The two ends of the political spectrum have long disagreed, but since the 2016 election, that disagreement has evolved into distrust and resentment. As public discourse and perception of reality continues to fracture along partisan and ideological lines, the need for socially-engaged Christians to hold fast to their confession while having constructive conversations with each other and their neighbors becomes more crucial than ever. In a recent talk to the students of Covenant College, Dr. Christina Edmondson, the dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and counselor, examined two passages from the New Testament wherein the Apostle Paul brings the gospel message to unbelievers and a gospel rebuke to a fellow believer. The following is an edited transcription of her seminar, and is published here by permission of Dr. Edmondson.
I want to talk to you about the Apostle Paul and a polarized nation. You might say, ‘Dr. Edmonson, what polarized nation?’ I submit to you that we live in a polarized nation; a nation that has created dyads that can never meet in the middle or hold up mirrors to the other side. Poles that are so far apart they ensure that we never humanize each other or see each other, or that we can never be challenged on our preferred pole. Have you noticed that? Republicans, Democrats—poles. Northerners, Southerners—poles. West coast people, east coast people—poles. Can the two come together or have a conversation?
The Apostle Paul offers some wonderful intercultural lessons for us if we’re willing to see and hear them. In many ways, we see in his journeys the critical role that intercultural aptitude—the ability to understand ourselves and our neighbors—his cultural humility, and his own cultural authenticity play. I submit to you that intercultural aptitude, humility, and authenticity, are vital to God’s gospel mission. We’ll look at two of Paul’s journeys—in one of them we’ll see Paul’s desire to connect with people outside of the household of faith—and then we’ll spend some time listening to Paul’s direction and conversation with people inside the family of faith about their (and our) very identities.
Polarization is an intercultural development concept. People in polarization see the world in ‘us’ and ‘them’ language. It’s a judgmental way of seeing the world. Oftentimes, the ‘us’ is almost acultural—it’ll sound something like, ‘this is how you do college,’ or, ‘this is how you do chapel,’. This—whatever ‘this’ is—is how it ought to be. The ‘them’ in polarization comes from a position of critical analysis—we’re critiquing; holding at arm’s length. Sometimes it switches, where we over-criticize ourselves, and we give other cultures a pass. There’s no critical understanding or appreciation. I submit to you that this is the social environment in which we live today.
Let’s look at Paul’s first trip, when he stood before the men of Athens:
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but know he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17:22-34)
I’d like us to look at this with an intercultural lens, because the Bible is a book that was written in an intercultural context about a Christ who lived with a cultural identity, who has something to say to people who were born, raised and formed with a specific cultural identity. What do we see in this passage? We see the Apostle Paul functioning as an intercultural, Spirit-filled expert. I saw that because, first, he demonstrates cultural appreciation. Let me be clear—cultural appreciation is not the same as moral neutrality or a moral pass. Cultural appreciation requires you to know what you’re actually critiquing. In order to judge, you have to rightly see—you have to sit with something long enough to see the systems, experiences and histories that have shaped it into what it is today. That’s appreciation. He’s walked around Athens long enough to notice that it’s quite religious; to come upon the unknown god, to know where people have their serious debates and to understand the language in which they communicate. He’s observed and appreciated, and he’s noticed things that this community finds value in, so he’s able to appeal to the very things that this community values (like the unknown god). Clearly Paul could come in and say, ‘No, no, no, no—I need to show you the right way to think about this. I need to show you the right way to be.’ But he doesn’t. He uses their language and appeals to their values in order to acknowledge the common grace that might be at work. God’s grace does not back up on a people-group, just because we might back up on that people-group. God’s grace is evident around God’s world, and Paul knows this, so he’s able to hone in on that very thing to demonstrate appreciation and then to strategically and prophetically use it to point to the God of grace, the creator-God, the one true God. He’s able to use these pagan people’s traditions and beliefs to point to the truth of the gospel.
He’s also able to do something else—he’s able to preach a gospel that is able to reach the diverse people that are present. As you can see at the end of the passage, he’s able to reach the intellectually and social elite with the gospel proclamation, he’s able to reach Damaris (a woman who likely would have been shunned in such a space), and he’s able to reach all the others there who would be called by the gospel. A true prophetic strategic gospel is able to reach people of all cultures—if not, something is wrong with the gospel that we preach. A polarized gospel can’t do that, but a biblical gospel can.
The Athenians functioned like many pagans—they believed that their group was superior. (Did you know that cultural superiority is a pagan belief system? It says, ‘My people—my country—my block—is the best one, because I’m a part of it.’ It’s basically moral narcissism.) That belief system of exceptionalism runs throughout human history, doesn’t it? But the gospel that Paul preaches is one that reminds the Athenians that one god has brought about a tapestry of people from one man, which means that we’re more like our neighbors than we want to admit. The fact that we all come from the same origins fundamentally slaps cultural supremacy in the face—it slaps American exceptionalism in the face. Simply put, we are no better than anyone else, and a true gospel preaches and declares that, because it is a catholic—that is, universal—gospel; a gospel that is required to reach all people. It’s this gospel that Paul declares before this intellectual and socially-elite group.
He appeals to the traditions of this group of people—a people not like himself—using their language when he can while holding to truth and pointing them to the ultimate truth, Jesus Christ. His technique is filled with humility and poise, but he doesn’t compromise at any point. The gospel is clearly articulated, and when combined with high intercultural aptitude, it results in a winsome approach for his Athenian neighbors.
Now, let’s go on another journey and see Paul’s approach toward those within the household of faith, the church in Galatia. I’m a person who doesn’t shy away from conflict; I’m actually a big fan of transformational conflict—which means that sometimes we got to bump heads if we’re gonna grow—so I’m a big fan of the Apostle Paul in this passage:
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Gal. 2:11-21)
Clear gospel articulation, but a different strategy. That was family / in-group business. The way that people in-group can talk to each other is a little different than the way people outside of the group can talk to them. In-group conversations—like Paul and Peter—happen to people who come from the same group. That was two Jews saying, ‘Hey hey hey hey hey…’ There’s a level of directness and candour that is afforded to you when you’re a member of the group. What does this mean? To be frank, it means that white evangelicals must have frank conversations with white evangelicals. It means that black Bible-believers must have frank conversations with black Bible-believers. Women get to say things to women that men don’t really get to say to women—have you noticed that? I mean, they could do it, but if you want to be prophetic and strategic, you may want to note what Paul does here. Paul directly confronts Peter because he’s attacking the central core of the faith. This is not an argument about what version of Scripture they wanted to use or about hymns and contemporary music. This is an argument about what the gospel is. If you’re going to blog or write or compose letters, make sure it’s about the most important thing, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Leaders are held to higher standards, which is why Paul had to critique his friend Peter the way that he did—publicly. The cultural legalism that Peter was espousing was discrediting the blood-bought gospel itself. Cultural legalism is Jesus plus anything else—Jesus plus my American exceptionalism, Jesus plus my worldview, Jesus plus my middle-class status, Jesus plus my Reformed confessions over yours. Even good things can fall into legalism, and cultural legalism is heresy. This is the kind of thing that gets publicly rebuked.
When Paul talked to those pagan folks in Athens—the ‘them’ in the polarized world—he exercised cultural appreciation and humility—and pointed them to the grace that was already embedded in their own community that they themselves couldn’t see. He shone the light of the gospel so that they could see that God had been working there all along. When he talked to his good friend in the flesh, who was a co-laborer and leader in the gospel movement, he had a direct conversation that reminded his dear friend Peter and all those who would be around that cultural legalism is heresy, and that we have one thing that centers and grounds us, which is the sacrificial work of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. This is worth transformational conflict.
Dr. Christina Edmondson is the dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also trains congregations and organizations nationally about implicit bias, multicultural accessibility, and leadership development. She and her husband, Mika, have two children.