"My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. " - John 17:15-16
"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. " - 1 John 2:15-17
"You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." - James 4:4
"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world." - 1 Corinthians 5:9-10
"I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." - 1 Corinthians 9:22
One of the most overwhelming forces that we face every day is that of culture, the “world” that surrounds us. But however true that is, we may not even be aware of the impact of culture on our hearts. Does a fish know that it’s wet? Do we know that we are 21st century Americans? How does that culture in which we are immersed daily affect our walk with Christ? And what does Christ want us to do about culture?
First, a definition. Culture as I’m using the term “denotes a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Clifford Geertz). T.M. Moore wrote this about culture: “Culture plays a powerful role in human life…. The artifacts, institutions, and conventions with which we surround ourselves—our culture—help us to define, sustain, and enrich our lives and experience. The forms of culture are many and varied: they can be as exotic and complex as an opera or as commonplace and everyday as a conversation across the back fence. They include the books and magazine we read, the décor with which we adorn our homes, and our tastes in fashion and music. Culture can be as interesting as the current best seller, or as irritating as the music that intrudes on our meal at a restaurant.”
That all sounds spiritually harmless. Why then so many warnings about the “world” as listed above? Apparently, Jesus, John, and James felt there was an overwhelming threat inherent in the “world.” How does the “world” as listed in those verses relate to culture?
To compound the problem, Jesus in the verse above is purposefully leaving us here in “the world”, and the Apostle Paul admits that not associating with non-Christian people who are openly sinful would require that we “leave this world,” something he obviously does not regard as desirable in that context. To make matters even more challenging, Paul goes on to tell us that he purposefully and intentionally “became all things to all men so that by all possible means he might save some.” He changed what he could about his lifestyle—his eating, drinking, and living habits—so that he could connect with both Jews on the one hand and Greeks on the other, and somehow win them to eternal life.
How then do we sort all this out? Purity on the one hand, cultural engagement for the purpose of evangelism on the other? Only one man in history did it perfectly—Jesus Christ. He alone ate with tax collectors and prostitutes without ever thereby becoming polluted.
T.M. Moore suggests there are six different contemporary Christian approaches to cultural matters:
1) Cultural indifference: Christians who are involved in culture without giving that involvement much thought at all; while they don’t condone the extreme expressions of sexuality and violence surrounding them, for the most part their daily lifestyles and cultural engagement isn’t much different from that of their non-Christian friends.
2) Cultural aversion: these Christians feel all cultural involvement is to be avoided like a plague; the best approach to culture is to avoid it entirely as much as possible, lest it contaminate your faith.
3) Cultural trivialization: these Christians seek to express aspects of contemporary culture in distinctively Christian ways, but restrict that to trivial expressions—Christian “bookstore culture” of trinkets, pop music, t-shirts, jewelry, etc.
4) Cultural accommodation: these Christians eagerly seek to accept as much as possible from the culture and to express their faith in the context of those current cultural expressions. They may willingly choose to live in hotbeds of cultural expression (Hollywood, Broadway, Wall Street) and seek to express their Christian faith as much as possible utilizing those cultural trends.
5) Cultural separation: these are people who try as best they can to create a Christian world within the world, Christian alternatives to worldly culture: they create Christian homeschool networks, use Christian “Yellow Pages” so they can get a Christian plumber to fix their Kohler faucets; they listen to Christian radio, watch Christian movies and shows (like “The Chosen”), go to Christian theme parks, etc.
6) Culture triumphalism: these Christians expect too much of culture, feeling that if we can elect the right politicians, appoint the right judges, change the laws the right way, we can suppress the particular forms of cultural evil we want and bring in a better (Christian) world, maybe not a utopia, but a “Christian country” (See T.M. Moore, Culture Matters, p. 12-15).
"Only one man in history did it perfectly—Jesus Christ. He alone ate with tax collectors and prostitutes without ever thereby becoming polluted."
Each of these approaches has its problems, and perhaps most Christians live as a mixture of a variety of them. We need to seek God’s wisdom on this issue, so that we can fulfill His command to be pure from the world while engaged in the world to save as many people as we can.