King's Evangelical Divinity School

26 November 2012

Should Christians Eschew a Pagan Setting?

At church yesterday one of the Bible readings concerned the healing of Naaman (2 Ki 5:1-19). Naaman was a leading Syrian military leader. He was also a leper. 

I'm sure you know the story well (it's a Sunday School favourite). A young Jewish slave girl captured in a Syrian raid against Israel explains to her mistress (Naaman's wife) that there is a prophet of God in Samaria who can cure her master of leprosy. Naaman approaches the man of God (the prophet Elisha) offering him riches in return for healing. Yet Elisha doesn't quite fit the stereotype of what Naaman expected an Israelite prophet to be. Instead of performing a grandiose magical rite Elisha instructs this warrior to go wash himself seven times in the river Jordan (from Naaman's perspective, not the nicest of rivers). Naaman is furious but, coaxed by his servants, eventually succumbs, whereupon his leprosy is healed.

When Elisha refuses riches offered for his healing, Naaman requests two mule-loads of Israelite earth to take home, upon which from now on he will make sacrifices to the Lord God of Israel alone. Apparently Naaman recognised the holiness of the land and that Yahweh was the One True God. 

It's quite a transformation really, from hardened warrior to astute theological observer. But what struck me this time 'round (I've read the narrative many times, but have you noticed how often we pick up something new each time?) is verse 18. After declaring he will worship only the God of Israel, Naaman says to Elisha:
In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” (ESV)
In other words: "I know now that Yahweh is the One True God. Therefore, give me this Israelite earth for me to take home and sacrifice to Him upon. But please understand that from time to time my position requires me to accompany my master when he attends the temple of and bows before the god of Rimmon. Unfortunately not only that, but sometimes I too will be required to bow to Rimmon. Forgive me for this, o man of God. When I do so I don't really mean it. I'm just going through the motions".

Even more surprising, though, is Elisha's response, which seems to exonerate Naaman from such actions: "Go in peace", as if, "That's OK, I understand fully". Remember, this is not the response of some theological liberal but a particularly noteworthy Old Testament prophet.

I wonder if this passage offers an illustration of one of those examples of biblical pragmatism which befuddle some hyper-fundamentalists. On a number of occasions I've been asked whether it's acceptable for a Christian to attend, for example, a wedding or other social event at a Hindu temple or Mormon place of worship, or Easter processions in a strongly Roman Catholic country. Sometimes passionate and sincere young Christians have explained to me how, having been saved out of such situations, they have refused point blank even to attend because they are held in a non-Christian, indeed pagan setting. Obviously each circumstance needs to be considered on its merits - there are clearly some religious settings which cross a line for Christians - yet I also wonder about the extent to which, in some cases, well-meaning but excessively dogmatic believers, in their zeal to stand up for truth (as they interpret it) have actually damaged any possibility of a future Christian witness. After all, if a Christian refuses to attend even his brother's wedding because of his new-found faith, might not such an action (depending on circumstances and how it is gone about) damage future opportunities to share one's faith and eventually win over his family? Or in an historically Roman Catholic country like Spain, where the passion of Christ is enacted by faithful adherents in processions up and down the country during Semana Santa (Easter), is it reasonable for them to digest and understand claims that theirs is a pagan, anti-Christ ritual?  

Yes, I'm quite sure that in some cases there is a danger of compromise and accommodation, of crossing a line unacceptable for Christians. Yet in 2 Kings Elisha seems to take a somewhat pragmatic position, recognising that in some cultural settings it's not that much of a problem. And the Apostle Paul seems to reach a similar conclusion in his discussion of food offered to idols (1 Cor 8:1-6). In short, in a culture where much of the meat on sale in society had previously been offered to idols, Paul says not to worry about it, that these false gods are not even gods at all:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (ESV
Scripture seems to offer two caveats we need to bear in mind when dealing with issues like this. First, later in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul recognises how for some weaker brethren being saved out of a particular religio-cultural setting any future association with their past is hugely problematic, indeed  a stumbling block. In such cases our responsibility as believers, first and foremost, is very clearly not to allow our "right" (v 9) to cause a weaker brother who cannot handle such liberty to stumble (1 Cor 8:7-13). Better to eschew liberty if it causes spiritual damage to another. 

Second, believers should take care to ensure any pursuit of one's liberty does not cross over into outright idolatry. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul moves one from the discussion of a cultural issue (food presented to idols) to actual participation in idolatrous practices (verses 1-22, esp v 20). Paul seems to be delineating quite explicitly where that line which one mustn't cross lies: culture and tradition versus actual worship, empty ritual versus our motives and what's in our heart.

For those of us raised in a country with a Christian heritage such issues may be quite alien. Many of us have not considered or grappled at length with such a situation in the same way our brothers and sisters have from non-Christian backgrounds. The Naaman narrative and Paul's discussions in 1 Corinthians offer, I suggest, some helpful insight into how to tackle such issues and certainly merit careful attention when considering the issue. 

What are your views on this issue? I outline above just three passages and you may feel others should also be considered (after all, my post is merely a brief observation, not a full biblical theology on the issue). Or perhaps you come from a non-Christian background and have grappled with this issue, or as a Christian worker have ministered in such a context. Whatever your view please feel free to post your comment below.

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1 comment:

Nev said...

I recently finished a book entitled "Where Sin Abounds: A Religious History of Las Vegas" by Stanley Steward focusing mainly on the progress of Pentecostalism there.

The book describes how many Pentecostals continued to work in casinos and some women continued to work as strippers AFTER conversion. Some of them had no choice, financially speaking, but many of them saw no real problem morally and used the opportunities to witness to colleagues, which sometimes led to bible studies being conducted behind stage.

What I found most interesting about the book was that it was the unbelievers who levelled the most criticism, typically ridiculing the sincerity of a stripper's faith etc. And it caused me to ponder for a while whether or not the views of unbelievers/critics have any real validity at all. I'm leaning to the side of thinking that outsiders have no right to rule on what does or does not constitute genuine faith; it's for the Church itself to decide such issues.

Although, of course, the Church must be aware of the effect Christians can have in the world, I find the 'world' would hold us to a far stricter moral accounting than most Christians, and even the Bible, would demand.