This is part one of a two-part series on how the church should interact with culture.
"We're soldiers now
In the culture war
We're soldiers now
But we don't know what it's for
So tell me, what's it for?"
--"Culture War," by Arcade Fire.
Whether it is the conservative ambiance of the Religious Right in the 1980s or in more recent times, the ever-increasing polarity on issues such as abortion, separation of church and state, same-sex attraction or the contraception mandate, Christianity has had a strained relationship with American culture.
Of course, many have felt it is more than a tense dance. Some, such as author James Davidson Hunter, describes it is as a battleground with two factions, defined by their philosophical ideology, sparring with a feisty intensity.
This polarization is unfortunately deepening. Both sides continue to hunker down. The vernacular is becoming more discourteous. And both circles burned their white flags of surrender a long time ago. I sometimes wonder if they are fighting for real change or just fighting to fight.
Regardless of where you believe the Christian church is on that spectrum, I'm often embarrassed by the tone and spirit I hear coming from the lips of many Christians on certain cultural issues. Why? As pastor and author Jared Wilson says, "It is the height of weirdness to expect people who don't know Jesus to act like they do especially when we can't get our own house in order...Judgment begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17)."
Wilson is right. We must look within before we can look without. And as we confess and turn from our self-righteousness through the power of the gospel, our focus then shifts outward. We acquire a missionary impulse to enter culture with a humble confidence to share the gospel.
Unfortunately, as Wilson says, "The culture war sets the Church above and against the world, rather than in but not of the world. It turns us into picketers and politicos...It takes relationship completely out of the missional equation. It turns us from peaceful ambassadors for Christ into pontificating warriors for Christianity.
It does not ask us to serve and sacrifice, which are non-negotiables for Christian mission, but to maneuver and argue."
It's time for the church to be known what they are for, not what they are against. And the proclamation of the redeeming grace of Jesus is the core of our message. Where does this happen primarily? In culture, not in the pew.
Genesis 1:28 lays a foundation for us:
"And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
Theologians call what is happening in this verse the cultural mandate because God is charging the first man and woman to rule the earth. However, they are not to cultivate creation any way they see suitable but are to do it to the glory of God.
So the cultural mandate is the church's edict to influence every area of life for God. It is an all-inclusive notion that encompasses every domain of life where man's mind and hands are used for the good of all. This goes beyond the four walls of the church and interfaces with politics, the arts, medicine, law, science and so on.
But something corrupted this mandate. In Romans 1:22-23, the apostle Paul says, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things."
God gives the cultural mandate to bring His glory to bear on every facet of our life but like those who Paul says suppress the truth in their lives in Romans 1:18, we also trade it for lesser things. The Bible calls this idolatry.
So how do we not exchange the truth for lies in culture? There is a three-fold approach to how Christians interface with culture:
You should reject some things in culture
You can receive some things in culture
You can redeem some things in culture.
Rejecting the perversion of the cultural mandate means that we oppose all forms of immorality and injustice. The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 embody things we should reject:
Worship of false gods
Taking the name of the Lord in vain
Not resting well
Dishonoring our families
Jealously -- wanting someone's else stuff
But rebuffing things like this or things such as genocide or pornography is not enough. We must also steer society to the way things ought to be. We must direct them to God's design for His righteousness and justice to rule and reign.
Receiving what is good proves to be stickier for many Christians. The church has traditionally believed that we can only uncover good in something if and when it is all good. The problem with this is that nothing is totally pure this side of the cross and the resurrection.
Receiving what is good means that there are times when the Christian can come alongside society and support the "common grace" of a value in culture and not diminish his or her witness in the wider society.
"Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
Here we find God encouraging the Babylonian exiles to do things that in and of themselves are virtuous. Build houses, plant gardens, start families. These are things that Christians can walk hand-in-hand with culture on. But as we do this, we have to demonstrate to them that such virtuousness is not created by man but echoes the inherent goodness and justice found in the character of God.
Next time, we will talk about the third approach to culture (redeeming) that I believe is an appropriate alternative that more Christians should enact. Stay tuned.
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