As Christians we are called to be in this world, and, yet, not of it. It is the idea that is conveyed in Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome as he tells the believers there that they are not to be conformed to this world. Rather, they are to be transformed by the renewal of their mind. (Rom. 12:2) Yet, this can present with it a certain amount of difficulty. After all, even as we are told to be in, not of we are still sent out into the world. We are called to go forth into every nation, to every people, and proclaim Gospel. (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:16-18)
This can lead to conflict. Christ himself warns us of this as he declares that the world will hate, and persecute us, just as it hated and persecuted him. The reason is because we are not of the world. If we were it would love us. As believers though Christ is our master, not the world. (Jn. 15:18-25) This means that there is a natural tension that exists as an enmity is created between the temporal kingdom and the triumphant kingdom. It is something which we have seen manifested throughout the ages. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, (Dan. 3:16-28) the crucifixion of our Savior by Rome, the various persecutions which have occurred throughout the history of the church, and that still occurs in different corners of the world.
The reality is that this has led some to seek to reconcile Christianity to the world. When I say that I don’t necessarily mean in a Great Commission or a Post-Millennial eschatological sort of way. Rather, what I mean is that they have sought to make Christianity more palpable to the world, more accepted by it. The unavoidable problem though is that the more Christianity is reconciled to the world the more it begins to look like the world. This has led to the phenomenon of cultural Christianity, a form of the religion that identifies as Christian, but that has less and less to do with the historic, and theological Christian faith.
This can be seen in recent trends within Christianity. According to a Pew study, roughly two-thirds of American’s identify with the Christian faith. Yet, in recent years what has been witnessed is a significant drop off in Christian life. For example, at this point, less than half of American’s go to church anymore. These numbers signify a significant decline. The same Pew research, for example, states that the religious landscape in America is changing quickly, with 12 percent less American’s willing to call themselves Christian as they have in the past decade. The more cultural Christianity becomes the more the individual will come to identify with a cultural expression than it does with the faith itself
What is Cultural Christianity
This, then, leads to the inevitable question of what is cultural Christianity?
In terms of religion in general this is not a new occurrence. A study of Scripture and history show people who identify culturally or ethnically with a group which was, or has been intrinsically tied to religious belief, but that has since been separated from that faith. What is seen then is two divergent groups, those who adhere to the religious observances as well the cultural aspects of the faith separate from the outside world, and those who have divorced the religion from their way of life, forming a separate, distinct understanding of what it means to be recognized as a member of that cultural group.
This reflects a growing trend which can be seen within Christianity today, namely the idea that one can divorce the religious and spiritual implications of Christianity from the label of it. When this happens two distinct groups begin to emerge. The first are the biblical Christians who adhere to the faith as a religion, as a way of life which is guided by an underly faith. The second are those who are non-religious observers. They recognize a common cultural tradition that exists, or a Christian familial tie, but that’s ultimately where it ends. The institutions may loosely define a label, but it has no real profound impact on the beliefs or the actions of the group. For them then Christianity becomes more of a social construct or identity which they then claim.
One can become a cultural Christian in one of many different ways. It could be that they are born into a Christian family, or it could be that they felt pressure or expectation on them to identify as one. Regardless, the specific aspects of the Christian faith which they find doesn’t fit within the current spirit of the age, or that is inconvenient for them, or that they simply don’t like or want to believe, they cast aside. In this it becomes less about a living faith than it is about an expression of belonging to the group.
How it then manifests really depends. It can, for example, reflect a certain adherence or respect for cultural and social norms within that tradition. As such, it can cherish the historical significance that the religion has had in the development of Western ideas and values. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily be the case. What I mean is that cultural Christianity can see no inherent or intrinsic worth to any of these things. Instead, it can claim the label or the title, while completely disregarding any form of worldview even remotely related to it. In this sense, it can be like any cultural or social group that claims a certain ethnic background, but that completely disregards and disowns it, while still claiming that sense of belonging. Or it could be similar to those who have reshaped and remolded that identity based on a form of pluralism.
In this sense, Christian isn’t any part of who they are beyond a title, almost like an ethnic descriptor. God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, Sacraments, they have no real bearing on who they are, beyond their own subjective, cultural interpretation which allows for any number of contradictions. What’s more is that some who have embraced a form of cultural Christianity don’t even recognize that they have as they have drifted more towards society, and social acceptance and further from God, adopting positions and values that run contrary to the Word of God.
Whatever the case may be what is introduced is something different than what could or should be considered orthodox Christianity. In many instances, the orthodox faith is disregarded or cast aside, reflecting a more fluid, considerably more subjective, progressive form of Christianity.
A Chosen People
Christianity though is more than simply a question of ancestry, shared traditions, or even simply a belief in God. It is more than a question of ethnicity. One is not simply a Christian because they are born into a Christian family, or because they have felt cultural pressure to use the label of Christian. It is, instead, a matter of regeneration and repentance, of transformation by the power of the Spirit, which, in turn, creates a new person, one who is born again.
This is perhaps best seen in Paul’s epistle to the church in Ephesus. In the second chapter he talks about how the individual is dead in their trespasses, they are dead in their sins, subjects of the prince of the power of the air. Her calls them sons of disobedience and children of wrath who carry out the passions of the flesh and the desires of the body. (Eph. 2:1-3) Yet, God, in His great mercy, because of His love for us, made us alive in Christ. In this, we are saved by grace through faith, created in Christ for His good works. (Eph. 4-10) We are adopted children of God through the blood of the lamb, and this has a profound effect on who we are.
In John’s gospel account, we are given a clear picture of what this adoption looks like as we are told that all who receive Christ, believing on His name, are given the right to be children of God. This is not a child who is born of blood, or through the will of man, but, rather, of God. (Jn. 1:12-13) This is not a label that anyone can claim for themselves. Rather, it is given by God through Christ. This, in turn, makes us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9)
The term here, γένος ἐκλεκτόν, translated as a chosen race reflects the nature of this. This is namely the elect of God, those who are chosen by Him for a specific relationship with Him. When one is transformed by God then the desire becomes for the things of God. They seek God where He is at, and where He chooses to reveal Himself to them, seeking to live by faith, recognizing the authority of Scripture. They turn away from the present culture, and its norms, rather than trying to conform their faith to it.
This, of course, is not an easy or simple task. There is always the pull of the world seeking to draw the believer away, to leave behind a faithful Christianity, a biblical Christianity, and take on a more cultural one. One of the temptations that the enemy puts in front of the Christian is the idea that if we just tweak or change Christianity a little here or there to fit in more with the prevalent thoughts of our age, we will make it more palpable for people. This, in turn, will win more souls. It’s a road that leads down a dangerous path of compromise which eventually removes the faith from the religion, warping and distorting it into something different, into something more temporal and cultural than eternal and spiritual.
Religion Guided by Relationship
The Christian must then be on guard against this, recognizing that there is an intrinsic link between religion and relationship. The religious life of the Christian must be based on a fundamental relationship that exists between them and their Savior, between them and their God.
As I said from the outset, this is not a new pattern. It’s one seen throughout the Scriptures and history. Throughout the Old Testament, for example, we see that as the children of Israel become more cultural than religious, viewing their status as a label rather than a faith, they venture far from God. That relationship that they have with Him becomes distant and far removed. As this happens disaster, pain, suffering, and sorrow occur. Throughout it though God perpetually reminds them that their status, their place, is based on their religious life, and that religious is contingent on a relationship with Him. The book of Joshua speaks of this right at the beginning as he is commissioned. God tells him of that tie that binds His religion to a relationship with Him.
The situation and the circumstances that surrounded Israel in the Old Testament are different than the circumstances and the situations that surround the Christian today. Yet, the fundamental lesson holds true. This is namely that, as citizens of a holy nation, as a chosen people of God, we too must recognize the danger of drifting towards culture and away from God, of adopting the things of this world, rather than living in obedience to Him.
This means sacrifice on the part of the Christian, recognizing that just as the world hated Christ, so to it will hate his followers, because they don’t belong to it, they have been chosen out of it. (Jn. 15:18-19) Yet, this is unimportant to them because, in the end, their culture is not a temporal culture, rather it is a heavenly culture, marked by citizenship in the kingdom as the adopted children of their Heavenly Father.
As such, they have to be willing to make the tough choice to go against the current of culture, remaining unwavering in their faith even when it is difficult, recognizing the fact that God requires commitment on the part of His people. In this, the recognition is that we are His workmanship. We are created in Christ for good works, (Eph. 2:10) and those good works, they are reflected in our obedience to God. Here then we remember the words of the Beloved Disciple, who wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn 2:15–17) Our pursuits, who we are in Christ, these cannot be the fleeting things. Rather, they must be in that which does not, ultimately perish and does not pass away.
Cultural Christianity can be alluring. There is always a part of the flesh that says so long as we say we are Christian it really doesn’t matter. There is a part of that sinful nature that loves the label of Christianity but would love to cast aside everything that goes with it even more. Why wouldn’t it? The flesh loves acceptance and accolades, and hates rejection. Thus, if it can claim Christianity without having to abide by it, while still adopting the current social norms of the day, why wouldn’t it try to convince us that this is better than the challenges that our faith would have?
Yet, as Christians, as the elect of God, we are called to something more, to something better. We are called to the fullness and the beauty of a biblical Christian faith even as we are declared to be a chosen people of God through Christ Jesus. This is what we must cling to, and this must be what defines our Christianity as we reflect His light into the world. This must be our culture; this must be who we are above all else.
Tough choices have to be made, choices which reject the temporal temptations to treat Christianity as nothing more than a cultural label or a social construct. Choices which will put the individual in direct conflict with the world around them amidst a tension that can challenge one’s commitment to Christ. This is why Scripture tells us to run the race with endurance, to fight the good fight of faith, recognizing that God calls us to something more, something better, even as we struggle, leaning on Him for the strength that we need in the weakness that we feel.
Lord, grant this unto us all…