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Christ and Culture (Part 1)

Christ and Culture Part 1

The conflict between Christ and culture is not new and neither is it rare. It is a daily occurrence as the boundaries are blurred and the culture develops. Christians have been viewed more often than not as subversive because of a belief that they are destined for more than just a human destiny. Many times they have paid a high price for it and continue to do so, from the early Christian martyrs of Rome to those who refuse to bend their beliefs to the desires of a communist state. In many nations of the modern world the underground church is still being persecuted.

Such cases are disturbing but expected. In many nations there are overt and covert attempts to silence religion, that is out of favour, from being expressed in public institutions. Religious views are being marginalised and reduced to impotent fairy tales better suited to children's bedrooms before a good night kiss, or perhaps some trivial, private and quiet hobby like stamp collecting. Religion is seen as an activity not befitting an intelligent public-spirited adult.
Religion is seen as a past-time not a lifestyle. The issue is very much current as well as historical. To tackle question of Christ and culture we should clearly define Christ and culture.

Christ as the Son of God points us away from the many values man tends to prioritise and to the one God who is truly good. Yet at the same time, Jesus is a mediator between God and man, in Jesus we see God's love for man as well as man's love for God. Christ in us is a joining of the two. This duality in Christ leads us to a corresponding duality of expression of Christ in us.

Our faith has both a vertical dimension (directed to God the Father through Christ in us) and a horizontal dimension (directed through Christ in us to our neighbour). Any adequate address of Christ and culture needs to emphasise both that we are seated with Christ in heavenly places, above and beyond the world and hate the world, in that we find no cause for identity in it, and at the same time God in fact gave His life for the world as a result of His love for mankind, and enjoins us to do the same.

We hate the sin but love the sinner. Culture comprises of language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisation, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values.

So what happens when Christ and culture collide? How are we to deal with Christ and culture in daily life. Here are a few ideas of how Christians have often dealt with this issue.

1. Christ is against culture
The most radical answer is that Christ is against culture. God is the sole authority for the Christian, presenting Christ and culture as an either/or choice. If we follow Christ we must reject any loyalty to culture.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).

Some would argue that the prince of this world is Satan therefore to choose culture is to choose loyalty to the devil.

All state obligations are against the conscience of a Christian - the oath of allegiance, taxes, law proceedings and military service. Christians in this view are encouraged to separate themselves from the culture, either individually as Tolstoy did, or corporately as the Mennonites have done, as a monastic community.

The integrity of those adhering to this option is shown firstly, in their willingness to suffer martyrdom in some cases under evil governments, and secondly, in the social reforms they provoke.

The problem with this option is that it is impossible to separate oneself from culture as it permeates our thinking and language, in fact it is as much around us as it is in our heads. Though it may be possible to keep some evil aspects of culture out of our communities by separatism, we cannot rid ourselves of our own predisposition to sin.

If the Amish live apart from state institutions or from mainstream technology and consumerism, all they succeed in doing is creating sub-cultures that while they may be counterculture, never attain to acultural status. The fact that a monastic lifestyle often required many rules and forms of discipline is proof enough of the inherent tendency of man to fall into old patterns of sin. Because of this, separatist groups tend to adhere to grades of holiness that can only be maintained through works. Claiming that the monastic life lead to greater holiness is why Luther said that it was not only unnecessary but, if it was chosen for this reason, it would become an institution of the devil!

Separatism also only emphasises Christ's role in drawing us away from culture (the vertical dimension) but ignores God's role in our continued relationship with culture (the horizontal dimension). If Tolstoy was right, a Christian should pay no taxes, something that Jesus Christ said we should do. Jesus also tells us to love our neighbours, who are for the most, part found in mainstream culture where practical works of love have to be culturally relevant to the people who need God's love to understand it as such.

Christ even seems to reject separatism in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan crossed cultural norms to help whereas the priest and Levite for the sake of holiness kept themselves apart from him. The Samaritan is held up as our moral guide in the story.

In order for culture to be rejected in favour of Christ, logic requires that God Himself is not a

part of culture. This would make sense if we only knew God as solely spiritual, but we also know Him as incarnate. He shows His nature in creation, which expresses His attributes, in Jesus by incarnation as a specific and very cultural human being (Hebrews 2:14-18), as well as in believers today through the indwelling Spirit of Christ in every believer. Since we are to follow Christ in all things, we should follow him in the cultural dimension as well.

2. Christ is of Culture
Cultural Christians claim that Christ is to be understood as the highest aspiration and fulfilment of culture. So it is possible to affirm both Christ and culture and to deny any necessary opposition between the two.

Culture can be interpreted through Christ, where the elements of culture that are most complimentary to Jesus' work and person are the best; as are those things that can be understood of God through culture.

In this way they are most accommodating, reconciling Christianity with what appears to be the greatest achievements of culture. The early church had it's share of Hellenizers, Judaizers and Gnostics who joined Christ to their mystical philosophy, and in the same way today there are many who attempt to reduce Christianity to practical morality and Jesus Christ to one of many great moral teachers.

The error of this option is equal to, but also in direct opposition to separatism in that it is so concentrated on the world that while focused on the horizontal dimension it ignores the vertical dimension. Thus putting very little emphasis on grace or eternity aand the afterlife, and producing a self-reliant form of humanism.

Ultimately this deifies man and humanises God, creating theology in man's image through connecting Christ with some cultural movement one wishes to endorse. So we have Christianity AND homosexuality, Christianity AND new psychology, Christianity AND Veganism, Christianity AND political correctness or Christianity AND any other syncretism you could care to mention.

So we end up thinking that some aspect of God can be found in a same-sex relationship and the acceptance of homosexual rights. Political correctness in a culture takes preference over what the Bible may say about a subject. And we find that as the horizontal dimension gets distorted the vertical dimension gets ignored. We listen to the spirit of the age more than the Holy Spirit.

There is one aspect of accommodation that is relevant to us. When communicating the gospel we do need to adapt it to our audience, that is, while not compromising the message of the gospel we should present it incarnate so that it translates into the understanding of the people-group. We need to present a contextualised Christianity, not syncretism. Paul adapted his delivery dependant on whether his audience was Jewish, gentile, Roman or Greek in order to make it relevant to their way of thinking. Jesus did the same with His parables. By being cultural chameleons we can take the gospel message and find culturally relevant clothing to make it relevant. This is the incarnation of Christ in the prevailing culture.

3. Christ is above culture
In this view Christ and culture are synthesised. This option says that culture has good in it since God created the world and though it was distorted by the fall it is not entirely evil, it still has attributes of God in it. So in this view we cannot say "either Christ or culture" because we are dealing with God in both cases and we also must not say "both Christ and culture" as if there was no distinction between them.

Thomas Aquinas believed that the church is simultaneously in and beyond the world, leading people to salvation in heaven, while affirming the best in this world's culture. He believed that God has purposes in the temporal as well as the eternal realms.
This option affirms a stable relationship between church and state as well as encouraging the conservation of values and authority. The church should back up the government's authority to maintain order. So in the earthly as well as in the Heavenly realms there is a hierarchical organisation in church and state.

There is one King over the temporal and the eternal and we have practical solutions for living the Christian life within culture and gives incentive for government and education as well as encouraging academic principles.
The danger is that the church will socially stagnate and fossilise with it's emphasis on values and authority, it may perpetuate dictatorships and prevent legislative reform. If respect for temporal authority is too great, there is a danger that man made laws will undermine God's law.

There is also no separation of church and state, leading to prohibition or the evil of forcing people to change their beliefs by relying on the sword rather than the word. The integration of church and state to make people believe things is evil and pretty impossible because changing someone's behaviour produces a hypocrite, and even though you can change someone's behaviour through force, it still does not mean you have changed their belief.

Please see the other parts of this article..... Christ and Culture


About the Author

Aleck Cartwright is an author, journalist, graphic designer, missionary, teacher and Christian who runs his own website called www.god-life.com, he writes on and addresses many different topics and issues from a Biblical world-view.

Written by: Aleck Cartwright

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