We hear a lot about “culture” these days. People commend or decry various “cultural trends.” We recognize that certain people are significant “cultural influencers.” There seems to be no end of discussion regarding “cultural differences.” How should the Christian relate to culture?
Discussions of “culture” are fraught with many dangers. For starters, there is no one monolithic thing we can call “culture,” because culture exists at every level of society. We could speak of a culture of all humanity; each nation-state has its own form of culture; each ethnic group, speakers of a language, a particular race or class all have forms of culture; cultures change based on regional or local differences; religions have forms of culture; even families have their own culture. A given person will find him or herself relating to multiple different cultures at once, and few of these cultures exist in isolation. They all influence each other for good or ill.
Each person is not only a product of the cultural milieu in which he or she was born and raised but also is shaped by their posture and relationship with their own culture and other cultures which they experience. We all have different cultural markers we decide to privilege for various reasons. We strongly and actively identify according to some cultural markers while equally strongly condemning certain other markers; at the same time, we are just as much manifesting various cultural indicators which we may not even notice.
Christians tend to take a defensive posture against culture. Such is an understandable, and often necessary, position. Christians are not to be conformed to the world or to love the world (Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17), and cultures are very much things of the world. Those shaping “greater culture” seek to marginalize “Christian subculture”; this trend is quite evident in the early twenty-first century, but it was there throughout the twentieth century as well, and in some way or another has existed ever since the days the Lord Jesus walked the earth. These days Christians warn against prevailing cultural trends regarding the justification of sexual immorality, consideration of the lives of children as if they are elective choices of the parents, the role and value of faith in society, as well as a host of other issues, and for good reason: our culture does not truly respect God, life, or healthy sexuality, but then again, few cultures have (Romans 1:18-32).
Nevertheless the Christian must remember that he or she cannot escape life in culture or participation in culture. Wherever there are humans there is culture; such is how humanity establishes its existence and hands down meaningful expressions of existence and identity. Even if someone attempted to set up an “anti-culture,” seeking to resist the establishment of any kind of cultural norm, the whole project would become, in and of itself, the “anti-culture” culture! As Christians we develop and maintain a culture within the church, both in the universal and in the local sense; Christian families develop their own culture as well. It always has been this way; even in the resurrection we will maintain some sort of culture as the people of God! Jesus was part of a culture; the Apostles were part of a culture; we cannot escape culture.
We cannot presume that any given culture, regardless of its scope, is fully righteous or fully depraved; every culture is a “mixed bag,” as is consistent with all things related to fallen humans made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 5:12-21). In every culture, great or small, many of its values and principles are consistent with the revelations of God in Christ and in the Word; likewise, every culture enshrines certain attitudes or behaviors which are not consistent with godliness in the Lord Jesus.
This is, unfortunately, no less true in the church than it is in the world. Christians often manifest the pretense of the ideal, as if the church is perfect because the Lord has sanctified it, and therefore it represents all it should (Ephesians 5:22-33). It is true that the Lord has sanctified His church, and its constituent members are cleansed by the blood of Christ (cf. Titus 3:3-8); nevertheless, each local congregation is made up of people, and such people remain imperfect. A given local congregation is very likely reflecting, at any given moment, cultural attitudes intentionally postured against certain prevailing cultural norms while at the same time unconsciously maintaining and upholding other prevailing cultural norms. Ideally, faithful Christians would maintain a posture “for” all prevailing cultural norms that are good and honorable, and “against” those which are wrong, contrary to God’s purposes, and unhealthy (Romans 12:9, 17); and yet we all fall short of the ideal, and in certain respects we accept or are resigned to certain unhealthy cultural norms, and rail against certain cultural norms which we may find uncomfortable but actually may have much to commend them.
Christians do well to remain circumspect about themselves and culture at all levels. Christians must cling to what is good and abhor what is evil at every level of culture, including the cultures among themselves and in their families (Romans 12:9). Christians are easily tempted to condemn whatever they perceive is contrary to their interests; there may be times when that condemnation is right and just, but at other times such condemnation reflects inappropriate prejudice. Likewise, Christians may commend among themselves what they would condemn in others; many times Christians do not even seem conscious of the pervasive influence of culture, and all too easily associate the faith once delivered for all the saints with a particular cultural expression of that faith.
For good reason God has made one body in Christ from people of every nation, land, and culture (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 2:11-18, 4:11-16): different perspectives can help open our eyes to our heretofore unrecognized implicit attitudes and biases. Christianity is a religion designed to transcend cultural differences: Christians can faithfully serve the Lord Jesus in any culture in any time or place, and must work out in faith according to the Scriptures what they are to honor within their cultures and what they must resist. God’s purposes in Christ demand that His people reflect the diversity of humanity (Ephesians 3:10-11); we must resist any and all attempts to homogenize the church, its constituents, and its culture. May we all strive to glorify the Lord Jesus in our specific cultural contexts, encourage others to the same end, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry