Mission After Christendom by David Smith is a fantastic book that highlights some key challenges facing the modern missionary movement in an ever increasing globalised world. He seeks to address each challenge using astutely discerned biblical passages as a model to motivate the Church to engage missionally with its surrounding culture effectively.
Looking at the challenge of pluralisation, he uses the narrative found in Acts 10-11 of Peter and Cornelius. The following is an abstract from his book.
The literary structure of the first two scenes is similar; in both the prayer of the central character leads on to a vision, which is then followed by a special divine revelation. However, there is also a contrast between Cornelius, who is open, responsive and obedient to the divine word, and Peter, whose reaction is characterised by confusion, resistance and rebellion. The contrast is striking and disturbing; the man without the Bible is humbly obedient to the light given to him, while the one with all the privileges, who in this case has actually walked with the incarnate Word of God, resists further light and will not budge from an inherited theological position.
It is important to consider carefully the nature of the obstacles that initially prevented Peter from following the call of the missionary Christ. He has a vision in which a sheet comes down from heaven containing both clean and unclean animals, which he is then commanded to ‘Kill and eat’. His reaction is a very strong one, something like the ringing statement: ‘Never Lord! For not once in my life have I ever eaten anything unclean’ (10:14). Peter has always understood dietary behaviour to reflect the divine will since it was based on what seemed to be special revelation. The dietary laws were not a merely human construction designed to provide ethnic distinctiveness to the Jewish people, but were an expression of holiness. It is this perspective which explains the strength of Peter’s reaction and his seeming irreverence in resisting the voice from heaven. He is, we might say, arguing for God against God. Peter’s resistance to the divine command is long and vigorous, so that even after the instruction has been issued and declined three times he is still left ‘wondering about the meaning of the vision’ (10:17).
What is in fact happening here is that the apostle is making the painful discovery that things he has always regarded as unchanging absolutes were in fact, in the light of Jesus Christ, culturally relative. In a missionary context the church will always find itself involved in the struggle to distinguish biblical absolutes from culturally conditioned beliefs as practices. The great Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes once accused his contemporaries of ‘making more sins than God has made’ and long-established theological traditions are always in danger of limiting Christian freedom by an unwarranted expansion of beliefs and practices classified as absolutes. Put another way, mission involves the discovery that our faith and theology have been conditioned by culture to a far greater extent that we had ever realised. Cultural conditioning is not something that happens only to other people, we too carry cultural baggage which needs to be declared ‘excess’ and left behind when we seek to share Christ with others.
It is incredibly difficult to perceive our own cultural baggage, especially as we are immersed within our own culture. How can we take a step back and survey what are timeless unchanging truths and what is culturally relative baggage and in need of being left behind?