Marcus A. Mininger
How does being a Christian relate to everyday life? In particular, what value do ordinary activities in this creation, like baking or plumbing or architecture, have for God’s larger kingdom purposes to redeem a people and usher in the new heavens and earth? On one side, some in church history have looked at human culture negatively, as something that is worldly and corrupting and therefore to be avoided. On the opposite side, others have viewed this world’s cultural activities redemptively, as helping bring in and constitute God’s final kingdom rule on earth even now. In between these opposites, a spectrum of other views exists.
For example, in recent years some Reformed writers have advocated separating ordinary cultural activities and Christ’s redemptive work into two different kingdoms. One kingdom is not specifically Christian, but is “common” to believers and unbelievers. It includes our social and cultural activities and is guided by natural law. The other kingdom is “religious” and is identified with the church, where Christ presently rules. Life in that kingdom is guided by Scripture.
Other Reformed writers disagree with the “two-kingdom” view, believing that it creates improper separation between our “common” life in creation and our “religious” life in the church. Is our involvement in human culture not more closely related to Christ’s redemptive work in our life?
Clearly, then, this topic of Christ and culture continues to be a difficult one, even today. The wide spectrum of views about it testifies to this difficulty, and it also encourages us to discuss the matter graciously with one another.
Just as clearly, though, this topic also continues to be very important, since it impacts our vocations as Christians every day. How are we to live before Christ in ordinary activities each day?
Thankfully, while the topic is complex, the Bible does provide direction. One of the clearest examples can be found in the Bible’s teaching about the nature and practice of marriage, as one crucially important part of culture. The Bible does not address some aspects of human culture very much, but it does speak about marriage quite often, from the garden of Eden to the new creation. This makes marriage a good test case for seeing how we should view our involvement in culture here and now.
In what follows, two crucial aspects of the Bible’s teaching on marriage will be highlighted. These can help show how ordinary cultural activities do and do not relate to God’s redemptive work in Christ.
In Ephesians 5:22–33, Paul provides instruction about marriage that is clearly Christ-centered. Wives should submit to their husbands, he says, because the husband is the head of his wife, as also Christ is the head of the church (vv. 22–23). Husbands should love their wives, he says, “just as” Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (vv. 25, 28–29). At these and many other points in the passage, Paul here draws a close parallel between the husband-wife relationship and the Christ-church relationship. Clearly, marriage as Paul describes it is very Christ-centered, and this fact constantly guides how we should live in it.
It is also clear in Ephesians 5 that Paul’s Christ-centered view of marriage is rooted in original creation order. We see this especially in the appeal he makes to Genesis 2:24 in verse 31. Leading up to that, verse 28 describes how husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. This is because of how Christ loves the church, which is his body (vv. 29–30). In other words, by God’s design a wife’s physical union with her husband resembles the church’s spiritual union (that is, through the Holy Spirit; cf. 1 Cor. 6:16) with Christ.
But what is the basis for seeing a resemblance between marriage and union with Christ? Paul finds this in what Genesis 2:24 says about marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Genesis describes the “one flesh” union of Adam and Eve, and Paul says it also speaks about or points forward to the “one Spirit” union between Christ and the church that the Ephesians and all Christians enjoy.
From the very beginning, then, marital union was inherently Christ-centered. It was designed to point ahead to important aspects of our redemption in Christ. Adam and Eve’s marital union, like every other marital union since, provides a visible picture, pointing to the (still invisible) union between Christ and his bride.
Clearly, then, the cultural institution of marriage, which is such an important part of the present creation order, is certainly not evil or unspiritual. Nor is it simply neutral or “common.” Rather, by its very nature marriage stands in a positive relation to Christ by providing a visible pointer to the redemption he has accomplished and the future life of the new creation that will come when Christ returns. Marriage in this creation points to the greater marriage of the new creation.
This also means that, in order to be practiced correctly (that is, according to its inherent design), marriage must be practiced in a Christ-centered way, just as Paul describes in Ephesians 5. To say otherwise would go against the original design of marriage in the garden. In other words, marriage is not nonreligious. It has always been about Christ. One relates to one’s spouse either in accordance with or contrary to this fact. So Christ-centered marriage is really nothing more than marriage properly understood.
The example of marriage shows us, then, how one crucial aspect of human culture is intended to be Christ-centered. It is neither a negative aspect of life nor separate from one’s Christian identity. Instead, it testifies meaningfully to our future hope in Christ.
What about other aspects of culture, though? Are these also intended to point to Christ and the new creation? Yes, they are. In fact, the Bible constantly speaks about redemption and the new creation in comparison to things in the present creation order. (For more on this, see Geerhardus Vos, “Heavenly-Mindedness,” in Grace and Glory, especially pp. 112–16.)
We’ve already seen how earthly marriage points to the work of Christ. But this is also true of many other things. For example, how do I understand what the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), is like, if not on analogy to cities here on earth? How do I understand what the great supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9) will be like, if not on analogy to the banquets of this life? Or how do I understand what it means when God’s kingdom is compared to a building or a cultivated field (1 Cor. 3:9), except by thinking about buildings and fields here on earth? Comparisons like this occur throughout Scripture. Bread, wine, gates, gardens, gems, clean rivers, and many other things help point to aspects of redemption and the new creation.
This means that our cultural pursuits in general, and not just in marriage, help provide context for understanding (albeit dimly and indirectly) the content of our future hope in Christ. Far from being meaningless or unrelated to our Christianity, our cultural endeavors can produce wonderful pictures that point to aspects of the redemption we already experience and the new, greater creation order for which we long.
This fact can also help inform and guide us as we involve ourselves in culture. Because my marriage points to Christ and the church, I do not abandon it or demean it. Rather, my eschatological yearning for Christ helps me to value and enjoy my marriage all the more, seeking to make it a good and accurate picture of Christ’s self-sacrificial love. Likewise, because the cities we live in provide a picture of our eschatological dwelling in the new Jerusalem, where human fellowship with God and each other will reach its apex, would a Christian city planner not seek to beautify an earthly city to make it a more fitting (if still quite incomplete and imperfect) pointer toward our hope for the ultimate city to come? Because the bread a Christian bakes in his bakery provides a rich picture of Christ as the true bread from heaven, would he be less concerned to produce a beautiful, nourishing product? Such examples could be multiplied. The eschatological hope of a Christian gives meaning and direction to his participation in earthly culture.
What we are saying, then, is that being a Christian is not unrelated to our everyday life and work in this world. On the contrary, being a Christian enriches and informs cultural involvement, precisely because of our future hope for a new heavens and earth.
Having seen that marriage and other aspects of culture are good and point to Christ’s redemptive work, some have falsely concluded that marriage and culture are central and constitutive to God’s purposes or that God is bringing about the new creation order even now through our cultural efforts. But this would be to fall into an error on the other side of the spectrum. While marriage is not negative or neutral, it is also not a permanent or ultimate part of life. It is, in fact, temporary, existing only in this creation order, not the new creation.
Just as Scripture makes clear that marriage points to Christ, it also makes clear that this pointer will not last. It exists only in the present time, until Christ returns. In Matthew 22:30, Jesus says that after the resurrection people “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Similarly in 1 Corinthians 6:13, Paul says that both sex and sexual desires (spoken of euphemistically as “food” and the “stomach”) will be destroyed in the future. They will not be a part of the new creation order. So both passages clearly teach what orthodox Christians have always confessed, namely that sex and marriage are temporary, not eternal.
What this shows about the relationship between Christ and culture more broadly is also quite significant. It means that even good, Christ-centered parts of life in this present age, which are a wonderful blessing, are still not permanent or constitutive aspects of God’s ultimate kingdom purposes. Rather, the good institution of marriage, as rich and Christ-centered as it is, still only points to the new creation order. It will not be a part of that new creation. Nor does marriage bring the new creation about, as such; it is only God’s own power, working through his Spirit, that does that (2 Cor. 5:17).
As Christians, then, we must grapple with both sides of Scripture’s teaching. On the one hand, marriage is inherently Christ-centered, visibly portraying our relationship to Christ and informing us about our future hope. But on the other hand, this wonderful, Christ-centered institution is not itself a constitutive part of that hope.
Because of this, as beautiful and Christ-centered as marriage is, Scripture still encourages the unmarried to remain so, if they can, specifically in order to be less caught up in things that are merely temporary (1 Cor. 7:31–35). This is not because marriage is bad or unrelated to being a Christian. It is simply because this good and Christ-centered thing is ultimately passing away.
My decision whether to marry and my practice within marriage are both informed by my future hope, then. If I marry, I enter into an inherently Christ-centered picture of my future hope and seek to make that picture a clear and faithful expression of that hope. If I do not marry, though, I devote myself more undividedly, not to marriage, but to the permanent thing that marriage only pictures. Either way, marriage as an aspect of culture relates positively, if only temporarily, to the ultimate new creation order to be realized in and through Christ.
Other aspects of culture are also temporary. For example, Scripture is quite clear that both earthly possessions (Matt. 6:19–20; 1 Tim. 6:7) and earthly cities (Heb. 11:10; 13:14) will not last forever. For this reason, while the cultural products we make help point to our future hope, they too do not comprise that hope. So even if such things are taken from us or destroyed, our hope itself is untarnished because we seek a better, imperishable inheritance in the new creation, which is prepared by God, not man (Heb. 10:34; 11:16).
Christians must be careful not to confuse temporary pointers with the real thing! Earthly cities, bread, vineyards, and so forth can and should provide rich and meaningful pictures of God’s ultimate purposes for a new creation order. Nevertheless, because such pictures are temporary, we have careful choices to make based on what is most important. If we are not sure what vocation the Lord is calling us to in life, or if we have a choice between giving our time and money to building an earthly city, which will one day be destroyed, and bringing people into the heavenly city itself through the advancement of the gospel, then we face choices between good, temporary things, on the one hand, and things that are far better because they are permanent in their effects, on the other hand. Clearly, we must place far greater priority on the latter. In fact, Christians should often pull back from voluntary cultural engagement—as good and Christ-centered as it is—in order to devote themselves, their efforts, and their money more directly to that which will not perish.
In the end, focusing on our future hope shows us both how human culture should be Christ-centered and how it is fleeting. Culture is not negative or neutral, so all activities should be done unto Christ, as testimonies about our future hope in him. Culture also does not bring about our hope, so our central concern lies elsewhere, in that which truly lasts.
May God help us, then, to view all of life always in relation to Christ, to participate in it in ways that speak well of Christ, and to long earnestly for that fuller future hope toward which culture only points and by which it will one day be replaced.
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. The content of this article appears more fully in Mid-America Journal of Theology 25 (2014): 117–40. New Horizons, June 2015.