Culture’s Corrosive Potential
“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so they could not find the door. The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry of the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”
So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.
From the Old Testament, we have selected the story about Lot to consider the corrosive power of culture and what that means to the church today. We will develop our thoughts by also going to the New Testaments to see the consistent perspective of the Scriptures on this theme. The key question we must answer is: To what extent will we allow our secular culture to control our conduct? This will help us evaluate the church’s response to cultural coercion. Remember Jesus’ words to His heavenly Father,
“ ‘I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.’ ” (John 18:14)
We begin the story of Lot by looking at how he came to reside in Sodom. He grew up in a town identified as Ur of the Chaldeans, hundreds of miles away (Genesis 11:27, 28). Bible readers at once will recognize a connection with Abraham. Lot was the son of Haran, one of Abraham’s brothers. Haran died at Ur. So when Abraham leaves Ur, Terah (Abraham’s father) takes Lot along, probably acting as his guardian (Genesis 11:31). After Terah dies, Abraham resumes his journey to the land of Canaan, taking his nephew Lot with him (Genesis 12:4, 5).
After some years in Canaan, Abraham “had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2) Lot is also prospering under the care and protection of his uncle. At the same time, Lot is being mentored in the customs and principles of the Patriarch. Yet, as families often discover, living so close together can create tensions. Not only were they sharing the same grazing area for their herds, they were contending with other groups of people in the area for the same pasture (Genesis 13:1-7). Quarreling breaks out.
To avoid open conflict with his nephew, Abraham decides to put some distance between the two of them. He offers Lot the first choice of grazing rights: “ ‘If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right’ ” (Genesis 13:9). While making such a generous offer is not unusual for Abraham, Lot’s acceptance is unusual. It was not the custom for a younger man to have first choice over an elder. Not only was Lot younger, but Abraham had been his protector and provider for much of his life. The obvious economic advantage of the green, well-watered plain along the Jordan River motivated Lot’s hasty decision (Genesis 13:10, 11). It was a choice based only on what Lot thought was good for himself.
Lot Enters Sodom to Make Money
Given Lot’s experience with Abraham (including his rescue by Abraham recounted in Genesis 14) and Sodom’s well-known reputation, Lot’s move into Sodom is difficult to understand. We read that, “the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.”(Genesis 13:13) What was Lot’s action? “Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.” (Genesis 13:12) He placed himself and his family into a situation that is to have an appalling moral cost for them all.
Right away, Lot makes headway into the commercial life and political structure of the city. In the opening verse of Genesis 19, we read that Lot was “sitting in the gateway of the city.” That was a position and place of honor. He was not just a resident of Sodom. He was formally associated with the “town fathers” and had become one of them. His financial success apparently ratified him as a leader. He had political connections.
No matter what else Lot may have accomplished, his activities in the city, participating in city matters had no positive influence whatever on the morality of its citizens. The men of the city, as did his future sons-in-law, ridiculed and laughed at his late display of conscience. They were very surprised when he spoke out against their perversion. If righteous living was what Lot was trying to promote, he failed decisively.
We might reason that Lot just had a tough assignment trying to reach the people of Sodom. But as we read the Old Testament, many prophets received far rougher treatment than did Lot. Elijah was chased from one end of Israel to the other (I Kings 19). Jeremiah was imprisoned and tortured. (Jeremiah 38).
In the New Testament, religious and political leaders often persecuted Jesus’ disciples. Jesus told them what to do whenever their message was rejected. He said they were to“shake off the dust of that city from their feet.” Do not stick around! Leave! He added, on the day of judgment Sodom and Gomorrah will receive a lighter sentence (Matthew 10:14-16).
Lot evidently did not influence the pagan culture of Sodom. Even Abraham finally realized that whatever Lot’s efforts were, they did not result in changing the character of the city. When God reveals to Abraham that He is about to destroy Sodom because of the wickedness of the people, he bargains with the Lord (Genesis 18:16-21). Abraham obtains God’s promise to save the city from destruction if at least ten righteous people were there (Genesis 18:32). Perhaps he thought that Lot had influenced a few people. They could not be found.
But what about the culture of Sodom and its influence? Let’s look at its effect on Lot.
Lot Buys Into the Culture of Sodom
When Lot moved into Sodom as a taker, he was buying into the city’s secular culture. We use the term, buying into because Lot had to make some choices about his own conduct and character when he arrived. Earlier, we saw how Lot gradually edges into the city. He first moves to the fringes of the city—coming under its influence. Although knowing the moral condition and the repulsive reputation of the residents (Genesis 18:20, 21), he ignores the danger to himself and his family. The enticement of financial gain is too great. He succumbs to its attraction like a moth circling closer and closer to the flame of a candle. Now, it is too late. The corrupt culture has captured and enslaved him and his family.
Lot had arrived in Sodom seeking success in business. The potential for increasing his wealth attracted him. However, he soon discovered that to “get along” he had to “go along.” If he were to prosper, he could not offend the political or moral structures of the city. He joined whatever associations were necessary to reach his financial goal. He sat at the city gate. Yet, in the end he lost everything that he had come to find.
The city of Sodom had made Lot one of its true citizens. That could not have happened if Lot had not first entered the corrupt culture, remaining silent to the truth of its condition. To participate in the affairs of the city, he accepted not only the financial advantages but also the undermining of his own moral character.
Lot Escapes with Nothing
We have discovered that Lot did not attempt to correct or change the perverse culture of Sodom. That culture, however, had a horrible impact on Lot and his family that was to last for generations. Until the very end, Lot was unwilling to recognize the true nature of Sodom’s culture and the power it had over him and his family. What were the consequences? What did this culture secure for him? We should include these:
* He lost his wealth (Genesis 19:17, 18)
* He lost his home (Genesis 19:23-25)
* He lost his family (Genesis 19:23-26; 31-36)
* He lost his reputation (Genesis 19:30)
* He lost his identity (Genesis 19:37-38).
Lot moved into Sodom and its pagan influence to further his own ambitions. Everything he thought he would get, everything he owned he lost in a violent hailstorm of sulfuric fire. His wife and daughters did not respect him or regard his values. He ended up living in a cave where the values of Sodom are displayed in the actions of his daughters. His descendants would prove to become a frequent snare to the spiritual life of Israel, God’s chosen people (Numbers 25:1-3; II Kings 3; I Kings 11:7, 8, 31-33; Psalm 83:4-8).
The corrosive culture of Sodom invaded and infected and invalidated everything for which Lot should have stood. He was unable to gain a single adherent to righteous living. The two angelic visitors to his house implored him to identify anyone“who belonged to him” so they could warn them. Outside his immediate family, there were none.
The Contrast Between Abraham and Lot
Observing Abraham’s attitude to the same enticement that ruined his nephew is worthwhile. Some years before the destruction of Sodom, the king of Sodom had gone to war against some neighboring kings and was defeated (Genesis 14:8-12). Lot, as a citizen of Sodom, was taken captive. They seized his family and his possessions. On hearing this, Abraham puts together a fighting force and rescues Lot and the others.
After the victory, Sodom’s king offers Abraham the spoils of the conflict. Notice Abraham’s reply:
“ ‘I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or a thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” ’ ”
And God’s perspective?
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’. ”
Lot was looking to Sodom. Abraham was looking to God. “For he (Abraham) was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). Lot chose the city with the finances; Abraham waited for the city with the foundations. Lot was relying on a corrupt culture; Abraham’s faith was in the Creator God (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19).
How can this story possibly have any connection to the secular culture and church of today? Are we really in danger of being overtaken by the kind of culture represented by Sodom? To get some answers, we need to look beyond the specific acts and identify the underlying principles driving Lot’s actions.
The Corrosion of Lot’s Character
We can well imagine that Lot, on first entering Sodom, never thought that one day he would be choosing between turning over two strangers or his two daughters to be ravished by the men of Sodom (Genesis 19:4-8). The seduction of Lot by the corrupt culture of Sodom took place under the same conditions that characterize our American culture.
When society gets rotten, when crime becomes violent, when perversity is protected, a person does not have to be too good to look good. In other words, mediocre can seem good when measured by the standards of a corrupt culture. Morality is reduced to a comparison of individual preferences. It’s all relative.
The compromises that Lot made over the years of residence in this evil city still left him in pretty good shape, relatively speaking. Every step toward the core of corruption taken by the people of Sodom made Lot’s position appear that much better. The changes going on in his own character did not seem so bad by comparison. “Managed compromise” kept Lot from looking too bad while permitting him to reach his real goal of success by Sodom’s standards. What is the application?
As our own secular culture moves further away from the core of God’s requirements of holiness, the church can modify its standards and still look quite good by comparison. As a practical matter, we do not want to be too holy and appear weird or odd. Yet, no less than in Lot’s time, God’s measure of holiness is Himself. Measuring up to Him will result in looking odd in a pagan culture.
It is the church’s business to assault the forces of evil that abound in our world. When we do, we will be considered odd by some.
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
I Peter 2:9-12
As Jesus promised His disciples,
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Now, let’s look at a New Testament example.
The Lie that Shook the Church
During the early stages of the Jerusalem church, repentance from sin and generosity of giving were in open display among the followers of Jesus (Acts 4:32-35). Without compulsion, people were gladly giving of their possessions to others who were in need. Barnabas, a man who would someday become a leader in the church, “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37).
In this context comes a couple who want to receive formal credit and recognition for something they did not do. They, too, sold a piece of property.
“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
“Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’ When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.” Acts 5:1-6
Continuing in the account, we find that about three hours later, Sapphira (Ananias’ wife) comes in and restates the couple’s arrangement about the gift. She is also struck dead. Again we read, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).
Let’s examine how the actions of Ananias and Sapphira fit into their own worldly culture. What this New Testament church couple attempted was to get double credit for charitable giving without putting down all the money. The amount of money is unimportant. They believed that by announcing they had given “all” proceeds from the sale, they would get extra credit and recognition within the church. To give money is good; to give it all is special; to get public recognition for giving it all is best from the perspective of someone trying to gain “ego equity” from charitable giving.
Whose Standard: God’s or Culture’s?
In His teaching, Jesus discussed situations similar to this one involving Ananias. During His mountainside Sermon, Jesus warned of those who do “acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). He said there will be no reward for them from heaven. Another common practice of that day was to divert the money that should go to support one’s parents and include it as part of their own tithe. Since that money is now “devoted to God,” it released them from the law’s requirement to “honor your father and mother” by supporting them (Mark 7:9-13). Jesus said, “You nullify the word of God by your traditions.”
In these cases, the principle is God’s standard of honesty rather than what a secular culture will approve. As Peter publicly acknowledged, Ananias could have done whatever he wanted with the money from the sale. No one obligated him to give all or any of it. But in the attempt to make themselves look good to the church, Peter says they had “lied to God.” The sinning couple might have thought that by appearing fully committed to the church, their status in that community would rise. They did not consider their status before God.
As the church was entering its beginning stages, God wanted to show the requirement of absolute truthfulness for being God’s witness. God’s character makes this necessary. He will not condone untruths while we represent the truth.
“(Jesus) replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“ ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
To reinforce this, remember how the Apostle John identifies Jesus, the eternal Son of God, in the first few verses of his gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word . . . “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1, 14
Later in his writing, the Apostle John records how Jesus described Himself:
“ ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ ”(John 14:6). Jesus was not only “full grace and truth,” He is the perfect embodiment of truth: He is truth. During His trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, Jesus declared that He had come to “testify to the truth” (John 18:37).
After the crucifixion, the astonished disciples find out that Jesus is resurrected to be the Lord of the Church. A few days later, just before He ascended into heaven, He instructed them to be His witnesses to all peoples of the world. Then, some fifty days after His crucifixion, they received the promised gift of the Spirit of Truth.
“ ‘When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.’ ”
John 15:26 (See 16:13; 17:17)
On that glorious day of the coming of the Spirit of Truth to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-5) three thousand people were brought into the kingdom of God. Several days later, another group of several thousand joins the disciples. These people were certainly aware of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Most of them had probably seen and heard Jesus at some point during His three years of public teaching. It was a time of great harvest for the young church as many come to fully accept Him as “the way, the truth and the life.”
To summarize briefly, we read that Jesus had come to testify to the truth. Jesus was full of grace and truth. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth. The Spirit of Truth came from the Father to fulfill the promise Jesus made to His disciples. Truth that is shaded is not the truth. Truth that is half true is not the truth. The “untruth” in one area of our lives corrupts the value of what we say when we step in as witness to the truth.
So, how could the church possibly be the witness of Jesus if it participated in the dishonest means and methods employed by the secular culture of that day? The nature of God demands that the Church of the Firstborn must display His holy character. He is the Lord, the Head of the Church.
To permit the standards of any secular culture to creep into the church (for financial or any other reason) would have doomed the church right at its beginning. The church’s hold on truth would have been corrupted at the very center. His judgment on Ananias and Sapphira brought holy and appropriate fear into the body of disciples.
Again we ask, is there a connection between these two examples from the Bible and today’s church? Let’s see.
Sodom and Gomorrah, Ananias and Sapphira and the Church of Today
With Lot, the measurement and methods for his success were the same as that of the citizens of Sodom. He moved into the city to enjoy the product of success in a community that appreciated it. Wandering around with old Abraham, living in tents and looking for a city in the heavens was not his idea of a good time. It did not seem to matter too much to Lot that God’s anger blazed against the wickedness of Sodom. In comparison to the people of Sodom, Lot thought he looked very good. However, his “yardstick” of rightness was that of Sodom, not God’s. With God, right living is an absolute standard. His standard is not like a log floating in the ocean, moving with the currents but always managing to stay just above water level. “ Drifting along” with our worldly culture can never define standards for the church or the Christian.
It does not appear that Lot moved into Sodom for evangelistic purposes. He was going there to improve his financial status. For personal business interests, he was willing to overlook and condone the perversion that angered God (Genesis 19:9).
Remember how different Lot’s attitude was from that of his uncle, Abraham, in similar circumstances (Genesis 14:22-24). Abraham would not accept anything that would link his wealth to the city of Sodom. Lot did not have any such compulsion. He went to Sodom to improve his financial standing, not to improve the morality of the city. His stay in the city ultimately defined his true values. As time went on, the city’s corrupt culture replaced God’s standards for him.
Both Lot and Ananias were seeking something for themselves: Lot migrated into a pagan city to get it. Ananias and Sapphira reversed the process, moving into the new, emerging church of moral purity from a secular culture. They tried to drag in some of the culture’s corruption with them.
As we already noted, the hallmark of the Church of the Firstborn is truth. Its message is the absolute, eternal truth about God, humanity, sin, salvation, heaven, earth, today and eternity. What Ananias and Sapphira attempted to do in the church would not have been condemned by their friends outside the church. They just exaggerated a little to get credit for what did not belong to them. It was a practice acceptable to the secular culture. They lied about the price of a sale. In our language today, “No big deal.”
God’s judgment on them came as a shock to everyone, even within the church. The text reads, “Great fear seized whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11). The reason all were fearful is that what Ananias and Sapphira had done others might duplicate in similar ways.
Through this event, God said to the church: While certain conduct may be acceptable to everyone in a secular culture, it must not be brought into the church. Dishonesty in any form cannot be a character trait of the Church of the Firstborn. Jesus Christ, not the world’s morality, is leading the Church (I John 2:15).
Taking the example of Lot and Ananias together, we begin to understand what it means to have a relationship with God. On the one hand, relationship with a holy God means there will be a change in our own lives. The only “culture” God intends us to follow is the one created when we join in fellowship with Him. That heavenly culture transforms our own sinful nature characterized by self-centered motivation and conduct.
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
Upon entering into relationship with God, the center of our lives changes—He reigns.
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Under this kind of life management Lot could not have moved into Sodom without either causing trouble for himself or disrupting the sinful practices of his new neighbors. By comparison, we could say that the secular culture of Jerusalem around 35 AD was not as corrupt as that of Sodom during Lot’s time. Accordingly, Ananias and Sapphira were just trying to bring the church up to speed with the world. We can identify the conflict in Lot’s case easier than with Ananias’. With Ananias, it seemed like a minor lie that we might overlook in the big scheme of things.
Yet, this points out the problem of relying on secular culture at all. Using a legal metaphor, it becomes a “slippery slope” on which we gradually cascade down to the bottom. Before the absolute standard of God, both propositions (Lot’s and Ananias’) are equally wrong. Not only is God’s standard the only safe position for the church, it is the only acceptable one.
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ ”
I Peter 1:14, 15
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
I John 2:15
“. . . in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
In writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul says we need to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (see II Corinthians 10:3-6).
The two examples we have looked at have a single message: In the final analysis, secular culture has nothing to offer the church that is redemptive. Jesus said,
“I am the light of the world ” (John 8:12). Paul restated that truth to the Corinthian church when he said, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
II Corinthians 4:6
God, through Christ and the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit, has given us His perfect, eternal light. Secular culture cannot add to that light. It can only bring darkness. The source of God’s light to us is His unchanging character. What we see around us needs to be measured by His standards.