What perspective should we, as Christians, take toward culture? What is the basic task to which we, as Christians, have been called here on Earth? How should we relate, in our attitudes, actions, and priorities, to the world around us? Should Christians be involved in politics? What is the ultimate goal of Christian missions? The answers to these questions are complex. And, there is nothing close to unanimity among those who claim to follow Christ as to how best to answer them. Yet, the repercussions are very significant, and affect at a fundamental level many of the choices we make, in our everyday life, as Christians.
The Background of the Discussion
I am not the first to think and write about these questions. Far from it. One of the most significant and influential contributions to the on-going discussion is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture, published in 1951. More recently, D. A. Carson advanced the discussion with the 2008 release of Christ and Culture Revisited. I do not pretend to be anywhere remotely close to being in the same league with these theological giants. The issues are so complex it is tempting to leave commenting on them to those who are more qualified than I. Yet, as I have mulled over these questions, I have come up with some thoughts I would like to offer for discussion.
Niebuhr, in his seminal work that has framed much of the subsequent discussion, describes five different general approaches that Christians of various stripes, throughout the centuries, have adopted, which he designates as Christ against Culture, The Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. One of the most significant observations to be gleaned from Niebuhr is that, even though we are not always aware of it, each one of us comes from one general perspective or another on these particular questions that colors the way we approach the specifics; and, if we are able to understand the model from which one is operating, we will have significant insight into the motives behind the positions he/she takes on various issues. Rather than taking the space here to review each of these different models, and potentially misrepresent or oversimplify Niebuhr’s thesis, I refer you to Niebuhr’s book itself, Carson’s review of Niebuhr’s models in his book, and/or the audio files available on-line of the interesting lectures that Carson has given on this subject. A briefer synopsis of Niebuhr can be found here.
The Transformationist Model
Most (not all) Christians today would be in agreement that the first two models—Christ against Culture and The Christ of Culture—are overly extreme, one being overly reactionary, and the other overly accommodating. According to Carson (and, no doubt, many others), the model favored by Niebuhr himself (though he seeks to maintain a semblance of personal detachment in his presentation), and one that has become increasingly popular among Christians of various theological and political convictions—both on the right and the left—is the Transformationist model. The basic premise of this model is that, as Christians, though we live in a fallen world, in which evil exerts a great amount of influence, we are called to be salt and light, exercising a redemptive influence over the structures of this world, letting the leaven of Christian ethics and morality work its way through the lump, and contributing toward the progressive and eventual Christianization of culture and society.
As I understand it, the extreme version of this model, on the right, is that of the Reconstructionists/Dominionists/Theonomists, and, on the left, that of Liberation Theology. However, there are many others a step or two toward the middle, both among conservatives (“Culture Warriors,” and “Seven Mountains” crusaders), as well as among more liberal versions of Christianity (some “Emerging” Christians, and even some—not all!—who would prefer the label “Missional”), who would not answer, strictly speaking, to either of these descriptions, yet who, in their basic approach to these issues, follow a Transformationist model.
The Christ, the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture Model
Personally, as I study Scripture, and reflect on what it says, I am not totally convinced by the Transformationist model. In what follows, I would like to present an alternative model that I call Christ, the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture. Though the name itself, and the description I give of this view, are mine, I don’t pretend the basic ideas behind anything I say here are original. If they are truly biblical, they cannot, at the same time, be truly original. Besides this, various others have already articulated a view, which, though not using the exact same language, is very similar, in many aspects, to mine. From what I have read, and listened to, of Carson, for example, I would consider him to be among these. Also, I recently heard an excellent message online by J. D. Greear, touching on many of these same issues, with which I resonate very much. However, I don’t presume to speak for either of them as to their level of agreement with everything I write here.
Our Understanding of the Terms Christ and Culture
Key to a good understanding of the various perspectives one may take on Christ and Culture is the definition given to the terms Christ and culture themselves. In the model I am proposing, I take as determinative for our understanding of the term Christ the commission of Jesus to His disciples, and, consequently to the Church throughout the centuries, in John 20:21, in which He sends them to carry out the same task with which the Father had sent Him. As the Body of Christ on Earth, we are His hands, feet, eyes, and ears, continuing on, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the same work that He inaugurated in His first advent. We do not yet, however, represent Christ in His post-second advent role as sovereign Ruler, which remains to be manifested at a later date.
As far as culture is concerned, I see a significant parallel with what the New Testament, in many passages*, calls the world, encompassing the structures, thought systems, and godless values that comprise the present world order. This, however, does not preclude the appropriation and use of such cultural elements as music, art, and literature for the glory of God. For example, when we speak of Christ against Culture, we do not mean to imply the idea that Christ is opposed to music, art, and literature, etc., in and of themselves, as independent categories. These are, rather, neutral elements that may be used equally in the service of Christ and His Kingdom as well as in the propagation of the godless value system we call the world.
Called to Suffer
Having made that clear, the first aspect of the Christ, the Faithful Suffering Servant in the Midst of Culture approach is the recognition that, as Christians, we are called to suffer here on this earth. Though there have been certain times and places down through history in which professing Christians have been more accepted and less persecuted than at other times and in other places, and there have been assorted seasons of spiritual awakening impacting the general attitude toward Christianity in a given time and place, this is not the norm, either from the standpoint of history, or the Bible. At times, the advance of Christendom has, ironically, been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the persecution of authentic Christian disciples. Bible prophecy, as I understand it, does not present a view of the end-times that would lead us to expect this reality to one day disappear or gradually diminish as history progresses. It would appear that Jesus’ words describing the path that leads to life as narrow, and those that find it few, are just as applicable in the end-times as they were in the time He first pronounced them.
Called to Rescue the Perishing
The next aspect of this approach is the call to “seek and to save those which are lost,” rescuing them from the cruel dominion of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and calling them to come out and be separate from the ungodly structures and systems of the world, symbolically depicted, in Revelation 16-19, as Babylon the Great. However, those who are rescued are not rescued solely for an existence of eternal bliss in the fully consummated Kingdom of God in the age to come. They are also called to live this present life as signposts of the coming Kingdom as members of an alternative community, in which they grow together in faith, hope, and love, continually experiencing spiritual healing, and ministering it one to another in the therapeutic community that is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Called to Serve
Closely related to the call to “rescue the perishing” is the call to serve. It is at this juncture that the Christ, the Faithful Suffering Servant model departs significantly from the Christ against Culture model. While it is true that culture, inasmuch as we equate it with the structures and systems of this world, will almost always set itself up in opposition to uncompromising Christian discipleship, the calling and purpose of Christians, in this present dispensation, is not to condemn those who are presently subject to this world, but to lead them to salvation through faith in Christ, who came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” As those sent out by Jesus, in the same way as He Himself was sent by the Father, we identify with His call “not to be served, but to serve,” and to direct this service to the very ones among whom we are to live as candles in the midst of the darkness.
In the Midst of Culture
As faithful suffering servants, we do not isolate ourselves from the world around us, and the dire condition of those who groan under the oppression of its cruel taskmasters. We are not passive quietists living our own lives, and minding our own business, separated from those we are seeking to rescue. No! The love of Christ constrains us to actively and enthusiastically pour ourselves out in acts of service and practical kindness, following the example of our Lord, who healed the sick, and set the captives free, and graciously showered His love upon them, during His first advent here on Earth.
Called to Be Faithful
As faithful suffering servants, we also patiently wait for the consummation of the Kingdom in the day when our Lord returns to judge the wicked and the just, and establish His visible rule over all the cultures and structures of this earth. In the meantime, we refrain from seeking to forcibly introduce the Kingdom of God, with its ultimate implications, ahead of time, cognizant of the fact that on those occasions when Christians have sought to exercise dominion over the structures of this world independent of the physical presence of Jesus Himself to take charge and rule the nations with an iron rod of justice, the end result has more often than not proven disastrous for the true advance of kingdom values. None of this means that, in the meantime, we refrain in any way from actively rescuing the perishing, diligently working toward the edification of the community of the redeemed, and passionately serving the needy and oppressed in our midst to the very best of our ability, with the strength and wisdom the Holy Spirit gives us. Indeed, we seek to be the most faithful stewards we possibly can, knowing the way we live our lives here on Earth will have momentous consequences for eternity.
*See, for example, Matthew 4:8; Luke 12:30; John 8:23, 12:31, 15:18, 16:33, 17:6-19, 18:36; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12, 11:32; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; Galatians 4:3, 6:14; Ephesians 2:2, 6:12; Colossians 2:8, 20; James 1:27, 4:4; 2 Peter 1:4, 2:20; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1-6; 5:4-5, 19.