The Christian’s Role in Cultural Change


As the ebb and flow of cultures change, the role of the Christian should remain constant.  To proclaim the good news to the nations about the risen Christ.  But how does the presence of the Christian outwardly affect a culture that changes rapidly in polarized environments where Christian identity is often convoluted with political ideology?  In the West, this is all too prevalent, and the people of the faith are either glorified or demonized based on various positions intrinsic to a specific political party.  For the Christian, regardless of political affiliation, their philosophies in socio-economic and political issues should surround the concept of social justice, especially when there is a rapid change in cultural paradigms.  How social justice is framed becomes puzzling at times, and the Christian is at risk of departing from Biblical principles should they follow a particular set of politically ethnocentric values which are not inherent to those principles.  What follows is the culture’s perception of the Christian faith based on the standards of a distinct subgroup within that religious setting.  Environments such as this can stifle the growth of the gospel, and at times, incite fierce opposition to it.  Nevertheless, a Christian role in cultural change must be meticulously premised on and characterized by sound Biblical doctrine in order to effectively contend for the truth of Jesus Christ.

The Great Commission facilitates an environment of action, in the sense that a Christian is required to be a witness for the gospel (Matt. 28:19).  It is one of the few jobs a Christian is commanded to do.  Like loving one’s neighbor or brother and sister in the faith (as well as anyone else), Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to evangelize His name and efficacious role to the nations.  David Early says that “No one can call himself a follower of Jesus who is refusing to obey His orders.”[1]  It can be said that the method of evangelizing is seen in the specific actions and efforts the disciples and apostles had engaged in, but as more modern and less invasive methods have surfaced in the last century, the frameworks have undoubtedly changed to some degree and allowed believers to settle into their roles as evangelists in different areas of the world.  Nevertheless, Early asserts more so that “Jesus’ followers did not consider this Great Commission to evangelize the world as an option to entertain rather saw it as a mandate to fulfill whatever the cost.”[2]  Either way, the mandate still holds relevant today, and how it is transmitted, is often irrelevant, and evangelists continue to contextualize the gospel in a variety of ways, resulting in a bountiful harvest year after year alongside frequent and ongoing persecution.

Cultural relativism allows for the gospel to take on a variety of frameworks, as long as the theology behind it remains intact.  Whether a believer is working with the Romans Road, Friendship and Servant Evangelism, Incarnational Evangelism, or any other type of method used to preach the gospel, the result is the goal, which is to bring another person into God’s Kingdom through the power of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Yet, what concern does the gospel have for social responsibility and awareness?  Although there have been attempts to distinguish between the two,[3] David Bosch asserts their relationship is necessary, saying, “evangelism relates to social responsibility as seed relates to fruit; evangelism remains primary (the church’s main task) but it generates social involvement and improved social conditions among those who have been evangelized.”[4]  The church’s advocacy for justice is paramount, and presenting the gospel in a way so that the culture or society  may perceive Christians as responsible light-bearers of not only the truth, but proactive supporters for an environment precipitating social awareness and change.  Generally, people are associated with Christianity primarily because of their proximity to the religious community and seeing Christian commitment to societal cultivation often results in a positively genuine perspective, opening the door for relational equality.[5]

The Old Testament is abundantly clear as to how the people of God should react in response to social conditions and it is noticeable how God pressed the Israelite theocracy as an icon for social justice (Isa. 1:11-120; Amos 2:7; 5:21-22; Micah 6:8; Hos. 6:6; cf. Jas. 1:27..  Devoid of love, justice and mercy, the people will lack the applicability for personal salvation, and likewise they will dishonestly presume that God’s qualities (Deut. 32:4; Isa 5:16-17; Jer. 9:24) are intrinsic to their sanctifying walk when they neglect social conditions.  Additionally, the New Testament is also replete with the idea of reconciliation in Jesus Christ as not only an act of mercy, but of divine justice on Christ’s behalf for all sinners.  The Beatitudes call for justice in multiple areas (Matt. 5:3, 5, 6-7, 9-10, 22, etc.), and Jesus thought Himself as the embodiment of justice (Matt. 5:17-20).  He ministered to the blind (Mark 8:22-26), a foreign woman (Matt. 15:22), taught on public humility (Matt. 23; cf. Luke 20:45-47), and pressured followers to care for the sick, hungry and lesser fortunate (Matt. 25:35-45; cf. 1 John 3:17).  Furthermore, most scholars are unanimous that “Jesus expected all his followers to live according to these norms always under all circumstances.”[6]  For the Christian, there are no distinctions between one person or the other (Gal. 3:28; cf. Gen. 1:27), and believers are commanded to predicate their faith on the fact that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), in which Jesus Christ’s reconciliatory act of submission to the Father’s will (Phil. 2:5-8) is the means by which everyone can be saved (John 3:16-18; Acts 2:38; Rom. 4:25; 5:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; 1 Pet. 3:18; Heb. 9:15).  The call to love one another is impressed in Scripture so often (Matt. 22:36-40; John 13:34; 15:1-7; Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 John 3:11-23; 4:7-12; 2 John 1:5), that for a Christian to miss the great opportunity in fulfilling the law with one action (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8) would seem arbitrary and a reckless handling of this very important Biblical principle.

In the West, Christians have taken on a more vocal and politically charged role in their society and culture in order to foment an awareness of change within.  Unfortunately, they have also convoluted political ideology with Biblical philosophies as one in the same.  Douglas John Hall says:

“When Christianity is no longer noticed by the critical elites, if only for purposes of argumentation, or when it has become for these elements so entirely predictable as to be understood a priori (for instance, to be written off as “the religious right”), then it must be supposed that the process of disestablishment has run its full course….Christian disestablishment in the West (not only in Europe, where it is unavoidable, but also in North America, where it is overlaid with the bric-a-brac of “culture religion”) is a reality – the fundamental religious reality with which all serious and Christians must contend.”[7]

Politically polarized parties have systematically drawn lines in the sand on a variety of issues relating to social awareness and justice as the culture rapidly changes.  Whether it be on the topics of abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, gun-regulation, funding for the lesser-marginalized, veterans, or any other issue that incites philosophical chasms between the two primary parties, Christians often find themselves caught between the cross-hairs as devout liberals or conservatives who want to pigeonhole themselves into an ideology unrelated to either party.[8]  Are issues like these faith-related, or are they distinct from the Biblical standard?  Topics such as the sanctity of life, i.e. abortion (Gen. 1:27; Job 31:15; Psa. 8:5-7; 22:10; 139:13-16; Jer. 1:5) and same-sex marriage (Gen 19:1-38; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 2:10; Jude 1:7) appear to create tensions exegetically, but what about gun-regulation, immigration or more funds for the lesser-fortunate?  Should a Christian separate their political ideology with Biblical authority and vote accordingly?  These questions are all inherently formidable for the Christian to employ, but what is certain is that Christians should seek the counsel of God’s Word through the Holy Spirit in matters such as these and refer only to Biblical standards explicitly drawn from the text.  In the end, it is what God and the inspired authors of the Biblical text convey to believers and divorcing themselves from a political ideology is paramount in order for them to effectively emulate their Savior and stay true to God’s understanding of what social justice and awareness entails as the Christian is caught in the midst of cultural change.  If it does not contradict God’s word (Acts 5:29), the Christian is required to obey the law (Rom. 13:1-5; Tit. 3:1; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), of which God is the ultimate authority over any government in place (Dan. 2:19-22; cf. Rom. 13:2).  If a Christian is persecuted in any way, shape or form because of their faith and identity (and plight for social justice within a Biblical framework) one must welcome it as if they were suffering with Christ (Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 3:14; 5:1-14; cf. Rev. 2:10).

Christianity has been involved in plethora of activities leveraging the basic needs for people of different cultures, and likewise has sought to demonize, oppress, and overcome them.  Wars have been fought in Christ’s name and people groups have been marginalized under the same banner, sometimes resulting in racial and religious persecution.[9]  Likewise Christians have sought to bridge gaps between religious divides and racial segregation as cultures become more integrated with each other, and like icons such as Martin Luther King Jr.,  Mother Teresa and William Wilberforce, they have been involved in racial equality, feeding the poor, clothing the hungry, taking care of orphans and providing for the widows.  For God, this is ‘true religion’ according to James (Jas. 1:27) when he detailed the characteristics of Christian behavior under a variety of circumstances.  Being filled with the Spirit is paramount in order for a Christian to relinquish “imaginative frameworks that exclude and that categorize people as the other, alien, and the unacceptable.”[10]  Once Gentiles were aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and its promises (Eph. 2:12-19), and likewise Israelites were strangers as well (Lev. 19:34; 25:23; 2 Chron. 29:15; Heb. 11:13; cf. Heb. 13:2).  The gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit “creates a bridge between polar realities and seemingly antithetical realities,”[11] and within a changing culture that encapsulates a variety of ethnic, philosophical, religious, social, and economic differences, distinguishing oneself from another in light of those realties should never be a cornerstone for Christian polarity.  Believers need to be at the center of reducing cultural and social divisions instead of encouraging them, which can either attract people to, or reduce the impact of, the gospel’s effect on the culture and a person’s individual need.  If the Christian faith continues to become convoluted by antithetical philosophies such as those existing within the political spectrum, its identity could very well become perceived just as they were in religious circles of Jesus Christ’s generation (Mark 7:13).  Instead of making these realities define the relationships between the two opposing fronts, “the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationship that includes our enemies.”[12]

DeYoung and Gilbert assert that “social justice in the Bible is not an achieved result but equal treatment and a fair process.”[13]  This means that there are “No bribes.  No backroom deals.  No slanderous judgements.  No breaking promises.  No taking advantage of the weak.”[14]  If a people group or government is actively engaging in these characteristics which are contrary to the Biblical idea of justice, the Christian needs to keep their distance from supporting these activities, and even more so, take part in the restitution of a value system which seeks to eliminate these anti-egalitarian qualities.  A “righteous person does more than simply refrain from evil.  He positively seeks to help the weak, give to the needy, and, as he is able, address the situations of rank injustice”[15] in their government.  When one shows love to others by caring for the lesser marginalized, they show how much they love Jesus.[16]  However, if justice is required for the Christian to uphold in a variety of circumstances, what is the end result?  Christians should not “regard the struggle for justice as an end in itself, yet rather a means to achieve reconciliation whose ultimate goal is a community of love.”[17]  Essentially, “justice is subordinate to reconciliation,”[18] which creates an environment for the evangelist to elucidate on more spiritual matters that concern the individual.

Just as much as Christians are broken and in need of a savior, additionally everyone else is as well (Matt. 11:28-30).  Humans desire love, acceptance, mercy and love, and these things affect people’s innermost beings, and when a person or people group have been marginalized simply because of who they are or what they represent, is it not the plight of the Christian to assess whether certain disparages are sanctioned by Scripture to uphold and defend, or to oppress and diminish (a characteristic foreign to Christian philosophy), falling in line with their political party even it contradicts Biblical principles?  Bob Ekblad summarizes that the goal of the Christian is to reveal the love of the Father through Jesus Christ in an effort to distract them from their presupposition that God is more “wrathful and distant”[19] as opposed to being merciful, grace-centered, and deeply in love with His creation.  Being present with people, regardless of their sin, is precisely how Jesus predicated His followers to act.  Aside from people’s sins, whether it be sexual immorality, theft, pride, dishonesty, or anything else under the sun, the Christian’s role is to refrain from hypocritical judgement (Matt. 7:1-5), considering that people of the faith are consistently caught in actions which clearly violate Biblical principles.  “It takes little effort to think of Christian leaders who rail against greed, pornography, or infidelity, only to be caught in that behavior at some point.”[20]  Who is to say that one sinner should tell another sinner their sin is wrong when in secret, they are comparably involved in one or a variety of sins?  Certainly, there can be no distinction of sin between a homosexual and an adulterous pastor.  Paul made no distinction between them (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and accepting this anthropological reality is nevertheless a prerequisite for being a minister of grace and reconciliation to any person of creed, color, culture, orientation, or faith.  God loves all people, so much that He sent His Son into the world to die for them (John 3:16) regardless of who they were or what they represented, and if Christians are to exemplify this particular nature of God, Christians must also base their presence and witness with others in the same manner, to love our neighbors as we love God and ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40).  This calls for an unconditional, non-judgmental, love, and expressing people’s value and worth to God is fundamental for others to consider the truth of God’s word.  It is perfectly within the principles of a Christian to withhold affirmations of one’s sin, while at the same time also apply their Biblical values by loving them and being present with them in their struggle, regardless of sin, in an effort to lead them by example.  This alone creates an atmosphere where the Christian can convey that their love for others is the same love which comes directly from God (1 John 4:11-21; cf. John 15:13).

The culture in the West is rapidly changing, and many Christians are left wondering whether or not these changes are comparative to their value systems.  Christians are gravitating toward particular ideologies and assuming these ideologies are somehow supported by Biblical principles.  As the West becomes more inter-religious and inter-cultural, there is an increasing need to instruct believers how to interact with their neighbors respectfully and thoughtfully, instead of reacting to the issues which seemingly appropriate themselves into paradigmatic polarizations that divide the Christian population into opposing fronts causing non-believers to have a convoluted perspective of the gospel.  It is undeniably important for the Christian to revert to the ancient philosophies articulated in the Bible (Jer. 6:16; cf. 1 Tim. 3:16), and by doing so, the Christian will find favor in God’s eyes, because they not only uphold Biblical truth, but by de facto, will invariably emulate their Savior’s ministerial example.

Bibliography

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

Dearborn, Kerry. Drinking from the Wells of New Creation. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013.

DeYoung, Kevin & Greg Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

Douglas, John Hall. The Cross in Our Context. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Early, David & Wheeler, David. Evangelism Is…How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010.

Ekblad, Bob. Reading the Bible with the Damned. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2005.

Gallagher, Robert L. & Paul Hertig, eds., Contemporary Mission Theology: Engaging the Nations. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Early & David Wheeler, Evangelism Is…How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010), 21.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 403.

[4] Ibid., 404.

[5] See Egalitarianism.

[6] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 69.

[7] John Hall Douglas, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 161-162.

[8] Democrats for Life, https://www.democratsforlife.org; Secular Pro Life, http://www.secularprolife.org; Sojourners, https://sojo.net

[9] See the KKK and Islamophobia.

[10] Kerry Dearborn, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 86.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Ibid., 91.

[13] Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?  Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Cross, 2011), 146.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] Ibid., 161.

[16] Ibid., 164.

[17] Robert L. Gallagher & Paul Hertig, ed., Contemporary Mission Theology: Engaging the Nations, (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2017), 108.

[18] Ibid., 109.

[19] Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2005), 155.

[20] Dearborn, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation, 99.