Nov 26 - Countercultural?


Colossians 3:11-15

November 26, 2017



Colossians 3:11-15

November 26th, 2017


Today I want us to think a bit about our society and culture, and I first want us to think about something that we might think ended at the end of the civil war in the US, the whole issue of slavery. 


Do you realize that today, in the 21st century there are way more slaves in the world than prior to the civil war?[1]


This area includes 4 of the 5 countries mentioned: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China.

It would also include countries in South-East Asia, like Cambodia, Myanmar and North Korea. 


This region also has the largest proportion of child trafficking in the world.  Speaking of trafficking …


A huge part of modern day slavery has to do with trafficking women and girls for the sex trade (about 80% of all human trafficking cases). 


This is a $ 32 billion industry worldwide, about the same as the drug trafficking industry worldwide.


Nearly 3 million slaves are in

the Middle East - in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar; 

and in North Africa, in places such as Libya.


Slaves in Eurasia number over 2 million. 


This would include Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the country where 11,800 women are kidnapped each year to be forced into marriage.


Slaves in Europe number over 1.2 million,


… most of which (84 %) are trafficked for sexual exploitation.


Hasn’t appreciatively changed since 4 years ago.  The darker red a country is, the worse is the prevalence of slavery. 


If you think about it, our world is pretty messed up.  Why do you think slavery is so prevalent in the world today?  MONEY. 


The same was true in biblical days, slavery was an accepted part of society, a way for the very wealthy to get even wealthier.  Social distinctions at the time of Jesus and the apostle Paul were pronounced. 


In the Greco-Roman culture of that day, the lowest possible position was to be a slave. 


Slaves were mostly captives of war and subsequently sold at slave markets. 


They could be slaves doing chores around the house, farm labourers, road constructors, gladiators, or, if educated, private tutors for the rich, physicians or those who managed the household of their owners. 


It is estimated that when Rome conquered the Mediterranean region, about 40% of the population ended up as slaves.  They were considered the property of their owners who could basically treat them any way they liked. 


Roman Citizens: 

·        Senators (power) - could make decisions,

·        Patricians (nobility) - could vote,

·        Plebs (common) - could not vote


·        Foreigners

·        Freedmen (former slaves who were freed by their owners)

·        Slaves - the property of others and you could do with them whatever you wished, even killing them, without repercussion


The senators and patricians were a minority of wealthy Romans, who owned lands and slaves. 


The majority of Roman citizens were called Plebeians – many of them lived in poverty because the rich simply used the slaves to do work for them instead of employing someone else. 


Free male Roman citizens of all stripes had certain rights, including the right to a fair trial. 


Whatever the social status of your parents, it would pass almost always be passed down to you.


·        If your parents were slaves, you became the property of their owner.  Only if your owner released you from slavery could you become a freedman. 


·        If your parents were non-citizens, neither would you be.  Only if you did some outstanding service to the Roman empire could you potentially become a Roman citizen.


·        If your parents were plebeians, so would you be, unless you somehow became incredibly wealthy and move up to become a patrician. 


·        You couldn’t marry outside of your social status.  A Patrician simply couldn’t marry a Plebeian, and a citizen would never marry a non-citizen.


By the way, women did not really have any rights either.  They couldn’t vote.  They had no part in public life or politics. 


This was the world in which Paul proclaimed everyone on the same level before God – regardless of citizenship, wealth, race, education, social status, gender, heritage, … because none of that matters to God.  Every person is equal before God. 


With God there is no favouritism.         Romans 2:11[2]


There is no longer Jew or non-Jew (lit. Greek), there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.        Galatians 3:28


Because God does not show favouritism, the distinctions between people based on ethnicity, gender, and social status is breaking down.  Paul repeats this concept in his letter to the Colossians:


Here there is no non-Jew (lit. Greek) or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian[3], Scythian,[4] slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.          Colossians 3:11


Plato and Aristotle considered Greeks so innately superior to barbarians that they justified slavery so long as the slave is a barbarian and the slave owner is Greek.


I don’t think we can fully comprehend just how culturally subversive the belief in the equality was in that day and age.  This was one of the reasons why Christians were seen to be a threat to the entire social order and why they were disliked and persecuted.  These were hinted at or spelled out directly by the Roman historians of that day.


The Roman historian Suetonius (c. 69 - 122 AD), wrote a famous book on the lives of 12 Roman emperors (from Julius Ceasar to the emperor Domitian).  In it he recounts the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in AD 49 by the Roman Emperor Claudius (reigned 41 - 54 AD) because they were “causing disturbances at the instigation of Christ.[5] 


Suetonius also applauded Nero’s campaign of killing Christians in AD 64 because he believed Christians to hold to a subversive (mischievous)[6] superstition.


(During Nero’s reign) Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.                              Suetonius


Around the same time, the Roman historian Tacitus (58 - 120 AD) also writes in favour of Nero’s campaign. 


Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace ... a most mischievous superstition ... (Then) an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of setting fire to the city, as of the charge of hatred against mankind.


Tacitus goes on to decry the cruelty with which Nero tortured and killed Christians. 


The Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who had Christians tortured and killed, wrote in AD 112 to the emperor Trajan that Christians were addicted to an evil and perverse/depraved (or: extravagant/excessive) superstition and he bemoans the fact that Christianity is spreading so quickly.[7]


So why is it that Christianity is almost always described as a mischievous, pernicious, evil, excessive superstition?


We find part of that answer in the writings of the second century Roman satirist, Lucian (c. 125 - 185 AD), who describes Christians as naïve fools, easily duped and taken advantage of by religious hucksters.  Lucian goes on to add:


Furthermore, their first lawgiver [i.e., Jesus] persuaded them that after their conversion they are all brothers of one another.  So they deny the gods of Greece and worship that crucified sage and live under his laws. 

                                    Lucian (The Passing of Pelegrinus)


The Romans considered Christians worthy of torture and death because they messed with their belief system - they refuse to worship the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon or take part in Emperor worship. 


But just as importantly, they also messed with the accepted social structures.  They questioned the ingrained belief that certain people simply were more important and worth more than others. 


Many 1st century Christians were those who had little or no standing in their society.  They were slaves, women, plebeians.  Not all, of course, but a majority.  Paul’s teaching on the equality of all people in God’s eyes may be one of the reasons why they became Christians.   


As a result of his view on equality in God’s eyes, the apostle Paul gives this advice to Christians:


If you were enslaved when you became a Christian?  Don’t let it worry about it.  However, if you can gain your freedom, make sure to do so.  For the slave who is called in the Lord is a free man of the Lord.  Likewise, if you were free when you became a Christian, you are a slave of Christ.  You were bought with a price, so do not become slaves of men.                 1 Corinthians 7:21-23


Now is some way modern Western Society has become a lot more egalitarian than the ancient world.  However, what has stayed the same is that our society still categorize people


It divides people into those who are “in”, those who are successful, those who are winners, who are cool, those who are important, those who are popular ...


... and those who are “out”, who are poor, who are losers, who are lame, who are unimportant, who are unpopular


As long as I can remember, there were terms that would pigeon hole people into some kind of category.     


We may no longer have the obvious class distinctions of Greco-Roman society, but we have fallen victim to a culture that venerates youth and beauty and wealth.


It’s like the woman who is really excited when her friends told her she’s pregnant because she’s her skinniest friend. 


We may no longer have emperor worship, but we live in a society that worships celebrities.


Which is why celebrities get paid huge amounts of money.  And which is the reason why many look down on low wage earners, or those who are not beautiful, or who are not popular.


Oh, we may have come miles from the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s day, but whether we like it or not, it seems that as humans we have the innate desire to compare ourselves with others, classifying them and us – valuing some and devaluating others. 


Back in the first century society followers of Christ were considered counter-cultural revolutionaries.  Not because they tried to take up arms, or legislate morality, or subvert the government, or judge non-Christians who behaved differently from themselves.  Not at all. 


It was because they had crowned Jesus the Messiah, the Saviour, God’s Son.  And as a result, it changed the way they thought about things, their values and actions.


They realized that some of the values of their society simply were not compatible with their faith.  They found God and He had touched their hearts and their conscience.   


They no longer allowed the value of a person to be determined by his or her race, social status or gender.  They called themselves brothers and sisters in Christ no matter what socio-economic or ethnic divides there may have been.  They made sure that those among them who had genuine need, were looked after.  And in that day, that was profoundly counter-cultural.


But just like us, they weren’t perfect.  They slipped up.  James speaks of a time when someone who is obviously rich was treated with deference while someone who was obviously poor was treated with little respect.


My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  … have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.       James 2:1-4,8-9


Even the apostle Peter needed a reminder when he was in Antioch and stopped having meals with Gentile Christians when Jewish Christians from Jerusalem arrived (Galatians 2:11-13).


We have to move and live and exist knee-deep in the muck and misery and marvel that is this world.  And I think we need to be honest with ourselves about how much our culture and its values, as twisted as they are at times, influences our thinking, our choices, and how we look at ourselves and others.


How much stuff do we allow into our homes and into our minds and into the minds of our children that

will deaden our conscience, subvert the work of the Holy Spirit, make us set wrong priorities, and lessen our ability to discern right from wrong.


How much have we bought into the values of our society when it comes to who is important and who isn’t?  How much does it determine what we spend our time and energy on? 


Let me read you a bit from a book[8] where Satan is at a convention for demons, telling them how to side-line Christians: 


Redefine success for them.  It’s not about people or faithfulness anymore.  Make them equate success with stuff. ... Convince them that they need bigger houses and more cars.  Keep the husbands and wives working longer hours to get out of debt and rarely let them see their kids. ... Create so much noise that they can’t hear the still, small voice of God.  ... Get them to take excessive vacations and return broke.  Keep them away from nature.  Let them find rest in amusement parks, sporting events, and movies, and could someone increase the cussing in Hollywood.  ... Speed up the world! ... Don’t give those Christians time to think.  Or rest.  Make them too tired to walk with God, too weary to lift a hand to help others.  ... Let them sacrifice their health and their family and their God on the altar of busyness. 


The author writes about his own quest for success that made him miss times of quiet reflection, deep friendships, and joy.  After all, busyness is the sign of a successful life.  Only those who run hard get ahead, those who are the first one in the office and the last one to go home.  Many of us are proud of our out-of-control schedules.  And everyone is stressed out and tired, exhausted even.  Panic, anxiety, worry set in. 


So what is the creed of our world?  It is the quest for more.


More money brings success.  Success leads to more prestige, more recognition and more influence.  Better yet, financial success brings more security, more satisfaction, more freedom to do what we want, more love, and more peace. Ultimately, it is THE one necessary thing to give our lives meaning, make us more fulfilled, and thus bring us more happiness. 


There is nothing wrong with money or success per se.  However, when we sacrifice our health, our families, other human beings, our environment, our ethics, or even our God on the altar of money and success, then we are committing nothing less than idol worship - a rejection of God’s will for our lives.


It’s like the couple where the woman gives her husband the silent treatment for a whole week because he spends so much time at the office.  At the end of the week the husband declared, “Hey, we’re getting along pretty great lately!


If I look at myself honestly, I have a hard time answering this question.  In fact, I have a hard time discerning at times in what ways God wants me to be countercultural. 


I don’t know whether or not getting rid of the TV or the computer or the car or my cell phone will make the kind of profound difference that I would like to see. 


Would entering a monastery or living in a micro-home change me?  Maybe it will – simply by freeing me up to do more important stuff or concentrating more on my interpersonal relationships or my relationship with God. 


As I thought about it, I realized that fundamentally, more than anything else, what made first century believers different from the rest of their society was the way that they treated each other.


You have to understand that back then it was a dog-eat-dog world in ways that would seem incomprehensible to us in the West.  The rich would simply watched the poor die of starvation right in front of them.  The rich and powerful would simply take advantage of the powerless.  They could indulge in the worst kind of excesses and no one could say anything against it.  As cultured and sophisticated as the Roman elite thought of themselves, theirs was a mean, brutal, cruel and corrupt society.


In such a cultural setting, how should Christians act?  The apostle Paul actually tells us right after he makes the point about everyone being equal in Christ:


Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12


Notice the combination of one’s view of oneself (recognizing that I am a person of great worth) - chosen, and dearly loved, with one’s view of others (recognizing that they are of great worth) - leading to being humble, gentle, patient toward them), and with one’s response to others (compassion, kindness). 


In a world where cruelty is the norm, having a kind heart was likely not easy or natural - it may even have been fraught with danger.  Where your experience tells you to be hard and uncaring and selfish, it’s a miracle not to become that way.  In a society that was really indifferent to suffering and hardship, it would be countercultural to actually care - enough to actually do something to help.


Paul goes on ...


Bear up with one another.  If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.  Even as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 

                                                                        Colossians 3:13


This is another component of how Christians should act toward others ... with patience and with forgiveness.  That’s not to say that we can’t get hurt or that we should always allow ourselves to be at the mercy of the whims or wishes of others.  It just means that we move on, we don’t allow our anger and resentment to continue to punish ourselves


Paul goes on.


And above all of this, put on love, which binds together and can bring harmony.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … to this you were called as one body.  And be thankful.                                                            Colossians 3:14-15


This is what set apart the followers of Christ.  Some of them were slaves who had to work 7 days a week and were at the beck and call of their masters.  Yet somehow they still found the time to meet together with other believers and care for each other. 


Some of them were slave owners, but they stopped the customary way of treating their slaves brutally and unthinkingly (Eph 6:9).  Instead they were told to demonstrate fairness and justice to them as fellow believers (Col 4:1), because, as Paul writes to them, “you know you both have the same Master in heaven and with him there is no partiality” (Eph. 6:9; cf. Col 4:1). 


To Philemon Paul writes, that he should receive his slave Onesimus, “as more than a slave, as a beloved brother … both in the body and in the Lord” (Philem 16). 


The first-century believers were known as those who called each other brother and sister, as those who considered everyone an equal footing.  No one was to be elevated or debased.  Everyone could give and receive care and compassion. 


So what keeps us from doing likewise?  Being busy?  Feeling overwhelmed?  Drained?  Wanting to just hide away?  Working too hard at being successful?  Becoming more selfish and self-centered?  Prayerlessness? 


I wonder sometimes, if we are like the walking wounded, staggering through life, staggering past each other, too concerned with getting ahead, with climbing the corporate or social ladder, with paying the bills, or making sure our kids have everything, or spending or traveling, or being consumed with social networking, emotionally isolated or stressed or anxious... that most of the time we simply don’t notice, or don’t care, anymore.  


When I was a kid I had real friends and we played outside together.  I had no virtual friends who I meet mostly on-line.  We had more family get-togethers.  We spent more time visiting with the neighbours.  We didn’t work such long hours.  People greeted each other on the street. 


Today, I’d rather drive to the store than walk next door and ask my neighbour for some sugar.  I usually NEVER just drop in on anyone without a personal invitation. 


Yes we have email and cell phones, Facebook and Skype and WhatsApp and Twitter and Flickr and Linked-in and Pintrest and Reddit and Instagram and YouTube. 


[Like the man who goes to the doctor complaining that he’s addicted to Twitter, and the doctor replied, “Sorry, I don’t follow you.”.]


Yet despite all of that, or maybe because of it, we seem to increasingly cloister ourselves in our own homes and in front of our TV’s and computer screens.  We’re so tired and overburdened, that going out in the evening to meet with other believers at times seems more of a chore than a joy.


Sometimes when I come home at night, I just want to close the front door, unplug the phone, shut off the cell phone, and not think about the rest of the world. 


But I don’t think that God wants it to be that way ... or that it has to be that way.  But that means that we need to do the hard work of rethinking. 


We need to rethink our priorities, our schedules, our lifestyles, our spending, the way we think about ourselves, about others, about success, about life.  We need to rethink because, whether we realize it or not, we reflect the values of our culture and society more than we would like


We are counter-cultural when, on any given Sunday service, there isn’t one person after church that stands alone somewhere in the lobby or coffee room who isn’t approached by someone.  Just walking across the room, saying Hi, asking a question is countercultural. 


We are countercultural when we ask the question, “How are you doing …. Really?”, and we’re serious about it – we really want to know.  We are countercultural when we share with our brothers and sisters how we ARE doing – honestly. 


That doesn’t mean we have to wear our hearts on our sleeves or be professional martyrs who constantly complain about how hard we have it.  But when life is especially challenging we give others the privilege of caring and praying for us.


So I ask myself, how and when should my faith be countercultural – because if it isn’t – if I live my life just like everyone else, if I buy into all of the cultural values and norms of my day, if I’m fascinated by celebrity or notoriety, if I’m stuck living my life in front of the TV, if I define beauty simply by externals, if I stop using my brain to discern the will of God, if I don’t reject some of the rubbish that is part of the society I live in, if I care mostly about myself, if all I desire is more money or more possessions, if I simply don’t care that there are 48.5 million slaves in the world today, … there is absolutely nothing that sets me apart, that makes me different, nothing that is impacted by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Or as Jesus put it, “I have gained the whole world and lost my soul in the process.”


Please, please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not pointing the finger.  I’m not saying that you or I are bad people because we’re influenced by the culture we live in.  I’m not saying that we have to be revolutionaries.  I’m not saying that we’ve necessarily missed the boat when it comes to living the Christian life. 


All I’m saying is that you and I, we need to pray more, think more, be more discerning, and more intentional about the kind of people we really want to be.  And we have to be those who make changes in our lives and attitudes if necessary. 


For some of us that may mean simply tweaking some small thing in our lives.  For some of us, it may mean that there are some major things we need to stop channelling our time and energy into so that we have the ability to actually care and love each other.    


Look, life isn’t easy for any one of us.  Purposefully being conscious about how we live our lives is so much harder than simply going with the flow.  Questioning and at times rejecting the cultural norms or the standards of society doesn’t come naturally.  Consciously making the time to listen to or help a fellow believer or someone in need can be challenging.  But what is the alternative?






What is success?

What gives purpose and meaning?



[1] About 12.5 million slaves were transported to the Americas between 1500 and 1866, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean.  About 10.7 survived the trip.   

[2] Lit. For with God not is respect-of-persons (prosopole(m)psia).  The idea is that God does not judge and treat people (show partiality) based on appearance or status. 

[3] A generic term for people who lived to the north of the Greek and Roman civilizations and therefore do not speak Greek or Latin.  They were considered uncivilized, uneducated, and backwards by the Greeks and Romans

[4] Scythians were barbarians living north of the Black Sea, one of the first to use mounted warfare.

[5] Lat. Cresto (ablative of Chrestus) - some argue that this is not in reference to Jesus. 

[6] Lat. maleficus (wicked, vicious, harmful, criminal, magical - in a negative way, i.e., black magic)

[7] Online at

[8] Phil Callaway, Who Put My Life on Fast-Forward: How to Slow Down and Start Living Again (Harvest House: Eugene, Or., 2002