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Faith In Culture: (Pt 2) How the Gospel Shapes Cultural Interaction

June 26, 2014 by Jay O'Brien 0 comments

Posted in: Faith In Culture

Part One - Faith In Culture: What Is Culture and How Do We Relate to It?


Every generation must pick up their Bibles and rediscover the Gospel afresh for themselves and re-articulate the ancient message in their own words for their own times. – Ray Ortlund


In part one we briefly defined “culture” and outlined three Christian responses to it. Now, we move on to the more difficult task of discerning when to reject, receive, or redeem cultural beliefs and practices. Toward that end, it is paramount that the Christian understand how the foundation of the Christian faith – the gospel of Jesus Christ, shapes the manner one enters into the tension between faith and culture. In other words, the defining question for the Christian must always be, “How does the gospel shape my belief and practice?

In chapter one of Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History, aptly titled “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” Walls lays out the core of the Christian missionary movement. From 1st century Jewish Christians meeting in synagogues to the present day Pentecostal movement sweeping Africa; from the 6th century Irish monasteries to the 21st century mega churches and everything in between. The expressions of faith have looked dynamically different from generation to generation and culture to culture. BUT, Walls notes, “there are definite signs of continuity.” No matter the culture Christians saw themselves as a continuation of the worship of the God of Israel who was fully revealed in his son Jesus Christ. Without exploring in more detail the similarities of the various expressions, we must ask “Why?” Why can Christians from unique places and times be so incredible different, and yet, embrace a common conviction of faith? This is where Walls lays out the gospel shaped indigenizing and pilgrim principles.


The Indigenizing Principle

Walls writes:

Church history has always been a battleground for two opposing tendencies; and the reason is that each of the tendencies has its origin in the Gospel itself. On the one hand it is of the essence of the Gospel that God accepts us as we are, on the ground of Christ's work alone, not on the ground of what we have become or are trying to become. But, if He accepts us "as we are" that implies He does not take us as isolated, self-governing units, because we are not. We are conditioned by a particular time and place, by our family and group and society, by "culture" in fact. In Christ God accepts us together with our group relations; with that cultural conditioning that makes us feel at home in one part of human society and less at home in another . . . The impossibility of separating an individual from his social relationship and thus from his society leads to one unvarying feature in Christian history: the desire to "indigenize," to live as a Christian and yet as a member of one's own society . . . The fact, then, that "if any man is in Christ he is a new creation" does not mean that he starts or continues his life in a vacuum, or that his mind is a blank table. It has been formed by his own culture and history, and since God has accepted him as he is, his Christian mind will continue to be influenced by what was in it before. And this is as true for groups as for persons. All churches are culture churches—including our own.

The Pilgrim Principle

He continues:

But throughout Church history there has been another force in tension with this indigenizing principle, and this also is equally of the Gospel. Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be. Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which would absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system . . . Just as the indigenizing principle, itself rooted in the Gospel, associates Christians with the particulars of their culture and group, the pilgrim principle, in tension with the indigenizing and equally of the Gospel, by associating them with things and people outside the culture and group, is in some respects a universalizing factor . . . The adoption into Israel becomes a "universalizing" factor, bringing Christians of all cultures and ages together through a common inheritance, lest any of us make the Christian faith such a place to feel at home that no one else can live there; and bringing into everyone's society some sort of outside reference.

The significance for how the gospel shapes Christian identity and relationship to culture cannot be overstated. At the core of the gospel is a God who “pitched his tents among us,” a God who became man. God entered time and space. He spoke human language and addressed people in terms they could understand. God choose to communicate and reveal through cultural mediums not around them. However, the gospel always transforms ones identity so that they are “in this world but not of this world.”

This means that the Christian cannot metaphorically punt on the task of seeking prayerful engagement with culture. A one-size fits all approach to culture will never do. We cannot fall prone to the error of many fundamentalists who despise the world and culture. Likewise, we cannot fall into the malleable trap of the liberal theologian who discredits historical Christian orthodoxy for what is most kosher for the times. This can be frustrating for many who want easy black and white answers to complex gray area questions. However, that is exactly the type of sensitivity the gospel invites into the conversation, and precisely what Jesus modeled in his life and ministry. And, that’s where we are going next in our blog series. How does Jesus approach the cultural engagement issue? You might be surprised by what you see.


For further study check out the resources below and if you’re in the Columbus area this summer consider joining the discussion at “Faith In Culture.” To sign-up or for more information email me at Here are the details:

Faith In Culture

WHEN    6:30-8:00 p.m. Thursday evenings from July 17 – August 14 (5 weeks)

WHERE Brazenhead Pub, 1027 W. 5th Ave., Columbus, OH 43212

WEEKS (1) 7/17 – Christ & Culture: Navigating through the Chaos

             (2) 7/24 – "By What Authority?”: Evaluating Biblical Authority in Pluralistic World

             (3) 7/31 – Science & the Bible: Must I Choose One?

             (4) 8/7 – The Problem of a Good and Powerful God in a Sick and Suffering World

             (5) 8/14 – Sex, Culture, and Gospel Identity

WHO    Jay O'Brien (ThM. Dallas Theological Seminary, Lead Pastor at Scarlet City Church) and Tyler Yoder               (PhD candidate at Ohio State University) will be leading the discussion. All are welcome to join.

Resources for further study

Christ and Culture, Richard Niehbur

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin

The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Andrew Walls

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, Ken Myers

Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Lamin Sanneh

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