Chapter 1



Oliver Barclay

Christian views of culture have an enormous influence over many questions in the church and in personal life. Like Christian views of work, however, they have varied considerably over the history of the church. When the church has been a small minority in a strongly alien culture, Christians have tended to seize on the more negative statements in the Bible and to adopt the view that we must separate ourselves entirely from the 'world's culture'. When the church has been stronger, it has tended to think in terms of bringing the whole of society under the church (or the Kingdom of God), but has then found that it does not work without grave compromise. The result has not infrequently been a reaction on the part of the more 'spiritual' into a negative attitude again. People have stressed the need to create a pure Christian culture or commune within the world's culture and to be unwilling to see any good in things which are not specifically Christian. There is little doubt that in this reaction there has often been a hidden influence of pagan thought. From the Gnostic influence in the first century onwards a tendency to denigrate the body and all merely human this-worldly activity has been made to seem more 'spiritual'. This evidently emerged even in New Testament times and it continues today in different forms of what I shall call 'Christian asceticism'.

The Bible, to the surprise of many, has a more positive view of culture than the ascetic tradition allows, and parts of the Bible seem to be written quite specifically to counter-balance the tendency of the super-spiritual enthusiasts to ignore or write down the positive value of our natural and cultural life in God's eyes.

Definition of Culture

First, however, some definitions. When we say that someone is a very cultured person we mean that he is widely read and has a good understanding of the thinking, arts and the outlook of his own and other civilisations. When people write about culture, however, they usually define the word not in that narrow sense but in a very wide sense. In fact one of the major problems in discussing culture is that the meaning of the term is rarely quite clear. Most writers start by defining it in the widest possible sense and then use it in fact in a much narrower one. Emil Brunner defines it in effect as: all that people do beyond biological necessity (in his Christianity and Civilisation).2 Richard Niebuhr also in his, in many ways excellent book, Christ and Culture3 defines it as follows:

'Culture is the "artificial environment" which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisation, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values.' Niebuhr, however, then goes on to describe some Christians as 'against culture', which would imply that they were against all language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs etc. In fact what he means is that they are against all secularised forms of culture and want to produce their own Christian culture. In most of his book he is talking about cultures in the plural, not culture, singular and general. This is what I want to do here because if culture is 'all that people do beyond biological necessity' then the problem can be generalised to: how do we do 'all.....' in a Christian way? Today, however, and ever since the Church began, the acute problems of culture have been how to react to the particular cultures in which the Church finds itself.

I want to define culture here, therefore, in a sense that is between the narrow, popular sense and the very broad sense. Culture then I will define for our purposes as: 'the overall beliefs, priorities and values of the community that are expressed in its institutions and its practices' (including of course its arts and architecture). Tony Walter has described it as 'life style', and if we understand that expression in a very wide sense it might do as a brief definition, though I think its orientation is too practical and could ignore understanding the fundamental outlooks which are part of culture. In the sense that I have given the term there can be a Marxist, Muslim or Christianised culture. There can be a Western European culture, or an urban or working class culture. I believe the fundamental question is, how do we react to that kind of entity rather than, how do we react to culture in the widest sense?

Good and Evil

The most acute problem for the Christian arises because he or she finds themselves in a culture which is a mixture of good and evil. It is not only not thoroughly Christian, but has some positively false emphases and their pervasive influence on the way we think and live tends to push us into false priorities and values. Not only that, but when the Christian tries to bring their culture more into conformity with Christian standards, he or she faces all sorts of difficult questions, from the problems of language (can one use pagan words for 'God' to describe the living God?) through subtle questions of marriage and money to problems about music and social life.

Some of these things may have been formed in a non Christian culture and now need to be either adopted by the Church or replaced by something more fitting to a Christian community. Can certain forms of music, for instance, be used by the Church to express a Christian outlook? Are a system of dowries or a period of engagement before marriage to be adopted, modified, or scrapped? Are beauty in buildings, home decoration and clothes to be pursued if they are expensive? How important are they? Can capitalism or socialism be called 'Christian', or do they need to be reformed or rejected? Are middle-class values simply good, bad, indifferent, or a mixture of Christian tradition with materialistic overtones? In almost every situation there are good and bad features. For instance, both the nuclear family and the extended family have excellent features and particular dangers. As one might expect in a community of fallen men and women, nothing is perfect. But equally the world is not hell. There are in every culture things that the Christian ought to praise and reinforce.

It is helpful, I believe, to classify the three main attitudes to culture, which have been important in the Christian Church, and I will do this first, trying to describe them in broad outlines, before going on to develop a positive view. 4

1. The 'love-not-the-world' emphasis

Based on such passages as 1 John 2:15-17, 'love not the world neither the things that are in the world', 1 Corinthians 1:3, and 1 Peter 2:11, this school of thought emphasises that we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24) and 'the whole world is in the power of the Evil One', (I John 5:19b). From these and other scriptures they have concluded that Christians should have as little as possible to do with the culture around them, but should create their own Christian culture within the world. Positive involvement with non-Christians in all forms is frowned upon - except for the purposes of evangelism. The Christian life, they stress, is to be lived out in a Christian community, or in a Christian church, in isolation from the rest. The monastic ideal of the medieval church illustrates this well. Public office, politics, or even business (except perhaps in a Christian firm) are in this view inappropriate for the spiritually minded Christian and will only lead to their being 'squeezed into the world's mould'. It is impossible to be a real friend of sinners (Jesus is an exception because he is sinless). The ideal is to deny the world in the widest possible sense of that word - that is to say, it is in principle an ascetic ideal. It has often led into vows of celibacy and poverty.

This negative attitude to culture (for brevity I will use the word 'ascetic' because that is really what it is) is a streak in many Christian traditions. It has often been most strong in churches where the parents have less academic education than their children. The elders confronted with many new things, and with their children going up the social scale and changing their life style, have often over-reacted. The children are then treated to constant warnings of the dangers of education, of money, or reading literature, of the arts and TV, etc. In the end it begins to sound like a largely negative attitude to almost all 'the good things of life'. Even food and marriage, and healthy social life begin to seem second best. Of course, the older generation may genuinely detect a creeping worldliness in their children, but they easily give the impression that the Christian cannot be positive about society, about the fruits of science, technology or the arts, or about anything that is not specifically 'Christian'. 'If in doubt, don't' is a maxim which is devastating in its effects if there is then doubt about almost everything except prayer, Bible study and hymn singing. This situation can easily arise so that any change of life style is regarded as worldliness.

The extreme of this position is the hermit tradition - here people withdrew from almost all social contact and tried to live purely 'spiritual' lives stripped, as far as possible, of all social or even biological existence. In a moderate form it leads to many of the variety of Christian communes and communities where there is a refusal of art, music, social life and education except insofar as these can be done in an explicitly Christian way. You may enjoy Christian songs, but not secular ones; Christian fellowship, but not friendship with non-Christians. Eve's temptation was a cultural one: the fruit 'was good for food and..... a delight to the eyes, be desired to make one wise' (Genesis 3:6 which is probably the basis of 1 John 2:16).

Therefore we must be constantly on our guard. The so called 'radical Reformation' tradition of which the Anabaptists were leaders in the 16th century, followed this emphasis. While being radical in their view of the church they were in this respect far from radical. They were in fact nearer to the monastic ideals of the unreformed church. Most Baptist churches today do not follow this ideal, but this school is exemplified today in groups such as the Amish People - an extreme variety of the Mennonites, who still, in the middle of the American technology, do not (or did not until very recently) use razors, buttons or motor cars.

To call these people 'against culture' is misleading, they are against secular cultures. They can be recognised immediately by their own unique culture - horses instead of cars, clasps instead of buttons etc. The simple life - usually with a rural image - is seen as the Christian's ideal. For many evangelicals that outlook has a powerful appeal. They ask whether there is not something more spiritual in doing without the world's goods. If we are not to love the world, must we not repudiate it? To these people the cities seem a symbol of evil. To build office blocks for big business is somehow in itself a piece of worldliness. Technology and even scientific advance are seen more as a threat than a cause for any thankfulness of God. A book coming out of this tradition and described as Essays on Christian Faith and Professionalism5 has an almost entirely negative attitude and emphasis on the dangers of moving into the professional world. Many of the authors (who are all Mennonites) seem doubtful as to whether they ought to have moved from the rural environment. Significantly, the overall title of the book is, 'The perils of professionalism'.

Ronald Sider in his book, Rich Christians in an age of Hunger6 has a considerable element of this tradition (he is a Mennonite). Thus he holds up as a model a science professor who has given up his job to live on clothes provided by the Salvation Army and 'scavenging in vacant lots and junk piles, delighting to find some use from what other people discard..... Foraging for supplies of berries, nuts, fruits and fireplace wood which otherwise would have gone to waste. Having a VW makes scrounging easier and shopping cheaper'. This ideal of a simpler life style certainly has its appeal, but it is frankly parasitic on those who do work to produce goods and it is hard to see how it actually helps anyone in the poorer countries or in the community as a whole, unless we give the money so released to satisfy their needs. Certainly the Third World would suffer severely if all Christians adopted this pattern and decided to abstain from coffee, tea, chocolate, quality cotton and tropical fruits as luxuries (personally I have paused with thankfulness at this point to make myself a cup of tea. I have no sense that it would have been more godly to use cold water).

Now the Mennonites are to be admired, amongst other things, for their social work of relief and philanthropy. While some other people just talk, they get on with the job. No doubt also, the ex-professor whom Sider praises is a very fine and devoted Christian whose life may have important things to teach us. The question is, however, whether this is really a biblical ideal.

There is no doubt that this emphasis has some important correctives for any tendency to materialism. We are commanded not to love the world. We must not value any of the gifts of our humanity and our culture as if they were for eternity. Even marriage is for this life only and must not be our idol. Cultural riches bring no one nearer to God and they all too easily do become a snare. The biblical passages concerned certainly emphasise these truths and we must not forget them. In Scripture, however, this emphasis does not stand alone.

2. The 'good creation' emphasis

The main-stream Reformers - Luther, Calvin and the Anglicans - however, believed that they had rediscovered in the Bible a major emphasis that must balance these other scriptural passages. First of all, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be kept from evil while 'in the world' though 'not of the world'. Indeed he actually said explicitly, 'I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but thou shouldst keep them from the evil one'. I do not think there is any other example of something that Jesus or his disciples specifically say they did not pray for. The early Christians were not withdrawn into a Christian culture or series of communes. Something has gone wrong if we make a Christian community the ideal within a mixed society when the Bible does not do so.

Indeed I am forced to conclude that the real justification for the Christian commune or ghetto concept of Christian community is that it is a 'defence mechanism' in an evil world - not that it has any positive biblical support. If there are circumstances where it can be justified on the purely practical grounds that you cannot survive without it, they must be very rare. Indeed the early church was clearly distributed through different households where many of them were slaves and had even to be exhorted not to neglect meeting together. In the strict Reformed tradition and in some other evangelical traditions there has also been an emphasis on the exclusively Christian club or social organisation (eg some of the student organisations in Calvinistic cultures such as Holland). The result of these has never been quite what was hoped. They have nearly always gone sour developing a kind of private language and humour that nobody else can appreciate, and giving a training that makes it even harder for Christians to live in the world afterwards. Again one must ask, is it a biblical pattern?

There are, however, other positive biblical corrections of the whole ascetic ideal. 1 Timothy seems to have been written partly to correct this 'super spirituality'. It contains an emphasis on the importance of good government (2:1-3), good physical health (5:23), concern for the physical well being of members of the family (5:3-8). Note that people who neglect this are 'worse than an unbeliever'. In Chapter 4:1-4 there is a resounding criticism of those who hold a negative attitude to food and marriage, saying that they are perpetrating a 'doctrine of demons'. While it warns of the dangers of loving money, it also in the same chapter tells the rich to share their resources because 'God has given us richly all things to enjoy' (6:10; 6:17, 18). Pagan religions are often ascetic and this is probably what Paul has in mind in his phrase about a 'doctrine of demons' in 4:1. Christians must not imitate this often attractive feature of paganism and this is a lesson that the church failed to learn when it allowed Gnosticism to become influential and to create a long term preference for the negative attitude to the body as in some way more spiritual. 7

1 Timothy is far from standing alone. Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount stresses that God cares for the material well being of all men and women, and that we are to do the same (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus healed ten lepers even though only one said thank you. Other passages recommend marriage as the normal, but not universal, God-given pattern and encourage us to the enjoyment of all God's material and social blessings.

As 1 Timothy 4:4 puts it, 'everything created by God is good', even in a fallen world. The examples Paul gives there of food and marriage should be taken as examples of God's gifts of natural resource on the one hand and human capacity on the others. In that case, we are called to a positive and not a negative attitude to all the good things of culture whether they are a safe water supply and good education, or art and music. All of these are at least capable of being part of the 'everything created by God' which we are to 'receive with thanksgiving'; most especially, if we 'believe and know the truth'. The Christian on this view ought to be more positive about the good gifts of culture than the non Christian and more enthusiastic for the development of all its created possibilities. Far from being ascetic (i.e. believing it to be a virtue to go without) they will be wanting to ensure that all men and women share the resources as fully as possible and in wholesome ways. This, of course, may involve going without for the sake of supplying others, or for the sake of even more important gifts, but it would mean refusing to go without for its own sake.

As Paul says in Colossians 2:23, that kind of self denial although it appears to be a virtue, does not in fact lead to spiritual progress. There may be some positive reasons for self-denial. Paul himself seems to have gone without marriage (or possibly re-marriage as a widower), and without many other things that he had a right to ask for, for the sake of the ministry that God had given him (1Corinthians 9:1-12). A positive attitude to God's gifts certainly does not mean that we regard them all as rights to which we should lay claim. It does mean that we receive with thankfulness what we are given and regard the enrichment of our culture and our society as a positive Christian programme. No one can have everything and no one can develop every one of the gifts or potentialities that he has. But we must not regard it as better to be deprived or to leave our capacities undeveloped. Indeed they give us a responsibility for society to do as well as we possible can with the gifts that we have and not so many other people possess to the same degree.

Culture in a fallen world

A further qualification must be made, however. Not only can the good gifts become too precious to us so that we love them - and that makes them an idol competing with God himself for our real motivation. These gifts are given to us in a fallen world and therefore nothing is untouched by evil. This is peculiarly true of those aspects of culture that are the fruits of human intellectual or emotional activity. The emotions, the will and the mind of men and women are all sinful, and they (especially but not exclusively those who have not known God's transforming grace) are bound to allow their sinfulness to taint the good gifts that they develop. As is evident to our friends, even if it is not to ourselves, we are not yet made perfect. Our art, architecture or philosophy, therefore, are not going to be perfect. Cities have evil aspects, but so does rural life.

All culture is, then a mixture of good and evil - good because God's gifts of creation are good, men and women are still in the image of God and nobody is a devil; but evil because no-one is an angel. No one is perfect in this life. The structures of society and even the best aspects of our culture are therefore imperfect and some of them are in themselves a recognition of the fallenness of the world - police forces, criminal lawyers and many social and medical services. Sin taints all and sin suddenly emerges in unexpected places. The best art and poetry is often marked by human conceit. Science and philosophy can be turned to evil. The university and even the hospital can present themselves not as a humble and grateful resource, passing on the benefits of God's creation, but as proud and self important monuments to human cleverness.

The 'good creation' emphasis does not mean that culture is accepted without qualification. In fact it should result in the main emphasis being on the need to try and improve it and to bring it increasingly into conformity with the will of God. Because this school believes that God cares for the health and this-wordly well-being of all men and women as well as for their eternal well-being, it teaches that we must care. It has resulted in a positive enthusiasm for cultural involvement guided by the principles of the Scriptures. Note that in 1 Timothy 4:4 these things are to be subject to 'the word of God and prayer'. Therefore this tradition has been enthusiastic for enjoying art, music, architecture, good government etc. and making all these human artefacts conform as nearly as possible to God's creation and providential ideals as revealed to us.

In practice the Ten Commandments form an extremely useful set of guidelines for our ideals in this area. Their implications need to be worked out and Scripture often does this for us. But if we are asking for some practical guidelines they are much more fundamental and far reaching than people often realise. Paul for instance in Ephesians 4:25 to 6:9 builds a whole picture of the Christian life on the structure of the Ten Commandments. He does so in a way that has close parallels with the Sermon on the Mount and obviously echoes our Lord's teaching there. When the Reformers set out the ideals of the Christian life around the Ten Commandments they were following an apostolic pattern and refusing to go along with the super spiritual emphasis that rejected the law as no longer relevant. Once more the Bible's guidelines about culture are more practical and down to earth than some sophisticated writers.

3. The Liberal Tradition: Christ 'fulfilling culture'

At the other extreme to the 'love-not-the-world' emphasis is the liberal tradition that sees Christianity as a fulfilment of man's own in-built ideals. It cannot seriously claim any biblical support, though attempts in that direction have been made. As Niebuhr describes it: 'Jesus Christ is approached and understood as a great leader, the spiritual, cultural cause of humankind's struggle to subdue nature, and of humankind's aspirations to transcend it'. In this way it joins force with the love-not-the-world emphasis and some social movements which are a mixture of liberal 'overcoming nature' and 'love-not-the-world' ascetism. Both fail to have a sufficiently positive view of the good gifts of God in creation. The Christian on this liberal view is called upon to learn from the world - or from Marxism, humanism, psychology, or any other cultural 'in-sight' of mankind. Great poetry or drama or philosophy is expected to teach us what we need to know, though Jesus Christ is the apex and fulfillment of man's cultural ideals, if only man can see it. Good music is thought to be 'spiritual' and no distinction of principle is made between aesthetic and spiritual experience. The aim of the church on this view is to create a true humanity. At a conference of leaders of this tradition the participants were recently asked to confess to God their 'failure to be fully human'. Of course the Bible teaches that full humanity is to be found in Christ; but the Bible tells us to repent of sin - rebellion against God - not of immaturity. Because it does not see the radical difference between gifts for our human life on earth (which should lead us to thankfulness and repentance, Romans 2:4) and God's supernatural gifts of grace, it ends up with an inadequate appreciation of both.

How do we choose?

If these three options describe the main Christian views in outline, how do we choose between them? First, let it be said that each has something true about it. The 'liberal' tradition makes us look at the real world and warns us of the fact that our theological themes can be doctrinaire and can be too much a defence of our own interests without sufficient regard to how it actually works out in practice. That is not an unbiblical stress. Our Lord said, 'By their fruits you shall know them'. The two other traditions each contain an important biblical emphasis which has to be grasped if we are to be biblical Christians. Insofar as these views have polarized there has been a danger of minimising the valid emphasis of the other views.

Secondly, it is important to state that if you lean decisively to one or the other view that does not mean that you have to go along with the rest of the system of theology with which it is normally associated. You do not, for instance, have to be a systematic Calvinist in the old tradition to believe that in this particular area of thought that tradition has got it right, and has the best track record historically. Equally, you do not have to be 'radical' in your doctrine of the Church if you are inclined to accept the Mennonite tradition about culture.

Thirdly, all of these traditions have often suffered historically from a progressive dilution of their real Christian inspiration. Secularization has set in all too easily and the ascetic approach has become an escape from human responsibility to a parasitic kind of monasticism (not all monasticism was escapist, specially at its beginning). A creation ordinance approach has been turned into an excuse for uncontrolled profit making and 'liberty' from moral restraints and from concern for people. We must not, however, blame any tradition for its secularised version. We can learn from these historical skeletons that each is vulnerable in particular ways to serious abuses against which we must guard ourselves. We must judge them by their most self-consistent expression. I want to argue that the middle option (God's good creation tradition) is the only one that is solidly biblical, and, if it will also listen to what the others have to say that is biblical, it is the most convincing way of approaching the problem. I believe it also has a far better historical record behind it than the other traditions. I do not believe that the others can in the same way take in the positive emphases of the alternatives, and there are serious weaknesses in the resulting outlook to which they lead.

Towards a constructive Christian view

Starting with the particular passages mentioned in 1 Timothy, we must accept that the New Testament has a positive estimate of the material world, the good things of life, of bodily health and of the state as an ordinance of God's providence (Romans 13:1-8 and 1 Peter 2). Jesus healed bodies and minds and cared for the whole person when he 'had compassion on them'. There is no trace in Jesus' own teaching of a negative attitude to the body, except when he is in fact saying that other eternal things are much more important. He taught that God's care for all men and women sends the sun and the rain even for the wicked, and that we are to care like that for the material this-wordly needs of all people. The disciples were sent out not only to preach the gospel but also to heal and to cast out demons.

We are to pray for good government (1 Timothy 2:1-6) and to see it as a gift of God's providence (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2) so that we co-operate with it in all that is good. Secondly, 1 Timothy 4:1-10 includes amongst other good things the created capacities of men and women for marriage, and the natural resources of food. The passage then generalises them by saying 'For (ie. the reason for this positive attitude is) everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving'. This passage, with 1 Timothy 6:17-19, where we are told that God has given us richly all things to enjoy (the context is what money can buy) and other New Testament passages, combine to give us the picture of an essentially positive Christian attitude to government, to health, to good food, to marriage and family life - indeed to social and cultural life generally. The Old Testament undoubtedly confirms this when material prosperity and rich family life are frequently seen as God's blessings, and poverty and loneliness as deprivations which we should exert ourselves to overcome.

What then of the apparently negative attitude of 1 John 2:15-17 etc? Why does Jesus say in Luke 14:26, 'If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple', if in other passages of the Bible we are urged to care for our parents and other dependent relatives (Mark 7:11, 1 Timothy 5:3-8)? The best short answer, to take only one example, is to point out that even in 1 Timothy 6, where Paul goes on in verse 17 to say that the rich should share their good things because 'He has given us richly all things to enjoy', he preceded that section by a warning against loving money and against caring for unneeded comfort and luxury: 'But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil'. We cannot possibly try to oppose the teaching of ++++ to Paul, as some, including Niebuhr, have tried to do. Paul has the same warnings and deliberately puts them side by side with his positive emphasis in the same chapter. He demonstrated his attitude in his own rugged life. He glories in his deprivations for the sake of the gospel. The phrase, 'for his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him......' is Paul, not ++++. There cannot be an opposition between this positive view of material things and the view that they are not the Christian's priority. The Christian, therefore, must not be trapped into loving them, when love is used in a very strong sense, but we should admire and be thankful for all that is good, because it is the fruit of God's creation and providence.

We must, therefore, hold these two things together. While we care for people's this-wordly health, comfort and wellbeing, we must remember that there are more important things in life. If we have to choose, then spiritual things come first. Paul, however, stresses that this does not mean neglect of our health, our family, or our reading and study etc. We do not normally have to choose. We are to pursue both health of body and of spirit, both social wellbeing and moral well-being, as any parent knows as they care for their own children. Indeed parental care (or care of an adult for their marriage partner or parent) provides a good model of God's care for us all with certain priorities where, occasionally, priorities appear to conflict. Indeed, what this emphasis in Paul and ++++ and above all in the teaching of Jesus makes plain is that partly just because these material and cultural things are good and attractive to us they can be a danger. 'To the pure all things are pure', says Paul. But we all know that it is very difficult to be rich and pure or very gifted culturally and not to make our gifts into an idol. Eve's temptation was not that the tree was good for food, beautiful and wisdom-giving. Its beauty was God-given in a perfect world and to be admired. The Devil persuaded her to make these genuinely and rightly attractive features more important than God's will and explicit command. This must not lead us to despise beauty. It must warn us that God-given beauty can become too important to us.

There is no conflict in these two biblical emphases. Whereas the 'God's good creation' emphasis can take in the warnings of Scripture, an opposite emphasis which makes 1 ++++ 2 and similar passages its main starting point, finds it in practice impossible fully to accept the positive emphasis of the Bible on the limited, but God-given, value of culture. There always remains a niggling desire to do without for its own sake, and to find fault with cultural activities so as to exalt by contrast a more 'spiritual' concept. The result is that the modern ascetic tradition has produced very few people who have advanced knowledge in science or technology, or been willing to get involved in business or government. Indeed, some of them have argued explicitly that these things should be left to the unconverted. Those who stress the 'God's good creation' tradition need to be shaken up by the more ascetic tradition. It presents a challenge to those who are in danger of getting caught up with materialism and 'the love of money'. Even in the Old Testament the 'Nazirites' who took an ascetic vow were intended as a protest and a reminder of the danger of materialism and reliance on things. We can admire with thankfulness those who today live out such an ideal, and be thankful that they reprove our love of ease and selfish comforts. But, as in the Old Testament, the 'Nazirites' were not intended to be the ideal. The ordinary man was intended to sit under his own vine and fig tree. Even Jesus himself was criticised for his lack of asceticism. He enjoyed food and drink and social life (he was therefore called 'a glutton and a drunkard', Matthew 11:19, by those who believed that a really spiritual man must have a negative attitude in such matters).

A Dangerous Ideal

Indeed, the example of Jesus expresses it perfectly. He was incarnate in a very imperfect culture. He lived under Roman law, and told his disciples to pay taxes to the imperialist conquerors. He attended weddings and dinners in the homes of unbelievers. He was a friend of evil people. He spoke their imperfect language, lived according to their imperfect customs, and in this he contrasted with the ascetic John the Baptist. And even if John the Baptist is an easier character to identify with, Jesus, and not John, is our ideal. The ascetic tradition is nearer to John the Baptist, but, as Jesus stressed, John was the last of the prophets but 'he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he' (Matthew 11:11). The new Christian order has a new more positive ideal - partly just because the Holy Spirit is given to all believers to enable them to live by such a dangerous ideal.

The ascetic tradition seems safer in a fallen world. But it is over safe and cannot in fact achieve the New Testament ideals. Like the ascetic series of negative rules described in Colossians 2, it sounds good and impressive but does not achieve what is meant to be achieved another way. The biblical pattern is possible in the power of the Spirit and, though its secularised versions are a scandal (for example, when profit is regarded as the sole objective of business), the same is true of the abuses of the monastic ideal. There is little value in arguing whether the immoralities of the monasteries have done more damage than the abuses of Protestant Christendom. Both have been a grave insult to Christianity. We must seek to live as New Testament Christians in the world in the power of the Holy Spirit and to make our culture as near as we can to the biblical ideal insofar as we have any opportunity of altering it.

Christians in all traditions - and not least evangelicals - have found this balance hard to maintain. All too easily the spiritually minded have slipped into a hidden or open asceticism. This focuses sometimes in denying to the rising generation the cultural activities that they have some good reasons for valuing. Their music, social life and education need constant criticism by the Word of God, but the elder generation often give the impression that it would be more godly to live an exclusively religious life in a way that makes nonsense to the young, to those in education, or to those with a young family. On the other side, we are all in danger of creeping materialism. Here the young are often critical of the older generation who they feel are too materialistic. The old are felt to have forgotten to apply strict moral criteria to their professions and to the priorities of a Christian mind in their lifestyle. Of course, this conflict is not really in the least about generations, but it is easier for the young with few commitments to live loose to possessions, and it is easier for the old to live loose to cultural riches of other kinds. We need to listen to one another, but above all to the Bible, which insists that we value God's creation and providential gifts and at the same time keep our priorities right and are glad to go without good things when it is necessary for the sake of 'the Kingdom of God and his righteousness' which we are to seek first.

Relative Autonomy

The 'God's good creation' emphasis is also not at all incompatible with believing that human study and knowledge and human institutions should have a relative autonomy. It is quite incompatible with the idea that anything in the world can be autonomous of the Lordship of Christ and his revealed truth. But music, for instance, may be judged good music when it has no clear theologised emphasis. Parents must make decisions for their children where the church has no concern. The point is most clearly illustrated in the biblical attitude to the not-at-all Christian State authority of the day, and in the Old Testament attitude to non-Jewish authorities, such as Egypt and Babylon. We have several passages in the teachings of Christ, Paul and Peter dealing with this topic. We also have examples of what the teaching meant in practice in the Acts.

The State is seen as an ordinance of God's providential and creation order. We imagine that even in a sinlessly perfect world someone would have to decide on which side of the road you drive your carriage or car. In the New Testament we are talking about pagan powers in a mixed society in which the Christians also are far from perfect. There is no encouragement for Christians to be other than helpful members of the imperfect community. Our Lord's phrase 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's' firmly taught that we have a distinct and positive duty to a secular, in many ways evil, ruling power. At the same time, it puts alongside that our superior duty to God. The early Christians in Acts, therefore, obeyed the 'powers' except where the powers tried to compel them to do what conflicted with their duty to God. They were positive about the powers (eg. Acts 16:35-40) but made it plain exactly as Jesus had done that the relative autonomy of the State was not a complete autonomy. Moral and theological issues come first. Nevertheless the State may fix its own level of taxation etc., and we are to pay cheerfully, even if we do not approve everything that is done with the money (Romans 13:6).

The State, therefore, has under God, a relatively autonomous area of life for which there are distinctive instructions in Scripture. The attempt by some in the ascetic tradition to identify the 'principalities and powers' in Ephesians 6 and other passages, with governments and other cultural institutions is an impossible exposition of a passage which is talking about personal temptation. Whereas the State in the book of Revelation can emerge as an embodiment of the Devil when it persecutes the church, the Bible has in both Old Testament and New Testament an essentially positive view of the role of the State as an ordinance of God. The explicit teaching on the subject in the Bible should help us to see other cultural institutions similarly. They are not totally bad or totally good. They can become an agent of evil, but they remain better than anarchy, and must be persuaded to function in accordance with the will and law of God. They are, however, not the church. Some of the instructions for the church are not relevant for the State, while others (and not lower) standards may be given, as in Romans 13, for the State. For example, the State is a minister of God's wrath.

Outline of a Christian view

Let me then try to clarify some outlines of a Christian view of culture that may help us towards a practical policy.

1. The creation and providential rule of God in His world means that He has given us gifts to enable us to bring into being a rich and varied culture for our 'this-worldly' benefit. These gifts are for all men and women. Christians and non-Christians share them without any evident distinction. Like rain, artistic and cultural gifts are given to the good and wicked alike. They are part of the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 to 'subdue the earth'.

2. The culture so created is a benefit. Even a very imperfect state is better than anarchy. Wholesome family life can be enjoyed by non Christians and Christians alike and is part of God's wish for all men. Lifelong marriage, parental instincts for the care of children and delight in their responsive love are things for which God cares. Beauty, our enjoyment of nature, art and music are things which we are to enjoy and find of human benefit. All these things minister to (or are intended to be so well structured as to minister to) our health and wellbeing and a rich use of God's world. They do not in themselves lead us nearer to God (though of course beauty in any form points to God) but they are a great blessing for this life. They are good in themselves; that is to say as God intended things to be and therefore humanly helpful. See Titus 3:8, 'insist.....that... those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds (or honest occupations); these are excellent and profitable to men'. Such things, therefore should lead us to thankfulness and to repentance.

3. This is so, even though in a fallen world nothing is perfect. We find evil in our own hearts even at the points of highest human bliss. The most splendid human artefacts are not free from the touch of human sin. We must not, therefore, polarise things so that all cultural products are seen either as Christian or humanistic. All are in fact a mixture of what is pleasing to God and what is not.

4. All cultural gifts are for this life only. In themselves they are not of eternal value, though how we use them may be of eternal significance. Good music is not in itself spiritual though it may be used to convey spiritual truth effectively. We cannot despise cultural excellence because we see it as a gift from God, but we cannot make it the main thing in life. A Christian mind will always cut it down to size in a way that may make us ridiculous in the eyes of our professional contemporaries who live for it. As I heard a university professor put it: 'we must first learn to despise culture and scholarship - to "consider them rubbish" (Phil.3:8) - before we can give them their positive Christian value'.

5. For these and other reasons we are to be kept from the idolatry of culture or even from the idolatry of trying to make a perfect culture. It cannot be done. Ever since Babel attempts have been made. Even so-called Christian cultures, or Christian arts, or poetry are full of reflections of fallen human nature. Indeed, calling a cultural unit Christian whether it is a school, a poem, or family, has the grave danger that we pretend that it is perfect when we know that it is not.

Furthermore, we can never idolise our nation or our political stance. Nehemiah wept for the sins of his nation even while he sought to restore its fortunes. Pride of nationality is often condemned in the Old Testament even while they gave thanks for all that was good in the nation. Politics, nationality, art and enjoyment must all be seen as temporary and imperfect artefacts for this life only, but nevertheless important aspects of our Christian responsibility.

6. We cannot opt out of the world. What we can do is to live our cultural life as fully as possible under the Lordship of Christ, which will mean with a heart and mind and will renewed and controlled as far as we are aware by God's revelation. These things are to be controlled as 1 Timothy 4:4 says, 'by the word of God and prayer'. The Bible gives us our priorities.

7. Meanwhile we shall appreciate and value whatever is good, by the standards of God's revelation, in the culture in which we are set, even if those things that are good do not at all derive from a Christian understanding of the world. There will be things 'true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and worthy of praise' in the most anti-Christian of societies (see Phil.4:8). People in communist countries are right to try to be good citizens and to strengthen all that is good and praise what those societies may have achieved in honesty, mutual concern, justice, etc. We are to co-operate even with a wicked Caesar.

8. We should also seek the good of our culture (Jeremiah 29:7), 'seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'

It is not moral and spiritual compromise to be working for better education in a state school in a humanistic society, or for integrity in business, or in our profession. We need not and should not drop out into an exclusively 'Christian' business, trade association or community life. If we do so drop out we shall find that it is only relatively more Christian and that evil is still there in our own natures and in the structure of this supposedly Christian sub-culture. Even after the reformation (or revolution) there will still be evil in the structure of the society as well as in our own hearts.

9. We must be modest about our Christian contribution. Our primary concern is with eternal life, thus, as 1 Timothy 4:8 has it, bodily health is for the Christian of some value, but godliness is of value both for this life and for the life to come. Our main contribution as Christians is in the latter area. Since, however, we are to love the whole person, we care about both. So we will be enthusiastic to do whatever we can for the enrichment of culture at a purely creation/providential level. If we can reduce poverty, improve health and build beautiful and economical and socially healthy buildings, we shall be delighted. We will, however, know that these things in themselves get no one nearer to heaven, and therefore we cannot make them our main ambition in life. Neither can we claim that Christian contributions to culture have always been an unqualified success. The Christian is not automatically better at these things than others and it is easy for Christians to make major mistakes because they are over confident.

10. Within culture there may be areas of relative autonomy. The Christian may need, as we say, to wear a different hat in different circumstances. As a church member he or she has certain responsibilities. As a parent, or marriage partner, he or she has others and they may seem to conflict. As an official of the State he or she may be called upon to exercise the sort of ministry that they ought never to exercise in the church - they may for instance be a minister of God's wrath (Romans 13:1-8). This is one reason why the schoolteacher, judge or policeman often, helpfully, wears a distinct dress to identify the role in which he is now active. The judge is called Mr Justice Smith, not simply John Smith, because he represents justice. Here Paul is careful to put side by side in Romans 12 and 13 the Christian ideal of relationships at an individual level at the end of Chapter 12 where he almost exactly quotes the Sermon on the Mount, and then to go on immediately to state that God has appointed people to exercise vengeance on evil so that though we may not do it in our personal capacity we might have to in our public capacity. It is no accident that these two things stand side by side and the chapter division has often obscured the fact.

The State has its own God-given standards and criteria which in some important ways differ from the ethics of personal Christian relationships. Science, art and family life have their own rules, criteria and methods which are different from other spheres. For example, parents may and sometimes should punish their own children, but not in the same way the children of a neighbour, and the style of punishment may differ in different spheres.

11. The Ten Commandments are to be our rule for a mixed society. This point needs further justification for which there is no space here. They give us a very practical outline of our ideals for a mixed society.

This means that personal morality comes first for us. We are not thinking or acting Christianly if we have a great new idea in architecture or business and yet are dishonest in our work or neglect our marriage vows in order to promote it.

12. Probably in the Protestant tradition we now need to be most careful that we do not misuse the positive emphasis on culture and the belief in the relative autonomy of particular spheres to allow us to become frankly secular or materialistic. If the gifts of culture are good, and they are, then we are most tempted to let the pursuit of these good things justify wrong means or a failure to be as careful about our motives as we should. We cannot say 'business is business' if that means allowing dishonesty or the abuse of our power. We can aspire to do a better job than anyone else is doing in the service of the community. We can aspire to build up a business that pays good wages and produces a good, economical and useful product, but not if it means living for success or money. Similarly, in a university or school we can aspire to expand our department if we are satisfied that it will be good for the pupils and for society. But we cannot be 'empire builders' in a way that denigrates the good others are doing or hope to do. We must see our role in a Christian perspective of the whole activity. The positive emphasis is 'dangerous' here because it can be misused to justify evil by calling evil by some other name; but we must not shrink back for that reason. A negative emphasis has in the long run created even greater damage.

13. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we have a blueprint for culture in God's revealed will. The analogy of nature warns us that this could be very dangerous. The quite incredible variety of birds, flowers, animals, etc. none of which can be said to be the ideal as opposed to any other, indicates that God delights in variety and our delight in nature is partly just because of that variety and different ways of doing, as it were, the same thing. Variety in cultural tradition can be a great enrichment and we must not suggest that there is a particular kind of music, painting, architecture, furniture etc. which is in a unique sense Christian, any more than there is a particular flower which is more God-honouring than the others. All must be under the rule of Christ, but that still leaves enormous responsibility for us to create for our own society and for our own and other people's enjoyment and in the broadest sense, 'health', that which will minister to their this-worldly good. Indeed, the Christian ideal of health in body, mind and spirit provides a good way of thinking about our cultural role in education, art, architecture, science, medicine etc. We are interested that people should be truly healthy.

14. Therefore the Christian should value creative freedom in culture - knowing that 'His service is perfect freedom'. Freedom is only freedom if it operates within the structures of reality (ie. creation). The destructive vandals are not expressing freedom, but rather their bondage to irrational and uncontrolled impulses. Freedom is part of God's purpose for His people, as Jesus said, 'if the Son shall set you free, you will be free indeed'. He came that we might have life and might have it more abundantly. Freedom, innovation and enterprise are in themselves part of God's creation purpose. But they are not certificates for moral licence (see Gal.5:13). True freedom and initiative are only found under the authority of 'the word of God and prayer' because our God is also our creator and He has instructed us to live in a way that is exactly suited to our real needs and our real nature. With this confidence, the Christian should not be merely safe and mediocre in his or her cultural activities, but should enjoy a freedom such as nobody else enjoys and an enthusiasm for the cultural task that nobody else can share. Just because it is not his or her idol to be served they can with joy and thankfulness to God make it a servant of the glory of God and the life we are given to lead here on earth.


1. Used by kind permission from the publishers. Developing a Christian Mind, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1984.

2. Emil Brunner Christianity and Civilisation

3. Richard Neibuhr Christ and Culture

4. Richard Neibuhr classifies attitudes to culture under five headings, but I believe that this division into three main emphases is more helpful.

5. Donald B Kraybill and Phyllis Palmann Goode Essays on Christian Faith and Professionalism, Herald Press, Kitchener, Ontario, 1982.

6. Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

7. Hindu leaders, such as Gandhi, often stress the virtues of self-denial as a means of spiritual progress - as in his autobiography. To him and to some Christians it is almost self-evident that it is more spiritual to be without sex, animal products for food, academic education, etc. They see these things as hindrances to spiritual maturity. The Bible does not, and denounces this error in Colossians 2 and 1 Timothy 4.

From Developing a Christian Mind, Leicester: IVP, 1984, reproduced in Christian Dimensions in Architecture and Planning, ed. Ian Davis, Leicester: UCCF, 1982, pp.5-23.

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