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Issues Facing Missions Today 32: Christ For Culture in a Post-Christian World

Issues Facing Missions Today 32: Christ For Culture in a Post-Christian World

Just how should Christians engage culture in a post-Christian age?  This is the question of mission to the Western world.  This brief consideration of the question will begin with H. Richard Niebuhr’s work on this subject and then proceed to three suggestions.

H. Richard Niebuhr and His ‘Christ and Culture’ Paradigms

For over sixty years, now, academics have appealed to or started with the five paradigms of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to discuss the question of the relation between the Church and culture.[1]  Niebuhr thought any one of the paradigms could be derived from Scripture and articulated theologically, but he clearly preferred the ‘Christ transforming option.’  The following chart offers a brief way to represent his categories.

Christ Against Culture

Christ Above Culture

Christ Transforming Culture

Christ and Culture in Paradox

Christ of Culture
Church opposes and lives distinct from culture
Church controls culture
Church works to transform culture
Life in the Church and in society are somewhat distinct
Culture controls life in the Church

The word ‘transformation’ has become the way in which everyone speaks about his or her way to engage society and culture.  Thus, one of the major problems with Niebuhr’s categories is that each paradigm can be represented as a way to transform culture, not just the one getting the lucky label ‘Christ Transforming Culture’.  Anabaptists, for example, would most naturally be placed in the ‘Christ Against Culture’ category.  However, their view may offer the most hopeful way to transform culture and not be cast simply as a way to disengage from the wider culture.[2]  Living ‘against the grain’ may offer a ‘Christ for Culture’ alternative to Niebuhr’s five paradigms.  As E. R. Dodds argued in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Christianity won out over the other European religions in its first few centuries for the following reasons:[3]

  1. It was exclusivistic, offering a dogmatic faith within a syncretistic culture;
  2. It was socially inclusive, being open to all economic groups, races, and not just to men (as Mithraism) but also women, children, and slaves;
  3. It raised the stakes, offering life in Christ or eternal damnation;
  4. It offered a loving community of mutual concern.
 Another problem with Niebuhr’s categories is that they are not all options Biblically—and neither are the various options within each paradigm that some have adopted in Church history.[4]  This is not just a matter of the exegesis of particular texts in Scripture but also a matter of having some understanding of hermeneutics (how we use Scripture) and Biblical theology (how the diverse authors and writings of Scripture over time fit together coherently).  One cannot merely slap a text onto a model and claim that it is Biblical.  Most significantly, the move from God’s people as a theocracy in the Old Testament to a Church throughout the world in the New Testament, and the new identity of God’s people as shaped by the cross of Christ, lead to a radically different use of and approach to particular Scriptural passages.  As Christians, for example, we would feel uncomfortable with the exilic prayer of Israel in Babylon that concludes with

Psalm 137.9 ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’

precisely because Jesus said,

Matthew 5.44 ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Three (Related) Suggestions

As Christianity (which originated in the Middle East as a fulfillment in Jesus Christ of the hopes of Israel) finds itself the despised parent of Western culture, it needs to engage in all seriousness the question of how it will relate to its wayward child.  This is a very large discussion, to be sure.  I will, therefore, offer only a few of the many things that need to be suggested in a longer reflection.

            A Minority Identity

First, as John Howard Yoder began to teach Evangelicals in the 1970s, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a ‘majority.’[5]  These forty years later, most Evangelicals in the United States have still not made this shift in their thinking.  They still want to grasp the levers of power, defend territory as ‘Christian’, hope to appoint Christians to high office, ‘retake’ the schools, pray confessionally in public places before diverse audiences, insist that Christmas is their holy day and not the major retail holiday of Western capitalism, and support military troops no matter the war or the cause simply because ‘God and country’ go together like pancakes and syrup.  Once we realize that Christians are not a majority (as European Christians know full well!), that this really never was the case, and that this certainly will not be the case going forward, we will be free to offer that counter-testimony to culture that finally, really engages culture and, therefore, may actually bring some degree of transformation—as in the early Church.  Once we realize this, then we begin to understand that in discussions of social issues, the word ‘we’ means ‘we as Christians,’ not ‘we as citizens of this or that country.’  This is no more anti-patriotic or against culture than Paul, who could understand ‘we’ to mean ‘Christians’ while still speaking of being subject to those in authority through paying taxes, showing respect, and honouring those to whom honour is owed (Romans 13.1-7).  (Na├»ve patriotism will, of course, be criticized repeatedly by people who want more for their country than the status quo.)  Paul, who was ultimately beheaded by the Romans, could say in his lifetime,

1 Timothy 2.1-2 ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’

Prayer for those in high positions is not an endorsement of what they do but a prayer that they do what is right and not make life too difficult for believers.

            Ministry to Culture (‘Christ for Culture’)

Second, precisely by understanding ‘we’ as a minority group distinct from culture, believers can minister to culture more significantly.  Medical personnel, for example, might see themselves as citizens of a given country, but their ‘office’ as healers commits them to help persons on either side of a conflict.  Christians, likewise, have an ‘office’—or, better, a role—in the world as ones through whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to all peoples, including enemies.  The further removed culture is from Christianity, the more Christian justice and righteousness, defined by Scripture and the witness of the Church through the ages, will look foreign, impractical, and even unjust and unrighteous.  But it will, for that reason, stand out more starkly in the culture.  As Paul says, ‘When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible’ (Ephesians 5.13)—meaning that Christians should take no part in the darkness of their culture but expose it for what it is.  The early Christians intentionally and inevitably engaged the world while being careful not to take ahold of the world’s wiles or ways.  Jesus said,

John 17:15 ‘I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.’

Maintaining Convictions and Practices

Thus, third, by understanding their identity in Christ as a unique identity, distinct from the cultures of the world, Christians can maintain their convictions and practices more intentionally.  This does not (except in cases of severe persecution) entail life as some obscure sect hiding from the wicked society but it may well mean living as a light on a hill and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.13-16).  Paul, too, warned believers not to be ‘conformed to this world’ precisely because, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ—the mercies of God—it was now possible to be ‘transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Romans 12.2).  Early Christians saw this transformation as a foretaste of the resurrection from the dead, for already they began to live the new, Christian life.  They could say to one another, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (Ephesians 5.14).


The Church’s mission is not a saving message to individuals that can easily fit into whatever culture there is.  It is often a radical clash of cultures precisely because it entails Christians identifying themselves over against culture as a minority group, seeing their role not as a separation from or domination of culture but offering Christ for culture, and maintaining their own convictions and practices.  Pagan sacrifices to other gods and spirits cease, injustices are called out, the ways and means to achieve good ends are upended by the cross,[6] and society is not strong-armed into God’s Kingdom but God’s people witness by their confession of faith and community (their ‘economics’ and ‘politics’) what God’s in-breaking Kingdom means for the culture of their day.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1951).
[2] See, e.g., Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995).
[3] E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (1965).
[4] Readers might pursue this point by reading Donald Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
[5] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
[6] See, for example, Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).