Cultural Christianity is About Culture

On seeking a just order in this world

The Blessings of Cultural Christianity?

I am the beneficiary of cultural Christianity. I didn’t grow up in a genuinely Christian home, though I did attend (very) liberal United Methodist churches beginning in elementary school. These churches did not believe the Bible was true, did not believe in the supernatural events of Scripture, nor the moral teaching of God’s word.

And yet Christianity was the very air I breathed all through my childhood and teenage years. I spent most of my childhood in a small town in northern Oklahoma. In the 1980s the influence of Christianity was all pervasive in such a place. I still remember the assembly at my local public elementary school in which the principal, with no hesitation at all, nor fear that his words would endanger his position, stated unequivocally that our country was under God’s judgment. Christian culture was so pervasive that no one batted an eye.

When I moved to West Texas in the early 1990s I simply moved from one culturally Christian milieu to another. While the liberal Methodist church I attended there continued to teach the same tepid moralism devoid of the saving work of Christ, I was largely uninfluenced by it. Having spent my whole life in strongly culturally Christian places the thought never even crossed my mind that the Bible could be anything other than 100% true. I had never really even read the Bible. And yet the influence of the culture in which I lived was such that despite the Methodists’ best efforts I never for a second doubted that the Bible was true.

I wasn’t converted until my freshman year in college in the late 1990s, around the time my parents also began to take Christianity seriously. Cultural Christianity paved the way. Having not read the Bible much at all growing up I was shocked when, in a bout of homesickness my freshman year, I picked up my Bible and began reading the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Imagine my surprise, having only ever known liberal Methodist churches, when I encountered Paul’s words about human sin and rebellion against God:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18)

Romans 3:9:  “. . . we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” (Rom 3:9)

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Rom 3:23)

And then my joy in reading those wonderful words which follow:

“. . .  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:24–25)

When I read all of this I simply believed it. It was in the Bible after all, so I assumed it had to be true.

Had I not grown up in the culturally Christian world I did this would not have happened. Could God have saved me anyway? Of course. But does that make the blessing of having grown up in the world I did any less real? Would the same thing have happened, even been possible, if I had grown up as a Muslim in a Muslim nation? Or in a modern radically secular state in Western Europe? God is sovereign, he saves as he pleases, but I am thankful to this day for the way in which my path was prepared for years prior to my own conversion.

My purpose in this article, however, is not to dwell primarily on such blessings of cultural Christianity. In the end all Christians agree that there are many who are unconverted despite having been surrounded by the trappings of cultural Christianity all their lives. These people need Christ, and the only way they’ll find him is through God’s word, especially as it is proclaimed in Christ’s church. Only the Holy Spirit can grant new life to dead sinners. Cultural Christianity cannot do this. None of this is—or certainly should be—in dispute, though this reality is surely no more of a danger than would exist were these same individuals to have been raised in a culturally pagan environment, or in a nation where some other religion was all-pervasive.

Cultural Christianity is about Culture

The blessings I’ve described above are real. Countless individuals can attest to them. But as true as they are, to focus on the blessings that come to individuals is exactly backwards. The church must always deal with the unconverted who live in a state of false spiritual comfort. But the primary blessing of cultural Christianity isn’t about such individuals and their relationship with God at all.

The primary blessing of cultural Christianity has to do with culture, society, and laws. Cultural Christianity could be described simply as seeking to order a nation, or a state, or a community according to basic Christian principles of right and wrong. You could even drop the descriptor “Christian” from the previous sentence, because it is not the case that Christians adhere to some sort of esoteric truth unknown to others. The Bible presents us with the clear concepts of basic human justice, although these truths are known in other ways too: in the voice of conscience, in the inherited wisdom of our forefathers, in the clear imprint of natural law upon the reasoning of the human mind (even though obscured by sin), and so on.

I’m currently reading Cicero’s On Duties, a manual on living a just life, on which Petrarch’s remarks are apt: “You would fancy sometimes it is not a Pagan philosopher but a Christian apostle who is speaking” (quoted in the Loeb edition of On Duties, p. xiv). How is it that Cicero came to so closely align with basic Christian ethics? As far as I can tell he simply listened to all those voices I just mentioned: conscience, tradition, and natural law.

The Christian simply seeks justice, well-ordered governance and laws, a culture infused with what is right and good and true. These are the blessings of cultural Christianity. Call them whatever you like, but it is hard for me to see why any Christian would be opposed to them. Do we not all want to live in a just world? Do we not all want to see governments punishing evil and promoting good (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2: 13–17)? Cultural Christianity, then, should primarily be understood as the attempt to organize a society, a culture, or a state rightly. Unless we abandon justice itself we cannot abandon the attempt to form our nation in this way. What is this if not cultural Christianity?

Those most vocally opposing so-called cultural Christianity recognize a real danger: people who believe themselves to be right with God simply because they’ve grown up in a cultural environment shaped by Christianity. These men and women need the gospel, and it is the church’s mandate to give it to them. But these same critics of cultural Christianity miss the true blessings it brings: justice, law and order, ordered freedom, safety and security for all, and countless other good things, blessings Americans have been able to take for granted for a long time.

But that epoch appears to be rapidly coming to a close. Now we will have to fight with all that is in us for every single inch of moral, legal, and governmental ground, lest those with an alternative (and supremely wicked) moral system continue to take the field without challenge. Already we stand on a precipice: legislators in America are attempting to pass laws that would allow children to be chemically and surgically mutilated without so much as even informing parents. If you object (to a therapist or doctor, for example) you could be referred to Child Protection Services, and have your children forcibly removed from your parental authority and care. Others are seeking to pass laws allowing for sexual relations with minors. It is a race to the moral bottom without a finish line.

Will Christians resist? Or will we shrink back in fear because we’ve bought the lie told us relentlessly for the last 70 years that we can do nothing, because to act would be to impose religion on others? It is simply not the case that “secular” or “pluralistic” societies are neutral with regard to religion. Claiming that religion can have no part in public discourse, in government, in law, etc., is not a neutral stance regarding religion. It is an overtly hostile and antithetical stance whatever its claims about tolerance; it is hostile to God and therefore to most of what is good, true, and just in the world. Or perhaps we’ll simply say nothing can be done because to take decisive action would be to endanger the souls of those who will falsely believe themselves to be right with God?

There is a better way, but with cultural disintegration rapidly accelerating, there is less time to act as each day passes.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.