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“Churches” or “Christians” and Culture?

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?
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.

37 Responses to “Churches” or “Christians” and Culture?

  1. Daniel La Nu says:

    Definitely, there is no clear line drawn between the two distinct issues in Neibuhr’s discussion of relationship to culture: Christians and culture or Churches and culture. While Christians are to pursue their vocations by following principles, thereby, impacting the culture and glorifying God, the churches have a specific role to accomplish the great commission. The church’s ultimate goal is to fulfill Jesus’ commandment which is the great commission. How Christians relate to the culture and how churches relate to the culture are two closely related but distinct issues. For example, while Christians may engage in politics, and they may advocate for Christians’ right, churches should not. Every protestant believer has a clear idea of what it means to be the separation of church and state.

  2. Daniel La Nu says:

    “Biblically principles” is what I meant.

  3. Jessie W says:

    I agree that many people have ignored that the interaction between “Christians and culture” vs. “the church and culture” are two related but distinct issues.

    Unless we take an Anabaptist view to Christianity, we will all be forced to interact with the world. If we are involved in the world we can be a light in the world on how to live. Therefore it is possible to live a Christian life and “live in the world and not be of the world” which is a common cliche that I hear often. With that said it is possible for Christians to be actively involved in politics, public services, and other jobs in the world is long as the job passes the test of scripture. An extreme unbiblical example would be working in an adult video store.

  4. Kaitlyn says:

    “What is the biblical relationship of Christians to culture?”
    If culture is defined simplistically as the behavior or way of life of a people, Christians undeniably are going to be a part of a culture. So primarily they are participants in culture. Individuals are biblically responsible for having their behavior and their culture shaped by Christ. Christians will serve bringing reform from inside their culture as they themeselves are renewed to the image of Christ.
    “What is the biblical relationship of churches to culture?”
    The church, however is different in the sense that it is given authority for governance of believers and therefore responsibility to help create and shape culture. Since the church is a fellowship of believers it should pay special attention to the behaviors it encourages and supports. There is definitely some overlap between the role of individual believers and the church in how they view culture, but there are definite differences as well.

  5. ai-chin says:

    Making disciples of all nations is churches’ great commission. While Jesus was fulfilling His great commission, He, besides than teaching, He also healed the sick and cared for the poor. Many of them who were healed also accepted Him as their savior. I believe that Christians are to participate in culture and to love their neighbors as commanded by Jesus in Mark 12:31 so that they can fulfill the great commission.

  6. Vaden says:

    I think this is hard because like Jessie said unless we take an anabaptist view we are going to be involved in the world. And I personally think that we need to take advantage of being in the world. We can be in this world and live a life as a Christian and assume public positions in the work force like we have discussed in my ethics class. A Christian can have just as much an impact in showing the love of God as a regular person living a Christian life. But the issue comes that you must live in this world as a Christian and not live of this world. You need to stand on the ledge but not fall over it.

  7. Ben Little says:

    The relationship between the Christian and culture should be that of familiarity, yet nonconformity. Because the individual is a member of culture, it is important that they do not conform to any standards/practices that are contradictory to God’s Word. Our example in behavior/culture should mirror God’s Word, and contribute to positive cultural practices while setting us apart from those cultural practices that contradict Scripture. 1 Peter 1:14-16 says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”

  8. Sze Wing Ho says:

    I think there is a big difference between “churches to culture” and “Christians to culture”. Churches is an earthly manifestation of God’s kingdom. It reminds people about the coming of the kingdom of heaven. God’s eternal kingdom should be separated from the earthly world; and churches, thus, have to distinct from the visible world. When people consider the relationships between churches and culture, one should emphasizes the distinctiveness between heaven and earth.
    Christians, however, are members of the two kingdoms–the kingdom of earth and the kingdom of heaven. Christians have to involve in the cultural activities on earth but at the same time to reflect the glory of God.

  9. Wendy Ku says:

    Romans 12:1-2 come to my mind as I think through these questions. As part of the letter written to all the saints in Rome, this passage, however, is given as a general admonition, not an inclusive one, and thus it applies to all believers of later generations. Paul also addresses this to the Romans both as a community of believers and as a church(“brothers and sisters,” v.1), therefore, it applies to Christians and churches. This is where the biblical relationship of Christians to culture and churches to culture overlaps. In every aspect of life, whether inside or outside of church, individual Christians are urged to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God because all Christians are made alive in Christ by God’s mercy. And as a church carrying the Great Commission, we won’t be able to go and make disciples of all nations if we fail to be transformed by the renewing of the mind so that we can test and approve what God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will is. In short, both Christians and churches are to follow Paul’s exhortation in offering ourselves as a living sacrifice and not conforming to the pattern of this world but being transformed by the rule and power of God.

  10. Wendy Ku says:

    Oops, I mean “not an exclusive one.”

  11. Jessica Wan says:

    When I think of the Biblical definition of “church” 1 Peter 2:9-12 (ESV) comes to mind: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” I believe this passage can address the relationship between church and culture.

    First, I see that the passage defines “church” in verse 9 as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession” and then explains the commission of the church to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Next, the passage elaborates on the relationship between the church and its surrounding cultures in verse 12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” In other words, the church is to be separate from the culture yet it should not be completely disconnected from culture but should interact with culture in a way that brings honour to God while fulfilling the great commission.

  12. Emily Ham says:

    I think when the biblical relationship between Christians and church is well established, churches can accomplish their mission completely. Churches can have event or any programs to call people from community but they will always have limitations. Churches open the gates to the community but who works for community are Christians. So their roles are similar but it’s a bit different at the same time. We Christians have position in social groups, in work places, schools, etc. Therefore, Christians have to be aware that we have more intimate relationship in order to show biblical values inside the society so that Churches activities can be flourished

  13. John says:

    Christians and Culture
    The individual Christians must take part in culture (way of life), so there will be commonalities between Christians and culture. Christians, however, are not to get “wrapped up” in culture. Interaction with culture with the knowledge that it is temporal and our final destination is eternal.

    Church and Culture
    The church is supposed to lead and govern the body of Christians as well as fulfill the Great Commission. Both of these actions will result in the church interacting with culture. Unlike individual Christians, however, the church is called to have a less direct influence on culture.

  14. Youjin Lee says:

    What is the biblical relationship of Christians to culture?
    Based on Matthew 5:13-14, Christians should be the salt and light of the world. It does not mean ‘of’ the world but ‘in’ the world. Christians cannot leave out of the world. As they live in the world with nonbelievers, they must perform what the Great commandment order them through their life.

    What is the biblical relationship of churches to culture?
    Church should be the kingdom of God in the world. Remember ‘already but not yet’. The kingdom of God is already on the earth as church, even though believers are not completely born again after the second coming of Jesus, however, church should be the one that perform the kingdom of God on the earth until the second coming of Jesus.

    Where do these relationships overlap?
    Since Christians and church belong to God but not fully accomplished yet.

    Where do these relationships differ?
    Christians are considered of as individual existence, while church are considered of as a community.

  15. Keji L. says:

    The biblical relationship between Christians to culture and churches to culture are contain overlaps and differences. The churches goal is to fulfill Jesus’ commandment—the great commission. Christians as individuals, who live in the world and are the light and salt of the world. Like Kaitlyn mentioned “if culture is defined as the behavior or way like of a people,” Christian individuals can participate in various social activities, but it does not means churches involve in all that as well. The churches’ role is to shape the culture and fulfill the great commission.

  16. Yangji Choi says:

    Unless the culture is not against the word of God, Christians should respect the culture. However, it is necessary for Christians to look catefully the culture if it is against bilblical values.

  17. Bora Kim says:

    Genesis 1:28 says, God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” where we can find the fact that God gave His people the previlege that people can rule everything. Additionally God is the owner of everything including all cultures. However, nowadays Christians are easily influenced by worldly culture, rather than ruling over it. Therefore churches should stand affirm against popular cultures that have negative but by the way churches should open their door to the community in order to invite them and offer the chance to deliver the gospel and transform unbeliever’s unworthy or distorted cultures.

  18. Boyoung Lee says:

    I think that Church is very distinguishing as having a divine commission. It is like the body of Christ. That needs to be discriminate from the world. But Christians belong to two worlds, the world of Church and the world of the culture. Therefore, individual Christians should be a role as the bridge between two worlds. Christians involved the overlapped two worlds. In the church, they need to follow God command and to be part of the body of Christ. But also in the earthly world, they need to be a light and salt in the world. and they need to impact to good cultural effects.

  19. Brandon H. says:

    Christians will always be a part of culture. Because culture is in its simplest form is defined as a way of life of a particular group of people, the actions of Christian is culture. The difference with Christians is that their religious beliefs should influence their cultural activities. Thus, Christians should separate themselves in practices that are contrary to Scripture and contradict their worldview. There are even more specific guidelines that the institution of the church needs to follow. This same principle can be applied to music in that certain music may be acceptable for the individual believer and not in the context of the local church.

  20. ai-chin says:

    I agree with Brandon that christians are always part of culture and christian should separate themselves from surrounding culture; however, I would like to add something to what Brandon has discussed. Christians should distinct themselves from surrounding culture but not avoid surrounding culture. If christians avoid the surrounding culture, which means that we are surrounded by christians. In this case, how and where can we fulfill our great commission.

  21. Kaitlyn says:

    I really appreciated what Emily said: “I think when the biblical relationship between Christians and church is well established, churches can accomplish their mission completely.” I think that is part of the significant value of considering this question in general. Churches are unavlidably going to participate in culture in some way, whether intentionally or not–and when it is in keeping with Scripture it will enhance the church’s ability to complete its mission.

  22. Vaden says:

    I liked what Brandon was saying the issue I have is that you can be so different that you can’t make a connection with the lost. That’s why the issue is in my opinion sitting on the cliff of culture. By saying this you are being seperate from the world by living a life for Christ but you must also know what is going on around you as well as inject yourself so you can be able to present who we are and what we are to the lost in the world culture. As I walk around seminary some of us have distanced ourselves so much from the world we have no idea what the world is actively living in their culture. We think we can read about it or let someone tell us about it. That is a wrong belief system you need to be engaged in the world to be able to evangelize the world. Get your hands dirty.

  23. Jessica Wan says:

    Wow Vaden, I completely agree with you when you said: “As I walk around seminary some of us have distanced ourselves so much from the world we have no idea what the world is actively living in their culture. We think we can read about it or let someone tell us about it. That is a wrong belief system you need to be engaged in the world to be able to evangelize the world. Get your hands dirty.”

    I think unknowingly we are exercising “Christ against culture,” where we are so absorbed with studying in seminary, serving in the Church, pursuing a deeper spiritual life that we have unintentionally shut ourselves from the rest of the world. I agree with you that we need to engage with the world but it is difficult to engage with the world while balancing seminary, church, and spiritual growth.

  24. Emily Ham says:

    The biblical relationship between Christians, churches and culture is also in discipleship. The goal of church always will be grow together through discipleship training, in other words, sanctification and dwelling in the complete salvation. But sometimes we are paying attention to much on cultures. We are becoming more subjective and putting ourselves in a square of some sort of culture that identify us. So I think no matter what culture you practice, Christians and churches should stay together and help people to foster the dimension of the life to become empowered by Holy Spirit so that we can manifest correct meaning of the gospel.

  25. Jessie W says:

    To follow up Matt’s comment. He stated that we should stand on the ledge but not fall over it. This connotation could easily be taken the wrong way to mean that we should tempt ourselves with sin. I don’t believe that is what Matt was trying to say. It’s a similar way to say what I mean when I say we should be in the world and not of the world.

    Using Matt’s analogy, we can continue this metaphor by using the Grand Canyon as an example. In this metaphor the Grand Canyon is kind of like the sin of the world and as long as you are standing on the flat ground you are living in righteousness. Once you step over the ledge you fall victim to sin. However safety rails have been put in place to protect us from falling over the ledge just as God commanded us to live my his word to protect us from falling into sin.

  26. Keji L. says:

    Christians live in to two worlds, mentally in Christianity (the world of Church) and physically in the world of the culture. I like what Boyoung says here “individual Christians should be a role as the bridge between two worlds.” We have the responsibility to be the salt and light for the world, we participate both in church and secular world. In addition, we need to distinct ourselves and our lifestyle from the surrounding culture, so that we can fulfill the great commission.

  27. Brandon H. says:

    Vaden, it is so true that if we distance ourselves so much from culture, we become unable to reach the lost. As you mentioned, we think we can just read about it or have someone tell us instead of actually engaging in the culture. So, concerning the Christian’s role in culture, there must be a balance. There is nothing wrong at all in engaging in certain aspects of culture to build relationships with the lost. On the flip side, you can be so indoctrinated in culture that there is no difference in the way you live than those you are trying to reach. The balance is engaging in culture, but doing it in a way that shows the love of Christ and is separate in the fact that God rules every aspect of our lives.

  28. Ben Little says:

    The cliff analogy is great! We have to be close enough to relate with those around us, but far enough away as to not fall into the traps of sin that accompany them. The church has often been labeled a place that doesn’t understand what is occurring in culture (always behind as culture shifts). We don’t need to embrace pagan culture, but we must at least have an understanding of the common ground.

  29. Grace Chang says:

    I think in some critical issues about ethics, the opinion of church and Christians should be coherent. For instance, the issue of abortion, homosexuality, etc. There are explicit biblical teaching on those issues. Christians and church should share the same stance on defending those biblical values. On the other hand, the church may not share the same opinion with Christians or represent the Christians for some issues, such as electing the government officials. (With an assumption that the candidates do not have major bias or preference on the ethic issues that are against biblical teaching)

  30. Bora Kim says:

    I totally agree with Boyoung and Keji’s opinions that Christians should be a role as the bridge between two world, the world of Church and the world of the culture. Just like the Bible verse, Leiticus 10:10, ”that you may distinguish between holy and unholy…”, Christians should have distinguished culture. It enables us to show the worldly people how Christians cultures are different from their’s. For example, Daniel did not follow Babylon’s culture, but he followed biblical culture (God’s culture). He is a good model who followed the biblical cluture.

  31. Wendy Ku says:

    I think the relationships differ mostly in the application of biblical directives. As Christians gather to worship and serve as a church, what tasks it produces and accomplishes are different to some degree from those done by individual Christians. Though generally, churches and Christians are in similar cultural context, the cultural challenges to churches and to Christians vary due to the slight difference in their being and calling (or their nature and vocation).

  32. Sze Wing Ho says:

    I agree with Keji that the goal of churches is to fulfill the great commission. Thus, the church has a responsibility to shape the world culture that is consistent with the biblical teaching. Individual Christians are part of the world culture. Christians have to interact with the surrounding world and live as a testimony in the world. The goal of Christians is to bring people to church through various cultural interactions.

  33. John says:

    I believe that part of the reason why Christians are supposed to be “in the world” but not “of the world” is to connect with people. Looking to Jesus as an example we see that he made it a point to be around sinners. Being around the lost shows them that you care for them. This will in turn help the church’s great commission as well as your own personal commission to evangelize the world.

  34. Jacqueline Choi says:

    Christians are to follow the biblical principle in order for the great commission to be complete. I do agree with what Kaitlyn said, no matter what, culture is influential in modern world, it is about what kind of culture (behavior) that one practices that determines the way of life.In Christian manner, this can only be done by the help of Holy Spirit.Through the help, one can witness to the world about Jesus Christ.

  35. Yangji Choi says:

    Chruch should have sharp sensibility of culture. Although human being is fallen, still we have the image of God. It means that not all cultures are against God’s will. However, still there are man distorted and unbiblical cultures. Church and christians should reflect if the cuture is acceptable or not through Scriptures. As Paul approached Jewish as Jewish, Greek as Greek, Gentiles as Gentile, we need to respect cultures. However, he never comproised Gospel. Paul’s discipline can give us good eample and standard .

  36. John Gray says:

    A Christians religion shapes his culture, so he behaves the way he does because of a regenrent heart. A church, being a body of believers should have a culture that demonstrates their faith in Christ and reliance upon the Word. With the secular culture the church’s culture will share things of the common Kingdom (vocation, education, politics,ect). Though this is the case, the Christian will look totally different because of the Christ within them. The church unlike the world will also be part of the heavenly kingdom (the kingdom of the redeemed). This will shape the way in which they live both as a believer in the edification of the body, and a believer in the common kingdom.

  37. Daniel LaNu says:

    Put it simply, the culture is the externalization of religion, our values and belief system that reflect the way we behave and think. When we engage the cultures that surround us, we are to be cautious and to take defensive position rather than offensive. Whether we engage as an individual Christian or church as a whole is largely dependent on the understanding of different roles each has to accomplish.

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