In Christian circles today, especially among Millennials, there is a lot of discussion and debate about “culture.” The majority in Christendom seems to have adopted the view that the believer is to embrace the culture in order to reach others for Christ. What I feel obligated to warn Millennials about is the inclination and almost obsession in today’s churches to embrace the culture. I would like to mention a few Biblical principles that aren’t always included in this debate, but should be.
One of the difficulties with this subject is defining the word “culture.” In 2014, Miriam-Webster Dictionary selected the word “culture” as its word of the year. “We're simply using the word culture more frequently," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. "It may be a fad. It may not. It may simply be evolution." Personally I am thankful that Miriam-Webster made that choice. Now I know that it’s not just me. I have also been observing that this word appears much more frequently in my reading – especially by Christian blogs or articles about Millennials. And it seemed to me that many of these writers were infusing this term with a slightly different meaning that it had before; culture of corruption, culture of transparency, information culture, counter-culture, multi-culturalism cultural mandates, redeeming culture, pop culture, folk culture).
Words are constantly evolving in their meaning and usage. That’s normal over time. Definitions of CULTURE: Britannica: “Culture or Civilization... that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Collins Dictionary: “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action.” Cambridge Dictionary: “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” Combining the main points of these definitions, the term “culture” includes the morals, customs, beliefs, values, and most importantly the way of life of man in a particular society.
The issue at hand today is “Should believers embrace their culture or avoid their culture?” The answer is not as simple as it may appear. This question is posed in light of the growing dichotomy between fundamentalism and evangelicals – including conservative evangelicals. This dichotomy is becoming more pronounced in the area of LIFESTYLE: music, art forms, dress, speech, and worship.
There is a tendency today among many evangelicals to view culture as being “neutral.” Mark Driscoll: “It was God who created cultures.” Additionally, Driscoll explains that the gospel “must be fitted to” culture. Driscoll is a Reformed Calvinist who describes himself as “theologically conservative and culturally liberal.” Many evangelicals have chosen to embrace culture in order to reach people for Christ. We applaud their intentions. Their intentions are good and Biblical – reaching people with the gospel. There is also a very important element of truth in this approach. Fundamentalists are often wrongly criticized for avoiding all contact with the cultural practices of the day. That’s why we’re dying, so say many contemporary Christians who embrace the culture. The criticism is that our doctrine of separation prevents us from engaging the culture and causes us to see culture as evil – when (in their view) culture is neutral. This is the crux of the problem... and it is not an easy problem to respond to. Two different lifestyles are emerging.
That depiction of the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists is not entirely accurate. Fundamentalists do NOT refuse to engage modern culture. That’s absurd. Of course we are part of modern culture. We don’t dress like George Washington. We don’t refuse to listen to music written by one of our contemporaries. We go to baseball games and eat hot dogs and pizza. We don’t live in communes like the Amish or in monasteries like monks. Fundamentalists do live in our modern culture – just like everyone else.
The difference is not one of KIND; we engage in the same kind of modern culture that the evangelical does. The difference is one of DEGREE; While some believers dive right into the culture and embrace it, we choose to be more cautious. As believers, we live IN the world, and thus, to a certain degree, we engage in our culture. But we are not OF the world; there are aspects of our culture that we must reject because of our faith. And that makes us different from the world and from worldly Christians.
John 15:19 – “If ye were of the world, (and you are not) the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (second class if clause – unfulfilled)
We are told by some popular evangelicals today that the church needs to EMBRACE today’s culture if we want to win people to the Lord. Cultural differences were problematic in the early church – and still are today. The early church almost split in two because of “cultural” differences. The differences between the Jewish laws, customs, traditions, holy days seemed totally incompatible with the Gentiles’ way of life. I would like to encourage the Millennials and others that the answer to this issue IS found in the Scripture, not human opinions.
What the Bible Says about the Believer’s Relationship to Culture
A Way of Life: Two Different Ways of Living the Life Are Emerging. There is an element of truth to what the evangelicals say about culture. There are some aspects of a culture that are neutral. God isn’t so concerned about whether Christians eat spaghetti, Lo Mein, Swedish meatballs, tacos, or Mulligan stew. God isn’t so concerned about whether Christians wear a suit and tie, a toga, a kilt, or a long robe as in Afghanistan. And areas of cultural differences where there is no moral, religious, or spiritual meaning attached, the rule is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Or as Paul put it, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew that I might gain the Jews.” Of course there are aspects of culture we are to embrace.
Let’s consider once again the definition of culture. The concept of culture is multi-faceted. But overall, culture is the “way of life” (customs; traditions; art) of any particular society in any region of the world. The term “culture” does not appear in the Bible, but the Bible has a lot to say about the believer’s “way of life.” That concept is captured in a couple of common Greek words in the New Testament, translated as either “walk” or “conversation.” Our English word culture is similar to what Peter described as our “conversation received by tradition from your fathers.” The Bible does not say that our walk or manner of life is NEUTRAL. Rom. 6:4 - As new creatures, we are to “walk in newness of life.” Salvation brings to the believer a new manner of life – fitting for one who has been raised from the dead – and completely different from those who are still dead in their sins. I Cor. 3:3 - Paul rebukes the carnality, immaturity, and worldliness of the Corinthian believers: “For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” The reason for the rebuke was that they as Christians were walking (had a manner of life) that was the same as “men” – meaning unsaved men of the world. Eph. 2:1-3 - We used to walk like the world – in lockstep with them: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; 2Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
As believers we USED to have a manner of life like the world - a Satanically directed manner of life... like everybody else. Vs. 4- BUT – God saved us and we now have a totally different manner of life than the world around us. Now our walk as a Christian is to be in accordance with our heavenly position: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called...” (Eph. 4:1) The difference between our manner of life and the world’s manner of life is as different and distinct as light and darkness! Our new lifestyle is totally different from the earthly lifestyle. Eph. 4:17 - We are specifically commanded NOT to walk like the Gentiles walk: “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind.” If culture is a way of life, the Bible specifically forbids the believer from imitating the way of life of the unsaved around us. I Pet. 1:18 - God saved us FROM our vain manner of life: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers.” Salvation takes us out of old manner of life... our old culture and traditions. (Not all of the old traditions – but those not consistent with Christianity.)
Eph. 5:7-8 - We are to walk as children of light: “Be not ye therefore partakers with them. 8For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light...” Light is totally different from darkness. We are NOT to be partakers with them in any form of darkness. I Peter 4:3-4 - Our unsaved life in the past was lived in the way of the Gentiles, but no more: “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: 4Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you...” Peter notes that the believer used to live in the ways of the Gentiles, but now that we are saved, we no longer run with them to the same excess of riot. Our new way of life makes their way of life look bad, and the world hates us for that. If we embrace their way of life (culture), they won’t hate us. We can be popular with the world – even “cool.” That’s exactly what is going on in the evangelical world today. But if we embrace their lifestyle, the salt has lost its savor!
The Bible certainly does NOT command us to embrace culture - the way of life, including all the habits, customs, and practices of our society. We are commanded NOT to walk in their ways. The Old Testament is FULL of warnings to God’s people about the danger of “embracing the culture” of the nations. Lev. 18:3 – “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.” Lev. 18:24-25a– “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: 25And the land is defiled.” Lev. 20:23 – “And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”
Culture is NOT neutral. The “way of the Gentiles” expresses itself differently in different regions, but it all stems from the same source: fallen men, who are part of the WORLD system. Satan is the god of the world system. Paul speaks of the way of life among men today as the “present evil world” system. John warns us that the whole world system lies in the arms of the wicked one... being lulled to sleep spiritually. Every culture in every nation is a part of that system. Yes God has sent us into the world to live in the world and even to use the world (I Cor. 7:31) – “using as not abusing.” But the believer is warned NOT to mindlessly embrace all the cultural values, traditions, and ways of life in the various societies of the world. That is because while some aspects of a particular culture may be neutral, other aspects clearly are NOT. The views, practices, beliefs, or lifestyles that originate with man can be either good or evil. Because all men are created in the image of God, some aspects of every culture will be good and acceptable for Christians. This aspect of culture we should embrace. But because all men are sinners and rebels against God, other aspects of their culture are not higher and nobler, but are the dregs of society... the bottom of the barrel. This aspect of culture we should reject. Cultural issues are very often NOT neutral. They can be either good or bad... clean or unclean.
When it comes to ART – embrace the art of a culture that speaks of beauty, order, and decency. Reject art forms that promote chaos, rebellion, and immorality. MUSIC is also an expression of culture. Every culture will have its unique musical expression. But within that culture embrace that music form that is higher and nobler. And reject those forms that reflect the dregs of society: vulgarity, rebellion, chaos, disorder, lewdness. CLOTHING is also an expression of culture. Embrace that which speaks beauty, order, wholesomeness, modesty, and is manly for a man and feminine for a woman. Reject that which does not. MOVIES are also an expression of culture. They are not neutral. Hollywood has an agenda that is not in harmony with Christian values. Every blue moon they may make a good movie, but it’s rare. In pop culture churches today, illustrations are drawn mainly from Hollywood movies. Today we have a whole generation of professing believers that have convinced themselves that in order to win the lost, they must embrace culture: almost hook, line, and sinker. And while that has an element of truth to it, BUT - they are not making the necessary distinctions in their choices. It is getting to the point where a Christian lifestyle is becoming indistinguishable from the world.
The Bible SHOUTS out this generation: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good; and abstain from every form of evil. Approve things that are EXCELLENT! Distinguish between holy and unholy. Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? But as a note to Millennials, it is good to be reminded that American culture has been influenced by Christianity more than any other country on earth.
In America, Christians have grown accustomed to embracing many aspects of the American way of life. But as we move into the 21st century, we will find ourselves having to reject more and more aspects of our culture. We don’t live in the days of the Pilgrims any more. We are living in a period of rapid cultural decline. The influence of Christianity and the Bible on our culture is waning rapidly.
Because of this, believers in the 21st century need discernment more than ever; and that can only be obtained by saturating our minds with God’s Word... which is more and more difficult to a generation plugged into other voices almost 24/7. Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about the believer and his relationship to the “way of life” of the Gentiles. It is obvious and apparent that many in the pop culture churches today are using “culture” as an excuse for worldly living.
They use the PC approach to shame all opposition into silence. They claim that since their lifestyle is a cultural issue then “How dare you old fashioned bigots criticize our way of life: our music, drinking, dancing, immodest dress, and overall lifestyle - because these are only cultural differences.” And (so say some) “culture is neutral”... Therefore, they conclude that no one has the right to judge cultural expressions. But is that true? Is that really what the Bible says?
Fundamentalists are constantly being criticized for being picky, but the reason for that is because the Bible commands believers to be picky. I prefer the word “discerning.” I Thess. 5:21-22 – “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. 22Abstain from all appearance of evil.” Romans 12:2 – “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” I Cor. 2:15 – “he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.” Eph. 5:10-11 – “Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. 11And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” Phil. 1:9-10 – “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; 10That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Leviticus 10:10 – “And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.” Ezekiel 44:23 – “And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.” Hebrews 5:13-14 – “For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” If there was ever a generation that needs discernment it is today’s generation. And the reason this generation needs discernment more than ever is because the world and its ways are becoming increasingly complicated. In addition, the American culture is changing rapidly, erasing all vestiges of Christian influence, and are busy re-writing our history. So before we jump on the bandwagon and embrace the culture, we need to stop, think, and ask: Exactly what it is that we are embracing? Will this be good for me spiritually? Does this enhance holiness? Is this aspect of culture pleasing to God? It is God’s will for the church? Don’t just embrace every new thing that comes down the pike. PROVE all things. He that is spiritual JUDGES all things.
So should we embrace our culture? Yes and no. YES – in those areas of culture that higher and nobler. Embrace them and engage in them. Hudson Taylor wore Chinese clothes to reach the Chinese... exactly as Paul commanded. NO – in the baser elements of a society’s culture. But when Hudson Taylor’s wife went shopping for clothes, she did NOT embrace whatever kind of Chinese clothing appealed to her... nor did she wear whatever Chinese clothing she could find. She studied what Chinese women wore and chose those styles that were wholesome. She didn’t imitate the baser elements of Chinese culture. She rejected the immodest clothing worn by Chinese prostitutes... also part of that culture. She sought to imitate those aspects of Chinese culture that were higher and nobler. As a Christian, we cannot embrace a culture in its entirety. Believers need to be discerning, and yes, picky.
We should be as cautious about engaging in our OWN American culture as a missionary is overseas. Crossdressing is become acceptable in our culture – but it is certainly not to be embraced by Christians. This principle applies to other aspects of our culture in decline: rude, vulgar language, popular music, Hollywood movies, roles of men and women, etc. Jeremiah 10:2-3a - “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain.”
God has given us several chapters in the New Testament that deal with real cultural issues, relating to the very real and troublesome different ways of life between Israel and the Gentiles. (Rom. 14-15; I Cor. 8-10) In these chapters, Paul deals with cultural differences that ARE to be embraced. These cultural differences were all non-doctrinal and non-moral. The theme of these chapters is Christian liberty.
Here are some passages many evangelicals use to support embracing culture to win folks to Christ. And by the way, they are absolutely correct. These passages DO teach that very thing. I Cor. 9:20 - “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” I Cor. 9:22 – “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Here Paul stated that in his ministry, when he was preaching in Israel, he embraced the Jewish culture. While ministering to Gentiles, he embraced their culture. He became as a Gentile – a GODLY Gentile!!! And his goals were noble: to lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ! What Paul did was perfectly right and we should all follow his example. But let’s not take this passage out of its context. Paul has been speaking about the subject of Christian liberty – that relates ONLY to non-doctrinal and non-moral issues. When Paul ministered to the Gentiles, he sought to embrace every aspect of their culture that he could – but only if the cultural practice was non-doctrinal and non-moral in nature. In those situations, Paul gladly embraced the culture of Greece or Rome. But if the cultural practice was associated in any way with doctrine or morals, there was a whole different approach. (Prove all things!) But we should point out the PURPOSE of the chapters on Christian liberty. To many these chapters mean: “These are my rights and nobody is going to take away my rights!” That may be the American way, but it is a gross misreading of these chapters. It is a selfish reading of the chapters. The main thrust of these chapters teaches us that we should be willing to lay aside the exercise of our “rights” for others. (love)
Consider how Paul presents this subject: All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (I Cor.10:23) All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (I Cor. 6:12) All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. (Rom. 14:20) For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. (Gal. 5:13) As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. (I Pet. 2:16) “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (I Cor. 8:8-9)
If you want to justify a practice, you can easily find a “proof text” for it – as long as you don’t mind taking a text out of context... as long as you don’t mind twisting the meaning of Scripture. But if we are honest with ourselves, with God, and with His Word, we will be forced to conclude that liberty teaches us to ABSTAIN from many things that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible but for various reasons are not helpful in our worship... in our daily practice... and can be detrimental to our walk with God. I want to see Millennials learning how to make honest, God honoring decisions in gray areas – because apart from that, the next generation is DOOMED to slavery to their own fleshly desires... the very thing God saved us FROM.
My main point is that I might urge Millennials and young men in the ministry that are facing incredible pressure today to conform to the cool and hip culturally relevant churches OR DIE the slow death of attrition. That’s a mighty powerful pull – especially if your flesh is already inclined in that direction. But here is a little something I want to leave in your ear: “The church that embraces a culture in decline is itself in decline.” It’s like taking comfort on a sinking ship because it’s such a comfortable cruise liner, and everybody’s on board. There is the ever present danger of becoming so “relevant” to one’s culture, that Christianity becomes indistinguishable from the world. Lifestyles that should be different and distinct (believers and unbelievers) are mingled together to such a degree that it is hard to tell who is influencing whom in this relationship. The end result is what has traditionally been called “cultural Christianity” – not the real thing. They know the language, they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. And the next generation of churches is almost there. Cultural Christianity has been a blight in the southern states for many years. It has now worked its way up north. This is a choice that Millennials and those who come after the Millennials are going to have to make. Once a local church chooses to follow the path of being relevant to the culture to the point of being indistinguishable from the world, it’s almost impossible to reverse it.
We older folks aren’t going to be around forever. So today we are pleading with the next generation at Salem Bible Church: Don’t be so quick to embrace cultural changes just because they are accepted by society. Prove all things! Walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind. Learn not the way of the heathen... For the customs of the people are vain.” Ask God for wisdom to distinguish between holy and unholy... clean and unclean. And remember, true holiness has never been cool to the in crowd in the world. Choose to be holy rather than cool. Choose things that are excellent. As a church, seek to be faithful to the Word of God – not cool and popular with the in crowd in the world. And in the years to come as the younger generation takes over the leadership of this church, don’t ever be ashamed to be a small remnant of believers. God has always worked through a relatively small, godly remnant. Let’s pray for a remnant of godly young people that means business with God... and a young man to lead this church in the 21st century.
I am ready and more than willing to pour the rest of my life into that group of young people... and I trust that God will raise some up and make them hungry.