Christ, Culture and the Church

How Culture Affects the Church

By Mike Mazzalongo Topic: Church Growth Verse: Romans 12:1-2 Posted: Sun. Jan 12th
In this sermon, Mike reviews the various ways that the church has dealt with the pressure of contemporary culture, and how it can maintain the culture of Christ as an ever-present response to the forces of cultural change in every generation.

The topic of my lesson today is how the church reacts to culture and the influence of culture on the body of Christ.

1Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
- Romans 12:1-2

In this passage Paul pleads with his readers to avoid the pressure to conform to the world and its culture. The challenge, of course, is how does the church actually do this?

Probably one of the more famous books that has tried to categorize how various group within Christendom have attempted over the years to deal with the influence of culture (another word for the world), the influence or pressure of culture on the church is Richard Niebuhr in his book entitled Christ and Culture. In this book he describes five main approaches that have been used to resolve the problem of Christ (and by extension Christians and the church) dealing with the pressure of culture. The enduring problem, according to the author, was in what way does the perfect and sinless Christ/sanctified church co-exist with a sinful fallen world (culture). How is this practically accomplished? How does the church live "in the word" but not become "of the world"? In his book he explains five ways that Christians have traditionally dealt with this dilemma.

1. Christ Against Culture

Now when Niebuhr talks about "culture" he means the total process of human activity. What humans have superimposed on nature, for example farming, commerce, art, war, etc. In the view described as Christ against culture he refers to those of the world who deal with the "in the world, not of the world" dilemma by rejecting culture altogether. A clear line is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world at large. The clearest example would be those who live as monks in monasteries, or groups who refuse to use modern appliances as a way to reject the influence of culture, the Amish.

Any group or system you establish to separate yourself from culture becomes its own "culture" with its own strengths and corruptions. The best you can do is to freeze culture in some kind of time warp. In the end, the Christ against culture approach fails to completely set you apart.

2. The Christ of Culture

In this approach Christ is seen as the fulfillment of all that is good in culture. People with this view tend to see Christ as the leader of their nation and their culture as a "Christian" one. This is a predominate view in the U.S. post WWI. One nation under God (Christian nation).

The problem here is that Christ is not the embodiment of a culture or political nation. He is head of a spiritual body, the church. Although sincere, this view is inadequate when considering the many cultures in the world (for example, the North and South both claimed Christ during the civil war).

3. Christ Above Culture

This position holds that there should not be any "tension" between culture and Christ. The problem is between man and God, culture is the backdrop against which this is played out. And culture is where the church reveals Christ to the world with acts of grace. The Social Gospel; Libertarian Theology; Methodism, all see Christ above culture, not in conflict with it.

Neibuhr finds a problem with this approach in that it easily leads to institutionalization. I.e.: Denominationalism, hierarchy in church organization, and multiplication of para-church organizations. When the gospel serves to save the human condition instead of the human soul, we are not representing the true Christ of the Bible or His message.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox

This approach recognizes the "tension" that exists between Christ and culture. That the church is redeemed and spiritual in nature but because of the flesh very much part of the culture we inhabit.

This view very much resembles the mindset that Paul describes in Romans 7-8 where he argues that even though he continues to struggle with the sin/culture of his humanity there is, nevertheless, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

I personally tend to identify most with this point of view, that the issue of Christ and culture is one of ongoing tension between the church and the world, and the solution for both is Christ. For me, He continues to reassure me of my salvation despite my culture. For the world, He invites all to be free from the condemnation sure to come because of culture.

I also agree with Neibuhr that this position tends to lead to indifference and isolation if we are not careful. For example, indifference because we tend to see no redeeming of culture and therefore make little effort to relieve its suffering and injustice. Isolation because this a minority position that neither denounces society or tries to save it, so it neglects its proponents to the fringes without much influence (that is us).

5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

This was Neibuhr's preferred position. This group can be called "conversionists" who have a more hopeful view of culture. This view suggests that culture is part of God's creation and so, subject to His grace. The church's role is to "Christianize" culture to the glory of God. Every believer going into politics; every contemporary Christian entertainer; Christian businessman's social clubs or groups operate with this view in mind whether they acknowledge it or not.

My objection to this approach is that it does not take into account what the Bible says about culture and the church's role in the world. Paul did not say, "He lit up the domain of darkness" in Colossians 1:13. He said, "He delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son." (Colossians 1:13). I do not believe that the Bible teaches that we are to Christianize the world; I am persuaded that we are to proclaim Christ to the world, and this is a completely different thing.

So, there you have a very brief summary of some of the approaches used to deal with the affect that culture (any culture) has on the church:

  • Christ Against Culture
  • The Christ of Culture
  • Christ Above Culture
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox
  • Christ the Transformer of Culture

Now remember that I said that Christians could not divorce themselves from culture. There is no "cultureless" gospel. The church is always culturally embedded, says Bruce Guenther. The war is not against "culture" per se; this is too general of a statement. It is against those aspects of culture that contradict the divine will of God (i.e. violence, pride, injustice, disbelief, lust, idolatry, etc.)

The world will always have culture that changes at times for better or worse, and puts pressure on the church in various ways. Our task is to maintain the culture of Christ in the church not in the world. And this is important because maintaining the culture of Christ in the church enables it to carry out its mission to every culture in every generation:

These constitute the mission of the churches, not saving the environment and/or establishing social justice.

The problem of course, is how do we maintain this Christ centered culture in the church that exists in an ever changing, ever more complex, ever more multicultural nation and world? Let me suggest several ways.

Maintaining the Culture of Christ in the Church

1. Hold Fast to the Word as God's Word

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
- II Timothy 3:16

The Bible presents us with God's word couched in an ancient Jewish cultural context. Our task says another Duane Feisen, is to make it relevant to a 21st century multicultural audience. There will always be an attempt to define God's word in simply "cultural" terms. This is the approach of higher critics who hold sway in major universities today. This is simply culture defining culture, explaining divinity in simply cultural terms. I expect this from those who only see religion as the product of culture, they can see it in no other way.

But when we define the Bible (or parts of it as some in the church are beginning to do) in simply cultural terms without acknowledging its transcendent nature, we dilute its power and frustrate God's efforts to reveal Christ to us. Without the inspired word of Christ there cannot be a culture of Christ. God's word is fashioned from culture, history, language but we must never lose sight of the fact that He uses these to reveal Himself to man. For us to maintain the culture of Christ in the church we must maintain the key teaching that the Bible is a book from God, not man.

...How to maintain the culture of Christ in the church...

2. Preach the Gospel

6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
- Galatians 1:6-8

In the early church this was a distinguishing mark of the culture of Christ that existed in what we refer to as New Testament Christianity. The early church (that we try to replicate in the modern age) proclaimed the message as a way of establishing and maintaining their new identity (or culture) as Christians. To truly establish New Testament Christianity and reproduce that type of church culture requires us to do the same.

We think that reproducing that culture is by focusing only on the "forms" for public worship and church organization and have spent the last century arguing over these while entire generations and cultures perish without the gospel around us. That we only sing, or that only men preach is important and biblically accurate, but secondary and in service to the task of proclaiming the gospel. I have heard countless sermons, read numerous books and articles that define New Testament Christianity (another term for the culture of Christ) as something that conforms to certain ways of doing things, especially in public worship, or how to handle money or use a building. But so few put the actual proclamation of the gospel as one of the defining attributes of a New Testament church. If this were so, how many could say the culture of Christ exists in their congregation? For example, you may have the number of cups at communion right and no piano in the building but if the proclamation of the gospel is not first and foremost in your church "culture" those other things do not matter in the big picture.

The other part of this point is the gospel. Maintaining the culture of Christ in the church requires us to preach the gospel. You know, the gospel that is in the Bible, that gospel. I heard a young Baptist preacher at a funeral thinking he was preaching "the gospel" to those who were in attendance because he recited the Sinner's Prayer at the end of his eulogy for the deceased. Or our Pentecostal friends who call on the Holy Spirit to fall on those present. But before we get too smug, how many times have we heard from our own pulpits preachers and teachers who proclaim things that they are passing off as the gospel? For example, that we are the true church, therefore repent and be baptized; that baptism is by immersion, therefore repent and be baptized; that salvation has five steps so learn these, and repent and be baptized. And we wonder why we are shrinking, why there is no joy in many of our churches, why people are not growing spiritually. The gospel is what produces the culture of Christ in the church.

We are a saved people; a congregation of the redeemed; saints in light; those who are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. This is our culture, our heritage, and our life experience as Christians. And this culture has been made possible by what the gospel announces. Listen carefully now: That while we were helplessly lost and condemned to eternal suffering because of our sins, God, because of His grace chose to save us using a system of faith and not law. Is that not good news? I am reborn because I believe, not because I am perfect or because I belong to a certain class or culture or gender.

Look carefully through the New Testament and you will note that the battles Paul and Peter fought to preserve the integrity of the gospel were efforts to preserve this good news against attempts to add works of law, impose traditions, introduce rituals, imprison with restrictions, all attempts to bring some earthly cultural impurity into the pristine message of the gospel.

At this point someone will say, "What about repentance, what about baptism?" Am I promoting Baptist doctrine? Repentance, confession of Christ, immersion into Christ, faithful living, these are the response (the biblical response) to the Good News. But they are not in themselves the Good News.

Proclaiming the gospel is not teaching that baptism is by immersion, deciding the level of repentance necessary, understanding that the church of Christ is a New Testament church, or that proper worship is a cappella style. All these things may be true and accurate biblically, but they do not have the power to save, or transform lives, or create the culture of Christ in the church. But constantly, aggressively, lovingly, proclaiming what God has done through Christ to save you and why, this is the gospel. If we want to build the church and counter the influence of the worldly culture that surrounds it we must create the culture of Christ by making sure we are proclaiming the same gospel that the Apostles proclaimed.

I could go on about maintaining the culture of Christ in the church as a way of dealing with the affects of culture outside the church, but I add only one more to the two I have mentioned.

...Maintaining the culture of Christ in the church requires keeping the inspired word inspired, preaching the gospel that is in the Bible...

3. Live Holy Lives

I have argued that we cannot leave our culture; we cannot separate ourselves from it because we are all one way or another part of culture. However, we can "stand out" in the culture we belong to because of Christ. This is what holiness looks like against the backdrop of culture. It is a bright red rose on a dark grey backdrop. It is a skyscraper among lesser buildings. It is the smell of freshly mowed grass that surprises you as you drive by on a summer afternoon.

The Bible says it this way:

14As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior;
- I Peter 1:14-15

Of course the Bible explains in detail what that "holy" living entails (sexual purity, speaking truth in love, continuing faithfully in the Apostles doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer, etc.). The Bible is filled with teachings and examples of holy living but in regards to culture, holiness is the way we "stand out" from culture as both a witness against the corruption within culture, and a preview of the culture of Christ which is to come.

A powerful example of this culture of Christ standing head and shoulders above the contemporary culture of our day occurred in Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006. On that day Charles Carl Roberts (a milkman) walking into a one room schoolhouse in the Amish community and murdered 5 little girls between the ages of 6-13, before taking his own life. We have seen this type of thing happen since in our culture and how society has handled these kinds of tragedies with vigils, psychological counseling, new and stiffer laws, and the tabloid frenzy for the shooters. But in the Amish girls' shooting there was a different kind of response that "stood out" from anything before or since in this type of situation. The killer's family reported that only hours after the shooting their family received visits from the Amish community to provide them with comfort and forgiveness. One Amish man literally help the shooter's father in his arms while the grieving dad sobbed.

The Amish community then did several things that made them stand out among others in similar situations.

  • They invited the Roberts' widow to attend the murdered girls' funeral and she read a letter of apology on behalf of her family.
  • 30 people from the Amish community then attended the funeral of the killer.
  • The Amish group set up a charitable fund for the family of shooter, since he left behind a widow and 3 children.

You see, this is holiness, this is what stands out, this is the culture of Christ shinning forth despite the Amish's self-imposed religious culture of 18th century clothing and transportation.

Summary

In closing let me just emphasize the idea that our response to the influence of culture on the church is not to try to "Christianize" culture. Our task as Paul explains in Romans 12:12 is to resist culture's effort to de-Christianize the church. And we do this in practical terms by:

  • Proclaiming the Bible as God's word
  • Preaching what the Bible teaches is the Good News
  • Preserving holy living as the culture of Christ in every generation.

If we do these things we will do our part in guaranteeing that the "effects of culture will not overpower it" (Matthew 16:18).

If you have not yet responded to the gospel by expressing your belief in Jesus through repentance and baptism; or if you have fallen away from the holy lifestyle that reflects the culture of Christ we strive for in His church, then come forward now for baptism or restoration as we stand and sin out song of encouragement.