Richard Niebuhr’s famous text Christ and Culture explained the ongoing tension of living in a culture while remaining true to the Gospel teachings of Jesus. For Christians that walk, with integrity, is the tension we all must confront. That famous text, written in 1951, confronted the reality of being a Christian living in the state of empire, the American Empire. Given that the New Testament books were written at a time of the Roman Empire and contain many, many references to the evil of compromise with that Empire (in particular the Gospel of John and Book of Revelations) it became very problematic for theologians living in America at the height of the Christian church in North America. Were Christians comfortable with identifying as patriotic Americans, Americans who loves capitalism and the strong military that had its fingers in every land? Niebuhr’s book addressed those concerns and tried to lay out a blue print for Christians to remain true to their identity while at the same time critiquing the culture around them. The catch phrase became, “in the culture but not of the culture”.
The Christian church does not have the power, size and influence it did in the 1950’s. Even though evangelical churches claim to be growing, and they are, that growth is marginal in the larger context of the culture. The church just does not have the influence it used to. Still how do Christians living in our culture navigate that tension between being in the world but not of the world?
As a member of the United Church I find it endlessly amusing to hear conservatives, traditionalists, and evangelical Christians accuse the UCC, and all liberal Christians, of being people who “give in to the culture” or are “people of the world”. That accusation assumed a certain definition of “world” or “culture”. What they mean is that on matters of sexuality we liberal Christians take the view that the scripture betray a limited knowledge of the science of sexuality much like the Bible is filled with limited understandings of whether the sun rotates around the earth or vice versa. The scientific understanding of the Bible writers is hardly full proof and those who claim otherwise live in a fantasy world and frankly are a tad hypocritical in the way they cheery pick what science they live by and what they don’t. So when more conservative Christians point with self-righteous fervor at the UCC with the accusation that we are “of the world” they mean specifically on matters of sexuality. I find in many ways despite Jesus talking more about prayer and money than sex some Christians just can’t seem to stop thinking about matters of sexuality. Odd.
For mainline Christians the tension between the world/culture and the Christ/Gospel is no less troubling but the dividing line is less sex and more matters of poverty and justice. Given Matthew 25 among other texts mainline Christians place a high premium on how caring for the least and the lost IS the Gospel way and thus being on the opposite side of efforts to protect and lift up the poor makes one more of the world than of Christ. Particularly those mainline Christians on the left simply cannot understand how a Christian can go to church, read the Bible, pray and then vote for elected officials who carry policies that hurt the poor. It makes no sense to us. It raises the question who is of the world and who is of the Gospel. It’s a question all of us must wrestle with.