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The Church and Culture part 1

by Michael Roop
Recently, I was in the middle of teaching a group of young adults when I was asked a question. It’s a question that’s on all our minds right now, whether we have an answer settled or not: How should the Church influence culture? Most of us agree that a local church should influence its community. The question is, how? In this three-part series, I want to explore some of the common answers to that question, their temptations and shortfalls, and finish with some direction straight from the lips of Jesus.

At the risk of oversimplification, I believe common answers to this question fall into one of four categories: insulation, separation, domination, and accommodation.

Insulation
Insulationists see much good in their surrounding culture, but remain generally passive toward it. Those who fall into this camp march under the banner that reads “live and let live.” Just preach the gospel of individual salvation and help Christians live a moral life. And don’t ruffle any feathers along the way.

The trick with insulationism (and all four answers, for that matter) is that it draws partially from the truth of Scripture. Paul calls us to pursue lives that are “peaceful and quiet,” “in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). Even more tempting is the reality that insulationism allows us to avoid conflict with our lost neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Just focus on me being good, and we’re good; it’s all good. 

The problem with insulationism is that, similar to separatism, our communities experience no positive change as the result of a local church’s presence in their midst. Christians just keep their heads down and try to be good, all the while avoiding conversations (like evangelism!) that might make anyone uncomfortable. Beyond this, insulation keeps us from checking the temperature outside the church, ignoring the real evils in our surrounding culture. 

Separation
When the culturally passive insulationist church wakes up to the evils of surrounding culture, it may move into a second camp: separation. The separatist church sees the evils of surrounding culture and aims to keep it all at arm’s length (if not further!). A church best influences culture by remaining pure and unstained, to avoid any connection to, or contact with, the unholy and profane. 

Inevitably, a holier-than-thou arrogance begins to form, rife with stereotypes and caricatures of non-Christians that grow from a lack of relationship with actual non-Christians. As a sacred-secular divide becomes more pronounced, Separatists also tend to become anti-intellectual, since science is a discipline “out there” that is all bad, a threat to our moral and ritual purity.

Like insulationism, separatism draws at least partially from truths of Scripture. God repeatedly commands Israel not to be like the nations around them. James 1 tells us that pure religion remains “unstained from the world.” And yet, when we look at the example of Jesus, who was and remains perfectly holy, the model of separation does not hold up. 

Jesus did not withdraw from an unholy, impure, profane world in order to preserve His holiness, but allowed His holiness to become infectious as He walked among us. Despite recognizing the evils in surrounding culture, the passive separationist does almost nothing to address them. Abortion, racial inequities, unjust treatment of the poor, the destruction of marriage and family, and rampant greed are just a few aspects of our cultural moment that need an active church if they will ever be combatted. 

So what then. A call to arms? Should we, like Peter in the garden, unsheathe our swords and go to war? That’s where we pick up in part 2.