Friday, March 6, 2015

Paul on Mars Hill as a Justification for Worldliness?

Frequently we'll hear from a young celebrity preacher that in order for us to be relevant to the world we need to stay current with what's popular in the culture. They won't always say, "You need to listen to Jay-Z or you'll be clueless how to witness to this world!" but they will often imply it. And they always always always point to Paul on Mars Hill as a justification for using secular entertainment as a means to reach the lost or connect with them. You'll see this on Twitter. One popular Christian personality live tweets every awards show imaginable. This elevation of some of the most depraved elements of our culture sets forth a dangerous precedent. Another popular Christian defended his admiration of an explicitly anti-Christian rapper by referencing Paul on Mars Hill. 

Now of course I don't think everything that is secular is evil. I think a lot of it is neutral and can be used for good purposes. I am using technology right now and technology is not a Biblical thing. It's just something that exists. I'm wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Are those Biblical? Nope. I'm using the English language. Is it Biblical to speak English? Nope. 

I think the error stems from a wrong interpretation of Acts 17:22-31

22 So Paul stood in the midst of the [a]Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and [b]exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge [c]the world in righteousness [d]through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men [e]by raising Him from the dead.”
Let's walk through this passage and look at some ancillary passages that can illuminate a better understanding of what exactly Paul is doing when he references an altar and poets. 

It's important to understand the type of literature Acts is. It's a documentation and description of events that took place in the early church. It is not, like Paul's letters, a prescription of things the church must or should do. Acts is a history book. We can learn much from it and it should be studied by all believers but we can't take certain events from Acts and make them normative for Christian life. 

If you're familiar with Acts then you can quickly and easily see how out of control our lives would be if we took everything from Acts and made it something we all had to do. We'd have to raise people from the dead, heal crippled people, live in a giant commune, watch 2 of our friends get struck dead for lying and hypocrisy, get arrested and preach in front of courts and all sorts of other unsustainable things. There remain many things we can learn from Acts despite it not being a prescriptive book, though. 

We've got the type of literature established. Now let's figure out the context. Paul has been traveling around proclaiming the Gospel to Gentiles since he is the appointed Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1, Galatians 2, 1Timothy 2). At this point he's just left Berea where he commended the Bereans for knowing the Bible and testing Paul's words against Scripture. Interestingly enough Paul reasoned with the Bereans from Scripture and not from secular entertainment or secular philosophy. He knew the Bereans were at least familiar with the Bible and argued based upon that. 

He then arrives in Athens while waiting for Silas and Timothy and is moved to take the Gospel "in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present." While doing this he captures the attention of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who then bring him to the Areopagus to give Paul an opportunity to explain what he's saying. He had already been preaching Christ because these philosophers said he was preaching strange deities - specifically Jesus and the resurrection. 

Paul then has his chance to preach and he takes the men of Athens from Genesis (the God who made the world) to the gospels (raising Him from the dead) while weaving in beliefs the Athenians held to. Take careful note what he says about the Athenian beliefs. Paul does not say he loves himself some Athenian poetry and jams to it between sermons. 

He first points out their ignorance (v. 23) for giving worship to an unknown god. He immediately breaks down and destroys their false idols by equipping them with right knowledge about God. He doesn't sympathize with them and put their gods on equal footing with God. He makes a strong argument for monotheism. And not apathetic monotheism but active and interesting monotheism. That is to say Paul says God is active in this world of ours. This destroys another argument made by some Athenian philosophers - that there's a supernatural god who just isn't involved with us. Paul then explains how we are all from one man. This contradicts and would be upsetting to the teaching by many Greeks that they were a superior people. This would also do the same to modern day evolutionists, amen? 

"Tim, Tim! He's just arguing against religious notions and ideas! Of course he'd disagree with their theology! Let's talk about Paul quoting Cretan poets and how his doing that means I should listen to everything, read everything and watch everything that's popular in the culture!"

Ok. Fair enough. There's a difference between tearing down false idols and using secular sources to make a point. I agree. I don't think it's always wrong to take a secular concept or song or movie and use it to point to Christ. I think that can be very effective in some instances.

Paul wasn't talking to people familiar with the Bible or the story of Christ. He briefly references some poetry from secular poets. He uses both to demonstrate that the Greeks already knew God existed and that we're made in His image. 

28 for in Him we live and move and [b]exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 
He isn't quoting lyrics from a vulgar rap song. He isn't quoting lines from a vulgar movie. He's quoting theistic poetry. And he then ties these words into his message and points the people to Christ. He doesn't quote them to sound hip and cool. He uses them for regenerative purposes. He's not just being relevant for the sake of relevance.
"Hey you know such and such a singer says this, but God's word says this..."
"That movie says this about God, but here's what God says about God..."

And then take note of how the men and women responded to Paul:
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you [x]again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Some sneered. Some were intrigued. And some were convinced. Who is going to be convinced of their need for a savior if you quote Taylor Swift? Especially if you don't point it back to Christ? 

Paul is speaking to a specific demographic (erudite Athenians) and would know what to draw on to make a point. Maybe this works with a preacher who is preaching to a specific demographic. A preacher with only an older demographic can obviously use illustrations he couldn't with high schoolers. That's simple to understand. But when we're in mixed company what kind of impact will quoting One Direction have on anyone over 22? I know the band is popular but couldn't tell you one song they sing. So quoting them and drawing from them tunes out a huge portion of the audience. 

It also can't be overstated that Paul uses these references to point to Christ because these people are clueless about Christ. Is there anyone in the United States who hasn't heard the name Jesus Christ or heard at least some portion of the Bible? Jesus is as ubiquitous as the Kardashians. If you have ever stood in a checkout line or gone to a news website, you have some knowledge of the Kardashians without ever having watched their show. 

My point in all of this is to show that Acts 17 does not command us to immerse ourselves in pop culture. I don't think all pop culture is wrong. I love movies. I like music. That doesn't mean I have to be familiar with who won all the Oscars and Grammys in order to be a good follower of Christ. 

Certainly I think we can use certain aspects of our society to be relevant. We dress like other people generally dress, right? We don't dress like 12th century Africans, do we? We dress like people in America generally dress. We don't speak in Olde English, right? We don't have churches without any technology of any kind, right? There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But where we'd be wrong is if our women dressed like women of the world and our men spoke like men of the world and if our emphasis became about stage production as opposed to strong proclamation.

In 2Corinthians 10 Paul says this:

Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am [a]meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but[b]divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
We take every thought captive, destroy speculations to the obedience of Christ and we do so without being wordly or fleshly.  If we quote secular entertainment we do so to destroy it. We don't quote it so sound hip. But maybe you're at someone's house and a movie comes up? I think that's a great opportunity to point out some similarities, highlight some differences and use that as a stepping stone. Just like Christ used all of His surroundings as teaching tools, we can use nature, relationships, money and entertainment as teaching tools. That doesn't mean we have to be current on the music industry. A lot of men watch pornography? Do we need to be current on that? Of course not. It's sinful. Much of popular music is sinful. We can use pornography as a teaching tool in the sense that we'd compare the way it sees sex in contrast with what the Bible says but we don't have to incorporate it into sermons or our daily lives. And we obviously don't rave about it and how cool it is under the guise of relating to people.

"I mean, most men look at porn so what kind of Christian man would I be if I didn't look at it? How can I relate to those men?"

Doesn't that sound INSANE????????
And that's not an unfair comparison because most music today is extremely sexual or explicit. I can know that just by existing. I don't need to listen to every song to know that or immerse myself in MTV. I just need to go to the store. I just need to be scanning through the radio for about 2 minutes or drive past a billboard. 

But then in 1Corinthians 9 Paul says this:
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under [h]the Law, as under [i]the Law though not being myself under [j]the Law, so that I might win those who are under [k]the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it
"So we can do whatever we need to do reach the lost? So I can go see 50 Shades of Grey so I can know how to reach such women????"
Not quite! Because Paul ends 1Corinthians 9 by saying this and this is never ever quoted when people refer to the passage I just shared:

 24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I [l]discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
A couple words that stick out are self-control and not without aim. He becomes all things to all men without sinning and without forfeiting control of his self and he does so with specific purposes in mind (furthering the Good News). 

If you want to watch movies or listen to music that is potentially objectionable, then make sure you do so under the pretenses of your own desires; without claiming you're doing it under the auspices of being relevant to the lost. Quoting secular entertainment is not necessary to reach the lost. Proclaiming the inerrant Word of God is necessary. 

Just so you don't think I'm suggesting isolation, listen and watch this sermon by Art Azurdia. We obviously have to exist in this world but we don't have to live as the world lives. We are sanctified and continue being sanctified so we can survive this world and live in this world as Christ did. 


  1. When you said it wasn't Biblical to speak English you lost me. The Bible was given in King James English and that's the end of the story.

    1. Thou hast proven thee guilty of heresy.
      Forgiveth me, Sir Michael.

  2. Perhaps the most important thing to note about Acts 17 is that Paul is "preaching" to nonbelievers. Period. Though we call congregational teaching "preaching" nowadays, there simply is no correlation to be drawn between what Paul did to reach nonbelievers, and what teachers should use to teach to Christians at Church gatherings.

    1. Agreed, Nate. I don't think any of us would suggest we interact the same way we do with the lost as we do with fellow church members but there is some overlap as none of us would be foolish enough to believe every person in a given church service is saved (especially on Easter). So there are times when a preacher/teacher may interact with the audience/congregation as if they were unsaved and thus be tempted to cite secular entertainment or use worldly and potentially ungodly (Highway to Hell by AC/DC) techniques to capture their attention.

      I'm really just opposed to people being edgy for the sake of being edgy but then passing it off as a holy endeavor.

  3. I don't know if I'd agree that there's "no correlation," but I do agree with the rest of your sentiment.