Culture Wars

Sailor Jerry tattooRemember when only sailors had tattoos?

It wasn’t that long ago that you found tattoos the sole expression of the military and social rebels. But as musicians and actors began embracing tattoo art, it became more common to see men and women turning their skin into a canvas.

Now there is a television show called Miami/LA Ink which adds to the respectability of using the body for an art display. It’s not unusual to see tattoo parlors in the mainstream of commerce.  But culture wars had to be fought to bring tattooing into common practice.

We’ve seen similar wars before.  

Civil rights legislation, bringing the vote to women, abortion, and homosexual rights have all been, and in some cases continue to be, fought in a public forum.  Some would argue that the issues are matters of morality instead of culture.   Yet, wherever you may fall on the issues, there is still a battle to decide how our nation will negotiate them.

The first century church had its own version of culture wars. In its first iteration, the early church was Jerusalem-based, totally Jewish, and very patriarchal.  The first and biggest culture war the church had to fight was over the growth and expansion of the church into non-Jewish areas of the world.

First it went into the hated country of Samaria when Philip, under God’s direction, began preaching to Israel’s neighbor.  This was not unlike the first time that a Southern white Christian went to visit his/her Christian brothers and sisters at the local black church.  Such was the stuff of awful arguments and church splits.  Culture wars.

God had even more in mind though.  Philip’s next audience was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and court official for an Ethiopian queen.  The Eunuch was not even allowed to go into the temple, but Philip ignored these religious barriers and joined the Ethiopian’s caravan.  Philip baptized the Eunuch and probably never thought of religious outsiders in the same way again.

The church continued its westward expansion.  Eventually a large and influential Gentile (non-Jewish) church was established in Antioch of Syria.  Then it went to Turkey, Greece, Italy, and later Spain.  The church in Jerusalem never envisioned what it would become.  Fortunately the Jerusalem church used wisdom in negotiating these cultural hurdles.

Wisely, they were able to distinguish between old and established religious traditions of theirs and the far more important elements of the gospel.  The result was a church that grew and adapted as it moved into new worlds.

Cultural challenges are inevitable.  The first time a teenager came home with a tattoo, his/her parents had to process how they would respond to that.  And when Philip came back to Jerusalem and said, “I’ve been preaching in Samaria,” it sent similar ripples through the Jewish church.

I’m in awe of the smart way that the Jerusalem church debated these hurdles and wisely decided how they would respond.