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5 Christian Responses to a Changing Culture

Throughout the history of the Christian church, believers have responded various ways to their culture. Some responses have been good, whereas other responses have been less than favorable. What are the five responses? This article will examine the five forms of responses that have been made throughout history by five given caricatures. In many respects, these five responses greatly resemble the five Christian models for approaching culture given in H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book Christ and Culture.[1] The models are given in descending order from the more extreme forms of thought—opposing culture, to those that fully embrace culture.

The Monk.

The first response is that of the monk. This caricature is in no means meant to demean the great work of Christian monks throughout the centuries. However, it is meant to demonstrate the response that many in the monastery have taken over the years. When culture goes amiss, many will withdraw from the culture, completely separating themselves from the culture. This approach resembles Niebuhr’s “Christ Against Culture” approach.

As Christians face a global culture that is becoming more antagonistic towards the Christian faith (something that is anticipated by a futurist understanding of Revelation—which I hold), it is easy for many to withdraw from the cultural arena completely. Some will take the defeated attitude in saying, “I won’t make much of a difference anyhow.” For others, the ideas of a governmental hidden agenda and conspiracy-theory-powered-paranoia will cause the desire to abandon everything in culture. St. Anthony and the desert fathers are exemplary of this model. Also, Tertullian, Tolstoy, Menno Simmons, the Amish, and traditional Anabaptists have taken to this model. But it must be asked: Is this the best model?

The Mobster.

The second caricature may sound odd at first. How could a Christian hold a mobster mentality to the culture? Well, mobsters generally operate by the mantra, “I am above the law.” Their livelihood is based on a system that contradicts the law at hand. The mobster mentality holds that Christians and any given culture will always hold a degree of paradox. The Christian, while living in the world, can never necessarily appreciate the things of the world since the Christian essentially lives in two kingdoms. The Christian will always experience tensions in trying to fulfill the demands of both kingdoms.

Martin Luther is an advocate of this view. The mobster view is comparable to Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture in Paradox” model. While this viewpoint holds many great points of truth and value, one must ask: Is this the right model to hold?

The Reformer.

Reformers seek to transform. Unbeknownst to many, Luther and the early reformers did not seek to divide the church. Rather, they sought to bring the church back to a point where they felt the church was more biblically accurate. The cultural reformer seeks to transform the given culture with the gospel of Christ. The reformer will seek to convert the values and goals of the culture to the values and goals of the kingdom of God, realizing that such will not take place unless people come to know Christ as Savior.

Many heavyweights of the faith hold this view, which is comparable to Niebuhr’s “Christ the Transformer of Culture” model. Augustine, Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and Francis Schaeffer all hold to the Reformer Model. Is this the correct view? We will see.

The Ruler.

The ruler seeks to dominate a particular area. In a sense, the ruler will always battle to keep his/her power and control. When the Roman Empire dominated much of the known world during the height of their power, the Empire had to patrol areas with their soldiers to forcefully keep the peace (somewhat of an oxymoron).

The ruler mentality of Christians pertaining to the culture holds that change can only take place when the church is given authority over a particular area. The answers to life’s problems are found in the specific revelation of God (i.e., the Bible), thus the only way to bring culture and faith together is to assert dominance over the culture. This model is comparable to the “Christ Above Culture” model presented by Niebuhr. It is said that Thomas Aquinas is the greatest advocate of this model. Is this the best model to hold?

The Politician.

The last viewpoint is the exact opposite of the Monk Model. Politicians have the reputation of avoiding specific answers when presented certain questions. Many successful politicians are wishy-washy as they seek approval from both sides of the aisle. In like manner, the Politician Model is one that seeks to assimilate the culture into one’s faith. Being comparable to Niebuhr’s “Christ of Culture” model, it is no surprise that liberal Christians often adopt this mindset.

Feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, anti-hell theologian Rob Bell, Matthew Vines, “cultural Christians,” and process theologians would fit within the Politician Model. Quite frankly, it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly what the beliefs of many cultural Christians are. In many respects, one would imagine that the culture has shaped their biblical hermeneutics rather than biblical hermeneutics shaping their cultural stance. But in their defense, many of these individuals hold that if Christianity does not adapt to the culture, they fear that Christianity will become irrelevant at best, or will die at the worst. Is this true? Is this the best model?

Conclusion: The Preferred Model

Nearly all of these models hold some value and truth. The monk is correct in thinking that the Christian needs to step away from cultural trends. Christians may find solace in stepping away from the grid from time to time. The mobster is correct in thinking that a paradox will always exist between the Christian life and the cultural life. As the old adage goes, “Christians are in the world, but not of the world.” The reformer is correct in thinking that change must happen through the gospel message. That requires engagement. The ruler is correct in thinking that the Bible holds the right answers to the problems of life. For all the problems of the politician model, it is agreed that Christianity must at least listen to the concerns of the modern culture.

In my estimation, the politician model (if you could not tell already) does not hold the answer for the modern Christian. If the gospel message is lost, there is no Christianity to keep alive. Without the gospel and the truth of God’s word, Christianity has already become irrelevant. However, if the Bible is God’s word (which I believe it is), then its truths transcend culture. Thus, the politician model is the weakest of the four.

The monk model is not preferred either. Christ calls for us to be “my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[2] It is difficult to tell people about Christ throughout the ends of the earth while Christians are disengaged with society. In fact, many have argued that it is because of this mentality that the universities were lost to secularism in the late 1800s. Princeton, Yale, and other ivy-league institutions used to be front and center for orthodox Christian values. In like manner, it could be argued that the reason our culture has become so secularized is due to the withdrawal of Christians from active service in society.

The ruler model does not seem to be preferred either. The Christian cannot force a person into the kingdom. In like manner, Christian dictatorship leads to a “cultural Christianity” which is not necessarily a genuine Christianity.

The mobster mentality is correct in its assessment. However, it seems that such a view could lend itself to the Monk Model if taken to extremes. Thus, the mobster mentality holds great value, but does not seem to be the best outlook.

In my estimation, I feel that the Reformer Model is best. The only hope that people have is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ can and will transform the culture ultimately in the end. The reformer does not allow his theology to be altered by the culture. Nor does the reformer allow his fears to cause him to hide away from the culture either. He is engaged with the culture and realizes that the only hope for humanity is found in the gospel. Nothing will change unless there is a transformation. A transformation cannot happen without the gospel of Christ. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ will bring change to a troubled culture.

© July 11, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Sources Cited

[1] See the following link for a chart describing the five approaches given in Niebuhr’s book: http://christianculturecenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/christ-and-culture.png.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

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