Richard Niebuhr’s classic taxonomy in Christ and Culture attempts to articulate various ways of understanding the appropriate response of Christians toward culture:
- Christ Against Culture
- Christ of Culture
- Christ Above Culture
- Christ Transforming Culture
- Christ and Culture in Paradox
One of the problems with any discussions of Niebuhr’s taxonomy is an equivocation, however, between Christians and churches. In others words, when discussing these various positions, some are thinking of individual Christians and their activity within culture, while others are considering the appropriate role of churches in culture. Aren’t those the same thing, you ask? No, and here’s why this is important for any discussion of relationships to culture:
First, churches are bodies comprised of Christians, but not every gathering of Christians constitutes a church. Two Christians meeting for coffee, a gathering of Christians to feed the poor, or even a home prayer meeting are not churches. A church is an assembly of believers who have gathered under the direction of ordained leaders to do what churches have been explicitly called to do. This leads to the next point:
Second, churches have a very specific mission, expressed in passages like Matthew 28:16-20 (the “Great Commission”) and regulated by explicit New Testament directives. Christians, while they are to be actively involved in the body of Christ accomplishing its mission, nevertheless engage in pursuits outside that mission as well, directed by principles in Scripture, but not as explicitly regulated by direct command. So, for example, the church’s mission is to make disciples of all nations, and each Christian is to be involved in that mission, but an individual Christian may also engage in the building of cabinets. Building cabinets is not part of the church’s mission, but that Christian should build cabinets to the best of his abilities, following appropriate biblical principles, for the glory of God.
Therefore, when anyone talks about the proper relationship between Christ and culture, what “Christ” refers to is very significant, because the biblical relationship between Christians and culture or churches and culture are two related but actually distinct issues.
This leads, then, to the following questions:
- What is the biblical relationship of Christians to culture?
- What is the biblical relationship of churches to culture?
- Where do these relationships overlap?
- Where do these relationships differ?