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. 4. Christ and Culture is in Paradox This view differs from the preceding option by maintaining that while both Christ and culture claim our loyalty, the tension between them cannot be reconciled by any lasting synthesis. Luther maintained that sin is universal and inside a Christian all of His earthly life, thereby making it impossible to attempt any kind of utopian society on earth. I agree that though God has dealt with our sinful nature in Christ, we are susceptible to sinful desires (sins not unto death, because our sin nature has been removed and replaced with Christ in us) and as such will never have heaven on earth. Christ in us has fulfilled the law of God on which our societies are based in order to ensure justice and law and order. The law is in play over our physical bodies and behaviour in society, which Christ affirms. We live by the grace of God without the law and find that we naturally fulfil the law of God and affirm the law of the land. Christ has become to us an "eternal law" that fulfils the "temporal law" of God. These two are held in tension, we still have to account for our actions, but by God's grace we have forgiveness of sins and a new nature at work within us. The temporal law is in place not to make the ungodly righteous, but as a means of limiting the far-reaching effects of sin in this world. As a church we uphold the law, not through self-effort but in our natural adherence to Godly principles through the natural inclination to submit ourselves to Godly authority (Romans 2:12-14). As Christians we are simultaneously subject to both the nature of Christ in us and the reality of an unrenewed and sinful mind,expressed through a physical and limited body. In the world we are subject to temporal law, and yet in Christ we are subject to the grace of God for our salvation. Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the temporal law in us as believers. The Christian life is a paradox, and keeping the two realms distinct has far-reaching effects. Since we are saved by grace and not our own works, we have no grades of holiness, or any need to separate ourselves from culture. This ultimately means that any vocation provided it is a true vocation, a station in life instituted by God, can be pursued for the glory of God. So we are in fact set free to serve. All things are permissible to the believer, but we do those things that are beneficial. This means that although we are not under the law which is temporal and cannot save any man. The temporal law does lead man to repentance and thereby curbs the extent of sin's consequences in the world as a moral guide. So those who are in Christ live by grace and find that they fulfil the law of God. So whether we live by Christ or by the law we find that we all keep the law, the one by the law written on their hearts, the other by obeying the letter of the law. So "all who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law" (Romans 2:12). So this freedom of a Christian is balanced with a respect for temporal law and secular government (Romans 13:1-7). This really does create a paradox, we who are no longer under law submit ourselves to it and should not return harm for harm (Romans 13:8-9), but in time of war we may rightly be ordered to take up arms against an oppressor in order to limit a greater evil. Also if a leader is wrong in commanding us to do something that is against God, we are not bound to obey him over God. "For it is no one's duty to do wrong, we must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29). We need to be realistic about man's inclination to sin, as unbelievers who will suffer death as a result of their sin as well as for believers who will suffer the chastisement of God. For there is a sin unto death and a sin not unto death (1 John 5:16,17). There is no place for separatism or self-righteousness either, we are encouraged in any noble service to culture. An argument could then be made that if we are justified by grace and not works, why should we then not sin all the more? The purposes of the law is to be a curb for sin, a mirror or plumbline for sin and also as a guide or tutor to lead us to Christ. The last purpose, as a guide is more optimistic than the other two, in that it affirms the universality of sin, but maintains that culture can be converted in line with God's temporal law. Where those things in culture that have been perverted can be reformed and redeemed to some extent. While this sounds good, such earthbound hopes tend to undermine the belief of eternal life and the ultimate destination of mankind in an afterlife. Transformation of culture may be seen as the whole reason for the existence of the church. The social gospel may quickly replace the salvation gospel instead of being held in tension, as they should be. Although as Christians we are under grace it might be tempting to rely on the law for social reform, exchanging the word for the sword. Also, in rejecting certain aspects of culture, we are not rejecting culture in total, as even our act of rejecting culture is a part of culture. As Christians we do reject certain aspects of mainstream culture, but not culture in totality. If we were to reject culture in totality, why would God not have taken us into heaven the moment we were saved? The fact is that discipleship occurs not by taking choices and culture away from us, but placing us directly in it to be counter-cultural. This does not mean that we are opposed to culture but it does mean that we are against any form of cultural idolatry, those aspects of culture that do not point to Christ as Lord of all. When the New Testament talks of the world it speaks of those aspects of culture that are self-glorifying and self-serving, claiming autonomy apart from God. Thus the real question is not whether we should accept or reject culture in it's totality but what is the correct principle for discrimination. We cannot be self-righteous monastics and neither can we be in rebellion from state institutions and divinely appointed offices and leaders. Ultimately we can argue for reform if the temporal law seeks to override Godly principles as in a dictatorial government, such as Zimbabwe or Iraq. When the law of God written on our hearts is held in tension with the temporal law laid down in the land, we find that we do have a paradox, we who are not held under the law, actually commit ourselves to do those things which uphold the law. As Christ is in us we do naturally what is required of us, not because of a rulebook, but out of a desire to love God and our neighbour. In our desire to uphold justice and law in our nations, social action by the church body is usually resisted as a contamination of Church and State, word with sword. The temporal law laid down by the state should be upheld by the church as the moral force in society. Where the state makes decisions that are contrary to God, moral law should still be upheld regardless of the state consequences. In this way the body of Christ is both under the law and above it, though whether under or above the law it's Lordship is still God. Where the church cannot have direct action, it can through it's members have indirect influence. This influence can be exercised through the chosen vocations of it's members. Christ lives in us to express Himself through us to the glory of God. In this way the separation of sacred and secular is closed while Christ and culture, church and state are held in healthy tension. (continued in Christ and Culture 3) Check out our site at www.god-life.com