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How Should Christians Engage with Culture?

Philip YanceyBy Philip Yancey

The shift in American society from admiring Christians to fearing and criticizing them provides an opportunity for self-reflection. How have we been presenting the message we believe in? Might there be a more grace-filled way?

Some want to focus on personal morality and leave public morality to secular politicians. Others seek ways to guide the broader culture while still communicating grace. Rather than propose a single path, I will instead make some observations and suggestions for Christians to consider as we interact with a world that does not always share our views.

Clashes Between Christ and Culture Are Unavoidable

John Howard Yoder recounted 51 separate times in which Jesus himself confronted injustices, and throughout history Jesus’ followers have followed suit. Early Christians were instrumental in ending the Roman practices of gladiatorial games and infanticide, and in the years since Christians have led moral campaigns against abuses such as slavery and sexual trafficking. Even separatist groups must engage with culture — the Anabaptists’ pacifism, for instance, stands as a powerful moral statement.

Christians must always discern which injustices merit a fight, but complete withdrawal is bad for both church and state. Nazi Germany posed the severest test to Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms, a test the church mostly failed. Practicing a personal faith, with no real tradition of opposing the state, German church leaders waited far too late to protest. Indeed, many Protestant leaders initially welcomed the Nazis as an alternative to communism and some adopted a motto that now seems obscene: “The Swastika on our breasts, the Cross in our hearts.”

Eventually some Christians did wake up to the threat. Martin Niemöller published a series of sermons with the in-your-face title Christus ist mein Fuhrer (“Christ [not Hitler] is my Fuhrer”). Niemöller spent seven years in a concentration camp; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in another. In the end, faithful Christians were one of the few groups within Germany to oppose Hitler. Trade unions, parliament, politicians, doctors, scientists, university professors, lawyers — all these capitulated. A small but determined minority of Christians who understood their loyalty to a higher power resisted, and their courageous stand attracted the world’s attention: from 1933 to 1937 The New York Times ran nearly a thousand news accounts on the German church struggle.

After World War II the eastern part of Germany found itself under a different kind of totalitarian rule, the onset of four decades of Soviet domination. A few years ago I interviewed a pastor in Saxony who recalled the difficulties that Christians faced under Communism. In those days his children had limited educational opportunities, and he had to work as a plumber to supplement his meager pastor’s salary. When the Berlin Wall came down everything changed. Although less than 20 percent of Saxony’s citizens now belong to a church, he estimates that 70 percent of those in parliament are active, practicing Christians. Having lived under Nazism and then Communism, Christians quickly stepped into a cultural vacuum to help the newly free society lay a foundation for morality and law. They knew all too well what can happen when Christians are excluded from the public square.

As the pastor learned, working within a democracy presents a different kind of challenge. It involves tiresome work and tricky compromises. Stephen Monsma, a Christian who served in the Michigan state legislature, has written of the painstaking struggles to get drunk-driving legislation — an issue that invites a clear moral consensus — passed in his state. He likens his original vision of doing good to sitting by a cozy fire in his living room choosing luscious vegetables and beautiful flowers from a seed catalog; the actual work, he said, more resembles the gardener’s chores of digging furrows, pulling weeds, and battling insects.

There are a variety of ways to engage with culture. Some Christians express their pro-life beliefs by picketing; others volunteer at hospices and pregnancy counseling centers; still others work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving or campaign against the death penalty. Some debate ethical issues within the academy while others take up the tedious work of writing laws.

Democracy always requires bargaining and compromise. While he was Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop attracted the ire of fellow conservatives who had an all-or-nothing approach to morality and resisted any compromise on abortion. Koop, who shared their iron-clad belief that all abortion is wrong, came to conclude, “One of the problems with the pro-life movement is that they are 100-percenters. Historically it is true that if the prolife movement had sat down in, say, 1970 or 1972 with the prochoice people, we might have ended up with an agreement on abortion for the life of the mother, defective child, rape and incest, and nothing more. That would have saved ninety-seven percent of the abortions since then.” Only after losing the absolute battle did the pro-life movement change tactics to restrict rather than abolish abortion; since then hundreds of such laws have passed in state legislatures.

Modern democracy, which grew out of Christian soil, compels us to recognize others’ rights even when we deeply disagree with their positions. We seek to persuade but not to coerce. More, the gospel commands me to love my enemy as well as my neighbor. Christians may work within institutions, but always wary of their limitations and always conscious of our primary charge to love. Institutions cannot really express love; justice is as close as they come.

Christians Should Choose Their Battles Wisely

The sociologist Peter Berger has written of the “world maintaining” and “world shaking” functions of religion. Founders of the United States recognized that a democracy, with less top-down control and more freedom, needs a religious foundation to guide and motivate its citizens. In John Adams’ words, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The nation’s leaders counted on the church for this world-maintaining role, to teach and equip citizens to act responsibly.

When the church moves into the world-shaking business, however, it must do so wisely and with care. Alas, Christians involved in politics have tended to go off on tangents, such as historical efforts of Protestants to demonize Catholics and the failed Prohibition movement of the early 20th Century. The more Christians focus on tangential issues, the less we will be heard on matters of true moral significance. I hear very little from evangelicals about the impact of gun proliferation on violent crime, much less an issue like nuclear disarmament. I hear almost nothing about healthcare for the poor and protecting widows and orphans, all biblical mandates. Only recently have evangelicals taken up the cause of creation care. Evangelicals trumpet family values, but when an administration proposed legislation to allow mothers to take unpaid leave after childbirth, conservative religious groups opposed it.

Too often the agenda of religious groups matches line for line that of conservative — or liberal — politics and not the priorities of the Bible.

The Church Must Use Caution in Its Dealings with the State

Historian Edward Gibbon said that in ancient Rome all religions were to the people equally true, to the philosophers equally false, and to the government equally useful. Society needs the restraint offered by religion, and the state welcomes it — as long as it can call the shots.

The Christians who supported Hitler were startled to learn one day that the German government would now appoint church officials. Soon all pastors were required to take a loyalty oath to Hitler and his government. In Russia, Stalin compelled the church to grant the Party full control over religious instruction, seminary education, and the appointment of bishops. In China today the Communist government pays the salaries of official Three-Self pastors, a way of keeping them under its thumb, and appoints “illicit” Catholic bishops who do not have Vatican approval.

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arm’s length from the state. The closer it gets, the less effectively it can challenge the surrounding culture and the more perilously it risks losing its central message. Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country — an impossible goal in any case.

When the church accepts as its main goal the reform of the broader culture, we risk obscuring the gospel of grace and becoming one more power broker. That is how many in the secular world view us now, as a right-wing conspiracy intent on passing laws against them. In the process, they miss the good news of the gospel, that Christ died to save sinners, to free us from guilt and shame so that we can thrive in the way God intended.

The state will often try to use religion for its own purposes, but when it does so, the gospel itself changes. Civil religion invites us to share in a nation’s military glory; the gospel calls us to take up a cross. Civil religion offers prestige and influence; the gospel calls us to serve. Civil religion rewards success; the gospel redefines success and forgives failure. Civil religion values reputation; the gospel calls us to be “fools for Christ.”

During the Brezhnev era at the height of the Cold War, Billy Graham visited Russia and met with government and church leaders. Conservatives in the West harshly criticized him for treating the Russians with such courtesy and respect. He should have taken on a more prophetic role, they said, by speaking out against the abuses of human rights and religious liberty. One of his critics said, “Dr. Graham, you have set the church back 50 years!” Graham lowered his head and replied, “I am deeply ashamed. I have been trying very hard to set the church back 2000 years.”


Vanishing GraceAdapted from Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World by Philip Yancey. Click here to learn more about this title.

Christians have proclaimed the good news about Jesus for centuries. But the good news isn’t sounding so good these days, at least to some. More and more surveys show that people view Christians as bearers of bad news, judgment, and intolerance.

In Vanishing Grace, bestselling author Philip Yancey acknowledges the problem and then explores how we can respond with both grace and truth. He offers a discerning look at what contributes to a hostility toward Christians, and identifies three groups—pilgrims, artists, and activists—who can show us a different way.

With a reporter’s eye and a compassionate heart, Yancey suggests practical ways in which we can live as salt and light within a society that is radically changing. What can we learn from those who shun church but consider themselves spiritual? Can the good news, once spoiled, ever sound good again?

As Yancey writes, “Like a sudden thaw in the middle of winter, grace happens at unexpected moments. It stops us short, catches the breath, disarms…. Yet not everyone has tasted of that amazing grace, and not everyone believes in it. In a time of division and discord, grace seems in vanishing supply. Why? And what can we do about it?”

In the wake of recent events—Las Vegas, Charlottesville, Charleston, Ferguson, Islamic terrorism—people both inside and outside the church are thirsty for grace. Vanishing Grace calls us to see their thirst, and ours, in a hopeful new light as we listen, love, and offer a grace that is truly good news.

Philip Yancey serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written thirteen Gold Medallion Award-winning books and won two ECPA Book of the Year awards for What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Four of his books have sold over one million copies. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado. Learn more at

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