Last week I used Job as an example of how the church challenges the world for cultural leadership. Job describes how he was a cultural leader before he was stricken by the adversary’s plagues. He says that people looked to him as a source of wisdom (i.e. as a cultural leader) because he served the needs of those around him – especially the poor and the marginalized.
But the question might be asked: why then is he no longer a cultural leader after he’s stricken? In fact, as soon as he comes under attack the whole culture turns against him. In last week’s post I was looking at chapter 29; most of chapter 30 is about how Job is now laughed at and despised. Here’s a small sample: “And now I have become their song; I am a byword to them. They abhor me; they keep aloof from me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.” (v. 9-10)
The answer, of course, is that human culture in a fallen world is always hypocritical to some extent. Every culture affirms moral norms of behavior that it wants people to follow; because of God’s common grace, those norms mostly align with God’s natural revelation of moral goodness to humanity. They never align completely with God, and in some cases they go far astray; the alignment that Paul famously observes in Romans 2 is only a general pattern. And (as Paul goes on to observe) every culture fails to actually uphold even the imperfect standard it sets for itself. In a fallen world there is never a “Christian culture” in the sense of a culture that can be simply identified with Christianity. There are cultures that are highly influenced by Christianity, and cultures that explicitly profess allegiance to Christianity. (They are not always the same cultures!) But no culture is simply the same thing as Christianity.
In Job’s case, the culture appears to have had a Pharisaical approach to the relationship between virtue and prosperity. It is one of the broad, overarching themes of scripture (especially in the wisdom literature) that in general and on the whole, virtue leads to prosperity. Affirming this pattern as a general truth is usually necessary to preserve our doctrines of creation and providence; without it we tend to lapse into a Gnostic dualism that views the material world as evil. However, some cultures Pharisaically raise this general correlation between virtue and prosperity into an absolute law; those who are not prosperous must be unvirtuous.
There is, alas, no cure for this condition until Christ returns. A Christian life must necessarily bring us into conflict with human culture in some respects, and there will always be people ready to pounce on any opportunity to stigmatize and marginalize the church. Part of the struggle for cultural leadership is accepting this and lamenting it without resenting it.