In Philippians 3, Paul said something that would likely get me fired from my pulpit if I said it on Sunday.
He was speaking of his culture, the way he grew up, his heritage and upbringing, and he left no doubt about how he regarded it compared to the joys of knowing Jesus.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. Philippians 3:7-8
Rubbish. He counted them as rubbish. Refuse. Garbage. That’s a strong statement. Paul treated his heritage and cultural background as a pile of garbage in comparison to knowing Christ and proclaiming him. Culture was not going to get into the way of his proclamation of of the gospel of Jesus. It was garbage to be thrown out.
Only Paul didn’t actually say garbage. He said skubala. Of course, like most words used in Greek it has more than one meaning and refuse is a secondary or tertiary meaning, but the reason we use that translation is likely that we would be offended if we gave the most accurate translation of the word. It was strong, shocking, even profane. Let me give you a little hint. It’s not a part of my everyday vocabulary, but it starts with “s” and it rhymes with hit.
Paul basically dropped an s-bomb on the Philippians.
I’m not asking you to take my word, but one of the great Greek scholars of our day (who taught some of my classes as a doctoral student when I was seminary) is Dr. Daniel Wallace. He wrote a brief word study which you can read at Bible.org. He argues that Paul used this shocking word intentionally to make his point clear.
He was rejecting his Jewish culture and heritage to embrace Christ. Christ was all that mattered to him. He was not championing his Hebrew heritage, but flushing it! He was not prizing his Jewish culture, but was treating it like a great, big, steaming pile of…uh…um…er…well…crap!
We have often gone the other way today. We have blended Christianity with our culture into a toxic religious mix. The force and passion with which some Christians defend the flying of the Confederate flag is a good example of this. No, I’m not saying everyone who has the flag is a racist. That’s not my judgment to make. But you should see some of the dozens, likely well a hundred vile comments about the Confederate flag issue that I chose not to post from people who read Dwight’s recent post and others. Friends, racism is alive and well in the pews of Southern Baptist churches.
But let’s ignore the racists and just talk about the flag. There are people who are not racists but who want to hold on to the flag because it represents their culture, which they prize and their beloved heritage as proud Southerners. The flag represents something good and lovely to them and they don’t see why they can’t fly it.
My Christian friend, I think Paul would ask you which matters more, your culture or your Christ? If you know that the flag is an offense to others, even to brothers and sisters in Christ, and you continue to hold on to that flag because of it represents your culture and heritage, are you following Paul’s example? I think not. Paul would, I believe, consider Southern culture and heritage as SKUBALA to gain Christ and to proclaim Christ.
Southerners are far from the only guilty parties here. I tread on thin ice and I know it, but I remember visiting an African-American Baptist church several years ago where I realized that their culture and their race was more of a priority to them than our shared faith. Paul would have said the same thing to them. Treat your culture as SKUBALA to gain Christ!
It can be said about any culture, any heritage, any family or tribal issue. To be honest (and open a can of worms) it’s what I have against the culturally-based churches. I’m not a fan of Cowboy church, Biker church, hipster church, or any of the others that over-identify our Christianity with a particular culture or heritage. Jesus died to tear down the walls that divide and and build “”one new man” out of the divided cultures. We are rebuilding the walls in the church that Jesus wants to tear down.
I’m a flag-waving, patriotic, get-choked-up-at-“God Bless America” kind of guy. I love this land and I even believe there are ways in which we are truly exceptional in history – our governmental structure, our recognition of our duty to God, our desire to use our power to do good.
But American patriotism itself can easily become a problem. I’ve heard calls for revival all of my life, but the subtle hint in many of these calls is the conflation of America and the church. Too often when we talk about revival what we are really talking about restoring America to a previous (and largely mythical) time of greatness. It’s more about restoring our heritage and culture than it is the building up of the kingdom – or at least AS MUCH. No, that is not always true, but it often is.
Why does the church in America struggle so much? Maybe it is because we are so unlike Paul? He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee, a true Jew! But this heritage, this culture, which had meant everything to him all of his life, he regarded as excrement – yes, what is in your child’s diaper! – so that he could gain Christ and be found in him.
Christ mattered more to him than his culture and heritage and he was so offended at those who valued their culture so highly that he used what was essentially a profanity to express his feelings.
I’m afraid that if Paul wrote to the American church, he might admonish us to get our eyes off the world, to take our culture and heritage, our backgrounds, our racialism and human differentiations and consider them as he did – as big piles of poop.
Maybe the church will be the church when we love Jesus enough to reject anything that gets in the way of our devotion to and proclamation of HIM!