What does it mean to be counter-cultural?

The release of the Pilling report on human sexuality in the Church of England brings up the issue of what it means for the church to be counter-cultural.

The Bishop of Birkenhead, for instance, in his dissent writes that the report, if adopted, will deprive the church “of a prophetic vision, [and] allow her to be swept along by the currents of contemporary Western culture.” (para. 468). Therefore, he concludes, the church must reject steps towards blessing same-sex relationships because such rejection would be counter to dominant culture. Others will argue that cultures around the world tend to reject and exclude gay and lesbian people. Therefore, for the church to be counter-cultural, it must be a welcoming and inclusive place.

There are some ways in which we don’t want the church to be counter-cultural. Churches accommodate themselves to culture in a whole number of very good ways. It’s a good thing, for instances, that Christians around the world use a word in their local language for God. (If you think this is a trivial example, consider Islam’s universal use of Allah.) I’ve written about the way the church in Nigeria has accommodated itself to fundraising practices that seem counter to the teachings of Jesus, but in line with Nigerian culture.

These examples aside, being counter-cultural is a strong theme in the Bible. Jesus told his followers that they “do not belong to the world” (John 15:19). St. Paul told the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2). But it is quite another thing to figure out just what that means. There are a bewildering array of cultures and sub-cultures in the world, which proclaim and embody different values, ideas, and intuitions. How do we decide what we are to be counter too?

The Bible makes clear that the most significant way in which Christians demonstrate their distinctiveness is in the nature of their life together. How the Christian community’s members interact with one another, engage in discourse, and welcome others, for instance, are all part of their witness to God. This is what Jesus was getting at when he told his followers that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). The apostolic church was noted for its distinctive relationships. The life of the early Christians—“all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44)— was countercultural in the context of a Roman society stratified by divisions of wealth. A central part of St. Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians is that, if they want to follow Jesus, all Christians actually need one another—no matter how unlikely that may seem and how much the world presses them to think otherwise.

Interdependence, relatedness, community: these are ideas that strike me as pretty counter-cultural in our contemporary society. Look to Congress, where compromise has become a dirty word. Look to the increasing fracture of our communities, in which we spend more and more time with people more and more like ourselves. Look at our global world, where we are thrown ever more closely together but with no ability to manage this interaction in any meaningful way.

Perhaps, then, the truly counter-cultural idea is the one that is at the heart of the Pilling report—honest, mutual, open conversations across lines of difference that seek to understand where the other person is coming from and what we can receive and give to one another.

What if the church were to become the one place in the world where such conversation actually happens? If it did, we might find that we are at last being counter-cultural in a way we can all agree on.