Elements of a Gospel Culture Forming A Gospel Culture (Part III)
A Gospel culture is formed around four fundamental pillars arising out of the New Testament. These four pillars are (1) Truth, (2) Community, (3) Acceptance, and (4) Accountability. If we put it into a simple phrase we could say, A Gospel culture is the product of the Gospel truth lived out in an authentic Christian community. We will expound on what we mean by this phrase in more depth below.
Jesus said to his disciples before his Jewish accusers, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth is a defining hallmark of being a follower of Jesus. Some have also said, “all truth is God’s truth.” That is surely true, though we as fallen humans have a pretty tough time discerning that sometimes. In fact, when Jesus says here “the truth shall set you free…” he means a specific body of truth—the “Gospel truth.”
What is the Gospel truth? The Gospel truth is more than a list of fundamental statements about Jesus. It is more than mere credal formulae or confessional statements about God, the Bible, and Christian doctrine, though these play some role in it. Moreover, it is more than a belief in the concept or existence of God. So if it is not merely these things, what in fact is it?
The Gospel truth is in fact the view of the world according to God. Every person has their perspective. But the Christian by definition is a “disciple,” which means student, learner, or apprentice. As the disciple of Jesus, we choose to follow Jesus, and in taking up this cross, we are learning to follow him.
Most poignantly, being a student of Jesus means learning to see the world the way God does. It is precisely this issue, that by nature we do not see the world God’s way, that is why the world is so horribly sinful and unjust. The Gospel-learner (disciple) is a recovering sinner who is being reprogramed in the vision of God, what Augustine called the Beatific vision. As we grow as disciples we learn (ever so gradually sometimes) to see the world more and more like God—to “think God’s thoughts after him,” as one great theologian said. Gospel truth is the frame and foundation of a Gospel worldview.
This truth, this vision, this radical rearranging of priorities is what the Church is in business for. The Gospel we preach calls, sinners, to repentance because the way we think and act in the world is contrary to God, his vision, and his plan for creation. This is why Paul called the body of Christ “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” It is an outpost and embassy of truth in a contrarian world.
In the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is putting things right again. The Gospel is not simply a matter of “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” or even accepting ideas about him. The Gospel calls us to radical challenge and transformation. The Church teaches, lives, and feeds upon this robust doctrine of global and cosmic transformation. If she abandons this truth, she withers and fails in her mission.
The first command we encounter in the bible is not the first of the Ten Commandments (You shall have no other gods before me). Rather the first command God gives to mankind is found in the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1:28: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (RSV)
This is significant because this very fist command is in fact a command to go create community. It is a charge to have children, multiply and expand the family of mankind upon the earth.
God’s original vision for mankind was a unified humanity who basked in the love, goodness, righteousness, and holiness of God. Sin disrupted this and corrupted our race as well.
It is not accidental that every despot, dictator, communist, and would-be savior has promised a better world to their followers. However, it has always been true as well that every person, people, or group who resisted that plan has been the object of persecution, assault, and genocide. The wannabe parodies on the Kingdom of God all end in violence and bloodshed. Only the true Gospel can produce real unity and lasting peace.
In the meantime, we are called into a temporary community that is a taste of the heavenly Kingdom and Church; this is called the visible Church, and as noted above, it is not the kingdom, but an embassy for exiles who are on their way to the Fatherland of God.
[Augustine’s Journey to the Fatherland]
Understanding True Community and Discipleship
Our Summary statement above only took into account the first two major ideas lying behind the formation of a Gospel culture. There is a good reason for that, and we will add them now. The reason they were left out in the first round is that they are in fact the foundation ideas underlying the Christian community itself. This is why we used the adjective “authentic” above when we started the second idea as an “authentic Christian community.”
In our discussion of culture in general, it is clear that humans create “community” or communities of some sort whenever they gather and live in proximity. But the lion’s share of human communities has little in common with what the apostolic Church and New Testament writers had in mind for a “Gospel community” or “Gospel culture.” The use of the word “authentic” is not just a modern “buzz” language or trendy jargon. In my usage, it has genuine content that forms a community along radical contrarian lines to all those ideas of the human community prevailing in the present world.
By the word authentic we here refer to our last two major ideas of the four in forming a Gospel culture. These two are Unconditional Acceptance or Grace, and Accountability. We can call them just acceptance and accountability for short, but below we will expand on what we mean by each and why it is impossible to create Gospel community and culture without them. In a word, it cannot be an “authentic Christian community” without these two ingredients. Let me restate our summary statement above with them:
A Gospel culture is the product of the Gospel truth lived out in an authentic Christian community characterized by unconditional acceptance and gentle accountability.
Let’s unpack this a little more below.
- Unconditional Acceptance (Grace)
There is probably no ingredient more essential to a healthy human community as well as personal mental and emotional health that acceptance. Acceptance is the key to forming any social group. A social group cannot form where there is a rejection of parties.
Acceptance is typically rather conditional. We tend to accept people who act the way we like, behave in ways that befit the group, and so on. Some of this is absolutely essential. Those exhibiting criminal type behavior in society need to be dealt with and not tolerated so they destroy the group. The process called social controls is actually quite normal.
But within social groups, as opposed to society as a whole, the standards and social controls for acceptance can not only be quite shallow and petty, they can often be quite cruel. People with disabilities, different colors, or who are not strong or unattractive are often pushed to the edges or completely pushed out of social groups.
The Church again is an embassy and emissary of the Kingdom of God in this present evil age. It is called to inject the ethos and ethic of God and his Kingdom down to earth. This means the Church is to love like God, care like God, and express the character of God toward all his creatures. This is why the Church is called to a radically Kingdom shaped Gospel ethos of acceptance.
The Church, when healthy, expresses the profound acceptance of God. Paul says in Romans 5:6, “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” (ESV)
What does this mean? It means that Christ died in the place of the sinner; Christ died for the offensive, the reprehensible, for the abominable—Christ died for unacceptable. God takes what is ugly, repulsive, and unattractive and embraces it, holds it, comforts it, and takes it home with him. This is the heart of God that the Church is to express. [Ezekiel]
This radical acceptance creates one of the greatest treasures of the Gospel, something every human heart longs for, a true sense of safety and security. This is not only in the world but above all, safety and security before God.
This is the part of the Gospel community we are naturally most adverse to. What is “accountability”? Simply put, it is being in a relationship where you are answerable for your behavior, a relationship where you will gently be called out and asked to rectify it. Let it be said, without accountability, the authentic Christian community we have spoken of is elusive, if not impossible. If it is wholly lacking, it becomes entirely questionable as to whether you have a true expression of the local Church at all.
No matter how much we may not like it, no matter how much we may want to avoid it, we need external accountability to grow in our Christian lives. Accountability in the community with the aid of the Spirit is the engine of sanctification. It is the nurturing and pruning process by which we are shaped to the image of God.
Why can’t we do this on our own? It is simply because the human heart, yes for every one of us, is exceedingly dark, self-centered, and self-deluded. Our capacity to lie to ourselves, excuse our actions, and not make the changes that God requires is without parallel. We need each other to help us be honest with ourselves. That is what healthy relationships do. They require growth in one another. This is why so many marriages grow stale and bitter; this happens when we refuse the natural accountability in the relationship that calls ut to become a better self.
In the Gospel, God calls us to our best selves. That is what Gospel truth does as it searches out the dark crevices and crevasses of the heart. This process where we face and gradually conform to God’s Gospel truth in the context of community is called repentance. It is the way of the disciple—the follower of Jesus Christ. This is why unconditional acceptance is so critical. Without a sense of safety, it is impossible to be vulnerable and welcome accountability. Only when we feel truly safe and secure in a relationship are we ready to peel back the layers of brokenness to expose the soft emotional tissue beneath so we can find healing.