The Church-Culture Conundrum: What Should Be the Church's Relationship to the Culture?

by Matt Costella

Although culture is often difficult to define, in general, it usually refers to the prevailing thoughts, philosophies and lifestyles manifested in the lives and expressions of society. One author has defined culture as a society’s “collective conscience.” Culture is expressed through art, entertainment, politics, education and other visible means. Culture, then, can also be described as the “living out” of the general worldview of society.

Through the centuries, the world or society in which believers have found themselves has never been “Christian” in the strict sense. While certain aspects of biblical morality have been more or less prevalent in certain generations, believers and unbelievers have always co-existed within the same society. Yet through the centuries, few would argue that Western culture has radically changed as it has reflected the philosophical changes enunciated by the prominent voices within the culture. In the past few centuries, Western culture has been marked by moral and theological relativism which, in turn, has influenced every aspect of modern life. The culture has become extremely hostile and intolerant of any belief or system of thought that embraces an exclusive, universally trans-cultural view of truth or morality. As life in Western culture has continued to express itself in these terms, Christians who desire to remain faithful to God and His Word are taking notice and wondering how to react to this shift.

Today, most professing Christians recognize the current culture problem and are finding ways to address it. In fact, the mouthpiece of contemporary evangelicalism, Christianity Today, devoted an entire column in each 2006 issue to the question, “How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?” The Christianity Today editors have seen the professing church grapple with various responses to the contemporary culture and are providing a forum for evangelicals to voice their opinion as to how the church should respond. Many churches, denominations, para-church organizations and individual Christians are asking themselves, “How should the church relate to this increasingly relativistic culture in which it finds itself?”

For centuries, the church has struggled to understand its role in society and culture. Should the church seek to change the culture through politics? Should the church seek to shape the culture through a greater emphasis on “Christian” arts, entertainment, education, etc.? Should the church seek to shape and change the culture through social work and programs? Or, does the church even have a role in affecting culture? Generally speaking, four views exist. The purpose of this article is to state these four views and briefly examine each from a biblical perspective.

View #1—Christians Should Have Nothing to Do With Culture

According to some who promote and embrace this view, Christians should not vote, be involved as political figures, join the military and fight in battles or enjoy any form of secular entertainment. Christians should not attempt to influence the culture in any way but, rather, must isolate themselves from it in order to maintain God’s approval. This is essentially what the early Catholic and Orthodox monastics attempted throughout the Middle Ages. Key proponents include Amish, some Mennonites and some Anabaptist groups, including some within the fundamental Baptist and Pentecostal traditions.

This view will not be addressed in great detail because it is the minority view among professing Christians and is easily seen to be contrary to Scripture. The Bible declares that believers are in the world but not of the world (Jn. 17:14-16). God’s Word gives great detail by precept as well as example concerning the believer’s role and responsibilities living amid both believers and unbelievers within society. Neither Jesus nor the apostles isolated themselves from the world or refused to intermingle with either believers or unbelievers. Nowhere in Scripture is a Christian forbidden from serving as a fully-functioning member of society and enjoying those aspects of life consistent with the Word and will of God.

View #2—Christians Should Use the Culture in an Effort to Evangelize

This second view is prevalent among an increasing number of evangelicals and charismatics. This view espouses the belief that Christians should use the music, art, entertainment and styles of the world in order to “connect” with unbelievers and, thus, earn the “right” to be heard by them. “Christian” rock and contemporary music, “Christian” nightclubs, “Christian” dance and the like are the result of this second view of Christianity and culture. Proponents of this view often call upon Christians to exercise their creative nature given to them by God and use their creativity to glorify God.

Of course, no evidence is found in Scripture of Jesus or any of the disciples exercising their human creativity in order to appeal to the lost, nor does any evidence exist of these men “Christianizing” those aspects of the culture which stem from an unregenerate and rebellious human heart. On the contrary , God’s Word exhorts the believer to refrain from fashioning himself and his lifestyle according to his lifestyle prior to his salvation. Both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Peter 1:14-16 clearly guide the believer to reject the world as one’s model for lifestyle and ministry.

Several reasons exist as to why professing Christians use profane aspects of the culture in seeking to win the lost to Christ. First, they fail to understand that Satan is the god of this world. He energizes this entire world system—its interests, beliefs, behavior, priorities, worldview, etc. The apostle Paul describes Satan as the “god of this world” who has blinded the eyes of mankind from seeing the glorious gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). During the past 60 years, the church has always tried to play “catch up” with the world. The world has set the tone, and the professing church has sought to reach it and emulate it. The church must come to the point where it realizes that Satan himself is energizing this world system and that he always will energize it until Jesus Christ rules and reigns on the earth. Therefore, it is unwise to “Christianize” any aspect of the world and then claim that it thus honors and glorifies God.

Second, many fail to understand that mankind’s human creativity has been warped and influenced by sin. Those professing Christians today who attempt to clothe the world’s culture in “Christian” dress constantly argue that God has made us “creative people.” Therefore, they say, He approves whatever a believer does as long as he places a “Christian” label on it or as long as he uses his creativity for the glory of God. Yes, God has made man to be creative, but the creativity of mankind has been warped and influenced by sin and by the god of this world. As a result, much of the culture today stems from the product of a rebellious and unregenerate heart. It is possible even for believers to be creative in a way that is dishonoring to God just as it is possible for Christians to act or think in a way that displeases the Lord.

Third, many fail to understand that every action is rooted in a belief. In other words, what one thinks determines how one lives and acts. The unregenerate world lives and acts a particular way because it views life according to its own terms. Believers, on the other hand, should live and act in a completely different manner since their belief system is completely contrary to that of the world. The belief system, or worldview, of true Christians should find itself rooted in the Word of God. The difference between the worldview of the saved and the lost is night and day. Therefore, the lifestyle difference between the saved and lost should also be a difference between night and day. No biblical reason exists for any Christian to use the ungodly aspects of the worldly culture to win the lost to Christ.

God has called His children to be different. He has called His church to be holy. He has set a high standard of righteousness. His instructions for His church are spelled out in His Word. He has commanded us to “put off” the lifestyle and interests of the “old man” and to “put on” the lifestyle and interests of the “new man.” How is this accomplished? By putting on the mind of Christ (Eph. 4:17-24). How can one know the mind of Christ? By reading, studying and faithfully obeying His Word to His own, the Bible.

View #3—Christians Should Try to Renew and Restore Culture

This third view is prominent among evangelical Christians today and is becoming increasingly popular as leading evangelical figureheads are advancing programs designed to implement “kingdom-building” goals. According to this view, one of the church’s primary tasks is to transform and ultimately control the culture, often through political means or social action; because God is Lord of everything, Christians should seek to manifest God’s lordship in everything, including politics, art, entertainment, education or any other visible representation of society. In other words, Christians should use any lawful means possible to sanctify the political system and advance God’s kingdom in this world.

Historically, this view is often tied to a belief in the “cultural mandate” or the “cultural commission.” Dr. Charles Colson is a prominent modern-day evangelical who embraces and promotes the cultural mandate. Rick Warren of Saddleback fame is also advancing the “cultural commission” program through his latest, self-described “revolutionary” P.E.A.C.E. plan whereby he hopes to change the world through mobilizing churches to adopt villages in third-world countries for the purpose of eradicating poverty, illiteracy, disease, spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, etc. According to Colson, “If [churches] focus exclusively on [the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship and witnessing]—and if in the process we ignore our responsibility to redeem the surrounding culture—our Christianity will remain privatized and marginalized. Turning our backs on the culture is a betrayal of our biblical mandate …” (How Now Shall We Live?, x). He continues, “Evangelism and cultural renewal are both divinely ordained duties. … Our goal is to equip believers to present Christianity as a total worldview and life system, and to seize the opportunity of the new millennium to be nothing less than God’s agents in building a new Christian culture” (ibid., xii).

Colson believes Christians are to fulfill both the great commission and the cultural commission (17) and states in no uncertain terms that both commissions are “inseparable” (295). The cultural commission, he says, is “the call to create a culture under the lordship of Christ,” adding, “God cares not only about redeeming souls but also about restoring his creation. … Our job is not only to build up the church but also to build a society to the glory of God” (33). According to Colson, the biblical justification for the “cultural mandate” is found in Genesis 1:26-28 where God told Adam to have dominion over the earth and subdue it. Colson says, “The same command is still binding on us today. Though the Fall introduced sin and evil into human history, it did not erase the cultural mandate” (295).

How, exactly, is the “cultural commission” achieved? According to Colson, it is achieved not only by believers consciensiouly permeating every aspect of society for the purpose of establishing a Christian culture but also by showing unbelievers that the Christian worldview is the one that truly answers their questions. In other words, believers are to be “cultivating ethical knowledge even among the unconverted” (p. 381). So, then, a “Christian culture” can supposedly exist even among a society full of unbelievers!

Believers must understand the demands of the “cultural mandate,” or “cultural commission,” and then discern whether or not such is true to God’s Word. A careful look at Scripture reveals at least eight serious problems with this view.

First, the belief that the church should seek to renew and restore culture ignores the fact that Satan is the god of this world. He rules in the hearts and lives of all who do not know Jesus as Savior. Man’s nature has been totally corrupted since the fall, and Satan serves as the master over all things secular. The sad truth is this—the church cannot change the fact that Satan is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4).

Second, this belief faces serious historical challenges. The idea of “cultural renewal” or “cultural restoration” does not coincide with the godly lives and actions of men, women and children through ages past who faced the pagan, ungodly culture head-on and lost their lives or all their personal possessions as a result. For example, thousands of Christians have faced martyrdom, persecution and loss of material things simply because they were Christians. What is God’s estimation of such suffering? Notice Revelation 2:8-11 where God addresses the suffering, persecuted church at Smyrna. God’s exhortation: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. … Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” If their “mandate” was to change the culture, they were clearly disobedient to the Word and will of God. Yet God commends these believers for their faithfulness amid a pagan, ungodly culture.

Third, this view lacks any biblical support. No direct statement exists calling for Christians to embrace a “cultural mandate” or to redeem the culture. In fact, the one Old Testament text used to support this view, Genesis 1:26-28, was given to Adam prior to the fall. At this point, sin had not overtaken the earth nor the nature of man. No New Testament texts exist supporting such a mandate, something Colson even admits on page 296 of his book How Now Shall We Live?

Fourth, this view is not supported by the words or actions of Jesus and the apostles in the early church. Nowhere did Jesus or any of the apostles advocate a cultural restoration, nor did their actions lead to any form of cultural renewal. Jesus and the apostles emphasized the need for personal repentance and faith in Christ’s person and work. To those who did receive Christ as Savior, they urged and encouraged growth in Christian doctrine and personal witness.

The fifth problem with this view is that it actually conflicts with the words of Jesus and some writers of the New Testament who warned believers that the world will always hate them because it hated Jesus Christ. In John 15:18-21 and John 16:33, Jesus tells His disciples the world will hate and persecute them because they are not of this world but have been chosen out of the world. In 1 John 3:13, the apostle John tells believers, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.” Those who faithfully proclaim the true gospel and declare that truth can only be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ and in the Word of God will be despised and ridiculed by the world system.

A sixth problem with this view is that such a proposition requires believers to be unfaithful to God in their fellowships and associations. In other words, the concept of a “cultural mandate” or “cultural commission” requires ecumenical relationships clearly forbidden by Scripture. Those who truly believe they are called to renew or restore the culture through politics, social action or other means cannot fulfill this great task without uniting with those who embrace doctrine and practices contrary to the Word of God. Charles Colson realizes this need for ecumenical unity if the cultural mandate is to be carried out. On pages 302-304 of How Now Shall We Live? Colson writes, “The most hopeful words from any Christian leader today have come from [Pope] John Paul II, who urges believers everywhere to make the new millennium a ‘new springtime’ for the gospel. … If we are to have an impact on our culture, the beginning point must be to take our stand united in Christ, making a conscious effort among all true believers to come together across racial, ethnic, and confessional lines. In his high-priestly prayer, Jesus prayed that we would be one with one another, as he is one with the Father. The unavoidable implication of Jesus’ words is that Christian unity is the key to evangelism and cultural renewal.” Colson went on to praise the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” documents of which he was a key promoter.

A seventh problem with this view is that it completely confuses and misinterprets dispensational distinctives in Scripture. Many who advocate a cultural mandate or cultural commission believe the church is responsible to either establish or prepare the kingdom of God on earth. They often take kingdom promises or prophecies from the Old Testament or from the four Gospels and apply them to the purpose of the church today. As they work to forge a Christian political system or attempt to right the economic and social injustices in societies throughout the earth, they fail to understand that inequity, inequality and injustice will prevail on earth until Jesus Christ personally and visibly returns to earth to inaugurate His millennial reign.

Finally, this view is flawed because it fails to recognize the innate depravity of unregenerate man. A Christian culture will never exist prior to Christ’s millennial reign on earth because man’s fallen nature wants nothing to do with Christ or His Word, and without regeneration, man will never be able to live in fellowship or harmony with his Creator. Yet according to Charles Colson, Christianity is a worldview that can and should be embraced by believers as well as unbelievers. Notice his statements from How Now Shall We Live?: “While Christians must work for the conversion of individuals, we also have a duty to help build a good society by cultivating ethical knowledge even among the unconverted.” He continues saying that the most intractable social problems can only be solved “by the practice of virtuous behavior” (p. 381). Consider the following paragraph from Colson’s book: “What does it take to create the good life? A firm sense of right and wrong and a determination to order one’s life accordingly. Not out of a grim sense of duty, but because it is what fits with our created nature and makes us happiest and most fulfilled. When men and women act in accord with their true nature, they feel a sense of harmony, contentment, and joy. This is happiness, the fruit of virtue. In fact, the ancient philosophers defined happiness as something one achieves only at the end of life, after spending a whole lifetime in character training” (p. 382). Colson obviously embraces an unbiblical view of man’s true nature—a nature of sinfulness, depravity and ungodly behavior.

View #4—Christians Should Be Good Citizens and a Positive Influence in Society but Focus Their Energies on Evangelism and Discipleship

This fourth and final view presents a truly biblical approach to the church-culture conundrum. It calls for the church to focus upon faithful ministry to unbelievers and believers alike, ministry marked by meeting the true and primary need of all mankind—spiritual salvation and subsequent spiritual growth. Does God’s Word support this view? Does it teach all believers to be good citizens, faithful testimonies to those immersed in an ungodly culture and obedient students of the Word and will of God while remaining separated from the unbiblical philosophies and practices of the culture? Yes, the Bible clearly supports this final view while rejecting the previous two.

First, the text often called the “Great Commission,” Matthew 28:19-20, supports this view. Jesus told His disciples, and all believers today, to make disciples. Discipleship involves personal salvation (2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Thess. 2:4) and also spiritual growth through instruction in the Word of God (Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Tim. 2:1-2). The responsibility of the believer is to be a witness to the truth (Acts 1:6-8) and a testimony of righteousness amid an ungodly culture. Nowhere does God’s Word call upon believers to seek to renew, transform or restore the culture.

Second, the example of the apostles and early church supports this view. The apostles and believers in the early church lived amid an extremely pagan culture. Yet they traveled from town to town bringing the message of personal salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ to the people and never sought to “cultivate ethical knowledge even among the unconverted.” The apostles and early church Christians realized that apart from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, man is dead in his sins and completely unable to think biblically. If they were commanded by God to fulfill a “cultural commission” or embrace a “cultural mandate,” they failed miserably.

Third, the example of Jesus Christ supports this view. Again, Jesus failed miserably if His purpose for coming to earth included both personal and cultural salvation and restoration. Jesus offered Himself as the true Messiah to His people, Israel; and upon their rejection of Him, He suffered and died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. Even when offering the kingdom to Israel, Jesus’ message to those who believed in Him did not entail the need to transform the culture or society in order to bring in the kingdom. Rather, His message for all was to believe the King and repent and receive Him in order for the King to establish His kingdom. His message has always been a message of repentance and faith.

Finally, the New Testament epistles to the church support this view. God’s direct instruction to the church today is found specifically in these New Testament epistles, and they contain no mandate to renew the ungodly culture. Conversely, the Bible tells Christians that if they love and faithfully obey the Lord, they will be hated by the world, just as the world hated Jesus Christ. This is to be an accepted fact of life for all believers. The world will hate the believer’s message, his beliefs and his Savior. God’s instruction to His people today centers around discipleship—become a disciple, be discipled and disciple others in the Word and will of God by adhering to and teaching sound doctrine.

Years ago, the late Dr. Francis Schaffer said, “In the Roman era, when one became a Christian, it meant he stood not only opposed to the surrounding religions, but to the entire culture built on those religions.” This did not mean the early Christians isolated themselves from the world (except during great persecution where they were forced into hiding), but they opposed those things that stemmed from a culture opposed to God and His Word. The professing church today has failed to emulate the testimony and example of these godly, early Christians.

What is the church to do today? Evangelize the lost and build up other saints in the truth—sound doctrine. It must stand apart from the ungodly culture and serve the Lord as a shining testimony of the truth in a world of darkness. The church can continue to survive amid an ungodly culture; but in order to do so, it must stay on the straight path of fidelity to the plan, purpose and will of God as revealed in His Word. Believers must exercise great caution and discernment when determining what would honor and glorify God in any ministry endeavor. — Matt Costella