Swimming Upstream: The Shift from Modernism to Postmodernism and Legalism to Grace

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The culture we live in is like the old fish who asked the two younger fish “how is the water.” The two young fish looked at each other and one asked, “What is water?” Culture is inescapable and it influences the way we think, behave, etc.

When the predominant culture of the Western world was modernism it made more sense that churches were a lot more legalistic than they are today. It was a time of rationalism, reason and logic. Things were black and white. Right and wrong seemed more pronounced. Christians living in that culture emphasized the things that culture emphasized which, at the extreme produced something unbiblical (legalism) that was a product of a cultural reading of the text at that time.

Cracks started appearing in the armor of modernism that had a lot to do with modernism failing to live up to its claims and goals. The myth of the upward trajectory of society and culture as a result of logic and reason met with resistance and contradiction when those same values produced things like weapons of mass destruction that were used to kill hundreds of thousands of people. Questioning and deconstruction set in. Instead of using logic and reason as building blocks, the intellect was shifted and consumed with tearing down the foundational pieces of what we thought we knew.

Postmodernism had been born.

Periods turned into question marks and certainty was thrown out the door because what we had been so certain of before came up short. What was the next shoe to drop in where we thought our logical conclusions would take us?

Concurrent with this shift in culture was a theological shift in churches of Christ. It turns out culture influences us even when we don’t realize it (like the fish in the water). Before I get into that let me first explain one more thing.

With each shift in culture comes a greater appreciation for neglected areas of scripture, resulting in a renewed interest in areas that swing unhealthy pendulums back toward the center. There are absolute truths in scripture…undeniable, irrefutable truths from the inspired word of God. Modernism highlighted those just as they should be highlighted. Modernism also pushed those to their extremes that, in our movement, resulting in legalism. The rise of postmodernism coincided with a move toward grace and a more ecumenical (cooperative and inclusive) side of churches of Christ. More churches began seeing Christians in other groups as Christians. Legalism gave way to grace. With a change of culture came a renewed interest in neglected but much needed areas of scripture.

The trick is, how do you embrace the inclusion of neglected areas of scripture without jettisoning the good parts of what modernism brought to the table, namely absolute truth, etc?

Culture will change and with those changes come renewed interest in neglected areas of scripture. The goal, in my mind, is that we do live within culture but we also live as aliens and strangers to that culture. That doesn’t mean that to be modern is to be more Christian or to be postmodern is to be less Christian. There is an idea out there that postmodernism is an abandonment of Christianity. That is not the case in all instances although that can certainly happen just as much as modernism can result in legalism that is just as much a departure from scripture in the opposite direction. Both are culturally influenced. It means we do our best to be biblical recognizing that if we are swimming upstream, in the water that we better recognize that water exists and learn to swim and breath and reproduce and grow there.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post Matt. This observation is a great place for dialogue for those that place Jesus above all and recognize that we all live in the shadow of the cross.

  2. “a more ecumenical (cooperative and inclusive) side of churches of Christ. More churches began seeing Christians in other groups as Christians.”

    This might be true in congregations around the edge of the country but I haven’t seen it in the Midwest. I hope you are correct and I look forward to this ecumenical culture spreading.

  3. Someone who would be good to contact/bring-to-one-of-our-lectureships on living in culture is Brian Welch, who is campus minister for the Christian Reformed Church at the Univ. of Toronto. Co-author of (with Richard Middleton) of “The Transforming Vision” and “Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be” (both IVP) and “Subversive Christianity” (Wipf and Stock). He blogs at https://www.empireremixed.com/ ; Twitter: https://twitter.com/empireremixed ; campus ministry website: https://crc.sa.utoronto.ca/

    Welch and Middleton were really helpful in my coming to an effective understanding of worldview in general, my own in particular, and the enormous challenges that the surrounding non-Christian culture can do to those resolved to live lives more cross-centered. Helped me to see the NT in an entirely different, but much more relevant, light. I’ve been reading their books for 30 years now.

    Also suggests that a really well-done study of Jeremiah might just be a bit helpful now.

  4. Joe, is correct in that I haven’t seen it in the South as well. Now this concept is often expoused, but from the standpoint that others should see us and want to unify with us, but it doesn’t flow from us to them. Most coc don’t know the churches that are within the same block as them and don’t want to. Most coc still believe that we are the stream others should be swimming in and don’t wish to cross streams with the fear we will cross contaminate.

  5. We recently had a joint mission effort with a local church (non-CofC). This was the first time we stopped insisting on baptism to those that responded, and they also agreed to drop their “2nd work of grace” language. I feel like this is what the Spirit was leading us all to, and it was a wonderfully unifying experience. We left the rhetoric behind and just became the hands and feet of Jesus together.

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