A Brief Word on Transforming Culture

Segments of Christians throughout the ages have always been interested in transforming culture. This is readily observed historically from rather obvious events such as the Spanish Inquisition to more political messaging from the Religious Right in the 1980’s. Legions of books have been written on the how-to’s, where-to’s, and who-to’s, even more recently with the rise of discussion over Christian Nationalism and revitalizing Christendom. Naturally a discussion on the Christian mission to transform culture must include the individual Christian’s relationship to the world (or state) as well as the church’s relationship to the world (or state). Recently, while listening to a sermon series on the Church and State from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was reminded of a passage from 1 Corinthians that we have previously looked at, which sheds some light on the efforts to transform culture, whether it be a bottom-up approach or a top-down approach as with Christian Nationalism.

In the latter portion of 1 Corinthians 5, we find a passage concerning our relationship as believers, who gather in individual congregations, with the world, the first in a series of three such contrasts. As it pertains to exercising discipline on the unrepentant sinner from earlier in the chapter, here the message is to not associate with those who claim the name of brother, who engage in sexual immorality or those who are greedy, swindlers, or idolators. For clarity, Paul adds that this was not a reference to those of the world who do such things, otherwise they (we) would have to go out of the world. The message is clear, there is a demarcation between the church and the world. In other words, what Paul has in mind here is not a Christianized world, e.g. Christendom, but an inside/outside conception of believers within the church (at Corinth) and unbelievers in the world, “12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

This contextual background leads us into chapter 6, as we recall of course that the original Scriptures had no chapter breaks, and the passage that Lloyd-Jones referred to in his Church and State series. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 continues to develop this concept of inside/outside, this time as it relates to disagreements between fellow believers and their eagerness to take one another before civil magistrates. Paul again frames this in terms of righteousness vs. unrighteousness.

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?

1 Corinthians 6:1

With this introduction, we again find a contrast and distinction being made between believers within their local congregation, here Corinth, and those outside, as it pertains to the civil magistrates or State. After this statement, we find a rather surprising truth from the apostle, “2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” 1 Cor. 6:2-3 This last phrase, an eschatological qualification, “matters pertaining to this life”, provides some perspective for us on the believers relationship with the world. Not only is there a distinction in this life, as opposed to a conflation or even integration, rather the distinction is to be maintained eschatologically. In Christ’s earthly kingdom believers will rule and judge over the world, while in this world it is not the world who is to judge us, rather we are to judge ourselves. That is, there is a built-in self-regulation that our Lord has established and empowered believers to operate their gatherings by. Note the next set of verses from the passage.

So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 

1 Corinthinas 6:4-6

The exhortation in the verses above is that disputes which are civil in nature should not be taken to the local magistrate for resolution, instead the question placed upon the Corinthians is whether or not they have anyone among them wise enough to settle the dispute. The implication is that as our local gatherings serve as outposts within Christ’s kingdom that is spreading throughout the world, a distinction is to be maintained. There is not a hint of intimation that believers ought to be in the position of magistrate and then are qualified to handle the dispute. No, the inside/outside distinction is clear that these matters are to be handled internally.

Before moving on to our application of how this relates to Christian Nationalism and modern efforts to transform culture, there is of course one matter that needs an additional clarification. How are criminal issues to be handled, should they arise within our local congregations? This of course would not be civil matters that can be resolved among believers using the judgment of other believers, rather it concerns those matters which are criminal in nature and therefore violate the laws of the state. This could be murder, theft, or crimes of a sexual nature. It does not appear that Paul is saying that these cases should be handled internally and therefore cause the church to operate as a harbor for the offenders (though this has been done before). Instead, these matters ought to be handled by the State and punished appropriately. In the Old Testament, operating as a Theocracy, God provided laws and case studies for these criminal offenses. In the New Testament, His people now citizens of an international kingdom, likewise have laws and as we are discussing also ways of handling offenses. However, because this kingdom still resides geographically within the borders of various states (countries), God has delegated this authority to the individual states (Romans 13:1-7). This does not always mean that what they determine to be a crime is within God’s definitional realm, as we may observe throughout the New Testament, beginning with the death of our Lord, the incarceration of many apostles, and the imprisonment and trial of Paul. Nevertheless, He has appointed that duty to governing authorities, “for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4

With that clarification out of the way, we turn now to our application of the inside/outside principle as described above for how this relates to current efforts of transforming culture, particularly through movements of Christian Nationalism. As can be seen in the passage from 1 Corinthians 5 & 6 above, a clear demarcation is understood and assumed between those within Christian gatherings, churches, and those who are outside, the world. As the gospel spreads and subsequently Christ’s kingdom advances, individuals are brought into fellowship with God and other believers. Lives are transformed. Families are transformed. But the world remains the world. True enough, the spread of the gospel and the kingdom does influence culture, but as a byproduct, not the entre. Culture may rise and fall in its apparent influence by the gospel, in other words there may be appearances of an outward Christian culture, i.e. Christendom, and there may be other times when a candle in the dark of culture appears to be the only influence left. Nevertheless, Christ’s kingdom advances and our role as believers in the evangelism of the lost and the edification of the saints does not waiver nor wain.

As believers, particularly in Western culture, we have fallen for the lie that our primary mission is to influence and transform culture. As a result, our churches and indeed our own Western evangelicalism has become influenced by culture. As the Israelites were warned of coming into the Promised Land and assimilating with the Canaanites, taking on their culture and worship practices and as the Jewish people of our Lord’s lifetime had become influenced by the Hellenistic culture of their day, so too have we allowed ourselves in modern times to fail to influence culture, instead becoming influenced ourselves. Though there are many reason for this, chief among them must be a failure to maintain the inside/outside distinction with the dividing line being righteousness bought by the blood of Christ.

14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-18

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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