Posted by: Moses | March 14, 2007

An Evangelical Philosophy of Culture

Since before the dawn of history, humanity has banded together into societies. These groupings form “comprehensive, territorial” structures in order to meet “basic human needs” (Popenoe 86). As these societies grow apart from each other they become distinct in a variety of ways, taking on unique virtues and vices that demand a Christian’s attention. These moral elements are present within every society. Christians should respond to these elements conscientiously and lovingly.

David Popenoe defines “culture as the shared products of a human group or society” (53). These “products” include two forms. Material culture refers to anything from plastic silverware to the Sears tower. More abstract products shape the way that society thinks and are referred to as non-material culture. “No thing is to be rejected” in and of itself; God created every part of creation to be useful to a believer “if it is received with thanksgiving and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:5 ESV). Only when a moral creature wields a created object, does that object take on any moral quality. Non-material culture shapes and uses material culture. As a result a Christian’s primary response to culture rests in the sphere of the non-material. A Christian should “not be conformed to this world,” instead he should be “ transformed by the renewal of his mind” in order to make correct moral choices (Rom. 12:1-2). However, the Christian is also free to wield both non-material and material elements in service to Christ. Scripture provides a plethora of examples for us to emulate. First, Christ used material coinage as an illustration defending submission to the government, a non-material norm (Mat. 22:15-22). Second, Paul’s defense of His apostleship to the Corinthians seems to condemn rhetoric’s use for Christ’s service. The false apostles inappropriately relied upon “lofty speech” and “plausible words of wisdom,” instead of the power of God; however, Paul obviously makes brilliant use of rhetorical skill in the rest of 1 Corinthians, as well as a lengthy, carefully structured rhetorical argument in Romans. His reliance is on God, but he wields a cultural form in Christ’s service (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Finally, Paul’s example at Mars’ Hill draws support from a material altar as well as non-material mythology and poetry in order to point his listeners to truth (Ac. 17:22-31). A Christian should adapt to and use the culture that God has placed him in to advance the Kingdom of God on earth.

Every culture has specific expectations that its members are to support and uphold. These expectations are called norms, and they fall into three categories: folkways, mores, and laws (Poponoe 60). Folkways are social customs, but they are broadly interpreted and are not too much of a problem if they are violated (Poeponoe 61). However, mores are much more precious to society. “Violating [mores] is likely to result in serious consequences;” society will not readily overlook such impropriety (Poeponoe 61). Mores utilize moral sanctions, such as prohibitions against rape or rewards for bravery. If these mores are written down they become a special sub-class called laws.

Christians should first turn to the Bible to define or temper all of their mores and folkways. If cultural expectations specifically oppose God’s declared will for mankind, particularly the advancement of the gospel, a Christian has no recourse but to “obey God rather then men” (Ac. 5:29). However, this breach of social propriety should not be the norm for Christians. Paul exhorts the Roman church to “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” and to “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12: 17-18). These two concepts encourage the Romans to respect the cultural norms that surrounded them. The beginning of the next chapter specifically commands that Christians submit themselves to governing authorities because “there is no authority except God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). A Christian who resists the government ultimately resists “what God has appointed” (Rom.13:2). This section of Paul’s epistle builds to the greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:10). A Christian should respect cultural norms as much as possible out of deference to his neighbors; this is a small aspect of the way of love, the fulfillment of God’s law. Furthermore, a Christian’s posture toward the government should be one of dependent “intercessions,” which should be made to God on behalf of “all who are in high positions, that [Christians] may lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:1-3).

Nevertheless, looking around at culture, social ills and injustices abound. As Christians live within a culture, they should know how to effectively love individuals who are hurt by these difficulties. A primary difficulty in society is the steady rise in divorce rates and the acceptance of divorce. Christ forbids divorce, equating it with adultery (Mat. 5:32). He makes provision for divorce only on the grounds of adultery. However, that recourse is not demanded, and grace is always preferable. Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s mercy is an intense illustration of the beauty of grace in such a circumstance (Eze. 16). However, divorce happens. Divorcees, who are resting in grace, should never be self-righteously judged as second-class people. Even if they were at fault, their sin is no more damnable than any other apart from Christ. In every case they should be met with grace and love. Within the church, the pursuit of illegitimate divorce should be dealt with as any other sin, a gentle rebuke, followed by several brothers’ rebukes, and finally an expulsion from the church with a faith-filled hope of reconciliation (Mat. 18:15-20). If a Christian faces a divorced individual who is outside the church he should defer his judgment to God for “God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-13). Christians are to be concerned with the purity of the church; we are to share the purifying gospel with the world, not judge them.

During His ministry on earth, Christ rebuked His disciples for frowning upon a woman’s lavish gift of perfume. They presumed that her gift would have been better spent providing for the poor, but He told them, “She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Poverty will always exist, and Christians should know how to respond. Within the church Paul instructs believers that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 The. 3:10). He also tells them to “admonish the idle” but to be lovingly “patient” with them (1 The. 5:14). However, when there is a legitimate need, Paul praises the Corinthians for “giving beyond their means” to aid Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:1-5). Genuine Christian love will rebuke a brother who is living in indigence; however, that same love will provide for and demonstrate generous mercy on the world at large and on those among the church who are truly in need.

Finally, both racial and gender discrimination are prevalent in society. Such arrogance has no place in a Christian’s life. God created mankind in his image, and every creation is to be treated with respect as imago dei (Gen. 1:27). Furthermore, within the church we are all equal participants in Christ. As a result “there is neither Jew nor Greek… neither male nor female, for [believers] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Such a realization should breed a beautifully loving, humble diversity within the church. However, equality of essence and worth, does not imply an equivalence of role between the genders. God designed the genders to complement each other and this design should not be destroyed (Gen. 2:18-25). The Bible defines specific roles for each gender that are distinct but complementary (Gen. 3:16-19, Ti. 2:1-10). Each would be incomplete without the other, and the genders were designed to work together to effectively minister to both the world and the church.

A Christian’s greatest sociological priority should be to reach the members of society with the gospel. This goal should be kept in view when dealing with any other sociological issue. First, culture is the God-ordained means of reaching and relating to our fellow creatures. Paul relates to the Corinthian church his philosophy of wielding culture to advance the gospel, becoming “all things to all people…all for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). Furthermore, culture’s ills are a means by which to reach a hurting world with Christ. A hurting divorcee is not a social problem to be remedied, rather a soul in need of a sufficient Christ. Even as Christians address social injustices around them, they should always keep the advancement of God’s kingdom at the forefront of their mind. Christ did not exhort us to “go and fix social injustice,” but rather to “go…and make disciples” of Christ (Mat. 28:18-20).
Definitions from:
Popenoe, David. Sociology. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.



  1. Excellent writing and thoughts. The only thing I would take issue with is your statement, “A Christian’s greatest priority should be to reach the members of society with the gospel.” I know what you mean, but I can think of several things which take priority over the lost world, one of which is the state of the church itself and the relationships between Christians.

  2. doof. changed my theme from one like yours so that they would be different and then you changed yours to mine. grr. . .

  3. Why do you say those take priority over the great commission? I’ve never really thought about prioritizing such things; they’re all commands after all. (I think you kind of unfairly pulled that out of context, that statement is not meant as unilateral absolute, but rather with reference to how we deal with sociological ills.) I’ll see if I can make it clearer, but I have to go talk to Dr. Leedy at the moment. See ya.

  4. i like your theme

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