A little while back, I reviewed Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr. One of the things that surprised me most in this book was the response of early Christians to what Christians relationship with the culture should be. Maybe what took me aback stems to a call among many Christians today to return to what the early church was. And yet some of these are blended right in with culture today. (I must note that there are some with this mantra who have set themselves against culture. Kudos to them.) The early Christians set themselves apart from the culture they lived within. This may have been because Christianity was illegal until 313. But it is still very intriguing. We are talking about the people who are living most closely time-wise to the resurrection of Jesus and they respond by not accommodating culture. And the reason for this is something myself and other reformed theologians would agree with: the sovereignty of God. Our lord is Jesus Christ; we cannot and must not pledge allegiance elsewhere, especially the emperor or the Roman Empire. As Niebuhr wrote, “The loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord.” The early Christians were setting themselves apart because they were living in the new society created and initiated by Christ. Tertullian, the most famous of the early proponents of Christ against culture, suggested that any blending of Christianity and culture will ultimately lead to idolatry – our allegiance to Jesus Christ our Lord will be compromised. Thus, cultural disengagement is called for.
This just seems a far cry from what the church (especially the North American church) has become today. We see mega-churches resembling shopping malls, Christian books finding Christian themes in Hollywood films, Christian companies marketing to the broader culture, rock bands in church, etc. Nevertheless, there have been some theologians in the 20th century advocating this position of Christ against culture, although maybe a bit modified from Tertullian’s. Among these are Stanley Haeurwas, William Willimon, Karl Barth, and John Howard Yoder. More than anything, these men see the first and foremost responsibility of the church is being the church – the body of Christ here on earth. The church must remain distinct for it to be the city upon the hill or the salt or light of the world. It must embody this new way of living in Christ. John Howard Yoder says the church represents the “new world on the way.” This is what the church is to be. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more on this topic, especially Barth’s view, as I am doing a presentation on his view for a class.