How do Christians relate to culture?

In Jesus’ final great prayer, he prayed for his followers to not be taken out of the world and at the same time remember that they are not “of the world” (John 17:15-16). Since then, followers of Christ have had to deal with these two realities: citizenship in the kingdom of God and practical life in the world.

Richard Niebuhr  in his “Christ and Culture” addresses these kinds of questions:

  • How have Christians tried to relate to culture?
  • How, in their view, Christ is related to culture?

Niebuhr tries to present different perspectives on the problems of the relationship of Christianity and culture, which occurred at different times of the Christian churches. The author claims that the tension and multifaceted relationship between Christ and his followers, and culture of the people has always existed. He refers to the views of scholars of modern times, the Reformation, the Middle Ages, the Church Fathers, and directly to the New Testament authors.

Niebuhr represents five main approaches to solving this problem. However, he is aware that the real characters and personalities of Christian history can not be strictly comparable to a particular position. And in some ways, this simplification, although necessary.

Who is Christ? Initially Niebuhr defines who the Christ is, and what is a culture, which will be discussed. He refuses to talk about Christ from the point of view of one or more of the defining qualities, such as love, hope, faith. By themselves, these qualities can not give us any clue to understanding the Gospel, nor to an understanding of the New Testament Christ. But we must judge of Christ and in him the qualities manifested in the context of his relationship with God the Father and mankind, and mediation between God and man, his God-manhood. He comes to God’s creation, fallen humanity, showing them the love of God and revelation, and the revelation of Himself as God. But also, at the head of redeemed humanity, rushes to God in passionate worship, filial love and full hope. Already in this understanding of Christ is an allusion to the need to resolve the question of his attitude and culture. After all, his followers become involved with Him in such a bidirectional relationship – from the world to God, and from God to the world.

What is culture? Speaking of culture we can not limit it as something temporary or relevant only to just a part of human life. Impossible to draw a clear line, for example, between culture and the state or culture and religion. Undoubtedly in the world where Christ is important, He must become involved in the culture in some way. Culture is social, it involves human life and human relations. It is closely intertwined with the values, attitudes a person or group of people. She is very concerned about the preservation of these values. Because man can not exist without culture. Likewise, a Christian can not exist without culture. But how to exist in it in the question.

1. Does Christ condemn culture? The first answer sounds like “Christ against culture”. It is peculiar to the radical Christians. Basis for their views, these Christians are usually found in the First Epistle of John, where the Apostle contrasts with the world of God, the light and the darkness, the children of God and the devil. Outstanding representatives of this view was Tertullian, monasticism, Leo Tolstoy. They tend to sharply contrast the Christian community in which Christ reigns, and the world around them, devoted to Satan and full of all evil. It is in human civilization, they are inclined to see the root of evil and a threat to them. The civil way of life and public institutions are radically rejected. Therefore they try to distance themselves from the outside world as much as possible.

Niebuhr points to a number of this position challenges. Trying to reject the culture, they do not realize how widespread it dissemination. Man can not live outside of culture, returning to the original state. Their categorical approach to the world and human civilization does not take into account the relationship of God the Creator and His creation appropriately. They are overly inclined to oppose reason and revelation. They are prone to legalism and understated grace. On the other hand, they underestimate the depth and breadth of the influence of sin. Sin does not only act in the world, but in their own hearts and communities. At the same time, Niebuhr commends radicalism for its effort to be faithful to Christ and His gospel.

2. Does Christ embrace culture? The second answer is one at the opposite pole. It is “Christ in the culture.” Niebuhr calls Christians standing on this idea – cultural Christians. In the early period of the church in this group include the Gnostics, in the Middle Ages – Abelard, in modern times – liberal Christians such as Ritschl. These Christians are caught by human culture, as well as the Christ of the Gospel. Culture is very valuable to them and they want to remain faithful to her. But accepting Christ, they must be faithful to him. They solve this dilemma in quite simple way. They compare Christ and culture. They see in Christ the embodiment of all that is good in their culture or makes him and his teaching part of their culture. In this effort both, the Christ and His teachings, and the culture itself are distorted. From the Gospel carefully selected only those items that may be acceptable in the culture. At the same time, the cultural elements that are frankly not fit into the idealistic notion of cultural Christians, or not noticed at all, or they are made and the main manifestations of the sinful nature, the enemies of Christ and the culture itself.

The other three are average typical responses in relation to these two poles. They can not just oppose Christ and culture, and there are objective reasons for this, and at the same time, evangelical witness does not allow them to embrace culture fully.

3. Is Christ above culture? The first one sounds like “Christ above culture”. Christ is not identified and is not opposed to culture, but it is a synthesis. Representatives of this view are Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas. Clement carefully paints the rules of life and conduct in Christian culture. However, his work has many parallels with the ethical precepts of the authors of the Gentiles. Clement does not see this as a problem, but at the same time, he does not try to fully comply with them. He is trying to synthesize Greek philosophy and the Gospel revelation, Roman culture and the commandments of Christ. In philosophy, he sees the preparation for acceptance of Christ. In this respect, Christ above culture. But at the same time, Clement sees the responsibility of Christians for social life.

The greatest representative of this thought was Thomas Aquinas. His synthesis is grandiose, as the Catholic Church of his day was a grand design. That’s what Niebuhr wrote of him:

“In the developed system connects them without mixing, philosophy and theology, the state and the church, civic and Christian virtues, natural and divine law, Christ and Culture. From these disparate elements he built grand building of theoretical and practical wisdom, which, like the cathedral, steadfastly stands in the middle of streets and markets, houses, palaces and universities, symbolizing human culture. ”

For example, Thomas would not seek the laws of the state in the gospel, but will look for them in the nature of things. On the other hand he knows that the natural evidence is not sufficient for saving faith and life to the gospel requirements.

The great discovery of synthesis of thought, and especially Thomas Aquinas, was a recognition of the fact that the Creator of nature and culture is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. “The Lord and Savior, there is one, or, regardless of what is meant by salvation apart from works, it in no way means the destruction of creation”

This leap in the direction of wholeness, the union of creation and salvation, is a great achievement and it’s also very attractive for individual Christians and for society. However, there are serious objections to the model synthesis. By combining the existing time-culture with the timeless God, we are in danger to give her a timeless quality. Thus, once erecting synthetic systems we will carefully protect it. In other words, it is difficult to avoid undue conservatism or even cultural Christianity. On the other side of the sinfulness of human culture is not included in this model, with all the seriousness of such cultural Christians.

4. Is there a paradoxical answer? Christians of the second response center is formulated as a “paradox of Christ and culture.” This answer is not as simple as not as attractive as the first. However it is more realistic. Niebuhr calls this group of Christians – dualists. But the opposition which they say is not between Christians and the world, as the radicals. They understand the problem much deeper. Their opposition – God and man, grace and sin. Sin is so terrible and widespread that it is not just the world thoroughly impressed by them, but also a Christian and the Christian community. They do not try to find a compromise with respect to rigid precepts of Christ, they do not make them a lot of some favorites, but painfully aware of the failure to implement them as outside the Christian community, and within it, while recognizing its responsibility to strive for this. Therefore, they do not distinguish between the world and the Christian Church as strictly as do the radicals. After all, in fact it is not a big deal. We can not escape the horror of sin in our community. Niebuhr writes:

” Therefore a dualist joins Christian radical, declares that the whole world of human culture of godlessness and terminally ill. And yet, there is a difference between them: the dualist knows that he belongs to this culture and can not get out of it, and that in reality God supports him in this culture, and through her, for if God is in His mercy is not would keep the world in his sinfulness, it would not exist for a moment. ”

This leads to a dualists’ view on culture. She is required both within the Christian community and beyond. In this case, its main purpose is not creative, but it is the guardian of our terrible sin and depravity, protecting us both within the Christian community and within the society of the total depravity. So the apostle Paul introduces some of the rules for Christians and encourages them to obey the authorities. Martin Luther said that, in a society, in spite of our deep desire to be guided only by the love and grace, but sometimes we have to take up the sword, use common sense and protect our rights. Otherwise, we will do more evil. This is the paradox and the tragedy of the Christian life, and at the same time, its dynamics. Dualists happily look to Christ and His great law of love and then breathe a sigh of knowing their reality, and the need for it to be considered. We can not resolve this dilemma on the ground, and even claim to a static resolution it is essentially godless because it leads man for independence from God.

In a positive attitude in the culture dualists see a natural opportunity to serve others, embodying the Christian love. But this is conservative or even passive attitude to culture. Their passion for Christ can not be achieved in this vicious world in complicity, therefore the world has to go to its end, and the culture should be abolished, and even the body needs to change. This is essential to the realization of their passion and love for Christ. Dualist longs to it wholeheartedly.

5. Will Christ transform culture? The third response can be defined as “Christ transforming culture.” Like dualists they do not try to underestimate the depth of the sin, and its spread throughout the world. But, like the Christians in the synthesis group, they do not diminish the importance of creative act of God. All that exists, all created nature – it is God’s good creation. Therefore, the nature itself can not be evil. But what is the problem? In the perversion of it. This distortion is primarily in the change of direction. Niebuhr writes:

“The word that should be used to determine the effects of the fall – is “Spoiling”. The good nature of man has deteriorated: it not evil, as something that should not even exist, but became distorted, twisted, badly directed. Man loves with the love that was given to him at creation, but he loves beings in false way, it is not in order. He wants goods with desire, which gave him the Creator, but rushes to things which are not good for him while missing real goods. ”

In this vein the essence of the redemptive work of Christ is considered. Turning the good nature again in the right direction – toward God from selfishness and self-love. That’s what Augustine says about the redemption of human nature:

“The residents of the holy city of God, which in the journey of this life live in harmony with God, fear and desire, grieve and rejoice. And as their love has right direction, all their passions are good”

And further redemption is manifested in social institutions, which are formed by the people and their relationships. Thus Christ did not destroy or opposes culture, but it converts. John the Evangelist symbolically expressed it by representing Christ’s first miracle changing water into wine.

Questions for the dialogue:

1. Of the five views expressed by Niebuhr, which one most closely matches your view of how Christians are supposed to relate to the culture around them? Why?

2. What would taking such a view look like in your context?

3. What view is most commonly taken by Christians around you?


  1. Joe Schafer

    David, it’s great to hear from you. I’m glad that you took the time to summarize for us Niebuhr’s classic text.

    I’ve been noticing that different parts of the Church have different stances. For example, as I drive from my home to Washington DC and back, my radio can pick up an evangelical Christian station and a Roman Catholic station. Listening to them and comparing them, it’s quite obvious that the people speaking on the evangelical station stand apart from (and in opposition to, and in judgment of) popular American culture, whereas the Catholic station is much more at home with and welcoming of the culture.

    I believe that the gospel affirms every culture and, at some points, critiques and judges the culture. That tension is apparent in Jesus’ words from John 17 which you quoted. The trick is getting the context right. Knowing when to affirm, when to critique isn’t easy.

    One thing that I’ve noticed about Jesus is that he saved his harshest criticism for the culture that he knew best, the culture in which he was raised and steeped. I don’t know of any instance where Jesus condemned the Romans, Greeks, pagans, etc. But he was openly challenging toward the leaders of his own religious tradition. When Jesus cleansed a temple, he didn’t go to a pagan house of worship; he went to the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, the center of his own religious faith. To me, that is very telling.

    • David Bychkov

      Yes, and I think that’s the beauty of Christian life. therefore we should depend on God – so he shall lead us through this cultural difficulties. If we could salve it right now – we probably wouldn’t depend on God.
      Though I think Jesus mentioned pagans as example for his followers – that they shall be different from pagans at least in terms of love. And we can find critiqs on pagans culture in Paul’s letters. But he was the appostle to them.

  2. Thanks David for summarizing this book for me! I keep hearing this book reference in some many other books that I figured I needed to read it at some point. Haha, now I don’t need to read it since you summarized it so excellently for me!

    As is the case with my usual illogical self, I wonder if Christ does a little of all 5 views with each culture. Or to put it another way, just replace culture with human beings, or with John Y, and maybe Christ condemns John Y (my sin), embraces John Y (the image of God), is above John Y (especially when it pertains to my thoughts and my ways), and transforms John Y (through and through).

    I’m not making sense, I bet. I don’t understand the 4th view by the way. Can someone explain a little more for me?

    • David Bychkov

      Well, let me try to explain how I undestand it. Sometimes this type is called “Christ along or parallel with culture”. This is two worlds, which has not really much if anything at all in common. God is so much higher then the world with it’s culture, And the world is so dirty and sinful. That we don’t really need to compare them. But the problem is that Christians belongs to both – to this world and sharing it’s fallennes, and to Christ Kingdom.
      If Christians of 3rd group can not deny the culture b/c God is it’s Creator, then the 4th group can not deny it b/c they know that they belong to the culture and can’t do anything with it. They would like to deny it, to be out of there and to live only with God, but they can not.
      As God’s people they are called to love God with all their hearts and to be completely pure. And there are could not be compromises about it. But they are dirty sinners which live in the fallen world with it’s own laws (that’s where culture appearing). And they just can not do anything with it. That’s the paradox. I really love this position

  3. In an attempt to work out contextualization for myself, I tried to read Christ and Culture by DA Carson a few years ago:

    He of course quoted Niebuhr’s 5 views, as summarized by David. I have to say that I was in a blur when I read the book and thought: This culture stuff is something that I’ll probably have to stay away from, since it’s just way off my alley, and it just stresses my brain too much! Thanks, David, for stressing my brain again.

  4. David, thank you for this thought-provoking article. And if you had chosen a more provocative title (e.g. “On top of everything, UBF also got culture wrong”), there might have been more discussion here. (I’m 50% joking and 50% serious).

    Very similar to John, i don’t think that these five views are necessarily exclusive, are they? I guess that in every culture, there are elements, which are good and other elements that are in outright contradiction to the gospel. And there is probably everything in the middle…

    • David Bychkov

      I think Niebuhr believes that 5th approach is the correct one. He illustrate it as the very center. If dualist realizes the seriosness of sin and synthesist realizes the goodness of God creation, “conversionist” realizes both. And here is the place where his undestanding of redemption appears. God created the good world, it was currupted, spoiled, misdirected b/c of sin, and the redemption of Christ has to remove this curruption, to “transform” it or better to “renew” it. According to Niebuhr this approach is both – very realistic b/c of awareness of falleness and optimistic b/c of God’s creation and redemption.
      I love this approach, but I hardly can accept it fully. B/c I can not believe that whole humanity was redeemed by Christ, but only part of it. So the culture of humans which do not know Christ and which hearts are not transformed by him can not be transformed either. So there at least parts of culture which hardly can be transformed.
      And yes. I have one more review on this topic. If I will find time I will translate it. The author claimes that it is time for each of this approaches.
      Though I believe Niebuhr made great job in showing how Christian undestanding of relations with Culture has been developing, and the categories was defined pretty accurate.
      Related to UBF, I think it should be considered closer to “radical” group. They tend to deny the value of the culture, to oppose to it, hardly make positive impacts to it. If just evangelism and discipleship are important – there is hardly can be found place for positive cultural activity. In the same time they hardly aware of how deeply they are involved with the culture. But “radical” groups have their own place in God’s redemptive history. so it is not necessarely critics.

  5. James Kim

    Faith and culture by Father Barron.

    • Thanks for sharing this James. I find Father Barron’s words to be excellent advice for being a “new evangelist” in our generation. Even though he speaks in the Catholic context, I find that all Christians should take heed.

      Here are his seven great qualities:

      Seven Great Qualities

      1. In love with Jesus Christ: Offering people friendship with Jesus (prayer).
      2. Filled with ardor: People listen to an excited speaker “on fire” (resurrection).
      3. Know the story of Israel: God’s creation, rescue operation, promises, law, Jesus (salvation).
      4. Know the culture: Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other hand (understanding)
      5. Love the great tradition: Scripture and tradition (reverence)
      6. Missionary heart: hunger for revival, to save souls, to call to be active (liturgy)
      7. Knows and loves new media: make use of tools to communicate instantly to the world (technology)

      His concluding 2 minutes are very powerful to me. His concluding remarks speak volumes as he says to young evangelists: “This is your time.” Father Barron says, correctly, the Church has gone through its worst time recently with the abuse scandals.

      And Barron sees God working in the midst of that by raising up “Hannahs”, people to call out the abuse and corruption. That kind of attitude makes me proud of my Catholic heritage.

    • I should probably clarify my last thought here. It is not the “Hannahs” that call out the corruption/abuse, but their sons. Father Barron seems to see God’s work in Hannahs who pray for their sons, which I agree with.