Christianity and Culture

Christianity and Culture: Kingdom Living

By David Naugle|Published Date: November 03, 2010

An Enduring Problem

From the beginning of the Church until the present, Christians of every stripe have wrestled with a most fundamental problem: how to relate to the world and its culture. How do believers act in and interact with the society which surrounds them, and of which they are a part? Of course, we are all familiar with the old adage that Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. But what does that really mean? Today it seems that many believers are of the world, but not in it. We are more like our surrounding culture than ever before, though we don’t realize it or think so. At the same time, in our pseudo-holiness, we withdraw from the world into the church and then proceed to contaminate it with our unconscious worldliness! Think about that for a while!

The problem of “Christ and culture” is created, at least in part, by New Testament warnings against worldliness, and by its simultaneous exhortation to have an impact upon the world for the gospel. Regarding warnings about worldliness, note these admonitions:

    • Rom. 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

    • 2 Cor. 6:14, 17 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? "Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate," says the Lord. "And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you.”

    • Col. 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

    • James 1:27 This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

    • 1 John 2:15 Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

Yet, the New Testament is replete with exhortations to engage culture

    • Matt. 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the earth. . . .You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

    • Matt. 28:19, 20 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Matt. teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

    • John 17:15, 16 "I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”

    • 2 Cor. 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ. . . .

    • Col. 4:5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.

Christ and Culture

All these texts put us in a dilemma: how to avoid spiritual contamination and moral impurity while at the same time fulfilling the mission Jesus has given to us. About fifty years ago, a theologian named H. Richard Niebuhr wrestled with questions likes these and examined how the Church historically has understood her relationship to culture. He presented his findings in an important book titled Christ and Culture (originally, the content of this book was presented as a lecture series at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1949). In this book, he discusses five basic ways Christians relate to culture. They are either (1) against culture, or (2) of culture, or (3) above culture, or (4) in tension with culture, or (5) transformers of culture. I will offer a succinct description of each position, and recommend one as the best alternative, especially in light of our study on developing a Biblical view of life.1

According to this perspective, Christians must live in opposition toward their culture.

Christ against Culture (Fundamentalism).

According to this perspective, Christians must live in opposition toward their culture. They must live by the standards of the Kingdom of God, quite apart from an involvement in the world. Believers have a choice: they can live in the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of the world, one or the other, but not both at the same time. A Christian must not and cannot "traffic" with the exceedingly sinful world without compromise and contamination. The Church is therefore a counterculture, a culture within culture, a culture that lives by Kingdom principles and values and whose true citizenship is in heaven. Any attachment to this world — its goals, knowledge, wealth, etc. — must be denied for the sake of Christ and the kingdom of God. So, when the question of Christ and culture is presented to this group, they choose Christ, not culture.

Christ of Culture (Liberal Protestantism).

This point of view is the opposite of the previous outlook. Christians in this camp assume a more liberal perspective in contrast to the radical conservatism of those who stand in opposition to culture. This group is at home in their relationship with Christ, but more so in their relationship to culture. There is no great tension between them. In fact, advocates of this school of thought view culture to some extent through the eyes of Christ. But they are also willing to submit their understanding of Christ to the values and attitudes of their culture. For them, both Christ and culture possess authority over their lives, and both are modified to fit as deemed necessary. Such believers are for the most part oriented to “this world,” yet they do not deny the world above. Still, culture tends to have the upper hand in thought and life for these believers. This viewpoint is characteristic of Protestant liberal Christianity. Theologian Karl Barth calls it, “Cultural Protestantism.” Yet there are representatives of this mindset in non-Protestant circles as well. In considering the Christ and culture issue, then, proponents of this perspective tend toward culture, not Christ.

Richard Niebuhr calls these two previous positions the “Church of the extreme” because they are over the top in either their fundamentalism or liberalism. The next three viewpoints he describes as the “Church of the center.” Adherents of these outlooks are more balanced in outlook, since they seek to relate both Christ and culture in meaningful ways.

Christ above Culture (Roman Catholicism).

For Christians in this group, the issue of Christ and culture is not an either/or decision, but is both/and. For them, there are two basic layers to human existence. First is the cultural layer, the natural life of human beings that includes various obligations to society—work, education, political life, the arts, and so on. But there is also the spiritual layer of life in Christ that transcends natural life in culture. Believers must be loyal to both realms, to both culture and Christ. Both must be taken very seriously. To choose Christ over culture as the first group does, or to choose culture over Christ as the second group does is wrong. The radical requirements of Christ and culture must be kept in the here and now. What is unique about this group is how Christ is set on top of culture. Christ enters into life from above with gifts like salvation and revelation which human reason and effort cannot attain on their own. Rather, they are bestowed from above and added on top of natural life: hence, Christ above culture. One can see how easy it would be for Christians in this camp to compartmentalize faith and seal it off from regular life.

Christ and Culture in Tension or Paradox (Lutheranism).

For believers who adhere to this model of relating Christ and culture, the matter is once again both/and, rather than either/or. Yet they relate these two domains in a different way than the immediately preceding group. There are two kingdoms existing side by side: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. Believers must recognize the role that both kingdoms play in life, and learn how to live obediently in both simultaneously. The Christian is forced to live in obedience to God and in obedience to the sinful structures of a created, but fallen world (ordinances of creation family, business, secular government, etc.). The doctrine of creation asserts the goodness of the world. The doctrine of the incarnation testifies that Christ assumed the created order and participated in it. In light of creation and incarnation, the doctrine of redemption entails that all of life has been redeemed potentially—already, but not yet. There is a tension between what is and what will be, and the Christian and the Church is caught up in that dilemma. In short, there are two realms of existence: one for the non-Christian and one for the Christian, but the Christian must live in both simultaneously, and this puts all believers in tension and in paradox. How to live in the world meaningfully as a Christian without succumbing to its perversions is the key issue in life.

Now it seems to me that this fifth and final position is the best.

Christ the Transformer of Culture (Calvinism).

According to this point of view, the various structures of this life can be restored in Christ. There is no withdrawal from culture as the first group recommends, but engagement. Christ is not accommodated to culture as the second group does, but culture is subordinated to Christ. Christ is not placed on top of culture as the third group recommends, but culture is rooted and grounded in Christ. Christ is not placed beside culture as the fourth school of thought advocates, but rather is located at its center. From that vantage point, He exerts His redemptive power through the agency of His Church. Consequently, no aspect of life is alien to the gospel or the kingdom of God. It belongs to Him and must be influenced by the gospel through the Church. This view assumes neither an optimistic or pessimistic position toward the world, but one that is realistic. It is neither triumphalistic nor defeatist, but trusts in God for the victories He provides. It recognizes the power of sin, and yet the greater power of God’s kingdom. Thus, its goal is to advance the redemptive rule of Christ in all areas of thought and life by the power of God. The Church as the community of Christians exists to glorify God on earth by carrying out the original purposes of God as specified in the creation decree or cultural mandate in the context of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Now it seems to me that this fifth and final position is the best. Indeed, it is the approach to culture that grows out of the theology of this series of lessons we have been studying for the past several months. Let me summarize it in this way:

1. God is the Creator of a very good world, one that He made by His Word, structured by His law, designed by His wisdom. It glorifies Him in every part. God intended human beings as His image and likeness to have dominion over the earth and to establish culture to His glory and human benefit.

2. The human race fell into sin, and that sin has corrupted the sum-total of created reality, and is perniciously expressed in all aspects of cultural life.

3. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and He seeks to restore creation and human culture through the redemptive efforts of the Spirit-empowered Church. Redemption means restoration, and this restoration has to do with the salvation of whole people, and the renewal of the whole of life and all creational and cultural structures.

4. The Christian hope is for the ultimate release of humanity and the earth from the bondage of sin into a new creation at the end of history. Meanwhile, the work of the Church is to be about the task of salvaging a sin wrecked creation.

Now we must point out that each of the positions on Christ and culture summarized above have a solid point to make. From the first school of thought, we learn that at times the Church must act prophetically and oppose the culture in its sin and wickedness. From the second point of view, we must realize that our culture has things that it can teach believers about Christ and the Bible. After all, all truth is God’s truth, regardless of who discovers it! From the third perspective, we recognize how important our natural lives in culture are and that this arrangement is the gift of God. From the fourth outlook, we see how hard it is to be both in the world and not of it, and that we find ourselves in a serious struggle to keep ourselves unspotted by the value systems of the age. The fifth and final perspective is able to absorb all these four strengths and yet it also takes them a step beyond to cultural transformation.

How Now Shall We Live?

Charles Colson has taken this matter of cultural transformation very seriously. He, along with Nancy Pearcey, wrote a recent worldview book titled How Now Shall We Live? with this goal of cultural change in mind. They explain their perspective on the restorative potential of the gospel in these words.

There is nothing romantic about this project of cultural transformation.

The lesson is clear: Christians are saved not only from something (sin) but also to something (Christ’s lordship over all of life). The Christian life begins with spiritual restoration, which God works through the preaching of his Word, prayer, the sacraments, worship, and the exercise of spiritual gifts within a local church. This is the indispensable beginning, for only the redeemed person is filled with God’s Spirit and can know and fulfill God’s plan. But then we are meant to proceed to the restoration of all God’s creation, which includes private and public virtue; individual and family life; education and community; work, politics, and law; science and medicine; literature, art, and music. This redemptive goal permeates everything we do, for there is no invisible dividing line between sacred and secular. We are to bring “all things” under the lordship of Christ, in the home and the school, in the workshop and the corporate boardroom, on the movie screen and the concert stage, in the city council and the legislative chamber.[2]

A difficult task, you say? Undoubtedly! The anti-God forces in our culture are mean and more than formidable. The spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places stand behind them and give them their power. There is nothing romantic about this project of cultural transformation. Nothing at all. It takes the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of the saints. But it can be done!

Here we can learn a lesson from an Old Testament story. Once upon a time, twelve spies were sent in to scope out the Promised Land to see what it was like and to check out the people who lived there. Ten of the spies returned with a bad report, saying that Israel would not be able to defeat the land’s occupants because they were just too strong and mighty. But Joshua and Caleb told a different story: “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). The reason for their confidence was this: God would do it! This is our hope as well. Don’t be tempted to despair. God will give us the victory!