The Church Captive (1)
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” John 8.31-33
“The Babylonian captivity of the church to popular culture is too often true and always tragic.”
- Cornelius Plantiga, Jr., Reading for Preaching
The chains of comfort and convenience
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had settled into a relationship of comfort and convenience with their Roman overlords. Each scratched the other’s back and thus kept the peace in Jerusalem and its environs. The religious leaders continued teaching, watching over the people, and conducting services in the temple – and, importantly, keeping the people in order; and the Romans watched from a distance, ever ready to wield impressive force should an occasion arise that seemed to threaten their authority. (cf. Matt. 2.16-18; Acts 23.23, 24).
The Jewish leaders of the first century were captives. But either they could not see it, or they refused to admit it. They had become comfortable in their roles as the offspring of Abraham, the religious leaders of an ancient people, and the beneficiaries of the people’s dependence on them and the Romans’ deference to them – in most matters, at least.
Jesus saw their situation as it really was: The religious leaders of the day – even those who believed in Him – were not free; they were captives in their own land. And while they kept up the outward appearance of the ancient religion of Abraham, they were subject to powers that provided the defining framework for large segments of their daily lives.
The Romans controlled the economy. They determined how much things should cost, what currency should be accepted, and how much of any person’s income should be left to his or her own discretion.
The Romans maintained authority in the polis. They ruled in civil matters, allowing Jewish elders and judges only as much freedom as the Romans considered safe. After a certain point, all jurisdiction came to Rome and its puppet monarchs and governors.
The Romans controlled even the religious lives of people throughout the Empire. They tolerated sects and religious clubs, but only as long as it served their purposes. Any who sought to detach themselves from Roman oversight and authority could be quickly dispelled, disbanded, deported, or worse.
The popular culture of the first century was Roman. All roads led to Rome. Roman soldiers were stationed in every land. Roman rulers presided over the affairs of all the different peoples of the Empire, from Spain to North Africa to the Levant. Roman rule piped the tune to which all other laws and cultures and traditions danced.
The Jews who protested to Jesus that they had “never been in bondage to anyone” had both a short memory and a blinking eye. Had they forgotten Egypt and Babylon? And could they not see the reality of their present situation?
It is a condition of those who are captive to a foreign culture that, given enough time, they become so used to it, so comfortable within it, and they find it convenient not to have to resist or oppose it, that they embrace uncritically large aspects of the dominant culture, refuse to see themselves as captives, and thus forfeit – increasingly – whatever freedoms yet remain to them. Czeslaw Milosz described this phenomenon in his classic work, The Captive Mind. Francis Schaeffer used the term accommodation to describe this condition.
For the Jews of Jerusalem, their attempt to break out of Roman captivity toward the end of the first century, when they finally acknowledged the truth of their situation, led to complete and horrible disaster. Captivity unrecognized and accommodated never ends well. It very often leads to “tragic” consequences.
In their book, Pagan Christianity, George Barna and Frank Viola argue that the evangelical Church in our day has become captive to influences, traditions, priorities, and practices that derive from the unbelieving culture of the world, rather than the plain teaching of Scripture. Their book is an attempt to wake-up the contemporary Church to what Luther might have called its “pagan servitude.” They intend to recall us to the Word of God as our foundation, source, and guide in building the church: “If the truth be told, we Christians never seem to ask why we do what we do. Instead, we blithely carry out our religious traditions without asking where they came from. Most Christians who claim to uphold the integrity of God’s Word have never sought to see if what they do every Sunday has any scriptural backing. How do we know this? Because if they did, it would lead them to some very disturbing conclusions that would compel them by conscience to forever abandon what they are doing.”
We will look more closely at the Barna/Viola study later in this series. For now, I want to remind us of an undeniable reality and an unhappy fact of Church history: Over the years since the days of the apostles, the Church has more than once come under the suffocating influence of the world, compromising convictions and practices, embracing foreign idols and traditions, setting aside Biblical distinctives and mandates, and accommodating itself to features of unbelieving culture and practice, all for the sake of sailing smoothly on existing cultural currents. Prophets of God throughout the centuries have taken up the difficult task of exposing the Church’s captivity and calling her to repent and return to the Word of God. The desert fathers in the 4thcentury, Gildas in the 6th, Luther in the 16th, Edwards in the 18th, and Machen and Schaeffer in the 20th, are just a few of the many voices who have challenged the accommodationist practices of church leaders, and called them to return to the plain teaching of Scripture in all their ways.
The unhappy fact that accompanies the Church’s captivity is that those who ought to recognize the captivity of the Church either do not or refuse to, with the result that cultural comfort and convenience trump Biblical convictions and practices, leaving the churches intact and operating, but drained of the power of the Word and Spirit of God. Nature, as Schaeffer might have said it, gobbles up grace.
Has the Church in this country today fallen into a condition of captivity? Are we captive to our culture and its pragmatic, materialistic, and narcissistic ways? Have we become comfortable bending the distinctives and demands of our faith to suit our worldly preferences and priorities? And have we settled on attractive but unBiblical ways of justifying our actions so that we have come to prefer those standards, rather than the ones God holds out in His Word, as our means of assessing progress and health?
Such questions would seem to be important, given the state of the faith in our world today. Our churches continue to function, but the power of Christ that turned the world of the apostles and Rome upside-down seems nowhere in evidence. Grace is seen more as a privilege than the power for transformation. The glory has departed. The joy has withered. And the zeal for spreading the love of Jesus to every creature has been all but dissipated.
Are we indeed a people captive, but comfortable, conveniently ensconced in the world while we continue to profess faith in Jesus, and insisting that we are as free as can be? Unless we consider our ways, we shall not know whether we need to return to the Lord, and to expect Him to return to us any time soon (Hag. 1.1-7; Zech. 1.3).
They puffed themselves up as Abraham’s seed and said, “We are Abraham’s seed and were never in bondage to anyone: how is it that you say, ‘You shall be free’?” O inflated skin! This is not magnanimity; it is hot air! For even if you want to talk about freedom in this life, how were you truthful when you said, “We were never in bondage to anyone”? Wasn’t Joseph sold? Weren’t the holy prophets led into captivity? And again, didn’t that very nation, when making bricks in Egypt, also serve hard rulers, not only in gold and silver but also in clay? If you were never in bondage to anyone, ungrateful people, why is it that God is continually reminding you that he delivered you from the house of bondage? Or do you perhaps mean that your ancestors were in bondage, but you who speak were never in bondage to anyone? How then were you now paying tribute to the Romans, out of which also you formed a trap for the truth himself, as if to ensnare him?
- Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 41.2
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
- T.M. Moore
- May 16, 2019
Have we become captive to our culture?
The Church Captive (1)
T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.