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Part 9 in a series on The Work of Our Hands

For centuries, Christians have struggled to articulate an effective Biblical position regarding the church’s interaction with culture. In his classic 1951 book Christ and Culture, which is still influential today, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested five potential methods of modeling the interface between Christ and culture. Although Niebuhr’s theology is not always evangelical, his insights remain helpful as we think through the issues of cultural engagement.

  • Christ Against Culture: this first alternative encourages opposition, total separation, and hostility toward culture,and a commitment to creating a separate, pure community (that is, culture) of Christians. Tertullian, Tolstoy, Menno Simons, and, in the 20th century, Jacques Ellul are exponents of this position. The Amish, Mennonites, and Anabaptists have their roots in an oppositional stance between Christianity and culture. This group tends to culturally withdraw from the world, either trying their best to ignore it or providing negative criticism from a safe moral distance.
  • Christ of Culture: this second alternative is exactly the opposite of “Christ Against Culture” because it attempts to bring culture and Christianity together, regardless of their differences. Liberation, process, and feminist theologies are recent examples. “Liberal” Protestantism would fit into this category.
  • Christ Above Culture: this third position, as explained by Donald Bloesch, attempts “to correlate the fundamental questions of the culture with the answer of Christian revelation.” Thomas Aquinas is the most prominent teacher of this viewpoint. It is embraced by both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox: in this fourth viewpoint, the Christian belongs “to two realms (the spiritual and temporal) and must live in the tension of fulfilling responsibilities to both.”  Martin Luther adopted this view. He reasoned that a person experiences Christ through simultaneous interaction between two kingdoms.
  • Christ the Transformer of Culture: proponents of this fifth and final view include the “conversionists” who attempt to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God.  Augustine, Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer are the chief proponents of this last view.  Gabe Lyons, a 21st century proponent of this view expresses it this way:

…to rediscover the cultural mandate, embracing the opportunity to influence culture. In the church, we must teach about calling and cultural influence and provide vital support to cultural leaders. We must become an integral piece of the local culture, convening and encouraging creation of future culture that serves the common good. We must become connoisseurs of good culture, recognizing and celebrating the good, true and beautiful to the glory of God and begin to lead the conversations that will shape future culture.

While Niebuhr’s model is not a perfect system, it shows the multiple perspectives of how Christians throughout history have related to their surrounding cultures. Many current evangelical Christians throughout the United States would be found in the  “Christ Against Culture” camp.  This explains the reluctance of many to engage today’s culture and can be partially explained by the historical reduction of the four-chapter gospel to two a two-chapter gospel (see an earlier post on the four-chapter gospel).  This perspective has produced a “hunker down until Jesus comes” mentality.

The Reformed tradition has historically embraced “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” We can trace this perspective from John Calvin through the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper to contemporary thinkers such as Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson.  This perspective embraces the idea that creation is inherently good; therefore human culture is not to be despised but should be celebrated and developed because it is part of God’s intent for the human race.

In the New Testament Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  He commands us to let our light shine before men so that they will see our good deeds and praise God (Matthew 5:13-16).  In the 28th chapter of Matthew, Jesus instructs us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  It seems obvious from these and many other scriptures that we are not only called to be in the world and not of it, but we are commanded to transform it through the power of Christ working in us.

We are to be actively involved in the transformation of culture without giving culture undue prominence.   As Whitney Hopler writes,

If you want to make a powerful and lasting impact on the culture, you’ve got to do more than just consume it, critique it, condemn it, or copy it. The only way to truly change the culture is to create something new for it—something that will inspire people enough to start to reshape their world.

We must understand that there is no neutral ground in this battle. Either we influence the culture or it influences us.

What do you think? How should Christians engage culture and seek to transform it? Leave your comment here.

Hugh Whelchel

About Hugh Whelchel

Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of "How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work." Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Read More...

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  • http://naturalaw.failuretorefrain.com jurisnaturalist

    Hugh,
    I’m wondering about the extent to which the state fits in to the definition of culture. I still need to read Niehbur, so I’m not sure of his definition.
    While the Anabaptists tend toward a separatist approach to all culture, the Reformed position tends to attempt a redemption of the state along with culture.
    The question arises: is the state an essential element of culture? And if so, is it redeemable?
    I’ll answer the second question first. No. Jesus does not redeem the state, he is the un-state. Mark Van Steenwyk will soon have a short primer on Christian Anarchism published in which he demonstrates Jesus as the un-king. I think his economics requires correction, but his theology is sound. To make your point more strongly you should place it in relation to Yoder rather than Simons, though Boyd and Van Steewyk also like Ellul whom I have not read much of yet.
    But the second point is moot if the first does not hold, and it does not. The state in no way contributes to culture. The state is destructive of culture, constraining of culture, controlling and manipulative. Culture emerges spontaneously from among the actions of individuals. That is, it is a market-like phenomenon, not a political-like phenomenon. Sometimes cultural patterns emerge which some of us do not like. We reinforce or discourage these patterns by our participation or engagement with those patterns. Sometimes it is best to ignore them altogether.
    The appropriate strategy for cultural engagement will be a Spirit-led relational and sacrificial engagement with people at every place in their walk with God, the productive creation of prosperity of goods and ideas and beauty, and the pursuit of personal holiness and submission to Christ. There are errors in each of the traditions Neihbur catalogues. We are in a position to evaluate their fruits and synthesize what is useful from among them.
    The Nathanael Snow
    @jurisnaturalist