What is the relationship between church and the surrounding culture? The topic of Christian cultural engagement has been, and continues to be, one of the great theological and ethical questions each generation of Christ-followers has to work through. There is no default answer to the question, considering that Christians in one cultural setting will have to answer it in a very different way than those in another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a very different response to the question in Nazi Germany than John Wesley did in George III’s Britain.
Despite the “case-by-case basis” nature of Christian interaction with culture, all genuinely Christian responses aim toward the two-pronged goal of witnessing to the lordship of Christ and seeking to live as the holy people of God. Thus, even though Christians in China will have a very different take on the question of cultural interaction than those in United States, both groups are still united around Christ-centered witness and holy living as the Church. This core goal unites all the diverse answers to the question of Christians and culture into a diverse-yet-unified enterprise.
With that being said, it is helpful to have a general framework for Christian cultural interaction. While many such frameworks have been (and continue to be) formulated and espoused, the classic and venerable “five-types” schema laid out by American theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr continues to be of great service to the Church. In his 1951 book, Christ and Culture, Niebuhr outlines the five most prevalent ways in which the Church has reacted to and interacted with culture:
Christ Against Culture
Christ of Culture
Christ Above Culture
Christ and Culture in Paradox
Christ the Transformer of Culture
While space prevents a detailed examination of these five types, we can at least take a look at the key characteristics of each one and then look at how Christians can best appropriate Niebuhr’s schema for our own interactions with culture.
1) Christ against Culture
The first type that Niebuhr examines in Christ and Culture is “Christ Against Culture.” This type is characterized by what many would call a sectarian impulse amongst its adherents. This type generally espouses that the world is so hopelessly corrupted by sin that the only viable response on the part of Christians is to retreat from the world and form their own communities that are as separate from the surrounding culture as possible. Historically, this type is seen at its best in groups such as the Anabaptists, who simply desired to live a peaceful life away from the world in service to Christ. A more modern example would be something like the cultural-interaction model known as the Benedict Option, espoused by Eastern Orthodox writer, Rod Dreher. At its worst, this type can be seen in the various sectarian fundamentalist groups that sprang up in the first half of the 20th century.
2) Christ of Culture
The second type, “Christ of Culture,” is on the polar opposite end of the spectrum from “Christ Against Culture.” While the first type adheres to an almost wholesale retreat from the surrounding culture, this second type seeks to eliminate any opposition between Christianity and the surrounding culture. While this view technically seeks to find the highest common ground between Christianity and the non-Christian culture, almost inevitably, Christ ends up being subordinated to Culture in this type, at least in all of the historical instances in which it was predomainant. A textbook example of this type is the Protestant liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which stripped Christianity of all its important doctrinal distinctives (Christ’s atoning death, His physical resurrection, His return to judge the living and the dead, etc.) in favor of a watered down and subordinated Christianity that was little more than a set of basic morals.
3) Christ Above Culture
Having presented the two “extremes” of the five types, we can now lay out the three mediating positions that have more or less characterized orthodox interactions with culture throughout the centuries. The first of these, and the third type presented by Niebuhr, is “Christ Above Culture.” In this type, everything that is good about the culture is viewed as a gift from God. However, such cultural goods are incomplete in themselves for Christian appropriation. To be fully usable for orthodox Christians, such goods must be brought into the service of and redeemed by Christian revelation. Thus, while this type shares much in common with the “Christ of Culture” type, it manages to avoid that view’s tendency to subordinate Christ to Culture. Thomas Aquinas is the best example of this type, as can be seen by his appropriation of the good in Aristotle’s philosophy in service to the Church.
4) Christ and Culture in Paradox
The fourth type presented by Niebuhr is “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” This type acknowledges that culture in itself is a part of God’s good creation and that certain aspects of culture, such as the governing rule of law, are God-ordained institutions. At the same time, it strongly acknowledges the fact that sin infects and corrupts all of creation, including culture and its institutions. This good-yet-fallen culture exists in tension with God’s Kingdom as it has been inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection and as it awaits its final consummation in His return. On this view Christians must fully live into “being in the world but not of it.” The Christian life, in its interactions with culture, is characterized by navigating this tension and always seeking how best to live without compromise as a witness to Christ and the Christian holiness. Martin Luther and his doctrine of “two kingdoms” is a classic example of this type, with a more recent example being Reinhold Niebuhr’s (H. Richard’s brother) “Christian realism.”
5) Christ the Transformer of Culture
This fifth and final type—“Christ the Transformer of Culture”—sees culture as a good-yet-fallen aspect of creation just as the fourth type does. Unlike the fourth type, though, this view believes that Christians are called to actively transform the culture in which they find themselves. Since Christ is lord over all of creation, Christians should actively try and transform the culture to be more in accord with the coming Kingdom of God. This view has been very common among the theological descendants of John Calvin, such as the Puritans and figures like Dutch Calvinist theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper.
So What Now?
So what do these five types have to do with us as American Evangelical Christians? Quite a bit, actually. While the Western world has been gradually shifting into a post-Christian cultural context, the past few months have seemed (at least for those of us in the United States) like a repeated series of direct assaults on a culture that many still believed to largely be Christian in its moral outlook. News headlines, Supreme Court rulings, and undercover videos have ignited the already hot topics of gender dysphoria, same-sex marriage, religious liberty, abortion, and several other questions pertaining to morality, human sexuality, and personhood.
Such topics demand a thoughtful interaction from orthodox Christians. How do we best interact with a society that is no longer “culturally Christian” in its outlook? What do we do now that orthodox Christians—from a cultural worldview standpoint—are simply one among other religious groups instead of the predominating one?
While the obvious first steps are to continue pursuing those unifying goals of witnessing to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and continuing to live lives of beautiful holiness as the set apart people of God, we must also look back to how Christians before us went about interacting with their surrounding cultures. I’ll say right off the bat that the “Christ of Culture” type and the extreme form of “Christ Against Culture” will not do. Repeating the errors of the Protestant liberalism and fundamentalism of the early 20th century is a path we do not want to venture down. We can afford neither to abandon the culture, nor to capitulate to it. Instead, we will have to critically think and look at what the other three categories (as well as the more measured “Christ Against Culture” view, á la the Benedict Option) offer to us as guides. How can we creatively and thoughtfully utilize and combine the “Christ Above Culture,” the “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” and the “Christ the Transformer of Culture” types to better interact with the post-Christian culture emerging around us?
As an aspiring teacher of the Bible and Christian theology, and a Christian who is deeply committed to keeping the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (including the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, marriage, and the human person) I realize the importance of this task, not only for my peers but for everyone in the church. Thankfully Christ is the one who leads in this new endeavor, no matter what “type” or combination of them we settle on.