All Christians at all times live in the culture they live in. The ancient Christian in Ephesus spoke Greek and wore the clothes available for purchase in that city. When he went for lunch, certain foods were available to him and other foods were not. At the same time, he was called to live in a radically distinct way, and this included elements of what we call culture. We as Christians are called to model a different way of being human, a way of being human that was lived out ultimately by Jesus Christ.
When we live in the midst of pagan culture, we are called to interact honestly and in compassion with those who live “next door” to us. This requires a certain shared space. Believers and unbelievers both buy green garden hoses, they both have had hamburgers for lunch, and they both drive on asphalt roads. I think we are all okay with that.
But unbelieving culture knows how to exude its unbelief — not in the fact of having lunch, but in the way of having lunch. The unbelief comes out the pores. It comes out the fingertips. And when it does, how are we to interact with that? Our attitude must be that of unremitting epistemic (not personal) hostility — but not because everything non-Christians do or come up with must be rejected. I am fine with the green garden hoses, unless they were developed by a believer, in which case I would just move on to another example.
The doctrine of common grace is important. But the doctrine of common grace preserves a form of goodness in the lives of unbelievers, it does not ensure goodness in everything done by unbelievers. Common grace makes it possible for an unbelieving researcher to find a cure for this or that disease. Common grace does not turn the explicit artifacts of rebellion into non-rebellion. We can eat meat that was once offered to idols because the meat is not demon-possessed. But to sit down at the table of demons and partake together with unbelievers, on the grounds that the meat is not demon-possessed, is to miss the apostle’s argument completely.
When the cultural artifacts of unbelief are configured into a “language event” that declares its hatred for God (dog collars on teen aged girls, along with black nail polish), our response is to be nothing other than a straightforward rejection of it. But this brings up another basic choice.
When we are dealing with people, and not just the abstract idea, what are we to do? When it is not the idea of some kid with halloween hair, but rather the kid next door, or a friend of your nephew, now what? How does this hostility I have been mentioning manifest itself? How are we to respond?
To do the right thing here, we have to make a basic distinction — which is not a hard one, at least not conceptually. Are we dealing with refugees from this rebellious culture, or apostles of it? The people of God should worship in such a way that refugees from a very lost world are accepted with nothing but warmth and love. James teaches us that to give a lower seat to someone who comes to your church with filthy clothes, and a higher seat to the guy in a three-piece potential big tither suit, is to show partiality, and to be guilty of great wickedness. But this homeless guy who comes to church is the refugee. And he can be as greasy and as smelly as it gets. All refugees are most welcome — that is part of what the church is for. Jesus said to invite such people to your feasts.
But the apostles of this unbelieving culture are different matter. We are instructed to warn such individuals several times, and then to decisively reject what they are saying. And the message that grime is real, and clean is artificial, is a false and pernicious doctrine that has rotted out many cultures and countless lives. It is not a trivial issue. It is not a minor thing in the church. Old and new are not the issue, left and right are not the issue, conservative or not is not the issue, and this decade or that one is not the issue. Right and wrong are the issue. And the rightness or wrongness of such things is not determined by weighing, counting, measuring, or other such clunky forms of superficial analysis. What is being said? And is it being said by a refugee calling for help, or a hirsute apostle with his cool-mongering, hawking his authentic stone-washed wares? If the former, come, and welcome to Jesus Christ. If the latter, no thanks.