On Approaching Culture

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 17.15-18 (ESV)

With these words from the Upper Room Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus (probably intentionally) set the stage for how His followers should interact with the world. Often characterized as a call for Christians to “be in the world, but not of the world,” these words (along with various New Testament statements by Paul and James) have been used as the basis for Christian cultural engagement.  That is to say, Scripture sets the parameters for how Christians should live in, participate in, and relate to the world in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, exactly what this engagement looks like has varied even among faithful followers of Jesus. In fact, over the years, various Christians have crafted and lived different interpretations of what Scripture communicates about the appropriate relationship with the world. Today, there are five basic approaches that Christians take:

Five Approaches to Culture

First is what we might call the Antagonistic Approach. In this view, the expectation is that followers of Jesus should generally oppose the world and its culture, norms, and practices. Think of the Amish or ultra-conservative Christians who eschew many modern practices and technology. For the sake of comparing all five views, I want to use the Harry Potter books. If for no other reason that the clarity of the example, since their release, Christians have had very clear reactions to these books (and the movies). So they make a solid test cast. For the antagonistic approach, since the Harry Potter books are not explicitly Christian, they are something in culture that should be personally avoided and perhaps even widely opposed.

A second option is the Accommodating Approach, where the expectation is that followers of Jesus should accept and welcome the world and its culture, norms, and practices. This is a more prevalent and often “Christian-lite” approach, although ancient Christians such as John Chrysostom reveal that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. The perspective on the Harry Potter books here is that they’re all good, something to be enjoyed and accepted and adopted without any thought to the contrary.

A third option is the Countercultural Approach, where followers of Jesus should forge alternative, Christ-centered options for cultural expression and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is largely the approach taken by Christian bookstores and the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Here, rather than reading the Harry Potter books, you should instead read some Christian fantasy, perhaps The Lord of the Rings (for the fifteenth time) or the Chronicles of Narnia or something similar.

The fourth option is the Two Worlds Approach. Here, followers of Jesus live between two worlds (sometimes called Two Kingdoms), where sometimes we prioritize the culture of Christ and other times we prioritize the culture of this world. This is the historic view of the Reformation, as this approach was fostered by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological descendants. To continue our example, the first question for this view would be which world do the Harry Potter books belong to? If you’re going to use them for mere entertainment, they’re probably safe, since they belong to that world. But if the books are going to form your worldview, they have overstepped the boundaries of their world and should thus be returned to their proper place.

And finally, there is the Redemptive Approach. In this view, followers of Jesus should seek to redeem the world and reorient its culture, norms, and practices toward Christ and His Kingdom. Not everything is redeemable, of course. But many things are. In this approach, Harry Potter gets recast in various ways. Perhaps the books get celebrated for encouraging literacy or maybe parts of the story are mined for lessons about the battle between good and evil. In this view, culture is engaged for the purpose of finding and drawing out what is true and good and beautiful.

Which Approach?

Now, there are faithful Christians who attempt each of these approaches. And in my experience, there’s typically some overlap in approaches by individuals, families, and communities. (Here I should also not that the accommodating approach seems likely to be the kind of thinking that Jesus and James push back against in Scripture, so it’s probably best to not default to that approach.)

But personally, I lean toward attempting a redemptive approach to our world. A redemptive view takes seriously the reality that culture tends toward sinful brokenness and thus we should not be easy friends with the world. But it also focuses on the fact that our world consists of people made in the image of God who need redemption and whose cultural output is often worthy of redemption too. A redemptive approach understands that not everything is beneficial for the follower of Jesus, but that our world must be engaged and redeemed, nonetheless. This is why, for example, the church as pastor at often uses video clips to open messages. It’s why we spoof culture to make points. It’s why we have message series that use pop songs from the 90s as ways to think about the book of James.

There is much about culture that is not great and should be cautiously engaged by Christians, yes. But there’s also a lot that can be redeemed for the Kingdom of God, not ignored or feared or cast aside.


What about you: what are your thoughts on approaching culture? What boundaries or indicators to do you use?

How I View Martin Luther

Last Friday, Conciliar Post hosted a Round Table discussion on Martin Luther. I would encourage you go click on over there and peruse the reflections on how Christians from a variety of denominations view the “first” Reformer. My response to this Round Table is as follows:

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

My perception of Luther arises from many experiences with the Luther’s legacy and his writings. I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod—attending both church and school until middle school—and learned much about Luther the Great Reformer there. Every fall we would talk about the Reformation, how Luther valorously stood up to the heresies of the Catholic Church. We would read stories about his life (mostly his post-Diet of Worms “capture” by Frederick the Wise), wait in eager anticipation for Thrivent Financial’s production of Luther, and talk about the central tenets of the Augsburg Confession. The picture of Luther painted at this stage of my life accorded with the idealizing of other great Christians, albeit with that special fervor which accompanied talking about Luther as a “Lutheran.” Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Links

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Over the past two weeks I’ve run a series on Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. While there are unquestionably portions of Luther’s ethic which are possibly problematic and have been interpreted poorly (see Nazi Germany), I do think the Two Kingdom’s can serve as a useful mode of thinking in today’s context, as I briefly noted over at Patheos Evangelical. I would love hearing any thoughts on the series and/or Luther’s value for today.

By way of review for this series, below are links to all of the articles from this recent series. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Having examined Luther’s major writings and construction concerning the relationship of the Christian to the world, we must now consider the common critique of Luther’s theology, that it does not provide a solid foundation for the Christian engagement of temporal authority. In his major reformation works, Luther placed a great deal of emphasis on the equality of all Christians within the spiritual kingdom, including those who were ordained as temporal rulers. When Luther first writes of resisting tyranny, he does so in a relative passive manner, arguing that disobedience and verbal disunity are proper forms of resistance. Althaus inhabits the common traditional interpretation of Luther, saying that Christ concerns himself with the spiritual kingdom and does not participate in the secular kingdom[78] and that for Luther’s construction, the “secular government existed long before Christ and also exercised power without him. This indicates that secular government and Christ’s kingdom are two distinct entities and that Christ is not directly involved in secular government.”[79] Luther’s doctrine interpreted in this way allows for a great deal of Christian passivity within the realm of the temporal. Such an understanding explains both general German Lutheran passivity to the Third Reich and the modern critique of Lutherans as a ‘conservative’ political movement in Latin America. Were this the only basis or interpretive framework that fit Luther’s thought, it would seem that the strong critique of Luther’s theology as somewhat naïve and generally unconcerned with the world would stick. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Critique

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

The common critique that Luther separates the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world in such a manner that does not allow for meaningful Christian interaction within the world often stems from an understanding of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine as highly dichotomous and Augustinian. Concerning this connection, while Luther’s original concept was based upon Augustine’s dualistic notion of the division of world between God and Satan,[69] he moved beyond his muse, as “he found the idea of the sovereignty of God in secular law as well as in the affairs of state, he was able to show the Christians how he could assume a meaningful responsibility in the human community without contradicting the categorical commands of Jesus.”[70] Althaus argues that the distinction between Luther’s terms of ‘government’ and ‘kingdom’ lessened as dualism decreased and he wanted to say that marriage and property had positive paradisiacal benefits within the secular kingdom.[71] Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Christian Passivity?

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Just WarTo this point it seems that using Bornkamm’s understanding of Luther’s doctrine would allow for little passivity from the Christian when their neighbor was confronted with evil. On the breadth of secular authority, Luther’s concern was that temporal authority must not endeavor to control the prescription of laws for the soul, for to do so would encroach upon Christ’s government, which would mislead and destroy souls.[56] Luther speaks against both those leaders of God’s kingdom who have sought to control temporal matters such as land and animals, as well as those rulers of the temporal kingdom who have abandoned their just duties concerning land and property and have rushed into the insanity of attempting to exercise spiritual control over souls.[57] Luther, citing St. Paul, St. Peter, King David, and Christ,[58] argues that temporal authorities only have control over the physical body and outward actions,[59] whereas bishops and leaders of the kingdom of God must live in a manner consistent with Christ’s standards of justice and use their office to serve their fellow Christians.[60] Thus, in the understanding of how far temporal authority may reach, Luther both limits the use of temporal force in the kingdom of Christ, and proceeds to argue for greater temporal power in matters not directly under the control of the kingdom of the world. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Christ and Authority

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

BibleThe differentiation between the jurisdictions of Christ and the temporal authority does not limit Christian activity to the spiritual sphere alone, but dictates the manner in which the Christian wields the sword and obeys temporal authority. Turning to the Biblical passages in question, Luther argues that Christ’s words in Matthew 5 should be interpreted to mean that the temporal sword not be used among Christians, that the means of rule of the kingdom of the world should not be allowed to rule the kingdom of Christ. Luther writes that, “For [Christ] is a king over Christians and rules by the Holy Spirit alone, without law. Although he sanctions the sword, he did not make use of it, for it serves no purpose in his kingdom, in which there are none but the upright.”[47] Matthew 5 thus prohibits the use of the temporal sword within the kingdom of Christ, but does not explicitly forbid the Christian to serve and obey those who wield the sword. Because Christians do not simply live on their own, but live in community with their neighbors, who are often not Christians, they must submit to the temporal law, not for their own sake, but for that of their neighbor. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: On Temporal Authority

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Luther's Works The Christian and Society IIHaving considered context and terminology of Luther’s Two Kingdoms, let us now turn to his writing on this subject in On Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. Luther begins Temporal Authority by outlining the Biblical basis for understanding the civil government and the sword as having been established by God. Romans 13[32] “Let every soul [seele] be subject to the governing authority, for there is no authority except from God; the authority which everything [allenthalben] exists has been ordained by God. He then who resists the governing authority resists the ordinance of God, and he who resists God’s ordinance will incur judgment” and First Peter 2[33] “Be subject to every kind of human ordinance, whether it be to the king as supreme, or to governors, as those who have been sent by him to punish the wicked and to praise the righteous” are key passages in understanding the necessity of obedience to those in authority. While these passages constitute the basis for Luther’s understanding of civil government having been instituted by God, passages such as Matthew 5:38-41, 44, Romans 12:19, and First Peter 3:9 make it seem as though new covenant Christians should bear no sword, even if they are civil authorities. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Applied Ethics?

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Scholars such as Porter have argued that one of the lasting implications of Luther’s construction involves a radical separation of temporal authority from man’s goals in the kingdom of God.[25] Further, Porter argues that “Luther’s radical separation of the ‘two realms’ or kingdoms—church authority and temporal authority—and the emphasis placed on the divine source of temporal authority lead to an ‘unqualified endorsement of state power’ and to a greater fear of anarchy than of tyranny.”[26] Lohse rightly points out that Luther never used the term “doctrine of the two kingdoms,”[27] and suggests a rejection of the entire dichotomous construction: “The brief slogan of the doctrine of two kingdoms is also misleading insofar as it conceals the fact that Luther did not restrict his understanding of the secular kingdom to government and the state but rather included all secular functions… This brief slogan also is not appropriate insofar as it is not able to express the complex and varied pattern of practical action of both Luther and Lutherans.”[28] Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Sword and State

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Prior to writing Temporal Authority, Luther had rejected the Roman construction of the dichotomous application of the ethical, such as the imperative of the Sermon on the Mount, to commands and counsels,[15] as well as rejecting the view that the Church was the source of a worldly authority.[16] Once Luther had rejected the Roman interpretation, he found it necessary to construct a system in which he could balance seemingly competing Biblical claims. On the one hand, his doctrine needed to consider Paul’s command in Romans to be subject to ruling authorities. On the other hand, his doctrine needed to make sense of Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount to be peacemakers and not fear persecution for the general Christian life. Regarding especially those Christians who were in positions of temporal authority, Luther’s doctrine needed to consider both Jesus’ commands to not murder and Paul’s confirming an authority’s divine right to wield the sword. Continue reading