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The Upside-Down Church

Witnessing to a Strange Gospel

Russell Moore


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You must witness to the truth that God is God and there is no other, and that he offers hope to everyone.

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Fashion and seating order hardly seem like the most pressing social issues, whether in modern America or in first-century Jerusalem. It’s odd, then, to read which topics James, the brother of the Lord, chose to tackle in his letter to the churches, taking up valuable space in the canonical scriptures to do so. He wrote: “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (Jas. 2:2–4).

Let me tell you honestly: I think what the churches were doing here, which James was confronting, makes perfect sense. And, I’ll wager, so do you.

Imagine, for a moment, a struggling church plant in one of the least religious parts of the country – say, the Pacific Northwest. Every week, the little congregation sets up their folding chairs in a rented school auditorium, setting up the makeshift audio amplification system, the lectern, the drum set. And every week, they see their tiny flock, with their little dab in the offering plate – just enough to make the rent for another week. But one morning, a world-famous computer industry executive, one of the wealthiest corporate tycoons in the world, enters through the back doors. You see the face you’ve seen on business magazines and leadership manuals, the head you’ve seen talking about investment and economic strategy and global philanthropy on television. Wouldn’t you stop what you’re doing and greet him, thank him for coming? If the chairs were crowded with “regular people,” wouldn’t you ask someone to give up their seats for this man and his family? Wouldn’t that just make sense? After all, what if he were to come to Christ?

The kingdom is driven by the gospel, and the gospel is defined by strangeness. 

Wouldn’t that be a powerful witness to your community that Christianity isn’t for losers or for the superstitious weak? And what if this multibillionaire learned to tithe? Think of the missionaries you could send to unreached people groups. Think of the lives you could save, in the name of Christ, through global water purification and hunger alleviation. That just makes sense. This I know. But the Bible tells me “no.”

The churches thought they were politically savvy by showing partiality to the wealthy and powerful, those whose influence could give the church cultural cachet and perhaps save them from persecution and marginalization. The problem wasn’t that they were too politically savvy, but that they weren’t politically savvy enough. They didn’t have the next trillion years in view. “Has God not chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas. 2:5), he wrote. Notice the favor of God doesn’t rest with the poor simply because they are poor. These are “rich in faith.” But the heirs of the kingdom don’t enter by accident but instead by the initiative and calling of God. Paul told the church in Corinth to remember that “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Why is this important? It’s because the kingdom is driven by the gospel, and the gospel is defined by strangeness. The wisdom of God and the power of God aren’t defined by the way human cultures define wisdom and power. God’s wisdom and power aren’t things to drive human ambition; they aren’t things at all. They are a Person: Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor. 1:24), who is a stumbling block that crosses the cultural boundaries of Jew and Greek (1 Cor. 1:23).

I once read a leadership book by a business executive in which he pointed out the importance of always being friendly to one’s company’s interns. His concern was not compassion or kindness, but Machiavellian self-interest. After all, he advised, you don’t know where these interns are headed. One of them just might rocket up the corporate ranks faster than you, and may be your boss one day. You want to be kind to them when they are brining in your coffee because, for all you know, they may one day be in charge of your annual performance review.

That’s kind of crass, I’ll grant you. But it isn’t dumb. And it is, in one sense, the argument James was making. The kingdom of God changes the culture of the church by showing us a longer view of who’s important and who’s in charge.

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The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6–7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a “ministry project.” He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ.

The most important cultural witness the church has is not, first of all, to raise up Christian filmmakers and novelists and artists and business leaders and politicians, although we ought to work to disciple those in all sorts of callings and encourage them. The most important cultural task we have is to crucify our incipient Darwinism, according to which the leaders on the inside of the kingdom colony would be the same as they would be on the outside, even if there were no God in the universe. The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.

Many, including some people I respect, would seek to correct the errors of the past –
on both the left and the right – by arguing that Christians should influence culture by recognizing how culture works, from the top down, generated by elite “culture makers” whose creations then filter down through the masses. They are right that this is how the world works, and they are right that Christian attempts to mimic the culture by off-brand Christianized imitations of the regnant culture are doing nothing to “engage” the culture. What’s more, Christian political movements surely have often been populist and anti-intellectual, seeking to provide slogans for the base rather than to persuade the culture. That’s true. But too deep a fascination with engaging elite forms of cultural influence can easily drive us away from the kingdom itself.

God did not send a Greek philosopher trained in the pre-Socratic and post-Socratic texts, but a Jewish tentmaker.

Not long ago, a Christian friend in a major urban center complained about all the church planters in his city who arrived with Southern accents. Urbanites, he argued, consider Southern accents backward, ignorant, and rube-like. That may be unfair, he said, but that’s just the way it is, and we ought instead to send urbane intellectuals who can defend the gospel with a level of sophistication and cultural class.

That makes sense to me, sociologically. I have certainly seen church planters who went north and created enclaves of the Bible Belt there, drawing together heartland expatriates to sing familiar hymns and drink sweet tea together. But, as good a sociological corrective as this might be, it’s just not what Jesus does.

God does care about the great cities. As the gospel advanced, God sent messengers into the cultural and political hub of the empire, the eternal city of Rome. But the church-planting effort in Rome was led by a small-town fisherman with the most backwater accent possible, a discernibly Galilean one (Matt. 26:73). In reaching the philosophically sophisticated and culturally xenophobic city of Athens, God did not send a Greek philosopher trained in the pre-Socratic and post-Socratic texts, but a Jewish tentmaker, trained in the monotheistic scrolls of Second Temple Judaism (Acts 17). The key here is the distinction, offered by Søren Kierkegaard, between the genius and the apostle. The genius commands attention because of his influence or his brilliance. The apostle prompts attention because he is sent, with a message that bears, on its own terms, authority.

The church is not built on the rock foundation of geniuses and influencers but of apostles and prophets. This should hardly be surprising, since the kingdom is not greater than its king, and the body is not greater than its head. When confronted by the gospel, the natural response from any culture is, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). That’s true, come to think of it, even in Nazareth (Luke 4:24). And the natural counterargument from the church is, “Come and see” (John 1:46). The kingdom of God dawns in trailer parks and refugee camps. That shouldn’t surprise us. The kingdom came to us not from a boardroom or a literary guild, but from a feeding trough and an execution stake.

Perhaps the best way to gain influence is to lose it. The cultural mandate of Genesis (1:28) is still in effect, and applies to all. We need Christians as “salt” and “light” in every aspect of art and craftsmanship and politics and intellectual leadership, not just in those thought to be “churchly” or “Christian.” But the cultural mandate was rooted in a garden temple-sanctuary, in communion with God. That temple exists now within the Body of Christ, the church. For Christians, our consciences and thought patterns are formed together, by life together in the community of the kingdom. Our moral intuitions then ought to be formed by churches that reflect the priorities and the makeup of the kingdom of Christ.

Perhaps the best way to gain influence is to lose it.

What would it mean if the leadership structures in the church weren’t as predictable as that of any other organization? What if the images in our publications and digital platforms didn’t always feature those who meet the same standards of physical attractiveness as the reigning culture – thus subtly reinforcing the message that the supermodels shall inherit the earth – but instead featured those the world might consider fat or ugly or awkward but who bear a mantle of spiritual maturity? What if our churches weren’t divided up by the same economic and racial and political and generational categories that would bind us together even if Jesus were not alive? What would it mean, in your church, if a minimum-wage janitor were mentoring the multimillionaire executive of the restaurant where he cleans toilets, because the janitor/mentor has the spiritual wisdom his boss/protégé needs? It would look awfully strange, but it would look no stranger than a crucified Nazarene governing the universe.

The strangeness of that lived congregational reality can reshape consciences and can transform us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). The cultural proclamation is tied to the demonstration, and vice-versa. They speak, first, internally to the church, reminding us of how we have been conformed to the pattern of this age, even unwittingly. The most dangerous aspects of the culture around us are not those that are the most heated “culture war” flashpoints of the moment. The more perilous questions are those we don’t debate at all, because we don’t think to challenge them.

When Jesus announced the beginning of his mission in Nazareth using Isaiah’s prophecy of good news for the poor (Luke 4), his hometown listeners heard him as preaching hope for them­selves: they were the poverty-stricken, the oppressed, the captive to whom Isaiah promised a reversal of fortune. Jesus then confronted them with the reality that they were just as power-hungry as their uncircumcised overlords – just without the means at the moment to carry out their agenda.

Our cultural witness is not merely a way to lash out at the world. We are the world. We are the people Jesus warned us about. Our gospel arrests our culture first, with a kingdom that is too strange for us to comprehend.

This article is adapted from the book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (B&H Publishing, 2015).

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Contributed By Russell Moore Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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