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Christ in the Midst of Culture: The Church as Embassy

Gregory E. Reynolds

As long as the church has existed, Christians have sought to account for their place in the world. H. Richard Niebuhr's 1951 classic Christ and Culture[1] has set the paradigm for over half a century of reflection on the relationship of Christ and culture.[2] Because Niebuhr describes typical answers to the question of the relationship between Christ and culture, none is a perfect description of any particular theologian or theology. I found myself having some sympathy with the latter two of his five categories, but sensing the need for a sixth category more consistent with the radical, or rigorous, eschatology of Geerhardus Vos, replete with a clear fourfold description of redemptive history.

Let me briefly summarize Niebuhr's five theoretical models. 1) "Christ against Culture" (45-82) pits loyalty to Christ against participation in cultural society. A clear line of separation is drawn between the children of God and the people of the world. The city of man and the city of God are entirely incompatible. This model takes various forms, such as, building entirely separate societies like the Amish, the ascetic life of the monastery, or the fundamentalist restrictions erected to protect Christians from society.

2) "The Christ of Culture" (83-115) removes the tension between Christ and culture, seeking to blend the two by taking the best of both. Cultural Christianity. Furthermore, the present and future life form a continuum, as does the history of the world. This model refuses to differentiate among separate historical epochs such as creation, fall, redemption. Christ is a spiritual Savior, but not the Lord of life. Hence, the church is a religious association rather than a new society. Christ is the great enlightener and moral teacher, who enables the Christian to accommodate Christ to culture. Christianity and culture are perfectly reconciled, yielding a universalism characterized by the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. This view is classic religious liberalism, represented by theologians like Schleiermacher and Ritschl, in which the kingdom of God is essentially a social reality. It is the chief target in J. Gresham Machen's defense of historic Christianity.[3]

3) "Christ above Culture" (116-148) refuses to reject culture or accommodate Christ to culture, but proposes a synthesis in which Jesus Christ is both Logos and Lord. God is Lord over both Christ and culture, while the two spheres remain distinct. Culture is useful but temporary, so we are not to linger with it, because the beatific vision of God is the grand end of man. This view is more concerned with the culture of Christians rather than Christianizing culture. The medieval thought of Thomas Aquinas epitomizes this model, in which Christ and the church serve as the guardians of culture. Divine law is coincident with natural law but transcends it. Human society is ruled by reason. So, the church assists the state in ordering temporal life.

4) "Christ and Culture in Paradox" (149-189) proposes a dualism that lives in a tension between God and man, because both man and culture are corrupt. Grace alone is the cure. Thus, the Christian resigns himself to culture, confessing that God is both creator and redeemer. The Christian identifies with the kingdom of God in which he has been given heavenly citizenship by God's grace in Christ and has become part of a new humanity. The two kingdoms of church and state are separate. Christ is the judge of culture, so there is no ultimate hope for culture. Thus, the benefits of cultural work are transitory. The state and civil law serve to restrain sin. Classic Lutheranism epitomizes this model.

5) "Christ the Transformer of Culture" (190-229) calls the Christian to engage in cultural work in obedience to the Lord, because of the original goodness of creation and the need to counter the effects of the historic Fall. Fallen culture is not replaced by a new creation but gradually converted or transformed. "The eschatological future has become for him an eschatological present" (195). Transformation of all of life and culture is not postponed to the future, but happens now, as the kingdom of God arrives through the work of the church and the Christian. Here Niebuhr claims that Augustine moved the Caesar-centered society of the late Roman Empire into medieval Christendom, while admitting that Augustine did not actually hope for the complete transformation of culture. He held to an "eschatological vision of a spiritual society" (216). Hence, according to Niebuhr, Augustine's concept of the two cities makes his dualism more radical than Paul's or Luther's.

Clearly Niebuhr favors the last of the five models, as he seems to work in ascending order toward his preferred solution to the age-old problem of Christ and culture. Niebuhr recognizes the Calvinistic influence evident in this model but blurs the distinctions that would reveal his distance from the supernaturalism of that Calvinism. His invocation of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards[4] would prove attractive to mid-twentieth-century neo-evangelicals seeking liberation from the cultural isolation of fundamentalism. What is troubling is that evangelicals today favor this model and yet do not see the similarity of their project to classical Protestant liberalism of the twentieth century. Niebuhr made an argument to bolster the declining Protestant establishment of his day. As then, today American Christians continue pursuing cultural relevance if not dominance. What is unclear—and I think intentionally—in Niebuhr's depiction is that the supernaturalism, as well as the eschatology, of Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards is not essential to Niebuhr's view. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Niebuhr concludes the fifth model with F. D. Maurice, spending a full twelve pages on his description (218-229).

This transformationist model, in whatever form, represents a longstanding temptation for the church. It is thus a dangerous quest that threatens to eclipse the gospel altogether, as it has, almost completely, in the moribund mainline. The tendency of this model is to obliterate the fourth state of eschatological consummation.

I would like to propose a more helpful conception by which to approach the question of Christ and culture for the confessional churches of the modern world: Christ, the king of his church, his embassy on earth, in the midst of and beyond culture. This view takes the historical perspective—hence the "beyond"—into full account, while not diminishing the already accomplished work of the Eschaton, nor underestimating the glorious future consummation. Furthermore, the church as a visible and spiritual institution must be central to any biblical description of the relationship between Christ and culture.

The Christian church in the West is at present confused about its identity, at least partly because it has not thought deeply about the question of Christ and culture. It seems that the church is more informed—and that ordinarily by default—by cultural trends than by the eschatological trajectory of Scripture and the Reformed tradition.[5] Whether it is the big-box mentality of the mega-church or the menu-of-choices mentality of the emerging church, the culture rules. The achievement of cultural relevance provides the entrée for this influence.

A recent presidential candidate declared, "I am confident we can create a kingdom right here on earth." Such confidence—although never stated so boldly—has been a staple of presidential politics for some time. Unfortunately, the church has often bought into this idea, acting as if the kingdom of God is here and now. The old pilgrim view is considered by many to be a kind of "pie in the sky" escapism. Of course, we know that this is God's world, so shouldn't believers rule? Jeremiah has a message for the exiles of his day, similar to the message of the New Testament to us: Be faithful citizens of the temporary earthly kingdom to demonstrate the goodness of the coming kingdom and its gracious king, the crucified, risen, and enthroned Lord Jesus Christ.

In Jeremiah's day the nation of Israel was in exile due to its idolatrous rebellion against the Lord in the Mosaic covenant. The promised restoration to the land after seventy years looked forward to the greater restoration of the eschatological fulfillment of Jesus Christ. At that point in redemptive history the capitol of the kingdom of God moved from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is our situation.

For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. (Heb. 12:20-22)

The church is no longer in the form of the nation, but has become an embassy of heaven and heaven's king, Jesus Christ. The church is the kingdom of God in exile, gathering citizens for the already reigning king, awaiting the inheritance of the glory land. Peter refers to the new covenant diaspora as exiles, "I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh" (1 Pet. 2:11). As exiles, they are no longer in the theocratic situation. Such a depiction of the situation of the church between the two comings of Christ is typical of the New Testament writers. Even before the epoch-making resurrection of Christ, he signals the shift from theocracy to embassy. When James and John want to call down heaven's wrath on the Samaritans in Luke 9:51-56, Jesus sharply rebukes them. In Acts 1 Jesus calls the disciples to be witnesses of his grace and leave the restoration of the kingdom to God. The church is nowhere called to be an agent of cultural transformation, however much of a blessing individual Christians may be in various cultural arenas.

In Ephesians 6:10-20 Paul is "an ambassador in chains" counseling spiritual warfare to the church, not cultural takeover or dominance. The church and the kingdom are synonyms in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2: "The visible church …consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ."

But lest it be thought that viewing the church as an embassy of Christ entails some world-escaping enterprise, Jeremiah, especially in his letter from Jerusalem to the exiles (Jer. 29:1-14), and the writers of the New Testament, enjoin faithfulness to earthly citizenship, and by implication, earthly culture. The inherent goodness of creation as the God-given habitation of God's image-bearers is assumed in the New Testament, no less than in the old. Paul reminds Timothy in the face of world-denying asceticism, "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5). Hence Peter commands the exiled people of God to "be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution" (1 Pet. 2:13). The implication of this injunction goes beyond the authority of the civil government to include other institutions of society that we find in the common grace order. Jeremiah mentions "craftsmen" and "metal workers" as among the exiles. He goes on to exhort the exiles to participate in the culture of Babylon. Notably absent is any imperative to transform the pagan capitol according to the Mosaic legislation. "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce" (Jer. 29:5).

Beyond this picture of ordinary life, Jeremiah enjoins a positive program upon the sojourners in relation to the culture in which God has placed them. Jeremiah writes, "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jer. 29:7). The resemblance of this injunction to new covenant imperatives is notable. Seek the welfare of the earthly culture of which you are a citizen. Though provisional and redemptively focused the real good of the culture is to be sought. The word "welfare" is the Hebrew "peace" (shalom), normally used to communicate the comprehensive, consummate state of eschatological blessedness provided by the covenant Lord through the servant of Yahweh.

Thus, exiles are called to relate to present culture in a way that is neither separatist nor transformationist. Cultural participation for the embassy means that we are to seek the good of the people and institutions around us not as protesters, but as genuine participants. Protestants have historically saved their protesting for the reformation of the church rather than the culture. Paul seeks to clear up a similar misunderstanding in the Corinthian church.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you." (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

While most of us are familiar with the duty to pray for civil authorities, we often forget the Christ-like attitude we are called to imitate visibly before the watching world. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). "Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (Titus 3:1-2). And this even toward the Neros and Nebuchadnezzars. Jeremiah's exiles were called to pray to the covenant LORD for the welfare of the entire city of Babylon (29:7). So, we are similarly commanded "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

With this covenantal posture the embassy, with all of its members, is to seek new citizens for the kingdom of heaven. Ministers of the Word are especially called to bring the message of amnesty from King Jesus to the city of man. "We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). In Jeremiah's day there were false prophets urging God's people to trust earthly powers and not heed God's warnings of judgment or promises of eschatological future blessing. In Corinth there was also an over-realized eschatology seeking triumph in the present world, rather than taking the pilgrim stance of ambassadors.

The embassy must maintain its own integrity in order to accurately communicate the message of our king. This means more than possessing orthodox doctrine and life. The way the embassy worships forms the embassy's doctrine and life and thus the image it presents to the world. When ways of worship look more like popular culture, the transcendent message of the pilgrim people tends to be eclipsed. The quest for cultural relevance dulls the heavenly luster of church and ends up defeating the very reasons so many church leaders promote so-called "contemporary worship." The this-world orientation of popular culture is communicated in such worship. In other words, popular culture in worship cultivates Christians whose hope and happiness is more in this world than in the next.

Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews exemplify the biblical witness of the future hope of God's people. The pilgrims of the heavenly embassy are to wait patiently for the glorious kingdom. "I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations" (Jer. 29:14).

You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet. Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him ... [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (Heb. 2:7-8; 11:10)

The church is the kingdom now, gathering citizens for its king, awaiting the inheritance of the glory land. "I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11). "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20).

As officers in Christ's church it is incumbent upon us to continually remind God's people of our identity. We are first and foremost citizens of heaven, purchased by the blood of our gracious king to inherit the glory land. But we are also part of an embassy whose task is to represent our gracious king in our daily lives in this world.

Endnotes

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).

[2] More recently, D. A. Carson has proposed revisiting the subject in Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[3] See Christianity and Liberalism (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923).

[4] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, "Christ as the regenerator of man in his culture," 220.

[5] The works of David Wells and Ken Myers are excellent examples of the value of cultural criticism in assisting us in navigating the idols, and their attendant forms of temptation, peculiar to the modern world. We appreciate the common grace blessings of culture, while discerning the idolatrous tendencies.

Ordained Servant, April 2009.