Three Levels of Mission 3/3: Changing the Way of Thinking.

Howard Marshall

Harold Turner, who inspired this series of articles, comments that evangelicals and charismatics major on evangelism of the individual, and liberals major on social reform, but few people do anything about the third level of mission, that of changing the deeper cultural aspects of society.


Paul evidently thought that Christians will think differently from the way in which they used to think, and that there are ways of thinking that are not Christian, but that are in bondage to Satan (2 Corinthians 10:5). A revolution may be needed in our own thinking and in that of other people. Our difficulty is that we are considering areas where our underlying thinking affects the ways in which we act, and it is not always easy to distinguish clearly between the thought and the action.


The first Jewish Christians thought that it was necessary for Gentile converts to Christianity to adopt Jewish culture with its characteristic rites and practices, including male circumcision. It required a sea-change in their thinking to give up this belief, and to appreciate that it was not God's way of thinking. Here is a clear example of an underlying belief that had enormous practical effects, and for there to be any hope of dealing with the practice it was essential to win a battle on the deeper level of theological thought.


Today the attitude of male superiority is still widespread. In the western world we have perpetuated a way of thinking which has often made women generally or women individually subordinate and second class. For me to make that remark is quite something; it indicates that I have changed my ways of thinking from what they were forty years ago. Elsewhere in Islam and some other cultures the subordination of women is still an essential part of their thinking. (The Islamic question is arguably a complicated one, since a system which has the effects of protecting women from unwanted male attention presumably leads to greater marital fidelity than is the case in our liberal society.) One of the things that the gospel does is to bring freedom to those who do not know it. It demonstrated that slavery is wrong, although it took centuries for Christians to realise this clearly.


We live in a world which is seeing a revolution in attitudes to human sexuality and family life. The revolution is partly but not wholly due to the widespread availability of contraceptives and abortion. Sexual intercourse is no longer what it used to be, at least as an ideal, the deepest expression of intimacy between a married couple in which they unite to give birth to new life. The physical aspect of sexual relationships has been elevated to a thing in itself which gives pleasure to those who indulge in it. It is no longer regarded as the deepest form of intimacy between husband and wife, but is an activity that can be pursued by any pair of people who wish to do so. It always was separable from procreation, but now it can be separated from procreation quite easily. It is presumably as common outside marriage as within it. Indeed, there is no need for marriage, and many people are cohabiting, either temporarily or permanently. The idea of lifelong commitment in marriage or in cohabitation has largely disappeared, and something like a third to a half of actual marriages end up in divorce. As a result, many children are now conceived out of wedlock and/or brought up without a father; some mothers wish to live like this, while others are forced to do so. Nor need sexual relationships take the normal form between people of different sexes; a vociferous body of opinion claims that homosexual relationships should be equally acceptable, and its supporters are in danger of winning the propaganda battle. Unfortunately what I am talking about is not confined to non-Christians; it is increasingly the case in the church.


Here, then is part of a different culture that is springing up around us. It is manifestly not the biblical view of humanity and sexuality and family life. We have to ask whether this new cultural attitude is in fact Christian or is an option for Christians. If it is not Christian, we have to try to win the battle for the soul of modern western culture by some kind of counter-attack.


I saw a review of a book by Neil Postman called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992). Technopoly ‘consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.... The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And that is why such concepts as sin and evil disappear in Technopoly’. This quotation comes not from a Christian but from a Jewish sociologist, and it shows us in passing that what we are talking about is not a narrowly Christian perception but can be shared, at least in some aspects, by others who stand in one part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. He has exposed a way of thinking which is primarily concerned with what the discoveries of science and technology make possible and lets this set the agenda. At its most blatant we see it in many of the practices of business where economic considerations reign rather than the interests of the people, whether the workers or the customers.


Consider the philosophy that regards the indiscriminate killing of innocent people as the way to achieve political ends. Human lives are cheap and the end justifies the means. Yes, it may be necessary to shoot one madman to forestall a whole series of murders and killings. But how is it that this underlying philosophy is so widespread, that killing and destruction are ok as means for securing political ends? What creates the climate of thought that allows all this to happen?


I turn in conclusion to some observations from Harold Turner.

~nnFirst, what is important at this level is not pragmatic results or power but truth. The struggle is at this deeper level. Turner shows how Marxism could point at one time to practical results and power in plenty, but this did not affect the basic point that its basic view of reality was simply untrue. We have to discuss these matters at that level, for the only effective way to critique Marxism was at this level of truth.n~~nSecond, he asks whether the secular world view has invaded Christian thinking. How far have we let the world round about us squeeze us into its mould so that we are no longer capable of speaking a prophetic world, so thirled have we become to secular ways of thinking? How do we learn to desecularise our own thinking?n~~n


Third, we cannot carry out our first two tasks, evangelism and social reform, without also dealing with this task. Then we have a firm foundation for what we say to individuals and society, based not on what seems to work but on what is true, not on what appeals to us as human beings but on what God says.nn~


We have to begin here where we are in the church. It resembles a long-stay hospital in which we are all patients at different stages of recovery. We are a mixture of saints and sinners, and often the sin and the sanctity are in the same people. Worldly thinking has seeped deeply into our veins. I think of one husband who came to our church fairly regularly several years ago; he committed adultery and left his wife, and we saw him no more. He discharged himself, you might say, from the hospital without waiting to be cured. His thinking had not been taken captive by Christ.


But the hospital must also post health warnings outside its walls. We now warn people against smoking as a cause of lung cancer rather than waiting till they come in with the disease too far gone to be curable. We have to persuade society that truth matters more than profit, human life more than political advantage. We have to seek actively to bring Christian standards to the world around us.


Finally, we have to consider deeply the implications of the Lordship of Christ for the world of thought; we need to be very self-conscious of what a Christian culture would look like, and we must free ourselves from worldly thinking. We have to establish a society in which the evil effects of Technopoly are no longer taken for granted.


These things cannot be accomplished independently of the other two levels of mission. We must convert the individuals who shape institutions as well as change the institutions that shape people. It is an immense task. We shall need to specialise to achieve it, but that is what the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ means. I must do those aspects of the three tasks for which God has equipped me, while others do the other parts; Christians must work together as an organism so that we all put our shares into the common life and receive from what others contribute.

Howard Marshall is a circuit steward in the North of Scotland Mission Circuit and an Honorary Professor in the University of Aberdeen.

Headline Summer 2007 p.13-14