The focus of the world on the election of a new Pope has brought the Roman Church under closer scrutiny by the media. Both conservative and liberal newsmakers have asked how the Roman Church can be taken seriously or deemed to relevant when it is so out of step with the mindset of the developed world. At the top of the list are the absence of women leaders among the ordained ranks and the failure of the Church to recognize changing standards on matters such as abortion and gay marriage.
The point that the media misses is that the Church is not accountable to the culture as they suggest by their questions/challenges. As surprising as it may sound at first, her goal is not to be taken seriously or even to be considered relevant by the culture. Her goal is to be faithful to her Lord and to keep the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). The Church is not subject to, what Bishop Vander Horst of Tennessee used to call, “the creeping gangrene of participatory democracy.” Lot and his family would have been condemned if they took their cues from what the majority of Sodom deemed acceptable. While the Church certainly seeks to reach the culture, she is wise enough to know that she does not do so by imitating the culture.
The reason that the media misses this understanding of the Church is because it fails to see the Church as a divine institution. Jesus said “I will build MY church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). It was to the Church that Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom (Matt 16:19). And so a central role of the Church is to preserve the truth, not to vote on it. If she were the Moose Lodge, then all she would need to do is to change her by laws by a 2/3rds vote. But the Church’s “by laws” come to us in the form of the Old and New Testament. These were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and therefore not man’s to alter or update. The Church’s challenge is contextualize the truth of the Scriptures, so that modern man can apply it to his life, but the Church is forbidden to compromise the truth in order to gain popularity. Paul referred to such teachers as “ear ticklers” (2 Tim 4:3).
The other reason that the Church need not heed the call to be more relevant is because the culture that is judging it refuses to look in the mirror. Because there are sinners in the Church, she has her problems, but the Church can with confidence ask the culture, when it calls the Church to be more like it, “And how’s that working out for you?” (references below) Our society is killing 3,000 babies per day. The divorce rate hovers at 50% (41% in first marriage, 60% in second marriage and 73% in third marriage). 73% of black children are born out of wedlock. There are more Americans on food stamps than in the history of our nation. Bankruptcy increased by tenfold between 1960 and 2003. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, and 1 in 10 Americans are on antidepressants. So when the culture calls upon the Church to get in step, the Church is happy to decline.
A brilliant American theologian named Niebuhr, considered how the Church relates to culture. He identified three ways. There is Christ against Culture which is seen in many fundamentalist sects where they cloister themselves away from the world. There is Christ of Culture, where the Church gets its clues from the culture as seen in many mainline denominations that have all but abandoned the truth of the Gospel. This can be seen particularly in their embrace of universalism. Then there is Christ transforming Culture, where the Church engages the culture with the Good News of Jesus, not to become like it, but to bring people into the Kingdom of God. It is Jesus not running away from the leper nor leaving him in his leprosy but lovingly touching him and giving him a new life.