Up to this point in this series, I have described the essence of conservative Christianity, particularly its philosophy of beauty and culture, and described the nature of ecclesiastical cooperation.
So where, then, do philosophies of culture fit on the spectrum of Christian fellowship and cooperation?
First, to state the obvious, philosophy of culture is clearly not on the same level as the gospel—it is not the boundary of Christian fellowship. Beliefs concerning the nature of culture and aesthetic form do not determine whether or not someone is a Christian. Therefore, any limiting of cooperation between Christians who disagree over culture is not all or nothing.
Second, based on the nature of the issues as I have expressed them, I would argue that fundamental disagreements over philosophy of culture and worship must affect the ability to cooperate as Christians on some levels. I would argue that even if two churches share exactly the same doctrinal convictions, their underlying philosophies of culture and worship inherently affect their ability to cooperate. Why? Because one’s view of culture significantly affects the ways in which his doctrine is handled. One’s philosophy of culture effects everything, because culture effects everything. What cultural forms are employed to express the gospel and other important biblical doctrines affect that doctrine. Furthermore, since how we express love and worship to God is at the center of our relationship with him and therefore our relationship with other Christians, these matters will necessarily affect the degree to which we can work together with other Christians who have a very different understanding of what constitutes appropriate expressions of worship.
For instance, two churches may agree concerning the doctrine of God, but how they view culture will affect how that God is worshiped. Two churches may agree on the gospel, but how they view culture is going to affect how they present the gospel. Two churches may agree on polity, but how they view culture will affect how they plant churches. I may agree with a church’s doctrinal statement concerning the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and complementarianism, but the church’s philosophy of culture must also be a consideration for whether I will join the church.
A critic of my thesis will immediately cry, “How can you divide over matters of mere preference?” Yet this illustrates exactly the point. To insist that matters of culture, aesthetics, and worship music are mere preference reveals precisely the fundamental difference between the conservative and the progressive. The debate here is not over new vs. old or what kind of culture one group prefers over the other. The debate is over one group that believes culture to be essentially a neutral container for truth, rendering it mere preference, and the other that believes culture to be a vehicle that embodies values that shape the content it carries, raising it to a place of essential importance. To put it in the words of James K. A. Smith, a conservative Christian is one who is concerned “lest we end up singing lyrics that confess Jesus as Lord accompanied by a tune that means something entirely different.”1
Other critics will raise the principle of contextualization, claiming that unbelievers will not come to Christ and believers will not be able to worship authentically unless we adopt the prevailing cultural forms. Yet if culture is the externalization of values and beliefs, then we should expect that the culture of Christians will be different than the unbelieving world, especially when the dominant values of a given civilization are explicitly hostile to biblical Christianity. Because of God’s common grace even to the unbeliever, there will be some overlap between the culture of Christians and non-Christians, especially in civilizations that have been heavily influenced by the gospel. But when this is the case, it must always be because unbelievers have borrowed from the Christian worldview in their cultural expressions, not the other way around.
On the other hand, agreement over a philosophy of culture will often make cooperation possible even when there are other secondary differences of doctrine. Ironically, this is what Rick Phillips seems to realize by sending his children to BJA.
Furthermore, I believe that philosophy of culture and worship is rather high on the list of important, so-called “secondary” issues, even higher than many important doctrinal matters. Significant doctrinal differences are certainly important and will limit cooperation on some levels. But I would argue that differences of philosophy of culture must impact cooperation more because they are more pervasive and more subtle. For example, if my children are exposed to an argument for infant baptism or the continuation of sign gifts, I can fairly easily point them to exegetical and theological reasons we do not hold to such doctrines. But if they are exposed to sacred music that is fleshly, that music is shaping the meaning of the truth in ways that are more nuanced than mere words can easily articulate.
It is for this reason that I view differences in philosophy of culture as more limiting to cooperation than differences in secondary doctrines within the realm of orthodoxy. This perspective is no longer limited to Evangelicalism—there are plenty of Fundamental churches that I could not join since we do not share this philosophy. But one’s philosophy of culture is important because culture affects everything, especially the gospel.
- James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 175. [↩]