The contemporary western church is moving from a post-Christendom relationship to culture back to being a besieged minority. This is the reverse trajectory of the early church. Careful study of the changing relations of church and culture in the first four centuries has much to teach contemporary western Christians about our relationship with a changing cultural landscape.
The relationship between God’s church and its surrounding culture is complex, dynamic, and fluid. Most of today’s global believers, along with most believers in history, are in contexts where Christianity is a cultural minority—whether the surrounding culture is animist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or communist. These believers have long learned how to be a godly minority, living as strangers and exiles (1 Pet 2:11), as did Joseph in Egypt, along with Daniel, Esther, and the rest of God’s people during the Babylonian and Persian exiles.
We in the west, and certainly including Australia, are in a fluid context. Our context has the legacy of a dominant Christian culture which is reflected in things like the location and size of church buildings, chaplaincy access to public institutions; legal structures and the general tone of public life in which political leaders at least paid lip service to Christian values.
All that is rapidly changing. Our dominant culture is increasingly one of aggressive and progressive secularism.
In Australia we see widened access to anti-life measures such as abortion on demand and euthanasia. Legislation of same sex marriage a few years back seems a quaint small step in view of the present tsunami of issues around gender identity. As for Christian beliefs and the church, we seem to have moved from some kind of widespread acceptance to indifference and are now seen as holding to dangerous ideas and practices that deserve condemnation and state-sanctioned suppression. The recent debate around the Presbyterian Church’s submission to the ALRC on the right of Christian schools to practise their beliefs throughout the school illustrate this. (Ask John McClean about that!)
How do we make sense of this? How do we respond? Do we take the Benedictine option and retreat to our caves and ignore the world? Do we try and preserve an imagined golden age of “Christian Australia”? Do we spit angry words of judgement on the world as we are pushed back from one foxhole to another?