These heralding words from the letter to the Ephesians, and the heralding words that are employed in the first letter to Timothy, are so much more than words that a client would use in honor of his patron. They are words that, in that day, would be reserved for the honoring of the world’s patron (the patron of patrons), who was Caesar. It serves as an indication to an alert listener or reader, that Paul, and those communities being formed around the claims of the Gospel, stand in opposition to much of the prevailing culture of the day, and are intended to be a transformative element within that culture. This transformation will not occur through denouncing the surrounding culture as hell-bound, perverse, or any number of adjectives that do much to polarize and little to effect change. While there is certainly a mystical power in the pronouncement that Jesus is Lord, we can certainly agree that the power is magnified if the life of the speaker accords with the claim. This goes well beyond the avoidance of things that are determined to be “sins” or that which is to be avoided by Christians, having much more to do with an active engagement with the culture that demonstrates the Lordship of Jesus over every area of life.
The pronouncement of condemnation on anything and everything that does not align with our personal viewpoints is hardly effective, and the condoning of such activities would have to be read into the Scriptures in a way that lacks context or coherence. This approach would probably fail to take into account the historical movement of Scripture, the over-arching meta-narrative of exile and exodus by which the Scriptures ask to be read, and the covenant and covenant-people framework on offer throughout the whole of the Bible that defines the people of God and God’s mission in and for His world. Attempts to use Jesus’ harsh words against the leaders of the people, His actions in the Temple, or the sharp words of the prophets and the apostles as justification for harshness or ugliness that is merely cloaked in the veil of a pseudo-love, would be to abuse and misuse those words and actions, especially considering the fact that the harshness is so often directed to God’s covenant people. Though we can look through the prophets and certainly find words of God’s condemnation directed towards the nations that surrounded and often mistreated Israel, not only do we have to remember that such words were subsequent to God’s judgment of His people, but we also have to remember that God’s taking up of human flesh and going to a cross in order to die for His enemies (after telling His people to pray for and love their enemies) pretty much changes everything.
Our distance from the text, both historically and culturally, especially for those of us in the western world, should lead us away from dogmatism in our engagement with our cultures, and towards a compassionate, inquisitive, and mercy-tinged engagement that recognizes our own shortcomings and lack of complete knowledge. When we look at the New Testament, what we must see behind the text are communities that are struggling to come to terms with what is implied by the life of Jesus and the kingdom of God that has been inaugurated by His Resurrection, especially considering that said kingdom has been inaugurated in a way that was completely unexpected. This struggle, which can be seen in the New Testament and in the records and writings of the early church, encouragingly informs us that there has never been a monolithic “orthodoxy” at any point in time in the history of Christianity. Therefore, our own struggles, as we seek to come to terms with the message of Jesus and His kingdom so that we might effectively, correctly, and faithfully engage the cultures in which we find ourselves immersed, should inspire humility and a compassion for others, as we depend upon and attempt to reflect the compassion of our God.
Condemnation, attempts at heavy-handed transformation, or a mission-denying withdrawal and separation are not the means by which either Paul or Jesus asked for or expected the culture to be countered. Remember, Jesus saved his denouncements for the leaders of the people. Rather, the culture is countered, and the transformation into a culture that comes closer to living as the true humanity originally intended by the Creator, through the kingdom-modeling, sacrificial, love-motivated and service-oriented activities of the members of the body of Christ, as they demonstrably and tangibly live out, in imitation of Jesus, their claim that Jesus is Lord, and that He is Lord even over the Caesar that bears the title of “son of god.”
What appearance will be taken by these activities? Naturally, we can find the answer on nearly every page of Scripture. We can look to the Jesus tradition as embodied by the Gospel accounts. We can look at Acts. When it comes to Paul, we can look at the entire body of work that is attributed to him in order to formulate an answer to this question. We can look to a letter to Timothy, to whom Paul refers as his genuine child in the faith, seeing there what can be understood to be, regardless of Timothy’s “position” in the church, as a personally directed letter that demands a personal response of a single member of the body of Christ who is, presumably, attempting to live and to serve as part of a community that is yet one small component of a global kingdom. Thus, realizing that there is a helpful counter-cultural message in the text of the letter, we may find the letter more useful than we previously imagined.