Culture: The Incarnation Of Our Religion

by Rick Shrader

There may be no more important word in today’s Christian vocabulary than “culture.” R.C. Sproul wrote, “Adjusting to the customs and worldview of one’s environment is one of the strongest pressures people experience. To be ‘out of it’ culturally is often considered the nadir of social achievement.”1 Everything has to be relevant to the culture from tennis shoes to worship styles. It would be difficult to find a discussion group or seminar on ministry today without interacting with the word “culture.”

Cullen Murphy, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, notes that we used to regard nature as something that was to be held in awe, and culture as something we could control and modify. Now we hold “The culture” in awe and treat nature as something we can control for our own purposes. He then comments, “‘The culture’ is today the more fearsome realm, or at any rate the more convenient scapegoat, and the notion that we have only limited influence over it appears to be widespread.”2

This obvious flip-flop of priorities has both degraded the natural realm, which ought to remain the domain of spiritual wonder, and exalted the cultural realm to a god-like status that can only be obeyed but not controlled. Politicians make campaign promises to control the environment but Hollywood defers its ability to curb profanity and violence.

We would do well to remember that the root of culture is the “cult” or the society formed by the mores of the people involved. Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “We of the West may not be brainwashed by our State, but we are brainwashed by our culture.”3 We have let culture form us rather than we forming our culture. In an atheistic society that would not be considered bad. There, beliefs and values are relative and are only formed as a result of what people naturally do. But in a Christian society (whether that be a single life, a family, a church or a nation) the opposite is true. Belief comes first and then forms and controls the values as well as the actions. The result is nothing less than culture.

In short, as the title to this article suggests, culture is the result of our beliefs. T.S. Eliot, in a book called Christianity and Culture, wrote, “We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not different aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.”4 A professor at our university (CSU) wrote in our local paper, “Religion defines our relationship to the world around us. It is intriguing how important religion is to our culture, family and value systems.”5 Because this is true, I would suggest at least three logical imperatives that follow.

We cannot separate belief and culture

As we have seen, culture on any level, is an outgrowth of what we believe. God holds us all responsible for our actions because those actions have been thought of in a person’s mind and then acted out. So the scriptures can say, as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he (Prov 23:7); doing the will of God from the heart (Eph 6:6); They do always err in their heart (Heb 3:10). Perhaps the closest biblical word is “custom” (eqos) as when the Philippians complained that Paul and Silas taught customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans (Ac 16:21). Earle Cairns noted that Luther preached that culture must follow consistently from faith. He writes, “Above all, he [Luther] awakened his day to the fact that culture was not merely a matter of reason, but of regeneration by faith in Christ.”6

Today, no one wants to be responsible for his own actions, yet he wants to be free from anyone telling him how he ought to think. Actions have been totally divorced from scrutiny and often with the silly mantra, “don’t impose your moral standards on me!” That is silly because it is itself an imposition of the moral standard that no one’s thinking outside oneself shall have any bearing on how one acts. But the statement immediately strikes a thinking person as wrong because we know intuitively that all of us are bound to act in such a way that is determined by our moral belief. If one lies, he has somehow figured out in his head why saying what he said is justified. His moral imperative may have been self-preservation, or prejudice or any number of reasons, all of which he believes took precedent the moment he “lied.” The person who tells the truth has also acted on principles that he believes.

It has been my experience in reading that many non-Christians are recognizing this principle faster than Christians. Too many Christians believe “The culture” (notice how the definite article grants the word status) is only to be discovered and modeled and has nothing to do with religious or moral values. Consider the contrast from David Dickens (not a professing believer), Professor of Sociology at UNLV, “Thus culture historically has been fused with religion. The axial principle of contemporary culture, however, is the expression and remaking of the self in order to attain self-realization and self-fulfillment, which implies the denial of all limits or boundaries to experience.”7 No doubt, whatever you believe you will act out in some way.

We cannot separate faith and works

Though we may be more familiar with this language, perhaps it will help to consider it in light of what has already been said. It is simply inevitable that you will live in accordance with what you believe. The reason a lost man cannot live a Christian life (to any biblical consistency) is because he really does not believe what Christians believe. Sooner or later he has to go back to being consistent with his own thoughts. One commentator has written, “For the real business of life is not so much to get things done in any way, as to diffuse a right spirit among men, and get them to do things well.”8

It ought to be a subject of early Sunday School that when we come to Christ we change from an old life to a new life. And if, as believers, we lapse into the old way of life, we have chosen a way that is inconsistent with what we now believe. Demas loved this present “age” (aiwna) but his thinking had become wrong-headed. G.K. Chesterton correctly observed, “The moment we care for anything deeply, the world (that is, all the other miscellaneous interests) becomes our enemy.”9

If we continue to hold culture as inviolable we will continue to worship at its altar by our works. But if we realize that we are not to do so, indeed do not have to, we will live consistently with our faith regardless of the customs and cultures of the people around us.

We cannot separate worship and evangelism

Sometimes this is termed “message and methods” or “belief and methodology.” I call it “worship” because that is what we are doing when we consciously live before God in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). Worship is our cognitive belief system, our always walking before God in an unseen faith (2 Cor 5:7). I call it “evangelism” because that is the living out of our faith to the rest of the world, to every person in every circumstance. If our worship constitutes our religion, then evangelism constitutes our culture. In every action we are affecting our world and creating a culture that is positive or negative for the gospel’s sake (1 Cor 9:23).

I have always been concerned when Christians speak of their worship, message or belief as something that is unchangeable but speak of their evangelism, methods or methodology as always changing. In fact, it ought to be the very opposite. My belief has to be compared to and corrected by the Word of God. I should be constantly honing my thinking (which is my true belief system) to God’s standard. But my methodology ought to (and it will) simply follow in obvious consistency behind my belief. I smile with Os Guinness when he wrote, “A well-known proponent states, ‘I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist’—as if his theology were thereby guaranteed to remain critical and his methodology neutral.”10

It would be inconsistent (hence hypocritical) of me to act in a way that does not follow from my belief. It would be inconsistent to evangelize in a way that contradicts my worship. It would be inconsistent to use a method that is not parallel to my message. I concur with the concern of older writers who were alarmed when they saw the dichotomy of message and methods that was current. A.W. Tozer, for example, in the 50s wrote, “’The message is the same, only the method changes,’ say the advocates of compromise.”11 L.S. Chafer, in the 20s wrote, “It may be conceded that genuine results are sometimes obtained even where misleading methods are employed; but there by be great harm done as well.”12 D.L. Moody, in the 1800s wrote, “But, some say, if we take the standard and lift it up high, it will drive away a great many members from our churches. I believe it, and I think the quicker they are gone the better.”13

Now I am aware that the rebuttal to this point of view would focus on the ridiculously obvious such as the color of shirts or the type of organ. Such is to miss the point. John MacArthur said, “I do believe we can be innovative and creative in how we present the gospel, but we have to be careful to harmonize our methods with the profound spiritual truth we are trying to convey.”14 The Bible doesn’t ask us to use gospel stealth tactics, luring unbelievers with something that is contrary to our faith, and then revealing a non sequitur for a belief system. Rather, as Paul admonished Philemon, That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus (Phile 6).

1. R.C. Sproul, Willing To Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 16.
2. Cullen Murphy, “The Culture Did It,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 2000, 18.
3. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1998) 159.
4. T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949) 101.
5. Robert Theodoratus, Coloradoan, 5/1/2000.
6. Earle Cairns, Christianity Through The Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 322.
7. David Dickens, “North American Theories of Postmodern Culture,” Postmodernism and Social Inquiry (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994) 79.
8. W.G. Blaikie, “Second Samuel,” The Expositor’s Bible (New York: Funk & Wagnels, 1900) 290.
9. G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 22.
10. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1993) 26.
11.  A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1997) 166.
12. L.S. Chafer, True Evangelism (Chicago: The Bible Institute Colportage Assoc., 1929) 13.
13. D.L. Moody, Spiritual Power (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997) 120.
14. John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993) 85.