2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1
The issue of relevance ultimately boils down to a debate about how, or the degree to which, Christians should interact with culture.
In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr published his watershed work “Christ and Culture.” This book, that identifies five ways that Christians interface with culture, has become one of the most influential Christian texts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Some have speculated that no other modern work has dominated an entire theological conversation for so long. Niebuhr’s famous “five types” continue to serve as the launching point for most discussions of the interaction of Christianity and culture. ***
The Niebuhr model is useful in helping us to recognize and understand the nature of the relationship we maintain with the wider culture around us. It assists us to determine where we are on a continuum of historic options and helps us to think about how we ought to exercise our faith in the everyday world. The “five types” enable us to clarify what being “in the world, but not of the world” means for us, allowing us to then measure our personal theology against the Scriptures. ***
Niebuhr’s 5 options include two opposite and extreme approaches to culture, and 3 intermediate possibilities. ***
The Two Extremes
“Christ against culture Christians in this mode believe the community beyond the church to be so hopelessly corrupted by sin that it warrants no attention beyond the proclamation of the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. This outlook routinely breeds Christians with a fortress mentality, a superiority complex, and a disdainful and militant attitude toward society. Christ against culture Christians so distance themselves from the wider community that they tend to craft their local congregations into self-imposed Christian ghettos. And from within their ghettos and the splendid isolation they afford, they yell out the gospel in obscure language. In recent decades Christ against culture churches have come to appear so hostile and enigmatic (mysterious, unknowable, unfathomable) to the unsaved communities around them that they are generally counted irrelevant. The battle cry of these Christians is “save these souls to the exclusion of this society.” ***
“Christ of culture,” lies at the opposite end of the continuum. In this case, the absolute conflict of Christ against culture gives way to an impossibly total harmonization of Christianity and society. “Christians in this mode seek to discern and then champion the highest moral and spiritual common ground between the teachings of Christianity and the noblest values of contemporary culture.” This is the source of a strange species of Christianity purged of all supernatural and spiritual elements, and characterized by an agenda limited to cultural or social improvement through the application of ideas originating with Jesus. In the estimation of those at this end of the spectrum Christianity as it relates to soul salvation is a myth only Christianity as a means of social salvation is legitimate. The battle cry these Christians is “save this society with and utter disregard for these souls.” ***
The Three Intermediate Positions
Between the above two poles Niebuhr placed the following three intermediate positions. ***
“Christ above culture,” places Christianity above and over culture, charging the former with responsibility for interpreting and enhancing the latter to its fullest potential. This outlook is historically associated with Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic Church. In this view, all that is good in human culture is a gift from God. But this good, in order to be fully realized, must be viewed in the light of Christian revelation mediated through “The Church.” Because this view places such heavy emphasis on the role and authority of a hierarchical institutional “Church” to pass judgement on culture it has never been popular among evangelicals. ***
“Christ and culture in paradox,” Christians, in this case, because they believe the world and the Kingdom of God co-exist, find themselves in a paradoxical situation and living in a strong tension. ***
Regarding the world, Christ and culture in paradox Christians believe that God has ordained its institutions, and that they, therefore, must work within these to the best of their ability. At the same time, however, they affirm that God’s kingdom has penetrated the world here and now. Thus, in terms of their commitment, they are pulled (paradoxically) between the aspects of culture that are divinely ordained (family obligations, the rule of law, deference to legitimate authority) and living out the distinct values of the kingdom of God without compromise. On top of this they believe that sin mars and twists all human efforts, and yet, God works in mysterious ways behind the scenes. “Thus Christians in this mode are, on one hand, never free of suspicion, while on the other they never lack hope (another paradox): suspicion that even apparently good things are compromised by sin, and hope that God nonetheless is working out his good pleasure through all of the means—worldly and churchly—that he has been pleased to ordain and sustain.” ***
According to this model even openly evil governments may be instituted by God (Rom. 13:1–5). This is apparently why we are required to pay our taxes, even when we know full well that the money will be used, at least in part, for ungodly purposes (Rom. 13:6–7). The model advises Christians to cooperate with all that God is doing in the world even when cooperation seems paradoxical or at cross purposes, while it simultaneously requires spreading kingdom values through kingdom practices everywhere we can even though we can only expect significantly limited success until the Lord returns. Essentially this model calls upon Christians to be fatalists and activists at one and the same time. ***
“Christ transforming culture” of the three intermediate options this final one has, until recently, been very nearly the standard evangelical option. It says that “society is to be entirely converted to Christianity. Business, the arts, the professions, family life, education, government – nothing is outside the purview of Christ’s dominion, and all must be reclaimed in his name” Puritans in 17th-century England, Puritans in 18th-century New England, 19th-century North American revivalists (trying both to evangelize and to reform society) and the late 19th-century neo-Calvinists, all operated within the general parameters of this model. ***
Each of the five options has both features to be wary of and qualities that recommend it. As a result, the appropriate Christian response to culture, and the means of maintaining relevance in society, is probably an amalgam of all five types. As per “Christ against culture,” we must strive for holiness; in accordance with “Christ above culture” we must affirm what is genuinely good in any culture and take advantage of every opportunity to build on good things God has already bequeathed to society; following “Christ transforming culture” we must seize every chance to improve, transform, and even convert, every possible part of the world to the glory of God; and we learn from “Christ of culture” that we must be open-minded and thoughtful. ***
I must say however, that while all the types are useful, “Christ and culture in paradox” stands, for me at least, somewhat ahead of the others. It corresponds with the paradoxical demand Jesus placed upon Christians to be “in the world” without being “of the world” (John 17:11-18). Jesus has called us to lives of “difficult paradox, of painful negotiation between conflicting and competitive values,” of seeking to live in the world as co-agents with God while marching to a different drum beat where our worldview, values and priorities are concerned. This is where the hard work must be done as opposed to the ease of operating at one extreme or another – it is in this range where we become most useful and impact for the Lord. “Evangelicalism generally eschews paradox. We prefer the clarity of binary opposition, and there are many such pairs in the Bible: light versus darkness, good versus evil, the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan, the church versus the world, the flesh versus the Spirit. Yet we are Bible people, and we must listen also to Scriptures that speak of the kingdom itself as a “mixed field” (Matt. 13:24–30), full of wheat and tares, and of the Christian life as being in the world but not of it.” ***
- Consider Niebuhr’s models and identify which approach you currently employ when making decisions about involvement as a Christian in the world.
- What does it mean in practice to purify ourselves and to be not of the world but still in it?
- What kind of relationships should we have with people who are not Christians:
- what principles should govern those relationships?
- should we shield ourselves from the lifestyles of non-Christians, or should we get involved?
- Should we withdraw from secular culture, or should we seek to transform it?