The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture

Missiologist and church historian Andrew Walls begins his classic essay, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” with a fascinating thought experiment. An extraterrestrial who is a “Professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religion” has come to earth to study the Christian religion. The alien visits Christian gatherings across various times and places.  He finds that there is historical continuity but he also discovers that these groups have significant differences. Some emphasize Jewish law, some put an emphasis on Greek metaphysics, others use rather extreme ascetical methods for sanctification, still others gather in large groups to hear individuals speak, and some seem to be fixated on invisible realities. Despite these differences there is a lot of continuity regarding some foundational beliefs, for example the centrality of Jesus, the use of Scripture, and the taking of the Lord’s supper. Yet the alien concludes, “these continuities are cloaked with such heavy veils belonging to the environment that Christians of different times and places must often be unrecognizable to others, or indeed even to themselves, as manifestations of a single phenomenon” (Walls 1996, 18).

What explains these similarities and differences? Walls suggests that there are two principles underlying Christian history: an Indigenizing Principle and a Pilgrim Principle. He says that “Church history has always been a battleground” for these two tendencies. By the “Indigenizing Principle” Walls means to say that every human being is conditioned by their historical and cultural context. Because of this, every expression of Christianity will be culturally contextual, it will be indigenized. On the other hand there is the “Pilgrim Principle.” This principle leads Christians to believe that “he has no abiding city and wars him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with society… there will be rubs and frictions—not from the adoption of a new culture, but from the transformation of the mind towards that of Christ” (Walls 1996, 19).

There is a danger when Christians live out the Indigenizing Principle or the Pilgrim principle improperly. When Christians lean too heavily into the Indigenizing principle the gospel becomes a prisoner of culture. When they lean too heavily into the Pilgrim principle they lose their sense of responsibility for the culture in which God has placed them. When this happens then the gospel does not bring any transformation to society.

To be honest I see many Christians in my American context leaning towards these divergent ends of the spectrum. Perhaps this extremism is a symptom of the kind of polarization that marks our culture, I don’t know though. Regardless of why Christians are currently leaning into each principle in such extreme ways, instead of finding the appropriate response that takes into account both of these principles, the fact is that the reputation of the gospel suffers and society suffers because of this.

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