You are on page 1of 11

CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURE

Introduction

At first glance the subject of culture may seem innocuous, but this is far from the
truth. One treads on very thin ice when addressing the subject of the relationship of
Christianity to culture. Culture is something in which we are immersed and
consequently we are rarely conscious of it. It is something akin to asking a fish
what it thinks about water, or a bird about the atmosphere. Culture is the
atmosphere in which we live without consciously thinking about it. Did you think
about why you drove on the right-hand side of the road on the way to church
instead of on the left as people of other countries do? Did you think about sitting
beside your wife as you entered the auditorium, instead of segregating men and
women as practiced in some churches in India? These examples may help you to
see that we dont think a great deal about cultureour own culture at least. We are
only aware of our cultural practices when we are confronted with opposing
customs of other cultures. Culture is assimilated, almost by osmosis, not by
instruction. Since cultural traditions are observed without consideration, we tend to
accept them without thinking of them.
Second, culture is often intertwined with strong feelings of right and wrong which
we have held as Christian convictions, rather than as personal or societal
preferences. The use of alcohol and tobacco, the enjoyment of the theater or of
television, and the issue of dancing are just a few issues often included in the list of
Christian donts. A study of the history of the church reveals that these particular
prohibitions have not characterized Christian values with any degree of
consistency. The reformers, to whom we appeal in matters of soteriology, had no
problem with smoking or drinking. It was only some years later that these were
considered sins and added to the list of Christian taboos. At times, even coffee and
tea were on the list of forbidden items for Christians.
Third, culture is not universal. We know that, of course, at least in principle. We
expect people from foreign countries to think, to act and to dress differently. Yet
we are not always willing to recognize different cultures, even within our church.
One significant contributing factor to the so-called generation gap is the
difference of culture which exists between these age groups. If you dont believe

Page | 1

me, listen to the music which turns on your children, as opposed to what you
enjoy.
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 dont 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.
Page | 2

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 .
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.
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.
Page | 3

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 societywork, 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
Page | 4

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
potentiallyalready, 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.
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 triumphalist nor defeatist, but trusts in God for the
victories He provides. It recognizes the power of sin, and yet the greater power of
Gods 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. 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
Page | 5

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 Gods 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.
CHRISTIANITY, CULTURE, AND THE CHURCH
It is absolutely essential for us as Christians to understand the relationship between
culture and Christianity. Let me suggest some of the ways culture affects
Christianity.
(1) Culture plays a crucial role in foreign missions. Western missions (by this I
mean the missionary endeavors of the churches in the United States) have often
been greatly hindered by the cultural blunders of the missionaries and their sending
agencies. Failing to distinguish between what is cultural and what is Christian,
missionaries have often attempted to transplant American Christianity to foreign
soil, rather than to take the gospel and allow it to develop within the indigenous
culture of the people. Christianity has often been characterized as paternalistic and
capitalistic. Churches are built in Western style, with Western monies. Those who
are converted dress as Westerners. All too often, native leaders are sent to the
United States to receive a Western education. Control of the missionaries and of
the newly planted churches stays in Western hands.
The missionary activity of the Apostle Paul was quite different. He was seldom
supported by funds from outside churches, but worked with his own hands,
Page | 6

demonstrating the proper Christian lifestyle and values (cf. Acts 20:33-35; 2 Thess.
3:6-15). Paul seldom stayed in any one place too long. He encouraged the
development of leadership among those converted, and he appointed those who
were qualified to serve as elders and deacons (or had one like Timothy do so, cf. 1
Tim. 3; Titus 1). The newly planted churches were not dependent upon outside
leadership or funds.
To the degree that we fail to comprehend the difference between our Christianity
and our culture, we shackle the gospel.
(2) Culture plays a vital role in evangelism. Paul told the Corinthian saints that
he carefully considered the impact of his culture on the preaching of the gospel,
changing his culture in any way that was biblical to remove unnecessary barriers to
the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Fundamental Christians have sought to protect
themselves from the world by creating rigid rules which are often the basis for
alienating our unsaved neighbors. We have come to think of spiritual purity in
terms of physical separation, and so we avoid many of the places where the
unsaved may be.
Now please dont misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we frequent porno
shops, X-rated movies, and massage parlors in the name of evangelism. I am
saying that we have become so preoccupied with church activities that we have no
time and no interest in those things which are of interest to our neighbors. If we are
going to win men and women to Christ, we must, like Paul, become much more
sensitive to the negative or positive impact of culture on the preaching of the
gospel. Those elements of our culture which are expendable, we should gladly give
up in order to, by all means, save some. We have become so alienated from the
world in which we live that we can hardly relate to the lost in a way which
provides an occasion to share our faith in a winsome fashion.
(3) Culture plays a vital role in the worship of the church. Never before has the
church in America seen such a dramatic shift in the cultures represented in the
congregation. The 1960s brought about a new generation, one which reacted
strongly to the values and the lifestyle (the culture) of their parents. The hippies,
the Jesus people, and a host of other reactionary movements came into existence.
While the revolutionary aspects have passed, many of the younger generation of
Christians have come out of this tradition, or at least have come to adopt a part of
this counter-culture. This is most evident in the area of music. Instead of the
Page | 7

traditional hymns, accompanied by the traditional instruments, the piano and the
organ, there is a new kind of music, often accompanied by guitars. The older
generation) tends to find the new music irreverent, while the younger generation
finds the older musical forms uninspiring. The unity of the church, especially in its
worship, has been endangered. Recognition of these cultural differences and
responding to them in a biblical way has brought about growth for the church.

As discovered in the Book of Acts, it is possible for people of various cultures to


be Christians. However, these differences in culture can also threaten the unity of
the church. In order to guard against such a breech in fellowship, Christians of
each culture must be sensitive to those things which are offensive to Christians of a
different culture and must seek to set these things aside, making cultural
concessions for the sake of unity and harmony. Our church, like the one described
above, must learn to live and to worship together, respecting the cultural
differences of others in the body of Christ.
(4) The church is often culture-bound, thus hindering its ministry. The church
most often seems to be on the lagging edge of culture, rather than on the leading
edge. One of the reasons why the church fails to minister creatively, and the
parachurch groups do so, is because the church is plagued with cultural paralysis.
Tillapaugh in his book, The Church Unleashed, tells how the Baptist and
Methodist denominations grew rapidly in the 19th century by responding to the
changes in society. As the population moved west, there were not enough trained
ministers to plant and pastor the churches which were required. The Baptists
responded creatively by supplying farmer-preachers while the Methodists had
their circuit riders.23 The result was the rapid growth of these churches, due to
their responsiveness to the changes in their culture.
The church of today is so culture-bound it finds change difficult and agonizing if
possible at all. The classic symptom of this cultural rigidity is the defense, But
weve always done it that way before. The church needs to be able to detect
changes in the culture about it and to respond creatively, yet biblically to them.
Creativity in ministry is, in part, due to a proper understanding of culture and its
relationship to the gospel.

Page | 8

(5) Satans most effective attacks upon the church may come through culture.
Strangely, the Christian seems to look for Satan to attack the church in very direct
and frontal ways, rather than through his more subtle (and effective) means. For
example, the current conspiracy about which the church is being warned is that
of secular humanism. Our attention has thus been focused on such issues as the
teaching of evolution and prayer in schools. In the meantime, Satan is at work
undermining our culture. Since our culture is something of which Christians are
rarely conscious, Satans devices are not even detected.
Let me illustrate what I mean. For a long time the American culture was largely
Christian in its values. For example, in the past society did not look favorably upon
divorce or homosexuality, and so few practiced these evils, at least in a very open
way. Unbelievers considered themselves Christians because they practiced
Christian values. Christians prided themselves for practicing Christian values, too.
In truth, many unbelievers and Christians were only conforming to the mores of
their societythey conformed to a culture which was outwardly, at least,
Christian. Satan used the moral culture as a means of deceiving many to consider
themselves Christian, when they were only conformists.
Saturated by this atmosphere, Christians did not remain married or heterosexual
because of any commitment to Christian principles, but out of conformity to
cultures values. Nonchristian values, however, have changed to conform more
closely with their hearts. Divorces have become easy to obtain and society came to
tolerates themeven encourage them. The values of non-believers have become
evident, and so have the values of the Christians. While the divorce rate among the
general population has slowed down, the rate of divorces among Christians is
reportedly still climbing (Christians are on the lagging edge of culture again). In
retrospect we can see that Christians were not acting out of conviction by staying
married to their wives, but only out of cultural conformity. Satan thus can attack
Christians in such a subtle way that they are unaware of what has happened. When
we equate Christianity (or spirituality) to conformity with a certain prescribed
culture (which is what the Judaizers did, and what legalists of every age do), Satan
can attack Christians by undermining their culture, an area of which they are only
slightly conscious.

Page | 9

Conclusion
I hope that you are beginning to see the vital importance of understanding culture
and its need to be consistent with the gospel. It is nearly impossible to understand
the Old or the New Testament without first coming to grips with the culture of
those days and the way in which Christian faith related to it. It is imperative that
we see the relationship between the gospel and culture today, and that we shed
those aspects of our culture which are incompatible with the gospel or which
hinder the proclamation and practice of the gospel. In order to resist the devil, we
must understand how he works through culture. In order to have unity and
harmony in the church, we must see how culture affects our worship.
Christians are saved not only from something (sin) but
also to something (Christs 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
Gods Spirit and can know and fulfill Gods plan. But then we are meant to
proceed to the restoration of all Gods 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 lands 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. Dont be tempted to despair. God will give us the
victory!
Page | 10

Questions for Study or Discussion


1. What do we mean by the word, culture? Why is it impossible for
Christians to escape or avoid culture?
1. Summarize the five different approaches to culture that Christians have taken
over the years, as Dr. Naugle explained them:
1. What dangers exist for Christians as we become more involved in our
culture?
1. What should be some goals for a Christian involvement with culture? Give
some examples of how those goals might look like if we can achieve them?
1. What is the relationship between spiritual life, evangelism, culture, and the
Kingdom of God?

Page | 11