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Christians and Culture

Back to Basics

Christians have always wrestled with how they should respond to the cultures around them. On the one hand, we recognize the goodness of God’s creation and his common grace upon all people. On the other hand, we recognize that people are sinful and that the world is hostile to God and to Christians. So what are we to do?

There have traditionally been three basic answers to the question of how we should relate as Christians, and more specifically churches, to the culture of the unbelieving world around us.

The first answer was that Christians should completely separate themselves from the unbelieving world. We should avoid doing whatever unbelievers do simply because they are unbelievers. We should automatically and in every case be different than they are.

This view highlights the antithesis that exists between good and evil in our world, and insists that since good should never mix with evil, therefore Christians should have no similarities with unbelievers. Churches in particular should be completely separated from secular governments, and Christians should avoid active participation in those governments. This view characterized many Anabaptists and their descendants, including Mennonites and Amish.

The opposite answer to this question was that Christians and their churches should be active in the world, seeking to transform that world with the gospel. Christ is Lord of all, they argue, and thus it is the mission of churches to assert that lordship in all realms of life. Churches should be active in governmental affairs, in cultural endeavors, and in feeding the poor and pursuing social justice in the world.

This view is built off of the assumption that God’s purpose in the world is to redeem all things, and thus the church should be active even now in pursuing that redemption. It highlights the doctrine of common grace, insisting that nothing in culture is inherently sinful or beyond Christian use. This view is often called Transformationalism, Neo-Calvinism, or Neo-Kyperianism and characterizes many Reformed groups.

A mediating position argues that Christians are members of two kingdoms: As Christians, we are members of the kingdom of God1; as humans, we are members of the kingdom of this world. As Christians, we should be active in gospel pursuits, and as humans, we should be active in society pursuing the good of our fellow man.

This view also makes another important distinction: these two kingdoms have their own governments. The kingdom of God is governed by the church and regulated by Scripture; the kingdom of this world is governed by human government and regulated by natural law. These separate governments do not have authority over the other kingdom. In other words, civil governments have no authority over spiritual matters, and likewise churches should not be involved in temporal matters. This view characterized Lutherans and other Reformed groups.

The Separatist view helpfully recognizes the hostility of the world, but it tends to forget that God gives common grace even to unbeliever, that God is at work in the world, and that even unbelievers can do relatively “good” things.

The Transformationalist view recognizes that goodness, but tends to ignore that some culture is inherently sinful. It also erroneously equates God’s purposes and Jesus’ mission in the world with the church’s mission. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians commanded to redeem anything, and the church’s mission is explicitly to make disciples rather than “transforming culture.”

The Two Kingdom view recognizes both the inherent hostility of the world and the common grace of God at work. It also helpfully distinguishes between Christians as individuals and their responsibility to work for the good of their fellow humans and the institutional church that is regulated by explicit biblical mandates regarding its mission. Churches are active in proclaiming the gospel and discipling converts who will then go out into the world and work for the good of the society.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.



Endnotes:

  1. “kingdom of God” is used here to broadly refer to God’s sovereign rule over all things; it doesn’t refer to the rule of Christ as King on earth. []

3 Responses to Christians and Culture

  1. Martin says:

    Well put. What is missing, and I believe you have done elsewhere, is to link this to Scripture. For example, whereas transformationalism seems to apply in the negative sense (a little leaven leavens the whole bread), it is not assumed in the positive way, where we are merely the salt, or a light in the world – but as a minority and in opposition to the culture around us. In the video you posted recently with John Piper and Doug Wilson (http://religiousaffections.org/news-reviews/in-the-world-for-the-world-against-the-world-a-conversation-on-christ-and-culture-with-john-piper-and-douglas-wilson/), the tension between living counter-culturally (2.Tim 3:12) and yet not being intentionally obnoxious (Rom 12:18) comes out well. We live in the world, and are to be a positive influence, but we are not of the world.
    Nowhere does the Bible promise that we will dominate society or that we should copy the world (1.Pet 4:4). All this suggests that Christians should be visibly different from the culture around them, i.e. they should have their own (sub-)culture based on biblical values, in stark contrast to majority culture. Yet, we struggle to define what this would look like today. Can we listen to the same music? If not, which should we avoid and why? Should we decorate our homes differently, watch different movies, read different books, pursue different leisure activities? Christians can agree more on moral differences than on cultural differences between them and ‘the world’. Clearly, there cannot be a rule book. But the principle that we should not be enslaved by anything and that the pursuit of God should take priority on our lives is of limited value in this discussion. What resources can you recommend to shed more light on the question how to make good cultural choices?

  2. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Thanks, Martin. I agree; this was meant to be a short introduction. I link all this to Scripture in other places.

    I also agree with you about Scripture’s emphasis on the difference we will manifest. The problem is that since the West was (unbiblically) aligned with the Church for so long, Christians were lulled into believing that it is normal to look and act like the unbelievers around them (since, positively, Christian values came to dominate in the West).

    As to resources, there is no one good resource; it depends on the subject. For culture in general there is not much better than Meyers’ All God’s Children, for music I recommend my stuff and others I’ve quoted here.

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