Scot Loyd wrote a provocative piece It seems good to the Holy Ghost: A defense of progressive Christianity here on Faith on View. A reader who I know in real life asked a good question in response to the article. “I have heard this many times, ‘the church is to transform culture.’ This is an honest question: what Bible verses indicate that the church is to transform culture? I’m very open. I did read the article.”
I went to church with this reader for several years and we spoke a lot so I think I know some of what is behind the question. As such, if you feel like I’m reading into the question… you are right.
I’m not going to give a verse. For me, this is a matter of thinking through the power of the Gospel and its implications rather than finding a verse that proof-texts the point.
Yet, I am an evangelical so here are a couple of verses to start the conversation.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:24
I believe it is beyond question that scripture teaches that the Gospel should have a transformative effect on the individual because of their encounter with God.
Cultural Transformation as the Focus
The question then becomes how that works out in public life. There are many who teach that a core aspect of the Gospel is to intentionally transform the world for Christ. This is at the heart of the Culture War that evangelicalism has been waging for the last half-century or more. I think the reader who asked the question is rightly concerned about Christians making the transformation of the world the goal. We have often seen the problems this breeds. Three come to mind immediately:
- The ‘end justifies the means’ thinking: We see this working out in the news often where abusive leaders are allowed to stay in their positions because they are deemed effective. The goal is to transform culture, yet too often how we do that becomes less important than that we do it. I would argue that in a very real way this is not transforming culture but baptizing the utilitarian ideology of our culture.
- Prioritizing systems and institutions over people: In most cases, it isn’t the everyday person who is going to change the world. Therefore, powerful and charismatic leaders often get a pass because of their effectiveness. But in most cases, it is the churches and organizations that affect change. If transforming culture is the primary goal, then it becomes imperative to preserve those organizations and their reputations. The news is replete with examples of how this sort of thinking has enabled abuse and hidden great evils. I worked for an institution that paid off a sexual predator and sent him away rather than dealing with the problem
- Creating an ‘us verses them’ perspective: I’ve argued on this website that there is no “other” in a Biblical worldview. The Biblical call is to love our neighbor even those who spitefully use us. We are to show all prodigal grace and limitless love. When our primary goal is to achieve a certain political end then we cast people as ‘other’ and even as enemies.
For years, I’ve seen evangelicalism distort the Gospel in an effort to transform the world for Christ. So, I understand why our reader was concerned by this type of language. The same methodology can be just as dangerous even if the political perspective is changed.
Cultural Transformation as the Byproduct
At the same time, when one looks at the influence of the early church it did result in a radical transformation of culture.
I am referring to the time before Constantine. One can argue that the development of political power for the church led to all the same problems I just mentioned. The early cultural influence of the Church wasn’t because of institutional power or due to the ability to politically compel anyone. It came from the radical transformation of people’s lives.
Often in the Old Testament, especially the prophets, Israel is chastised and judged because of their corporate failings. These failings are a result of the culture’s communal heart. Ezekiel condemned Israel as being worse than Sodom. This wasn’t because of Israel’s great sexual sin. It was because, like Sodom, they had become proud and gluttonous and failed to care for those in need. So, to God, having a transformed culture is important.
So how do we balance the dangers of setting up culture transformation as the goal and God’s desire for our culture to reflect his heart?
I think the difference is found in our goal. If our goal becomes cultural transformation then our focus becomes the systems. If our focus is people, there is a greater likelihood of true transformation. This becomes clouded because we need laws. I would argue that the prophets clearly show God’s heart for social justice and our laws should reflect that. So, how am I different than those I just criticized?
I do not believe that through laws we can force a majority that may wish evil to behave as good. That is the approach we see far too many taking today. I believe our laws will be a reflection of our culture’s collective heart. The church transforms culture not by advocating laws but by changing the culture’s heart, one person at a time.
From my perspective, the church has failed here and even become worldly. The church prays loudly in public but does not love others well. 1 John is clear that if we do not love one another we do not love God. That should be a convicting thought for the church.
In a representative government, I believe we should, as citizens, advocate for the laws that we believe are just. But, as a Church, as the Ecclesia, we should love, share love, and teach love. It is through our love one for another that we change culture, not by our political advocacy.
I realize that I am splitting a fine hair. Yes, we should advocate for good laws, but ultimately our goal isn’t those laws but to live and demonstrate God’s boundless love. The love that Jesus demonstrated was a sacrificial love. He did not seek to dominate us politically or by force nor to judge us. He sought to lay his life down for us.
So yes, I think we as the Ecclesia are to transform culture. But, not through participating in and furthering our domination through a culture war. We are to lay our lives down in love. We are to renew culture by making a new culture rooted in love rather than by dominating the old culture and forcing its submission.