God and Culture

Since bad ideas drive out good ideas, it’s helpful to occasionally take stock of some ideas that have pushed their way into the driver’s seat. Since culture is changing rapidly in a secular direction, the question of how the church should relate to the culture is back in discussion. One view is the approach of silence—only talk about the cross and ignore the BLM riots, dudes swimming in the girls’ race, and governments canceling church services in the name of COVID. The silent approach is that since God is the vision, giving attention to cultural issues distracts from the vision.

The problem is that while God is the vision, culture is the context. The church may not be interested in cultural issues, but cultural issues are interested in the church. In the broadest sense, culture is the totality of human activity. Defined more practically, culture is the set of values and the web of beliefs that make up the collective viewpoint that influences behavior. Culture collectively transfers inherited meanings, morality, and attitudes. It defines what is “normal.” It tells people what songs should be on their Spotify list if they want to be cool, what significance being gay or straight has, and how to measure the meaning of a college degree. In the United States, culture trains individualistic conformity to the communal consensus—a consensus marked by fedity rather than faithfulness.

To say that the church should be interested in cultural engagement is to say that some of the church’s attention should be occupied by understanding the culture, resisting its sinful influences, and cultivating Christian society. There are cultural winds and waves that Christians must be aware of (Eph. 4:14). There are rulers, authorities, and cosmic forces that Christians must “wrestle against” (Eph. 6:12). There is a “course of this world” that follows “the prince of the power of the air” that Christians must not walk in (Eph. 2:2). There are philosophies of empty deceit that ought not to take Christians captive (Col. 2:8). There are women of the world Christians must not marry, lest they are influenced by their culture and turn from God (Jud. 3:6; 1 Kings 11:3-8). There is a “wisdom of the age” and those who live according to it are “doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2:6).

Too many voices in the church today cry that we ought to keep silent about the myriad of controversial issues because, they argue; if we address them, we will lose our opportunity to present the Gospel. The silent treatment leaves the church unaware of the surrounding culture and makes little attempt to take stock of the world into which the Word is preached. But this is surely wrong. As Martin Luther made plain in his day, to fight unbelief at any point other than where the battle is being fought in one’s day is to lose the battle. Francis Shaeffer said something similar, “The Christian must resist the spirit of the world in the form it takes in his own generation.”[1] It is our task to bring God’s truth to bear at the very places where our culture is in rebellion. In so doing, Christians expose the darkness of secular culture with the light of God’s truth.

The issue of whether or not Christians should engage the culture is a two-level discussion, first the abstract level, then the practical level. One may abstractly argue against cultural engagement, but then reverse course when the practical example is the Third Reich. So, if the discussion intends to be a fruitful one, it must be more than just an abstract view of the object. It’s not simply a yea or nay question that stands stripped of every relation. It’s not merely an academic discussion. It’s an issue that relates to human actions and human concerns in the present moment.

Therefore, since circumstances give reality to the principles of cultural engagement, we cannot sit on top of naked theological abstractions, as lofty as they sound. For example, one might race to the “Gospel-centered” high horse and announce “nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified!” Abstractly speaking, this is good. And not just good, it’s biblical, if getting the quotation correct is the chief concern (1 Cor. 2:2). But, should we join the excellent fellow and hop on the high horse without enquiring what the nature and effect of Christ crucified was? Should we join any and everything labeled “Gospel-centered” before we are informed of how it combines with the collection of all the Scriptures? Are we to congratulate the “Gospel-centered” approach that pretends to not see madmen running outside the constraints of reality? What if the effect of the “Gospel-centered” talk is that people everywhere do what they please? What if “Gospel-centered” means to create crisis conversions and let society take care of itself? Is it “Gospel-centered” to stand aloof from the fact that Christ’s death and resurrection set the entire creation free from its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:21)?

Edom was judged because on the day the enemy entered Judah’s gates, they “stood aloof” (Obad. 1:11). The Edomites began with silence, passively observing enemies looting. Then they gloated over Judah’s problems (Obad. 1:12). Then they attacked the helpless refugees from Judah (Obad. 1:14). Notice how cooperation with the enemy starts: with aloofness and silence.

There is a certain folly and falsity to think one can live in a place without being shaped by it. When a family settles down in a home, they become part of the home. Likewise, when they live in a culture, they become part of that culture, unless there is fierce resistance. Modern American culture is in bondage to corruption. The gods of our culture utter nonsense, see lies, tell false dreams, and give empty consolation (Zech. 10:2). The transgressions of the culture are well documented: Abortion, government corruption, more children born out of wedlock than in it, identity politics, and the celebration of homosexuality. The church, too, is in a particular type of cultural bondage. Spiritually, the United States has become a place where salvation is therapy, happiness is tied to the latest technique, everyone is entitled to the latest gadget, and God is found in the self.

Silence is unacceptable because conforming to the world is fundamentally a passive position while conforming to Christ is an active one. In other words, those who do nothing default to the culture’s clutches. Cultural aloofness leads to slow conformity. The demands of Christ’s teachings pull in one direction while the habits of culture pull in the opposite direction. This problem cannot be solved with detachment or disengagement. You must, as Flannery O’ Connor said, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” The gospel “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). It is those who grasp the implications of repentance in their cultural context that grow into maturity. If you don’t know Scripture and culture, how will you know when you’ve exchanged the sensibilities of one for the other? How will moral character form? How will Christian wisdom result?

So, why should Christians engage with the culture? We must engage because the impersonal voice of culture comes through a media consensus that eventually reaches even the most sheltered family. We must engage because one’s experience in the culture creates in them a framework for thinking and a paradigm of wanting that takes them into a very different place from the thinking and wanting Scripture prescribes. We must engage because culture fills you and empties you. What is it filling you with and what is it emptying you of? Whatever fills you and empties you shapes not only the way you see things but what you see in the first place. When a culture is overwhelmingly secular, the consequence is a befogged mind, unable to see reality.

American secular culture has “rulers and authorities.” They are the ranks of evil beings arrayed against God, God’s Christ, God’s Word, God’s law, God’s will, and God’s truth. They are the mysterious fingers of culture that gather unguarded souls into captivity. Three things must happen for sinner’s captivity to be broken. First, their trespasses must be forgiven (Col. 2:13). Second, their “record of debt” must be canceled (Col. 2:14). Third, the “rulers and authorities” must be disarmed (Col. 2:15).

The cross turns captivity into triumph, not by waving a magic wand, but by disabling the instruments through which evil is practiced. The cross “disarmed” the instruments of evil. The debt is paid, the broken relationship is reconciled, God’s wrath is put away, and Satan’s hold is broken. Through the cross, the enemy’s grip is loosened and evil is crippled. The justified and reconciled people of God now take God’s cistern and wash the four corners of the universe until it is free from all Satan’s influence. If the goal of the world is Christian faith, then Christianity should be taking the culture captive.

If you are interested in joining our cultural apologetics study group, email office@trinityreformedkirk.com for more details.

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

[1] Francis Shaeffer, The God Who is There, Pg 31