Christians live in a society where the culture is antagonistic towards what they believe in. How then should they live? Dr AR Bernard shares his thinking on this matter.
By Jathneil Gatchalian and Dave Riel Española
Dr AR Bernard, the senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, was back in City Harvest Church last Friday (May 10) with a message for working adults. Recently named New York’s 50 Most Powerful People in Brooklyn, Dr Bernard spent last Friday teaching the church how to engage society, over two sessions.
He began the first meeting with a definition of the marketplace. It is the world of business and commerce. Besides exchanging goods and services, people also trade ideas, opinions, values, and philosophies. When Nike came up with the tagline “Just Do It”, it was more than an ad campaign, said Dr Bernard; it was a value system.
Within society, there is surface culture, which is expressed in things like artifacts and social institutions. There is also the deep culture, which lies below the surface and is not immediately visible, but it informs surface culture.
“It is within deep culture that ideologies, worldviews, philosophies and value systems exists that have a powerful influence over the society at large,” Dr Bernard said. “And this is what we should examine; it’s the thing that drives the society.”
The pastor referred to Brian Godawa’s book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment. In it, Godawa talks about how worldviews are integrated into movies and television shows.
“You may want to be entertained by it, but you’d better know that beneath every movie that you watch is a worldview, a philosophy of life, an ideology, a set of values that are communicated through the movie to the public,” alerted Dr Bernard.
As Christians, it is important to realize that some of these worldviews may not be consistent with what the Bible says.
THE CHALLENGE: ASSIMILATING INTO SOCIETY
“The whole idea of a relationship between the church and culture is a very important conversation,” said Dr Bernard.
He introduced the term Tikkun Olam, which is the abbreviated version of the Jewish phrase Mip’nei Tikkun ha-Olam, which means, “Repairing the world”. The Jews are taught from young that they have a responsibility not just for their own values, moral and material welfare, they also have a responsibility towards the welfare of the society at large.
Jesus wants His believers to have the same sense of responsibility, that’s why he called Christians to be the salt and light of the world. In order to do this, Christians must not lose their relevance to society. He then raised this question, “What is our value, as Christians, to the society?”
Jeremiah 29:1-7 was a letter to a people of exile in Babylon. Verse 7 says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray for it to the Lord on its behalf; for upon its welfare you will have welfare.”
Dr Bernard explained that God did not want His people to be separated from the culture; rather, He wanted them to assimilate themselves into the culture. And He promised to not only bless His people in exile but He would also bless the nation that they were exiled to.
So the challenge for the Jewish people was to assimilate into Babylonian society—and for modern day Christians to assimilate into their present society. How are they to do that?
“They have to become a part of the economic system,” Dr Bernard said. “They have to understand the society, build a relationship with the society and establish themselves to become a part of the society.”
The Israelites were able to do that. After the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar died, the Israelites grew prosperous under the rule of the Persians. King Cyrus eventually gave the Israelites permission to return to their own land, but many of them stayed in Babylon. In fact, that was when the Jews started building synagogues so that they could worship God wherever they are.
Dr Bernard went on to teach that when Jesus came, He established His Kingdom on earth. When He died, His followers found themselves to be in exile again. The values of God’s kingdom are different from the values of the world, and Christians find themselves living in a society that is antagonistic towards their beliefs. Hence, they too need to assimilate themselves to their society. How to actually go about doing it has always been the question.
Dr Bernard points out three things that Christians have to first identify. Firstly, what is the difference between Christians and the culture they live in? Secondly, to what extent should they adjust to the culture without compromising their Christian beliefs? Daniel did a good job of balancing the two. While living in Babylon, Daniel learned the language, changed his name, and even served the King–he made adjustments to his lifestyle. But when it came to his worship to God, Daniel drew the line. There was no compromise when it came to his beliefs.
Thirdly, how far can Christians blend into the society without losing their identity in Christ? Apostle Paul had to deal with this in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 8, he dealt with the issue of eating things that were offered to idols—in those times, people did business in the temples, and the food they ate would first be offered to idols.
These are questions that Christians are still asking today. Dr Bernard said, “Most of the things that Christians must figure out and deal with within the society are not clear cut. It takes time and practice to learn to discern, and sometimes you make a mistake. But I tell you, it is okay! God is not going to take you out! He understands that most of the things in life are not black and white—they are gray. He is aware of the challenges that we have in the issue of assimilation. And over time you develop and learn.”
FULFILLING THE COMMON GOOD IN YOUR MISSION FIELD
Dr Bernard went on to identify the three sectors of the society and the motives that drive them. “Essentially we are all missionaries and we have gifts and talents given by God,” Dr Bernard said. “Looking for a job is picking a mission field.”
The first mission field is government. The motive of government is public service and its purpose is to legislate, enforce the law, and arbitrate conflicts, protection of human life and promote common good.
Secondly, there is the not-for-profit sector which has a motive of humanitarianism. To work in this sector, one must have passion to help those in need. He must have a sense of responsibility for the needy. This sense of responsibility towards the common good is shared by many religious and charitable organizations, and that’s how such organisations can find common ground to work together in spite of different faiths and beliefs.
Finally, there is the for-profit sector. Its motive is not just to make money, but also to steward wealth. Dr Bernard reminded the church that money earned should not be for personal enrichment only, but for the common good as well.
The first session ended with a time of question and answer.
GOING DEEPER INTO THE ART OF ASSIMILATION
The second Marketplace session at 8pm saw a packed-out auditorium waiting to hear Dr Bernard go deeper into his message on the three sectors of society.
He began the session by emphasizing how one’s perspective affects his well-being. “The quality of your thinking changes the quality of your life,” he asserted. Christians, for example, are inclined to have a Biblical perspective in life. A person’s perspective is the driving force of how he interacts with society.
“Culture is man’s attempt to organize society and the way to live in it. Conflict happens because people’s ideas and notions are different,” explained Dr Bernard, giving the example of divorce. Jesus said that divorce was not supposed to be an option; Moses granted it as a concession because of the hardness of the people’s hearts (Matt 19:4-9).
He then explained that when God laid the foundations of the earth, He did not just lay the physical things, but also the social foundation of how man should live. That social order is seen in the laws of Moses.
But since the start of the 20th century, man has altered God’s plans for society and families in a profound way.
“You are designed just right for what God has called you to do,” stated Dr Bernard. “He wired you in a certain way, gave you gifts, talents, and abilities to fulfil your purpose. He also called you to a mission field where you can apply your gift to live out your function.”
Dr Bernard provided the congregation with a structure of where and how they can participate in secular society. Reiterating the three sectors of society and their purpose, he noted that all three sectors should serve the common good. One way for those in the for-profit sector to do so is to set up a non-profit organization or to give to such organizations.
This is consistent with the “Law of Gleanings” found in Leviticus 23:22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God.”
God put a system in place where everyone in the society would be blessed and taken care of. But it takes people with a moral compass to make it happen.
“God wants to move beyond blessing you, to using you to bless others,” he declared.
HOW CAN CHRISTIANS RELATE TO SOCIETY?
Dr Bernard shared three things Christians should do in society: embrace the good; reject the bad and change what they can.
Embrace the good because not everything in this world is bad. Jesus affirmed many things when He was on earth, such as the building of temples, the institution of marriage and even some traditions.
“It comes down to where your theology begins,” the pastor explained. “If it begins at the fall, the framework of your worldview will be Man’s brokenness. But if it starts at Creation, you will see that all things are created good and that man is redeemable. You see the potential of man.”
Rejecting the bad will take wisdom. Wisdom is not just the ability to discern good from evil, but also the courage to choose good over evil.
The Bible is a book of patterns, principles and precepts. While precepts are commands that do not need interpretation, principles require discernment. “The more you use those principles, the better you get at making judgments.”
Christians should change what they can while realising that they cannot change everything. “Only Jesus can do that when He returns a second time,” assured Dr Bernard. It takes wisdom to know what can be changed and what cannot, but the pastor urged the church not to give up trying.
“We transform what is good into better. We are transforming agents. We improve on life and society. That is being salt and light,” he said.
“We build partnerships, networks and collaborations around the common good,” he added. “We may disagree on religious and other issues, but can we find common ground? If we can find that for the common good, then we can come together and build relationships.”
Dr Bernard went on to preach that though the world likes to bifurcate God and science, there is no separation between what Christians believe and the secular understanding of the world. Philosophy, for one, deepens a Christian’s faith. It has to do with human reasoning, rationalization, a process of thoughts. Paul said in Romans 1:18-19 that through philosophy, man comes to their own conclusion that there is God.
“History sensitizes us to the providence of God–His divine hand. Science inspires all of God, literature expands the spirit and art stimulates feeling,” the pastor said in conclusion.
“All things come from God. He is the source of all knowledge, wisdom, philosophy, understanding, creativity. We can function in this world and be very comfortable in human society; because although they say we don’t match up, we know that we do match up—because we know the source: it all came from God.”