Kingdom and Culture/Christ and Culture

These are the fundamental basics of understanding Kingdom and Culture. The Bible teaches that once Jesus ascended and was enthroned at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:1-2; Psa. 2:6), the Kingdom was restored to Israel through the apostles with the giving of the Spirit of God on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:6-8, 2:33-34; cf. John 7:37-39). Through the Spirit, the apostles and the church built upon their foundation, are called to take this Gospel/Kingdom message to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

The coming of the Kingdom, or the full manifestation of the rule and reign of God in Christ, will be gradual, but successful (Matt. 13:31-33; 1 Cor. 15:24-28). When Jesus came, the Kingdom was at hand (“Already”), but Jesus taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom Come” (“Not Yet”). We must be confident, yet patient as the Kingdom comes, neither under-realized (too much “not yet”), or over-realized (too much “already”) in our Gospel expectations! When we study Kingdom and Culture, we should seek to be as balanced as possible between both realities of the “already” and the “not yet”. We should expect to affirm truth where we find it in culture (“Yes!” See Acts 17:23-24, 28-29), but also be ready to challenge with a biblical antithesis (“No!” See Acts 17:30-31) as we engage the culture around us.

Jesus said: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18); this means it is primarily a spiritual kingdom manifested in and through the church (not a kingdom of the sword). The Spirit-empowerment we receive to be witnesses to Jesus’ Kingdom in our culture is not according to the power structures of this present age. Nevertheless, through God’s power we can be confident of His power in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Acts 7; 14:22; Rom. 8:31-39). The Spirit gives power in weakness, to witness spiritually in the face of persecution and opposition, trusting God for spiritual success and the extension and expansion of His Kingdom (Acts 28:30-31). There are three implications to this (Spiritual, Service/Submission, and Satisfaction): 1. Spirit-empowered means to know the primary spiritual means God equips His people for service: Word, Sacrament, Prayer, and Fellowship; 2. Spirit-empowered means to teach us service and submission to Christ, to one another in the faith; 3. Spirit-powered means to cause us satisfaction in Christ through peace with God and joy (Rom. 14:17).

Kingdom and Culture Introduction: Four Main Views in Church History (Using H. Richard Neibuhr’s original categories, updated with the way that these four ways are primarily described today, see D. A. Carson’s ‘Christ and Culture Revisited’). Each of these summaries, I have sought very simply to define them, and to point out both their possible strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Christ of Culture – Relevance. Church seeks to be relevant, seeking to meet folks where they are (seeker-sensitive), especially interested in providing help to the poor, needy, marginalized, and underprivileged, but can become focused more on “grace” and detached from truth (Jesus is full of both “grace and truth”). This position can become hard to distinguish between the church from the world, or worldly ways of doing things. This can be an active, culturally involved position, but overrealized in its understanding of the coming of the Kingdom, and insufficient in its Gospel priority. This position can stress common grace, but not sufficiently understand the common curse. This position relies on an affirmation of culture, without challenging with a biblical antithesis.
  1. Christ Against Culture – Countercultural Church. Church seeks to be God’s people, cultivate spirituality, and live out symbolically before the world what life should look like in God’s world (theologically, sociologically, psychologically, and ecologically), but this position can become too separated from culture, and often antagonistic against it. This can become an unhealthy “fortress mentality” or “evangelical ghetto” seeking to preserve what is good in the Church, while not understanding the importance of being a witness and a preservative of salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:14-16). This position can become too passive in seeking change in the world, and while it rightly seeks to challenge with the antithesis between Kingdom and culture, it usually finds no place to affirm truth wherever it is found. This position tends to stress the common curse, but not common grace.
  1. Christ and Culture in Paradox – Two Kingdoms (both Reformed and Lutheran versions) Church seeks to be church, to emphasize the importance of the visible church, the means of grace, and the realm of common grace, but can become passive to real and urgent needs in the world, and somewhat pessimistic about change in this world. This position excels in seeing how important the local, visible church is to the world, where the Word, Sacraments, and biblical discipline are upheld. This position seeks to call believers to excellence in their callings (those interested in this position will teach a great deal about one’s vocation and the importance of this in the world). This position seeks to stress the antithesis between Kingdom and culture (thus “two kingdoms”), focusing on the common grace in which all mankind lives.
  1. Christ Transformer of Culture – Church seeks primarily through individuals to have a particularly Christian worldview, or specifically Christian way of doing family, vocation, art, music, etc, but can become individualistic, triumphalistic, proud, and depend too much on politics or other power structures of this present age. This position excels in calling Christians to focus on the Gospel, and seeking through the Gospel to transform government, the arts, science, etc. This position tends to be very active in the world, and affirms the truth as being God’s truth wherever it is found. This position stresses the common curse and the need for a particularly Christian influence in the world.

As witnesses of the Kingdom of God as a congregation, and as individuals, let us seek to be faithful to the Gospel.  All of the positions summarized above have a certain amount of faithfulness to Scripture, but we desire to pray for discernment and wisdom, and seek to maintain the spirit of unity and bond of peace as Christians in this world (Eph. 4:1-6; 5:15-17; John 17:17-26). Let us seek to use the strengths of each of these positions, being cautious of their weaknesses. I have sought to fairly represent each position as much as possible. It is important to note that there can be some inconsistencies in each position, and so let us interact humbly and patiently (as Paul advised Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:23-35).

If you want to think more about our witness as a congregation, and your witness as an individual in your daily vocations, then I would recommend the following books/authors below for further study (These books have influenced my thinking very much and incidentally, I came to very similar conclusions before I read most of them, as I have tried to study and teach Christ and Culture over the last 15 years or more):

* James Davison Hunter’s ‘To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World’

* Tim Keller’s ‘Center Church’ (especially Part 5, chaps. 15-18)

* Greg Forster’s ‘Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It’ (see my short review in ‘New Horizons’, April 2015, pg. 22ff: )

* Articles and audio magazines by Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio)

All of these agree to some degree that our best Christian witness will be to take the best from each of the four main approaches to Christianity and Culture and incorporate them into our understanding. Pastor Tim Keller has helpfully created a model to think about the four main views (see cultural engagement diagram below; the “blended insights” are where all Christians can agree for a unified witness whether they tend to be more active or passive).

Perhaps this study will help you to know what you emphasize the most in your witness to the Kingdom, and where it could help you to humbly listen more to other biblical models. I would also encourage you to read Pastor Kevin DeYoung’s helpful blogs and articles on these matters. He tends to stress the strengths, while encouraging Christian charity and humble patience.

Peace! The Kingdom of God [is about]…righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit! (Rom. 14:17)

In Christ’s love,
Pastor Biggs

Christ & Culture Diagram