Christian groups from small house churches to the Roman Catholic Church regularly make decisions as to how they will live in the world. Choices range from withdrawing entirely from society to energetic engagement with all aspects of that society. A few examples from the extreme poles of choice.
Groups which have chosen to drastically reduce contact include various monastic groups from Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. These communities often have made prayer and intercession their reason d’etre for their formation. Other choices include hermits and hermetic settlements which feel the need for solitude as they pursue a perceived direction for their spiritual life.
At times, churches have felt the need to go underground to remain faithful to God’s Will for mankind rather than submit to secular control of the church. In Germany during WWII the (Confessing) Lutheran Church did exactly that, while a state controlled version remained active. Similar choices have been made by Catholics in China in current history. Those who remained faithful to Rome went underground while a state approved “Catholic Church” not submissive to the Pope remains active.
The Protestant world also has contributed to withdrawal from the world. Amish and various Old Order Mennonites have formed enclaves since Menno Simons left the Catholic priesthood and gave his name to the Anabaptist movement, circa 1526 AD. These group today continue the tradition of not using most technology invented since the 1500’s. In North America gathered communities generally live an insular rural life style removed from “the world” as their understanding of God’s desire for their lives. They have splintered into many small separate church bodies which have differing understandings as to precise technology usage.
There was speculation with the election of Benedict XVI to the papacy that he would choose to create Catholic communities which would limit contact with the world, ignore secular culture, and keep the pure message of the Church from being diminished. This was a successful strategy implemented during the Middle Ages in Europe. Instead, as a means of keeping pure and vibrant Catholic life, theology, and tradition, he has chosen to directly engage those secular trends which attract followers. He expects that the exercise of this corpus of Catholic life will keep it sharp and clear in the face of secular and spiritual challenges. This choice is not universally accepted within the church hierarchy . The success of his initiatives remain to be seen.
It is not clear, nor is it evenly applied, the actions within Orthodoxy. In general, any change from tradition is extremely slow. This has been a two edged sword. Those attracted to the visible life style and values within Orthodoxy become Orthodox, while those within Orthodoxy who feel a change (to whatever) is necessary often finally leave Orthodoxy. Historically, Orthodox growth has come primarily from internal birth rates.
Mainline Protestants generally have adopted relativism and acceptance of current societal “truths”. This has led to much change of historic values and practices in favor of whatever is currently popular in present culture, and subject to change as societal norms and fads change.
Evangelicals have both chosen to stand against relativism and lack of absolutes (the more common choice) and adapt this posture as their norm. A smaller body of various Evangelicals have adopted some accommodation to relativism and “relevance” as necessary tools for living and evangelizing within the world. One problem within Evangelicalism is that there is no agreement as to just what is Godly behavior and action, and necessary for Christian life.
It has always been a challenge to balance evangelism with spiritual growth. Both are the work of every Christian tradition. Often, choices which later prove to be heresy are begun with the best of intentions as individuals and groups seek to live out Christian imperatives.
Moderation, seeking to balance the best of absolutes with the best from relativism and new theological understandings, has failed as a valid choice in living in current societal values. It has been an especially tempting choice, however, for many intellectuals and also for those who want to be “relevant”.
Pope Benedict XVI has, throughout his priesthood, practiced and believed that theology is a living and vital expression of Christian life. To this end he has practiced and encouraged in others, theological exploration and understandings. This has been within the context of prior accepted Catholic theology. Similar positions are found in Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Evangelicalism.
We may not always agree within the larger Christian body. Recently, those charged with exploring Christian unity have been focusing on what absolutes we agree upon, rather than our disagreements. This is a most hopeful sign for unity. It is not diluting absolute truth, but beginning with that which is accepted, and progressing from there. No significant Christian body holds that it has the only entirely true understanding of God’s plan. This is true from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, to Evangelicalism. Praise God.