Has Christianity been “modernized”?

Pastor John and I received an interesting question last Sunday and I thought it was worthy of a rather extended answer. In general, most of my blog posts come either from questions I ask on my own, or questions posted to me. So, if you have a question you would like me to answer, I invite you to send it my way. 

Question (somewhat paraphrased): “There seems to be a big difference between “extremist” Islam and “modernized” Islam. I understand the majority call it a peaceful religion, and have reinterpreted many verses… although the literal interpretation seems to clearly stand as violent commands regarding what is ‘lawful’. From a Christian point of view, have we “modernized” Christianity?”

Answer: This a multi-faceted question and so I will address as follows. 1) In regards to Christianity, what could we mean by “modernized”? 2) Do we have a modernized version of Christianity? 3) Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing? 4) What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

1)     What could we mean by “modernization”?

Answer 1 – Modernization = Conformity: We could mean that Christianity, at its core, has conformed to the modern world. That is, that the Christianity we experience today is fundamentally different from that which was practiced in the first century. By fundamentally different, I don’t mean in its form but in its identity.

Answer 2 – Modernization = Contextualization: We could also mean that Christianity is fundamentally the same as it was at its founding but that it has been and continues to be contextualized (translated, adapted) to the cultures in which it manifests itself. That is, its core beliefs and values are the same, even though it is practiced in different ways in different ages and cultures.

Humans conform and contextualize all the time. Someone going to work wears “work clothes” and interacts with my co-workers in a “professional” manner, without changing who they are – contextualization. Conformity, on the other hand, would occur if that person worked in an unethical environment and therefore acted in a way contrary to their character.

2)     Do we have a modernized version of Christianity?

Yes, and in both senses… kind of. If we think of Christianity in sociological terms than what we see is that there is a great diversity among those who identify themselves as Christians. Many practice a conformed version of Christianity, changing Christian beliefs to fit the cultural values. The rest practice a contextual version of Christianity, attempting to translate Christian beliefs into the cultures language.

3)     Is such modernization a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends on what form of modernization you are referring to. Above I considered Christianity in sociological terms, as the actual practice of people identifying with a faith. But I would prefer to think about Christianity in terms of beliefs. In other words, a Christianity which has conformed to its culture has become something different, or if the conformity was only slight, it has simply lost its way on a belief or practice. From this perspective, modernization would be bad. Contextualization, on the other hand, is both necessary and positive, it’s a way of communicating a universal truth in an understandable way to a transient culture.

Several examples will shed important light on this.

Example 1 – Slavery: Slavery was social and economic reality during the era of the Old and New Testaments. It was quite different from the slavery practiced in the American South but it was slavery nonetheless. Both the Old and New Testaments assume this reality, but there are no explicit commands to abolish the practice. Today, all American Christians oppose slavery and find the practice abhorrent. In fact, Christians played a key role in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade and continue to play a key role in abolishing modern-day slavery. Did Christianity conform itself to the cultural norms or did it contextualize core beliefs of Christianity to a modern-day problem?

I would propose that Christians were contextualizing Christian truth to oppose slavery. What beliefs were contextualized? First, the Bible states that all people are created in the image of God. As an extension of this truth, people are not property nor are some people worth more than other people. All people deserve basic justice, including freedom. Second, we see a consistent moral argument against violence and oppression – and slavery is certainly a form of violence and oppression. Third, while Paul gives instructions on how slaves and masters ought to live together, he simultaneously undermines slavery but emphasizing that under Christ there are no slave/free distinctions. The point here is that ancient Christianity provided everything necessary to undermine slavery, Christians understood this, and applied that truth to abolish transatlantic slave trade.

Example 2 – Head coverings: In 1 Corinthians 11:2-6 Paul argues that women should cover their heads in worship. This is a difficult passage to interpret, but the key question is whether Paul was giving a command which applied to all cultures, giving a command to one culture but which carries with it some universal principle to be contextualized in some other way (example: Should Women Wear Head Coverings?), or was giving a command which only applied in one culture and has next to no application today. Some denominations believe that Paul’s command is a universal principle. In this case, modernization (not asking women to wear head coverings in worship) would be a form of cultural conformity. For others, not asking women to wear head coverings is a form of contextualization. The argument here is that the use of head coverings, or hairstyles, etc. communicates different things in different cultures. It communicated one thing in the Corinthian church, but communicates something totally different today. By removing this command, then, Christianity is modernizing, but not in a way that loses anything of its identity.

Example 3 – Gender accurate Bible interpretation: Just recently I read an Atlantic article with the headline: Southern Baptists Embrace Gender Inclusive Language in the Bible. The author Jonathan Merritt is referring to the a new Bible Translation, the CSB (Christian Standard Bible) that replaces “brothers” with “brothers and sisters” and “mankind” with “humankind”, etc. This is the same translation move made by the translators of the most recent NIV. For Merritt, this is a sign that the denomination is being moved by a more “progressive” doctrinal position and is a bellwether of things to come. The question is, is this translation decision a move towards “conformity” or “contextualization.” Some will certainly see it as cultural conformity wherein the translators are being swayed by the cultural pressure to do away with gender distinctiveness, but I think that such a view is misguided. The goal of the CSB (like the NIV) is not to translate word for word the Greek or Hebrew texts. Such a translation may be “literal” but it can also often be misleading. Instead, the goal of these translations is to express the meaning of the words. When Paul addresses “brothers” does he only have men in mind or is he referring to both men and women. It’s clear that he meant both men and women. His original audience would have easily understood this. And, up until very recently, all English speakers reading “brothers” in the New Testament would also have easily recognized this. Culture and language are always moving targets, and the translators decided that by translating the Greek word as “brothers and sisters” would clarify Paul’s meaning. In other words, there’s no loss, no cultural conformity, but instead contextualization, clarification, of the original intent.

The line between conformity and contextualization is not always clear, nor should we necessarily expect it to be. People will often disagree on where to draw the line but in general Bible believing Christians see modernization-as-conformity as a net loss and modernization-as-contextualization as a necessary means of speaking universal truth to an ever-shifting culture.

4)     What can we draw from the Islam/Christianity comparison?

Here I confess that my knowledge is rather weak, but it has been recently significantly bolstered by the writings of Nabeel Qureshi. I highly recommend Seeking Allah Finding Jesus and Answering Jihad. Contextualization is built into Christianity so that Christianity can be accommodated to a wide range of cultures without losing its core. Christianity is by far the most multi-cultural religion – the most multi-cultural anything – in the world. The same is not true for Islam. Qureshi would argue (I think) that Islam can only modernize by separating itself from its sacred texts. He wants to see Islam modernize, but not in the sense that it would return to its roots, but that it would move past them into something else entirely. In other words, Christianity is capable of modernizing-as-contextualizing without losing itself. The same does not appear to be true for Islam, though I would expect this final claim to be disputed by many practicing Muslims.

Book Recommendations
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward