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Christians & culture: 4 models assessed by World’s Gene Veith

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–To respond to many of today’s cultural problems, Christians need a theology of culture that enables them to engage culture without conforming to it, said Gene Veith in a two-day lecture series at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

Veith is the cultural editor of World magazine; director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind.; and author of more than 15 books.

He spoke at Southeastern’s annual Carver-Barnes Lecture series, named in honor of W.O. Carver and W.W. Barnes, two men who made significant contributions to theological education. The series is designed to address the history and mission of the church.

In his first message, on April 5, Veith outlined and critiqued several theologies of culture, which are ways in which Christians try to relate to their culture.

The first way, which Veith called “Culture Rules Christianity,” is associated with liberal theology. In this model, the world sets the agenda for the church so that “when culture changes, Christianity needs to change as well to remain culturally relevant.”

Problems with this model abound, Veith noted.

“How much can you change the church’s teachings and practice to make them relevant to people today, given that the dominant culture is non-Christian?” he asked. “I’m not saying that we don’t need to make adjustments, but some Christians have gone way too far. There are some churches out there that don’t preach about sin anymore. They also often don’t preach the Gospel anymore, so all through the sermon, you don’t hear about Jesus.

“I would argue there’s a profound problem with that, even to the extent of stepping outside the Christian faith. This model replaces the authority of the Bible with the authority of culture. As far as a biblical critique of that, it’s on almost every page of the Old Testament … The prophets warned the people of Israel not to conform to the people of the land.”

The second model, “Christianity Rules the Culture,” is “much more noble than the first option” but still runs into serious problems, Veith said.

According to this model, the church’s means of impacting culture is to obtain political power and subsequently implement the laws of the Bible as the laws of the land. Although some throughout church history have attempted to practice this model, it, like the first model, is met with difficulties, Veith said.

“We can say that we can govern culture by God’s law, but can non-Christians follow God’s law?” he asked. “It’s impossible on the face of it. Sinners are going to act like sinners; unbelievers are going to act like unbelievers.”

Veith also noted that under this model the church’s fixation on obtaining political power could distract it from its task of preaching the Gospel. Furthermore, he said, God has provided the state, not the church, as the means to punish evil in society according to Romans 13.

A third view, “Christianity against Culture,” maintains that culture is so sinful that Christians must separate themselves from it. Historically, many of those who adopted this position have pursued ascetic or monastic lives, cloistered away from the rest of the world, Veith said.

“This seems to violate John 17, where Jesus says, ‘I’m not taking you out of the world; I’m sending you into the world,’” he said. “The Lord teaches in that passage a principle: He wants His people to be in the world, but not of the world.”

For the Christian, to abandon one’s role as a member of the culture is also to abandon one’s duty to evangelize it, Veith said.

“How can you be salt and light if you shut yourself away and cannot impact people with the Gospel of Christ?” he asked, noting that another problem with this view is that cultural problems are not alleviated when the church becomes its own culture.

“Sin is not something we shut out because it comes from inside,” he said.

A fourth option, which Veith said he prefers, is “Christianity and Culture” or “the doctrine of two kingdoms.” In this model, Christians live out their faith as citizens of both of God’s kingdoms, the church and culture. Foundational to this view is an understanding that God already reigns in both church and culture as part of His governance of the universe, Veith said.

“We’re engaged in [culture]; we’re active in it,” he said. “But our identity comes not from it but from the spiritual community controlled by His Word…. The church, under this model, is not to be shaped by culture but only by the Word of God. We can shape culture by bringing our faith to everyday life.”

Veith noted that as citizens living in both kingdoms, Christians can, on the one hand, fight against the practice of abortion as citizens of their culture, while at the same time offering grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ to the woman who has had an abortion.

Such a view of culture also frees the Christian to enjoy culture critically, bringing his values into civic life.

In his April 6 message, Veith addressed what he called “probably the most culturally influential notion to come out of Protestantism” — the doctrine of vocation.

This doctrine, he explained, teaches that God providentially works through human beings working in their various vocations to provide and care for each other.

Since vocation includes, but is not limited to, a person’s job, people may have more than one vocation, Veith said, such as employee, mother or father, spouse, church member and citizen.

The key to understanding the activities of everyday life as having meaning and significance, he noted, is when Christians realize that God has given them particular vocations in order to live out their faith in the world by loving and serving their neighbors.

Recalling Christ’s teaching from Scripture that anything done “to the least of these” is also done to Christ, Veith challenged the audience to realize that, in everyday life, “Christ is hidden in our neighbors so that when we do something for our neighbor, Christ counts it for Himself.”

    About the Author

  • Kyle Smith