One of the most influential theological books of the 20th century was Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr. In it, he presents five categories to describe how Christians might relate to the culture in which they live. This is an important question for Christians to consider as issues of racism, sexual orientation, gender identity, drug abuse, immigration, violence, and more seem to be so prevalent in the media. How are Christians called to respond to these cultural issues? As we contemplate such a relationship, I want to present Niebuhr’s five approaches for your consideration.
Christ against Culture: If you’ve ever felt like joining a monastery to escape the “ways of the world,” you might subscribe to this approach. Proponents of this position seek to be faithful to Christ by rejecting culture and society, which is viewed as corrupt and irreparable. This is one of the two extremes and implies that there is no hope for Christians to change the world. If we consider how Jesus reached out to the least and the lost, I think it seems obvious that this is probably not the best approach.
Christ of Culture: On the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that there is no conflict between Jesus and culture. It is the strongest form of liberalism, where personal experience trumps Scriptural authority and righteousness is sacrificed for the sake of inclusivity. As I read the New Testament, I keep seeing Jesus call people to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) and to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Thus, I do not think Jesus would embrace a culture that celebrates sin and immorality.
If Christ against Culture and Christ of Culture are on opposite ends of the spectrum, then the next three land somewhere towards the center.
Christ above Culture: This stance argues that one does not have to choose between Christ and culture, but that the two can work together synthetically. Christ, fully man and fully God, exists in both the realms of heaven and earth, the holy and the sinful. He enters our culture from the outside, bringing a sense of righteousness that we could not know without Him.
Christ and Culture in Paradox: Another more middle position is that Christ and culture live in tension with one another. It assumes that human culture is tainted with sin and often conflicts with God’s desire for His creation. Such an approach recognizes how God is both merciful and just and how Christians must live in the world, yet set their minds on things above (Col. 3:2).
Christ transforming Culture: Finally, we come to the idea that Christians are meant to transform their culture in the name of Christ. Elements of our culture that are not in conflict with God can be affirmed, while elements that are corrupt must be realigned with Christ. If Christ can redeem the individual, He can also redeem our culture, but He’ll do it through His church.
While this might not be an exhaustive list, it helps provide some ideas as to how Christians should respond to our ever changing culture. What elements of our culture do we accept, reject, and seek to transform?
Rev. Timothy Wilmetti