Should John’s readers assimilate to Roman culture? Warren Carter’s arguments pro and con

Warren Carter helpfully describes the diversity of opinions in the churches to which John wrote. John represents one extreme, urging withdrawal from political, economic and religious affairs that compromised the integrity of their faith. But others (whom John labels as Balaam and Jezebel) are more open accomodating in their approach to the prevailing cultural practices. Carter lists five arguments that John’s adversaries could have made in favor of assimilating to the larger culture, and seven arguments that John makes against such assimilation. I offer the arguments below, with my responses to the adversaries, and a note at the end regarding Carter’s conclusions.

Five arguments in favor of cultural engagement

  1. John’s opponents could have argued (and most likely did argue) that active participation in social, political and economic activities tinged with idolatry was necessary for survival. (I would object to this argument by pointing to Daniel: actively engaged with culture, but willing to die to avoid idolatry).
  2. John’s opponents may have argued, in a manner similar to 1 Peter 2.11-17, that cultural engagement was an important evangelistic strategy. In order to maintain Christianity’s reputation it would be necessary to maintain business and political relationships and engage in practices such as “honoring the king” (1 Peter 2.17). (My response is that John’s approach and Peter’s approach are not fundamentally in conflict).
  3. John’s adversaries may have used an argument found in Paul: Christians know that the gods represented by idols don’t really exist, and that there is only one God (1 Corinthians 8.4), so eating meat sacrificed to an idol means nothing. (I would respond that while Paul agrees with this sentiment, he counters it in chs 8 and 10, issuing a universal prohibition of eating in temples, and even limiting the eating of meat in private homes.)
  4. They may have pointed to biblical characters such as Joseph in Genesis, who was politically involved with imperial powers. (But Genesis repeatedly tells us that Joseph was exceptionally faithful to God in the midst of temptations, even suffering in jail for years for staying true to his convictions. The issue is not whether to get involved in society, but how far may we be involved in a given society without compromising our core convictions).
  5. They may have pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem as a sign that rebellion would be useless, and that Rome had been chosen by God to rule. (My response is that the exhortation to faithfulness to God and rejection of idolatry applies no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in)

John’s seven arguments against cultural engagement

  1. “…anyone who lives faithfully to Jesus will collide with and suffer from imperial power, rather than enjoy  a cozily accommodated existence.”
  2. “Participation in the empire and its cultic celebrations compromises allegiance to God and the Lamb, who are alone worthy of worship.”
  3. The empire is under God’s judgment.
  4. The empire is under the control of the devil.
  5. Given the four points above, Christian strategy “requires societal distance and withdrawal.”
  6. John recognizes that such withdrawal will involve great hardship and suffering.
  7. Christians should remain faithful because God will ultimately triumph.

Carter unfortunately compares the two positions above to Niebuhr’s categories of “Christ embracing culture” and “Christ against culture”, and, because he believes in the importance of cultural engagement, finds John’s approach “disturbing” and “not entirely satisfactory.” I think a better approach would be to say that the Christian faith can and should adopt the “Christ transforming culture” when and where it can. But in situations where the church is vastly outnumbered and fights for its very survival against hostile cultural forces, the noble goal of cultural transformation must be temporarily set aside as impossible to pursue. In such situations a different strategy, strengthening Christians to withstand attack, is called for. Also, regardless of whether the situation calls for engaging culture or withdrawing from it, Christians are called to be faithful to God and distinct from their unconverted neighbors in the way they live. John is not so concerned about withdrawal versus engagement. He is concerned with faithfulness versus compromise.

Source: Warren Carter, “Accommodating Jezebel and withdrawing John: negotiating empire in Revelation then and now” in Interpretation 63 no 1 Ja 2009, pp. 32-47

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