The Rev. Marc Robertson is the retired rector of Christ’s Church Anglican in Savannah, GA and the spiritual shepherd of the upcoming 2 year cohort of the AAC’s Foundations Course: Developing Anglican Mission Pastors, which will launch in the Gulf Atlantic Diocese in August 2021. We are so grateful for the opportunity to republish this excellent article on our website and are thankful to Rev. Robertson for his involvement in our leadership development program. For more information visit the Foundations Course website.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)
I have always drifted toward a posture that perceives the Christian Faith fundamentally at odds with the prevailing culture. I am familiar with Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture, the iconic work that surveys various positions of interpretation that describe Christianity and its relationship to its cultural environment. Neibuhr favors a more agreeable, compatible posture, which is, ironically, reflective of the culture of the West in the time of publication (1951). I, on the other hand, drift to a more distinctive, even negative conclusion.
This has been a struggle for me for decades. I recognize my own temperament is perhaps more combative, or that I at least have trained myself to expect the worst of things, so that when anything better occurs, I am pleasantly surprised. One can go round and round the mulberry bush on self-analysis, or author-analysis, but eventually you have to discern if there is any Truth or Wisdom to your own position. I go through this mental (and emotional) gauntlet with regularity.
It seems to me the fundamental posture of Faith has always defined itself with some expression of distinction from the world. The Jews were called to be a distinctive people, separate from the surrounding nations (see Deuteronomy 14:2). Many of the dietary laws separated them from their culture (see Daniel’s diet in Daniel 1:8ff), and Jewish moral restrictions were a means of separating themselves from the decadence of the surrounding cultures. The holiness code of Leviticus 19, while seemingly strange to the modern mind, was essentially a means of identifying one’s self as part of a people called of God and separate from the nations of the day.
All of this is the foundation of Isaiah’s call to Israel to be a “light to the nations.” The distinctive identity of Israel was not merely for their own betterment, but to establish a platform from which their witness to the world might be a ray of hope and light (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3). It is in this vein that Jesus calls Himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and speaks of His own testimony to a hostile audience.
The Apostles and early Christians soon found themselves in conflict with the Jewish authorities and the Roman Empire, the former persecuting the Early Church (see Acts 4 and 5) and the latter putting a number of their key leaders to death (Paul’s martyrdom under Nero a prime example). It was this identity forged under persecution that created phenomenal growth in the first several centuries of the Church’s existence. One could even say the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the State under Constantine was a new and formidable challenge to the Body of Christ, who then had to come to grips with a new enemy: nominal faith.
I have for several years now tracked what I believe is the deterioration of Western culture, from the nominal Judeo-Christian world of the 40’s and 50’s to the growth of secular culture in the 60’s and 70’s to a shift to a more pagan culture of the last several decades to what Rod Dreher in his book, The Benedict Option, now calls an increasing movement toward classic barbarism. The cultural approbation of recent violence, be it this past summer or the more recent attack on the Capitol Building and the Senate, bespeaks a subtle but clear embrace of a modern-day barbarism that may call Christians to rethink their own understanding of how to live in the current climate.
The culture has always found a way to weasel its way into the Church. Today is no different. The growing rush to judgment, the inability to engage in civil discourse, and the desire for power and control, identifying one’s self primarily in political terms – so reflective of today’s culture – is becoming a dangerous dynamic in the Church as well. It is hard to listen to a “Christian Democrat” or a “Christian Republican” these days, depending on your own political opinions, which may be a subtle but powerful indicator that we have sold our spiritual birthright for a mass of political pottage and have slipped into idolizing the current political positions of the day – all of which is a loss of Christian distinctiveness that affirms our ultimate identity is as citizens of heaven, which informs not only who we are but how interact with those who do not identify themselves in the same way (Philippians 3:20-21). It then becomes increasingly difficult to find a safe place to speak about the issues of the day, even with fellow Christ followers.
It all begins, however, with understanding who we are and how we relate to the world. Of course, the world offers us much that is positive, helpful and beautiful. Christians should look for such things and affirm them (note Paul’s exhortation to “think on these things” in Philippians 4:8). At the same time, however, I find great wisdom in recognizing the fundamental disparity of the Christian Faith and the modern society in which I live. It makes me more circumspect, more careful, even with fellow believers in Jesus. Our ability to distinguish ourselves from the culture is also the means by which we can love and serve the same culture – as followers of Jesus and not as followers of the world.
The Rev. Dr. Marcus Robertson was the Rector of Christ Church Anglican, Savannah, GA for 29 years. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he studied theology at St. Mary’s Divinity School in St. Andrews, Scotland; he holds masters degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and St. Luke’s School of Theology (Sewanee, TN), and a doctorate (DMin) from Fuller Theological Seminary. Marc has taught pastoral theology and is committed to the priority of the gospel in his ministry.