Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The Pastor’s Perspective
“Salt and Light”
First Published: November 18, 2003
This is our seventh in a series of columns sketching a “vision” for the future of First Presbyterian Church, and we have been doing a little analysis of where we are now before we launch into the question of where we may be headed. We’ve already covered 10 specific aspects about our current congregational life and ministry, and commented on our excellent personnel. Now our attention is fully turned to what we are trying to do and where we are headed.
Last week, I said that Matthew 5:13-16 must loom large in our thinking if we are going to be able to stand firm without standing still. Jesus says there: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Here’s what I mean by “Matthew 5:13-16 looming large in our thinking.” In this great passage, Christ is sketching out the marching orders for his disciples in this fallen world. By saying that we must be salt and light he is, among other things, telling us that we must be distinct and visible. To put it another way, we have to be different from the world, but involved in the world. That’s the kind of church we want to be.
Let me elaborate. In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus has just said that we must expect persecution and rejection from the world. This realization could lead us to a sense of futility or fear. We might say “well the world is going to hate us, so why not hunker down in our bunker and wait things out” or we might become embittered against a world that despises us. To prevent just this kind of reaction to his words, Jesus assures his disciples of their importance, usefulness and necessity to the world (they are “salt” – the world would decay without them) and their divinely given role in bearing witness to God’s plan with their lives and words (they are “light” –the world would never see the truth without them).
So, as we have said, in this passage Jesus is giving “marching orders” for all his followers as to how they are to relate to the world and culture around them. He is also giving his disciples encouragement regarding their significance in the world itself and in God’s kingdom program.
Every generation of Christians faces a serious challenge in figuring out how to relate to the world and culture around it. And there are two tendencies in the history of the church in answer to the question of the proper relationship between the church and the world): isolationism and compromise.
On the one hand, many Christians believe that the way to be faithful is to retreat from the world and culture – isolationism. This was the approach of the monastic orders of the medieval church, and it was also the approach of American fundamentalist Christians from about the 1920s to the 1960s. The idea behind it is that the best way for the church to remain pure and untainted by the world was to stay out of worldly business and out of the world itself, as much as possible. But Jesus expects his people to be “in the world, but not of it” not withdrawn from the world itself. That’s why he says “let your light shine before men.”
On the other hand, many Christians, earnestly desiring to avoid the pitfalls of isolationism and to be faithful to God’s call to reaching the world have fallen into another trap – compromise. They have become like the world. Sometimes they have reasoned that to reach the world you have got to talk the world’s language and adapt to the world in certain ways, this is called contextualization. But it has lead to compromise from the days of Origen to Schleiermacher to Willow Creek. It’s not that folk set out to compromise, but they are so concerned to communicate effectively and successfully that the gospel message gets fuzzified.
Jesus’ answer to our tendency to compromise is not antagonism (constant combat mode against the world) but that we be salt (we must be distinct from the world for the sake of the world). Likewise, Jesus’ answer to our isolationism is, however, not activism but that we be light (we must be distinctive in the world for the sake of the world).
Posted by Ligon Duncan at 5:28 PM