Culture Against Christ

Culture Against Christ February 16, 2018

Yesterday’s post about how the culture is the biggest obstacle to religious freedom reminded me of an observation made by a friend of mine, who said that H. Richard Niebuhr, in cataloguing all of the permutations of the relationship between Christ and Culture left one out:  Culture against Christ.

In 1996, when I was teaching at Concordia University Wisconsin, my colleague Angus Menuge put together a lecture series on “Christianity and Culture.”  Many of the speakers drew on H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture, arguing that this classic treatment for all of its virtues misrepresented the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.  (The papers, by the way, were published as Christ and Culture in Dialogue:  Constructive Themes and Practical Applications.)

Niebuhr described five different possibilities in the relationship between Christianity and culture, each of which has a long history in the various Christian traditions:

(1)  Christ against Culture.  The view that Christianity is incompatible with worldly culture and that Christians should separate from it.  Practiced by monastics, anabaptists such as the Amish, separatist fundamentalists, etc.

(2)  The Christ of Culture.  Christianity is part of the culture.  When the culture changes, Christianity needs to change accordingly.  Practiced by theological liberals.

(3)  Christ above Culture.  Christianity and Christians should rule the culture.  Practiced by the medieval papacy, theocratic revolutionaries, theonomists, some Christian political activists, etc.

(4)  Christ and Culture in Paradox.  The spiritual and the earthly are two separate realms.  Both have value, but they are also in tension.  Christians live in both realms as simultaneously saints and sinners, but they are torn between their conflicting allegiances.  Practiced primarily by Lutherans.

But actual Lutherans, as the lectures and the book show, believe this is a misunderstanding of their doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.  Niebuhr sets up a dualism, whereas the Two Kingdoms, while distinct and operating differently, are unified, since God is the King of both kingdoms.  In one kingdom, God is hidden and governs it providentially; in the other, He is revealed and redeems sinners for life in His everlasting Kingdom.  Christians live in both realms, in one through faith, and the other through love and by virtue of their vocations.

(5)  Christ the Transformer of Culture.  This is similar to #3, but it emphasizes not so much ruling as influence.  Christianity and Christians should be leaven that improves the culture of both Christians and non-Christians for the better.  Practiced by many in the Reformed tradition and other Christian activists.

One of the lectures was by my good friend Wayne Martindale of Wheaton College, who had worked with Chinese Christians, both here and in China.  He said that the Chinese church must contend against a culture and a government that harshly oppose Christianity.  Whichever one of Niebuhr’s alternatives the Chinese Christians might hold to doesn’t really matter.  Their cultural activity, including their ability to form their own separate culture, is restricted and controlled by the state, which is hostile to everything they believe in.

Are we at that point in the United States?  No.  Even to speak about cultural hostility to Christianity in the United States is complicated by the fact that 75% of the population professes to be Christian.  The problem here may have more to do with the dominance of Niebuhr’s position #2, so that many of those self-identified Christians can’t tell the difference between their faith and the culture, and so are driven by the latter rather than the former.

At any event, as with Niebuhr’s 5 options, Culture against Christ also has a long history.  This was the case in the early church.  Also in the “dark ages” when the barbarians over-ran the West.  Also in places throughout the world, both in the past and today, where Christians are being martyred.

What happened, historically, is that Christians eventually converted their persecutors to Christianity.  Then, having overcome the cultural hostility, they could work out the relationships in their various ways.

In the face of today’s much lesser but perhaps growing cultural hostility, Christians need to do the same.




Photo:  Anti-Christian protests in Indonesia by Cahaya Maulidian (Winluxhuman) – Corresponding author, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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