not the best plan. Would appearing unloving or intolerant increase suspicion that Christianity is just a fundamentalist wacko religion to be ignored? Then make every effort to be gracious and full of love.
For me this is where the answer to my image question comes in. Would a poor image hinder the gospel? Then do what you can to improve your image (from the basics like taking a shower to the more difficult matters like thinking through your communications strategy).
Embrace the Tension
This ‘unnecessary offense’ is such a foreign concept, especially to a rights-driven Christian American like myself. The idea that I should compromise with people who I think are morally wrong is ridiculous. Yet Paul told us to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22), that if something bothers somebody else we shouldn’t do it for their sake (1 Corinthians 8:13), that we are slaves to righteousness(Romans 6:18). So much for the land of the free.
I think part of the issue is with the word ‘compromise’. Today compromise is a dirty word. But it’s possible to compromise and not sell out your beliefs. It’s possible to agree to disagree and still find enough common ground to move forward, without causing lightning bolts to fall from the sky.
That tension is something palpable:
But while the church is striving not to cause unnecessary offense to the unbelievers around it, another dynamic is unfolding, at least within Christian homes and the church: ‘kingdom values at work overcoming oppression, eliminating inequality, binding disparate people together in love and mutual respect, and the like.’ … There is tension between the message of the gospel and the particular commands to the churches. …
“As the church accommodates itself to avoid unnecessary offense in the ‘already,’ we also catch glimpses of the ‘not yet’: ‘exceptions,’ as Stackhouse calls them, ‘that do not make sense unless they are, indeed, blessed hints of what could be and will be eventually in the fully present kingdom of God. We would expect, perhaps, to see exceptional women teaching adult men … offering leadership through their social standing and wealth … bearing the titles of … deacon and apostle.’ And so we do: in Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Andronicus, Junia.”
The End is in Sight
I’m hardly a Bible scholar or a philospher and am prone to inserting foot in mouth, but the tension Stackhouse is describing between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ seems to me to reflect a lot of the tension we get about marketing. Some marketing and communications principles don’t really jive with the ‘not yet’ values of the kingdom of God (some would argue that any marketing doesn’t jive with the kingdom). But they do jive with the ‘already’ values of our current culture.
Meaning they work. So let’s use them. It doesn’t mean we forsake the true values of God, it just means we’re doing what’s practical not to hinder the Gospel. If that means a 24-themed sermon series or rock music or caring about how things appear, fine. Nothing is wrong with any of those things (except perhaps that they’re not the complete perfection God desires–and when do we ever achieve that?), so let’s use them when and where it makes sense to tell others about Jesus more effectively. There’s always a tension with the kingdom values that don’t make sense in this world and often don’t work in this world (who of you has found it financially prudent to give all your money to the poor?), but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for those values.
We do the best we can with the broken world we have, often using less than holy tools. It sounds like how God works through us. And it reminds me of how Jesus must have felt when he walked the earth, perhaps frustrated with our fleshy foolishness but having the patience to love us anyway.