In Christ and culture, author Richard Niebuhr defines the relationship many churches should have with culture. Niebuhr argues there are five types of approaches that explain the interaction which exist between the two entities. The types are descriptions of how churches should and should not interact with culture. They even illustrate the actions of evangelical churches in the search of the best method to serve Christ. In addition another aspect included in the describing the relationship with ethics, defining why the churches differ in culture.
As stated Niebuhr framework describes five approaches for church and culture relationship. The first is Christ of culture. This type of approach entails believers hailing the champion they consider with the highest moral and spiritual principles, Jesus Christ. They consider Christ as ‘…the Messiah, fulfiller of hopes, source of the holy spirit and the true faith’. There are two interpretations of the approach, which are interpretation of culture through Christ and the other, which is using Culture to interpret Christ. The second is the most significant, as it selects the teaching of Christ that harmonize with civilization.
Believers under this type believe in the messages of Christ that focus on moral and religious philosophy, which make an impact on societal culture. They put themselves in significant positions that will allow them to influence other people’s lives. However, it does have a negative approach to it. Preachers are capable of distorting the message of the scriptures with lies making it conform to the teaching acceptable in the society.
The approach differentiates the more culturally diverse or less culturally diverse churches. Where Evangelical manifests the approach creating an association of God and the country, creating the assumption that nations are Christian. The Evangelical church is less culturally diverse, as it does not take into consideration there are other beliefs of Christ in the country. The topology is also present in the more evangelistic and less evangelistic churches, where less evangelistic churches make believers retreat, making culture unbiblical. More evangelistic want to share the scriptures with the rest of the world by not for the benefit of the community while less evangelistic fear sharing the truth of the gospel because they do not want to offend others.
The second approach is Christ against culture also known as ‘new law’. Believers under this approach have a different view of the world outside the church, which is full of hopelessness and corrupted by sins. Here the kingdom of God is the solution, which purifies the world and has the authority over culture. There is clear separation of the children of God with the world and non-believers. There is allegiance to Christ because the believers have passed through life experiences that prove the presence of Christ in their lives. However, the adverse impact of the approach is that culture is the root of all sin and belief in Christ is the escape. There is no recognition of Christ or the role of the Holy Spirit in faith and creation.
The type is prevalent in the Protestant versus Catholic Church. Protestants have a belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation. They also do not believe in personal conversion but rather the spiritual transformation, which creates an allegiance to Christ. The case incorporates the Protestant, Baptist and Mennonites churches. The affluent and less affluent category also has this topology, where there is use of contributions to measure the level of sins and hopelessness in the society. For example, less affluent churches contribute more to the church and its mission, while the more affluent churches have fewer contributions in comparison. The fact shows that sin is more rampant in an affluent society as worldly sins make them not give themselves completely to the word. Wealth is a wall between the believer and his or her faith and can result in other values such as greed to be present in church.
The third topology is Christ above culture. The view incorporates Christians believing that all that is good in culture is God’s gift. There is a battle present between God and man rather than culture, where rebellion of Christ in present in culture. Culture is in balance, meaning it is neither good nor bad but sustained by God. According to Niebuhr, there is no separation of culture and God because all was possible through the grace of God. The fact has proof because God made man to be a social being and it is not possible for the society to function without the guidance of God. The church is just a guardian of the Scriptures.
The type is present in the difference between Catholics and Protestants. Where there is much debate regarding certain aspects of catholic beliefs such as Christian revelation, sacramental life, the trinity and atonement. Many protestant churches also side significantly with the Gospels of the Bible creating the difference. However, there an attempt to find balance between culture and faith because Protestant use Christian revelations to persuade non-believers to became believers but limits the institution of Christ and the gospel, as it does not use the whole Bible.
The fourth type is Christ and culture in Paradox. There is strong association of this topology with the teachings of past religious heroes such as Martin Luther King. It details the types of ethics that exist in the church and how it delivers its service. The church tries to fulfill its divine duty but achieve it through ways that are unacceptable to the society. Culture is a paradox where people want to remain loyal to Christ but have a sense of responsibility to Culture. However, there is no balance between the two entities, developing a conflict to exist between God and culture.
The type is present in catholic churches where even the scripture such as Rom. 13: 1-7 indicate that even evil exists in governments ordains or instituted by God. Preachers fill Christians with lies because their actions are not Godly. Protestants believe in spreading the word and scripture to the world, just not for conversion to Christianity. They even go further to institute the paradox by developing differences in the Bible such as light and darkness, good against evil and the church versus the world. A difference with Catholism where the scriptures themselves, Matt: 13, state they should be the light that speak of the kingdom of God.
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The topology depicts a man as both ‘…a sinner and a righteous person, a recipient of both wrath and mercy’. There is biblical tension for Christians in the world but no meaning in culture, which results in no action that favors of neither. The category of evangelic and less-evangelic churches perceives this aspect in the service to God. The difference between the two makes the churches have no urgency to reach lost people, the service is personal rather than for the people and make Christians not believe in salvation. In addition, the lack of action can be attributes such as there are many functions occurring in the church but none of activities really matter to the church and the community. Other aspects also present are such as the act of creating disciples rather than motivating Christians to reach the lost. These features are present in less evangelistic churches. It is also present in more affluent and less affluent churches where wealth is an evil that prohibits the contribution of the believer to the word and hinders their understanding of the scripture.
The last topology is Christ as the transformer of culture. Believers under this category are conversionists, who are hopeful towards culture. Their belief is that culture can change to suit belief and the whole society can convert to Christianity. Culture can change to incorporate the glory of the Lord. There can be a total transformation through the work of human creativity, redeeming culture. Other beliefs are such as the fall man was a good thing and God is the creator of all. There is a fight against evil and sin using Christianity.
The perspective of this is present is more affluent and less affluent category. Where the actions of affluent churches comprise of poor income earning believers, who believe that the society can turn to Christ. The churches spread the word to encourage other to convert into believers. In addition, such churches fight evil with faith. Churches that are more affluent do not drive their service to the church to the community. There performance of spreading the word is less significant than that of less affluent churches.
There is also presence of the topology in more evangelical against less evangelical. Churches that are more evangelical strive to spread the world to others and ensure that they convert and believe in Christ. In addition, they ensure reaching people with the scripture is their mission and their service is to the community rather than the church.
Christ and culture create a better understanding of how churches should conduct the activities regardless of the approach. They should strive to be the best and choose a topology that will enable it to achieve its spiritual mission. It defines the morals the church should have and the mistakes they do while conducting in the name of Christ. The publication enables a student to understand why such differences in churches exist and what drives the actions believers towards culture and other people in the society.
- Lipka, Michael. The most and least racially diverse U.S. religious groups. Pew Research Center, 2015.
- Masci, David. How income varies among U.S. religious groups. Pew Research Center, 2015.
- Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ & Culture. New York: HarperCollins World, 2003.
- Regan, Hilary D., and Alan J. Torrance. Christ and Context: The Confrontation between Gospel and Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
- The Holy Bible: King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2014.