The relationship between Christ and human culture is one that has been debated for many years. How we view the culture will determine how we influence it as Christians, or how the culture influences us. Both have happened over the centuries in various ways. When Christianity conquered the Roman Empire through Emperor Constantine’s conversion, the church began having great influence over the culture. As it spread into Europe, Christianity had positive influence on things like ethics, education, etc. However, the Church had gained political power, too, and as the old adage goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Church became entangled with the State, and thus wielded control over the reading and interpretation of Scripture. “Holy Wars” were fought in the name of Christ. The Church became corrupted, influenced by human institutions. When the Reformation came in the 1500’s, the church began slowly leaving these political entanglements, and sought to return to the Christianity of the Bible.
Back and forth the influence has gone. In the 18th century, the Evangelical Revival in England transformed a decadent culture into a culture of positive social concern. Under Rev. John Wesley and others, the Methodist movement worked to eliminate poverty, slavery, and injustice, preventing a civil war in England and giving rise to the middle class. In the 19th century, modernism (as a philosophy) began influencing the church with its focus on science and its denial of the supernatural. So, the churches began denying the basic truths of the Bible, such as the virgin birth. The “Born Again” Movement of the 1970’s in America helped to propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency in the 1980’s, hoping to stem the tide of secularism. Thus, the “Evangelicals” have become an important voting block in politics (although often reduced to a mere voting block).
The question is, “How should Christians view Christ’s relationship to the culture?” Some have said that Christ calls us to withdraw from culture. Some have said that Christ promotes culture rather than influences it. I think the idea is that of “transformation”. We are called to transform the culture for Christ. Believers are called, much like Rev. Wesley, to show the love of Christ to a culture that is lost in darkness. Wesley and the Methodists gathered together for Bible study, mutual accountability, and then social work. It was through this social work that the Methodist movement began reaching people with the truth of the Gospel, and as its influence spread, began transforming the culture around it.
Should culture influence the church in any way? It does in many ways, and I think in some ways it should. Missionaries often practice what is called “contextualization”, wrapping the Gospel in a package easily received in the cultural context to which they are called to minister. For example, many cultures receive story-telling better than they do propositions of doctrinal truth. Different cultures have different kinds of music, and it is appropriate to use that culture’s music in worship. There would be, of course, cultural influences that are contrary to God’s word that the church should never accept. Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible should be our guides. Churches should adapt to the times they are in without losing Christ and the Gospel message. It is always, though, that the Church should engage the culture around it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.