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It is just so sad, repulsive really, to see the way the Church of Jesus Christ, continually capitulates to the culture of our sick and twisted society!

Depending on which tired trope you prefer, you can hear and visualize a prim, middle-age, white woman, wringing her hands, her voice trembling with alarm and disgust, or a younger, husky, (almost certainly he played football somewhere) confident male, jabbing the air with a finger or possibly pounding on the podium, more angry than alarmed, more belligerent than trembling.

I usually associate these voices with those opposed to welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people in the church. But that’s not really the ax I want to grind today.

Instead it is more broadly the way “cultural capitulation” is used so selectively by American Christians. That’s not to say that cultural capitulation isn’t a genuine issue, one Christians should be concerned about. But it’s a bit like asking the proverbial fish to be concerned about capitulating to the water it swims in. And as Reformed Christians, shouldn’t we be more interested in cultural engagement than fearful of capitulation, even recognizing that culture can enrich and teach us?

To state the obvious, cultural capitulation is usually an accusation brought when the issue at hand is sex. Dancing, cohabitation, too much cleavage, innuendo and raunchy jokes — these are where we are told that Christians are capitulating. I’ve also heard it used in conversations about drugs, smoking/drinking, and Sabbath observance. Let’s be cautious about being too dismissive of these typically pietistic shibboleths. Sex and drugs have incredible potential to damage people, even if they are not exactly at the center of the Gospel.

I’ve never read CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Still, it isn’t hard for me to imagine Screwtape counseling his nephew Wormwood something like, “Try to get them all worked up about R rated movies and video games, so they don’t see all the subtler, larger ways they are bending and bowing to culture.”

A good example is the current acrimony in the Reformed Church in America, my church. We’re teetering on the edge of schism. (You don’t really need to know or care much about the RCA to continue reading. I’ll try mightily not to make this an intramural discussion.) Ostensibly, the dividing issue is accepting and affirming LGBTQ people. Sometimes, “biblical hermeneutics” — that we read the Bible very differently — is tossed in as the deeper fissure.

A few years back, we sent off a group to return with recommendations about ways to move forward as a body. That group shared their 2020 report about a year ago. Interestingly, it has little to say about human sexuality. Instead it is about restructuring the church in light of the divisions.

I’d give the 2020 report high marks for diagnosis. It holds a pretty accurate mirror in front of the church. You could say that it describes the cultural capitulation of the church. It’s not a divide over sexuality. It isn’t an “issue” that has appeared in the last decade or two. It is about our way of being, the assumptions we live by. I wouldn’t necessarily even call these assumptions “evil.” They are simply at odds, quite out of step, with the way our church is structured.

Our church structures assume things like jointly-held authority, trust, long term relationships, mutuality, while still respecting boundaries and differences. And really, we don’t live that way any more. I’m not throwing stones at anyone or exempting myself. As early 21st century North Americans, we simply do not know how to live like that. It is not the way we do life together.

If we have capitulated to anything, it isn’t Hollywood’s vulgarity or the gay-agenda, declining biblical authority or critical race theory. It is to things so much larger, more unrecognized, more indescribable. The 2020 report, I think, points toward and gives helpful markers of the assumptions we trust and live by.

  • The report suggests “affinity” groupings for the church rather than the roughly geographic groupings we have now. Maybe it is something akin to ecclesial gerrymandering. Birds of a feather. Lifestyle enclaves. Choosing who we want to be with. Alignment. Similarity. We all want to be with those like us.
  • The report suggests that our global mission arm separate into its own group. Entrepreneurship. Independence. Free-enterprise. Entering the market. Branding. Sales. Like Wycliffe or Doctors Without Borders. In a culture where the solution to everything is to “run it like a business,” we might as well.
  • The report suggests “grace-filled separation.” In other words, let every congregation depart with their own property and money. Private property, one of our most cherished values. Yours is yours. Mine is mine. And there is no ours.

I’m not suggesting that there are better options. I’m simply observing that if we want to see what cultural capitulation looks like, here it is. The recommendations of the report accurately express what makes sense, what is accepted, and what it really looks like to be church today. I don’t think we could ask more of the report. Disagreements about sexuality are small in comparison to these pervasive assumptions we’ve gradually and almost-unknowingly accepted.

And in a society where all we hear is how polarized and deeply divided we are, is there anything more indicative of our cultural capitulation than for a church to be polarized and to divide?

I’ll grant that sometimes small points of contention or “capitulation” between church and culture can be important, even if they are small. Maybe we fight about the small points because the larger ones are impossible to wrap our minds around. Symbolic flash points often burn the hottest.

Nonetheless, most of the time what we call “capitulation” is just straining at gnats and picking at specks, while swallowing camels and neglecting planks.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

7 Comments

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Steve;
    Well done. I have been stating this too, but you do it more eloquently. Love your question: And as Reformed Christians, shouldn’t we be more interested in cultural engagement than fearful of capitulation, even recognizing that culture can enrich and teach us? The Screwtape Letter quote is the best description of what is going on with our government and church. Let’s divert attention and miss to what God is really calling us.

  • Magnificent as usual. Thanks and blessings.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Very good point about the cultural assumptions of the Vision 2020 recommendations. And thus, upon reflection (and, I suppose, not ironically), anti-Belhar.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    Well done! This piece should be read by all CRC members as well.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I wonder if there is no such thing as a shared culture to which we can capitulate or from which we are turning away. In our RCA tradition we’ve prized our desire/intention to hold together an evangelical and ecumenical vision. What does that even look like? Have we ever done it? Where are the stress points of this vision? Growing up in conservative (in its traditional meaning, not so much political) West MIchigan, I always struggled to understand what cultural capitulation even meant. You put your finger on that point well, but if we never started from the same point, I doubt we’ll ever share the larger or gnat-like smaller versions of capitulation. In my family your specks were their planks. Your planks were simply biblical truths. What to do? In the tradition of old-school advise columns … “Frustrated in NJ”

  • Agree with Mary VanderVennen. And Steve, read The Screwtape Letters! 🙂

    There is a solution. When severe persecution threatens the existence of the church, Christians of various stripes and opinions tend to come together like never before.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for sharing your concerns regarding the capitulation of the church to culture. Are you suggesting that the church no longer resists our culture but instead has surrendered its will to our culture. Women in office, divorce, dancing along with worldly amusements, materialism, and now the LGBTQ+ issue, all, taken together, could suggest a general capitulation to culture. Just as Christianity is having less of an influence on culture, so also the church is seeming to have less of an influence on Christians. Even within the church, its members are leaning more and more toward being practicing atheists or deists by which God (deism) is seen as having little involvement in and has little influence in human affairs. And of course, if we look at the reality and our lived out experiences, it’s hard to escape such a conclusion. We can live like our culture (capitulation) in our daily lives and speak and profess a Christian piety and standard when in church or at Bible study. But our lives of capitulation tell the real story.

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