From the very beginning of Christianity, followers of Christ have wrestled with the role and place of culture—and how believers and the Church should engage culture. We see this struggle throughout the Pauline epistles: what do we do with Judaism, with food restrictions, with circumcision; what do we do with Greco-Roman culture, with the idols, with the lifestyle, with the social structure—and so on. In the millennia since, this struggle with the relationship between Christianity and Culture has continued and expanded.
The issue often brings more questions than answers: How can biblical believers and followers of Jesus put together his mandate to be “salt and light” in society (Matthew 5: 13-16), with the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “come out from them and be separate from them… and touch nothing unclean” (2 Corinthians 6: 17)? What aspects of culture are acceptable and what should be rejected? Does God bless all human cultures with common grace? Are we to enjoy worldly entertainment and alcoholic drinks? Does God intend some Christians to go to war and kill? Christians differ about these things. Some have tried to create a separate culture or counter-culture, with “Christian” music, books, film, radio, and universities. Others have struggled to influence culture for the good and sought the best means and methods to do so.
Richard Niebuhr stirred up discussion on Christ and Culture with his historic analysis of the issue in his famous Christ and Culture (1951). [Read our book review of Christ and Culture.] In the book he details what he calls the five major historical positions on the proper relationship between Christ and Culture. Briefly, these positions are 1) Christ Against Culture: Christians should make a radical break from culture; 2) Christ of Culture: Christians should embrace Christ as the highest ideals of culture; 3) Christ Above Culture: Christians should live in both realms but recognize Christ as the giver of the higher gifts of grace and salvation; 4) Christ and Culture in Paradox: Christians must live obediently in both realms, caught in the tension of what is and what will be; and 5) Christ the Transformer of Culture: Christians should seek to convert and redeem all culture for God’s glory.
Many critics of Niebuhr’s work overlook both its historic, rather than dogmatic perspective, and the fact that Niebuhr himself admitted and cautioned:
When the answers to the enduring problem are stated in this (schematic) manner, it is apparent that a construction has been set up that is partially artificial…. When one returns from the hypothetical scheme to the rich complexity of the individual events, it is evident at once that no person or group ever conforms completely to a type…. The method of typology, however, though historically inadequate, has the advantage of calling to attention the continuity and significance of the great motifs that appear and reappear in the long wrestling of Christians with their enduring problem. (Borgman, Foundations, p. 199 from Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 43-44)
Understanding such caveats is critical in applying Niebuhr’s historical analysis to complex issues of Christians in culture, Church and State.
Niebuhr seems to find the final position most compelling, as do many Christians, who agree that Christians are “saved not only from something but for something” (“Christianity and Culture,” The Chuck Colson Center for Worldview Journal.). How can Scriptural authority, the important traditions of the Christian Church be brought together, and the working of the Spirit of Jesus be understood in light of today’s vexing questions? And can Christians and others of good will agree to disagree on certain matters while working for the common good?
There are many, however, who take issue with Niebuhr’s work. D.A. Carson, for example, in his recent book Christ and Culture Revisited (2008), wonders why evangelicals are taking cues from a liberal theologian and why they aren’t considering culture more in terms of salvation history. He is also concerned that Christians have taken Niebuhr’s categories with little consideration of whether or not they come from biblical wisdom.
Another major critic, Craig A. Carter (2007, Rethinking Christ and Culture) calls into question an assumption of Christendom of Niebuhr, and accuses his transformation model of decaying the Gospel and Christian influence to moralism. Others call for a better “theology of culture” and to see culture as a verb (something we do) instead of simply a noun (something that we can choose to interact with or not).
Some of Niebuhr’s strongest opposition comes from today’s Anabaptists. John Howard Yoder in numerous writings and Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon in Resident Aliens have voiced strong objections. Putting aside Niebuhr’s five categories, these men offer a new typology entirely:
[Yoder suggests] three kinds of churches: the activist church, the conversionist church, and the confessing church. The activist church is concerned chiefly with changing society rather than reforming the church or saving souls. The conversionist church, believing society can be changed only by changed hearts and lives, gives itself to preaching a gospel of forgiveness to sinners. The confessing church is not something between or a combination of the two but an entirely different view of the church, seeking not to change society or merely transform personal lives but to bring the church to worship and faithfulness to Christ above and in all. . . . Hauerwas and Willimon note Martin Marty’s description of the first two types as the “private church,” concerned mostly with saving souls and individualistic piety, and the “public church,” mainline denominations trying to achieve justice through politics. (Borgman, Foundations, p. 200-1)
In their book, Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon point to the “Constantinian compromise” as the source of the problem at the heart of the entire debate on Christianity and Culture.
The persecuted, or at least minority, church of the first four centuries of Christianity was forced to become the established church, a godly example to majority culture. Once Christianity was officially tolerated, and then became the state religion, it found itself with a different mission: to shape culture as effectively as possible. Worse, it became engaged in embellishing itself as an organization with wealth and power. . . .
To escape its Constantinian captivity, the church, according to these authors [Hauerwas and Willimon], must stop trying to change the world and start transforming the church into a countercultural colony that takes the Sermon on the Mount, not as an abstract ideal or mere subjective personal goal, but as an actual social manifesto lived out by the church. (Borgman, Foundations, p. 201)
Whatever the analysis by theologians or ethicists, at the end of the day, we are left still with this practical dilemma: how are Christianity and Culture to interact and engage with each other? This question comes down to the basic question of how we are to live.
We all know churches and pastors (bishops and church leaders) ignoring culture. Church, for them, is a church thing, its own separate culture and institution. In such places, we often find a sterile gospel and a church fighting for retention of members. We are also aware of churches and youth ministries accepting uncritically a large measure of culture substance—usually on the basis of attracting outsiders. Here the personalities and styles of the pastor, leaders, worship leader, and musicians with clever use of media can become overly important. As Christians in culture, we are being called to a clear understanding of our culture and the counterclaims of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to courageous Christ-following. (Borgman, Foundations, p. 204)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How would you define “Christianity” and “Culture”? How does this definition influence how you think they should interact?
To what extent can Christians collaborate with those of other faiths and naturalists who discredit faith in solving social (cultural) problems these days?
What are the potential benefits and dangers of engaging with our culture as Christians?
Do you think a certain level of cultural literacy and engagement isnecessary to properly live out the Christian life? Why or why not? To what extent? How do they affect evangelism, discipleship, outreach, and witness?
With which of the point of views mentioned in this article do you most agree or identify with? Why? With which do you most disagree and why?
What does your personal practice suggest about your views on how Christianity and Culture should interact?
We must admit first of all that we are cultural creatures. We are able to talk, dress, work, and so much more, because we have been socialized since birth into some culture. And for those in urban, technological societies, cultural changes are happening, seemingly, at the speed of light.
People of faith believe that scientific naturalism, without faith, offers no adequate moral foundation for cultural Disbelievers or secularists believe that religious faith hinders human development and causes major distresses in our world. If peace is a goal of all, we must find some way to move through our disagreements on some kind of common ground—while maintaining foundational beliefs.
Christians themselves are polarized regarding major and minor differences in beliefs and practice. Civil discourse, which allows for serious differences, is a most needed social skill and practice.
Dean Borgman (2013). Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.