Christians Versus Culture

The Seventh-day Adventist Church can truly claim to be international in its work and global in its vision. After 150 years of one of the most persistent and systematic mission programs in church history, we have established Adventism in 209 of the 236 countries recognized by the United Nations. Our membership is almost nine million. We are increasingly involved in the arts, education, government, health care, mass communications, research, and socio-economic development in many parts of the world.

However, growth on a global scale produces its own dilemmas. One dilemma that confronts our church today is not a new one. In fact, it has been called the perennial Christian question: How do we relate to culture? The question was anticipated by Jesus Himself. In His high priestly prayer, the Lord petitioned: '"My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it... As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world'" (John 17:15-18).*

A look at two passages of the apostle John reveals an intrinsic tension. On the one hand, quoting the words of Jesus, John writes, '"For God so loved the world [kósmon in Greek] that he gave his one and only Son'" (John 3:16). On the other hand, he admonishes us, "Do not love the world [kósmon] or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15).

The issue is clear. We are in the world, a world that God loves, and a world in which we have a mission. And yet we are not of this world, and we should guard against falling in love with this world.

How do we reconcile these seemingly conflicting statements? How can we be in the world and yet not become part of it? How do we understand and interrelate culture, community, and our commitment to faith? Where do we draw the line between the demands of society and the kingdom of God?

A review of Scripture and the way Christians have handled the problem in the past will help us (a) define some key concepts; (b) outline basic responses to the problem; and (c) develop an Adventist position.

Key concepts

To begin with, let us define two words: culture and world. In a broad sense, culture may be defined as the beliefs, values, and priorities of a community expressed through its institutions, practices, and creative manifestations.1

To arrive at a biblical perspective of culture, we must turn to the cultural mandate God gave to our first parents at Creation: '"Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground'" (Genesis 1:26). "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).

This mandate gives to humanity rulership over the earth. The rulership includes not just power and dominion, but also creativity, concern, and care. The Lord commanded us to "take care" of the earth. The English phrase "to care" is rendered in Latin by colere, the word from which we derive culture. In a biblical sense, then, culture may be understood as the result of human cultivation of and interaction with God's creation. Seen thus, culture is the secondary environment that human hands and minds impose on the natural world.

The New Testament often uses the word world (kósmon) to refer to culture, or the results of human activity and creativity. The usage has two connotations. The first is a neutral or positive one. World is seen as the created order, including the material earth (Matthew 24:21), the people living on it (Matthew 4:8; John 12:19), the sphere of human life (1 Timothy 6:7), and the target of the disciples' mission (Matthew 5:14). Though affected by the Fall, the world and its inhabitants are seen as God's creation.

The second usage has a negative connotation. World consists of human agencies controlled by Satan, in open rebellion against God. The earth and its inhabitants are seen as involved in a cosmic struggle between spiritual forces under the command of Jesus and Satan (Ephesians 6:12). In this competing battle for loyalty, the sinful world didn't recognize Jesus as God when He came to this earth (John 1:10) and opposed Him throughout His ministry (John 16:33). Hence John warns those who follow Christ not to love this world or anything in it (1 John 2:15, 16). James adds that friendship with a world such as that is equivalent to hating God (James 4:4). Indeed, why would a Christian love such a world, for as Paul says, without God the world is hopeless anyway (Ephesians 2:12) and its wisdom is nothing more than foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:20)?

Thus the Bible posits a dual under-standing of the world: on the one hand, a world that evidences God's original creation and His work toward its restoration; on the other, a world, controlled by Satan, in rebellion against God, fostering a life independent of Him. Christians are to live in the former and to flee the latter. More than that, living in the former, they have a mission to the latter. They need not fear that world, for the powers of that world, under the dominion of the demonic forces, have already been defeated at the cross and are doomed to a final annihilation at the end of time (Malachi 4:1; Revelation 20:7-10).

Three basic responses

Until that cataclysmic end, what should Christians do? Perhaps we can learn from history by asking the question, How have Christians in the past dealt with the problem? Richard Niebuhr's seminal work on the issue serves us to isolate three major responses that emerge as we study how Christians have struggled with culture.2

First response: opposition and separation. Basic to this posture is the assumption that the present world is evil and that Christians are "aliens and strangers" (1 Peter 2:11). Hence Christians should have nothing to do with the world.

The history of Christianity is replete with examples of this response. Early Christians rejected Greco-Roman culture, declaring it idolatrous and corrupt. The monastic movement of the Middle Ages reflected the desire for complete withdrawal from the world. Many Protestant sectarian movements— the Brethren, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Quakers, and also the Millerites (fore-runners of our church)—also embraced this approach.

How should we evaluate this response? Those who chose this route did so with a sincere belief that they were faithfully applying the lordship of Jesus Christ to their lives. Their sincerity should be respected, and their courage in enduring persecution and martyrdom should be admired. Theirs was not a rosy path. Their total commitment to the gospel and the radical nature of their Christianity often led to revival and reformation in history.

However, the Bible does not mandate a complete withdrawal and isolation from the world; indeed, even as it cautions that we do not completely identify ourselves with the world and its preoccupations, it urges us to mediate God's message to that world in need. Christians cannot escape culture. We are created to be social beings, and it is within a society or a culture that we live, work, worship, and witness. At most, those who break away from the world simply develop a different culture or subculture. More importantly, the response of withdrawal assumes that sin is caused by the external world, whereas the Bible teaches that sin begins within the mind. Excessive emphasis on separation from the world makes religion irrelevant and communication of the gospel difficult.

Second response: tension. This response recognizes in this world evidences of both the goodness of God's original creation and of the evil of human fallenness. But this reality is marked with unavoidable tension between the two: Christ's kingdom and that of the enemy. Christians have sought to solve this dilemma in different ways:

Third response: assimilation. This position assumes that culture is basically good. It points to the abundant evidences of God's presence and activity in this world. Has not Christianity itself established in the past a close connection with a culture or mindset (e.g., medieval Catholicism, enlightened capitalism, or Christian socialism)?

Stressing cooperation and communication, this approach allows the gospel to be interpreted, understood, and embraced in different cultural settings. In the process, a tendency to compromise the essence of the gospel creeps in, resulting in the emergence of Christ the great moral teacher rather than the Lord of life and sole Savior of the world. Thus, Christianity becomes an all-embracing humanitarianism. The blurred distinction between the realms of God and Satan, propped by a moralistic humanism, offers on a silver plate universal salvation.

Toward an Adventist position

Which of these approaches has been the Adventist attitude toward the world during our 150-year history? And what should our present posture be? Obviously, it needs to be both consistent with biblical revelation and flexible enough to respond to the diverse cultures and settings in which Adventists live and witness. I propose that such a stance include at least three principles:

1. Nurture a biblical worldview that includes the Great Controversy motif.3 This overarching narrative is the framework within which Adventists place salvation history. It consists of seven great moments:

The Great Controversy centers on two conflicting views of God's character and principles: one that considers God as loving, gracious, and just; the other that considers God as arbitrary, unjust, and unfair. Our world has become a battle-ground for these opposing forces of good and evil, and the battle is played out principally through human lives. Although created in the image of God, we have fallen from our original perfect state. Without supernatural help, we cannot hope to return to our original condition.

2. Seek a critical engagement with the surrounding culture. Such a stance requires that we balance four biblical approaches to the world:

This eclectic approach to the world can be diagrammed as follows:

3. Study God's Word, pray for discernment, and listen to the insights of other committed Adventists. In our unavoidable involvement with the world, we should seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit. Together with other Adventists, we also need to discuss how the Bible's counsel applies to our relationship with the culture in which we live. We should not fear to be counter-cultural, if necessary. As Jesus promised (John 16:13), the Holy Spirit will guide us in our choices—our career or profession, our entertainment, the use of our resources, participation in social processes as voting, and our stand on issues such as freedom and justice, life and death, war and peace, environment and public health.

Doing God's will where we are

Meanwhile, Jesus expects us to do His will where we are—just as He did with the demon-possessed man of Mark 5:1-20. After He freed the man, Jesus and His disciples were preparing to go to the other side of the lake. The man who had experienced the healing power of Jesus wanted to follow Him. But Jesus told His new follower to return home— to his own culture—and share the good news with his family and friends. Therein lies the key to a Christian understanding of culture: Be a follower of Jesus where you are, and testify to the wonders of His grace in a world torn apart in different directions. As Niebuhr has noted: "Belief in him [Christ] and loyalty to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God to world.... Christians... are forever being challenged to abandon all things for the sake of God; and forever being sent back into the world to teach and practice all the things that have been commanded them."4

Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is director of the Education Department of the General Conference and editor of Dialogue.

*All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New International Version.

Notes and references

  1. I have adapted Oliver R. Barclay's definition in The Intellect and Beyond (Grand Rapids, Mien.: Zondervan Corporation, 1985), p. 123.
  2. See Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).
  3. See John M. Fowler, "The Making of a Christian Worldview," Dialogue 2:1 (1990), pp. 5-8, 30, 31; and Humberto M. Rasi, "Fighting on Two Fronts," Dialogue 3:1 (1991), pp. 4-7, 22, 23.
  4. Niebuhr, p. 178.