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Differences over philosophy of culture must always affect cooperation

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series

"That They May Be One: Conservatism, Cooperation, and the Center of Christian Unity"

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That They May Be One

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.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 175. []

9 Responses to Differences over philosophy of culture must always affect cooperation

  1. “culture affects everything, especially the gospel.”

    Which means that the right view of culture is an essential matter of study and reflection for missionaries as well since they confront pagan cultures with the gospel. Yet the people are armed by their culture to resist the very message brought to them. The myth of neutral cultures aids and abets the damnation of the lost in the poorest places.

  2. Scott, when you say culture limits Christian cooperation in some ways or on some levels, I wonder what ways or levels you think a cultural difference will allow cooperation? In my understanding, there is no practical way to successfully cooperate when cultural differences are fairly profound. I can have personal interaction and accept those who differ as brothers, but on the level of church cooperation, I don’t see how I can work at all with those who are fairly far away from me culturally.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Hi, Don. On the levels of church membership or church planting, I think there really has to be very close agreement. I can’t see how cooperation on those levels are possible without a profound level of philosophical agreement with regard to culture. That’s kind of the main point of this series.

    But there are other kinds of cooperation where absolute agreement isn’t as necessary. For example, I can teach in an educational institution where there exists a diversity of cultural philosophies without a problem (especially where my view is accepted as legitimate and welcomed!). I also may be able to stand alongside a Christian brother with whom I differ philosophically in the proclamation of the gospel (although our differences will likely hinder how the gospel is proclaimed) or to stand in defense of marriage or gender distinctions, etc.

    But on the local church level, my ability to cooperate is going to be very limited if there are significant disagreements with regard to culture.

  4. Thanks for the reply, Scott, but I wonder… is teaching at a college an *ecclesiastical* partnership? Perhaps standing together to proclaim the gospel could be, but I am not sure exactly what you have in mind there. Standing in defense of marriage/gender issues… is that *ecclesiastical* or *political*?

    Just trying to think out this out.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Yes, valid point. I think perhaps you are correct, although when we’re talking about something like a Bible college or seminary (arguably extensions of the local church), then it gets a little bit stickier. :)

    But I think we agree that when it comes to the local church, the agreement has to be very close.

  6. Yes, I was thinking more about this after my last comment. The college environment is not exactly ecclesiastical, but it isn’t nothing either. Obviously if the college is connected to a local church it becomes entangled in ecclesiastical cooperation issues immediately. But outside the local church, it can become murkier. Your situation (ahem) poses a problem for some, I am sure. But if you were teaching at, say, the University of Alabama, or some such place, there would be no issue.

    To conclude, yes, in a local church environment, or even in the matter of cooperation between churches (missions, joint rallies, etc) the agreement has to be very close.

    Thanks for the interaction.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. Scott, can we then cast this as “preaching another Gospel” according to Gal 1? I don’t recall you ever casting the problem in these terms but what you write above seems to come rather close.
    If we understand that corporate worship is part of teaching/doctrine and if syncretism in worship leads to a distortion of the Gospel, does this not mean we must reject such groups automatically according to Gal 1?
    It’s a wider interpretation when we include corporate worship in addition to actual preaching into what Paul meant here but if Christians are taught to have the wrong emotions about God (as Kevin Bauder aptly explained in a parallel article), isn’t this really another Jesus (2.Cor 11:4) that we must reject? As we should reject the preaching of legalism and justification through works (e.g., Catholic Church), isn’t a misrepresentation of God in corporate worship (which often comes together with other aspects, such as a health & wealth gospel) just as worthy of rejection – not only in terms of fellowship but to the point of questioning whether this still represents true Christianity?

  8. Seems Jonathan Aigner replied in the affirmative:

    “Art ceases to be art and becomes ugly when it is used as a means of creating attraction. James Joyce rightly saw this as the distinction between art and pornography.
    Just as pornography creates attraction through empty promises of fulfillment, so does commercial worship, especially through the music of the worship industry. The fulfillment is never found in the art itself, but in the truth the art represents.
    Such pornographic worship is fundamentally idolatry.
    Worship that seeks personal fulfillment, release, or refreshment is a masturbatory act.
    The pursuit of the feeling itself inevitably leads to the worship of something other than Christ. It rejects the Christian story in favor of our own.”

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