“Culture,” Henry Van Til memorably wrote, “is religion externalized.” It’s the outward, external manifestation of the internal religious impulse driving and shaping a society. If you want to know what a society’s dominant religion is, look at its culture. Unfortunately, the Western church in recent decades hasn’t always been perceptive or relevant in assessing the culture in which God placed it. Much of that failure is rooted in diffidence toward culture. Culture just isn’t worth bothering about.
Dividing Gospel from Culture
The propensity to sequester God’s truth for culture from his truth in the church is becoming harmfully common. The formerly orthodox Christ Church-San Francisco abandoned its requirement of celibacy for those members inclined toward or committed to homosexuality. The reason? Their previous (biblical) policy of not permitting practicing homosexuals as members was “not necessarily the way of the gospel.” In turning from biblical truth, however, they turned away from the gospel. The gospel is family truth (God is our Father and Jesus is our elder brother; the Father adopts children into his family; Jesus is the groom and his church is the bride). Gospel truth necessitates family truth. You cannot be wrong about the family and right about the gospel — and to accept homosexuality as Christian is to be wrong about the family.
Today, in an effort to create a consensus in our culturally chaotic times, the attitude of many church leaders, including professed evangelicals, is: “We want to keep close to the gospel and not alienate members, present and potential, by addressing cultural issues. If we just peach the gospel, we can avoid the divisiveness that introducing cultural issues fosters. We want to be Gospel-centered and not trifle with culture.” The problem is that the cultural issues they are studiously avoiding cannot be severed from the gospel. To be gospel-centered is to be culture-concerned.
The Objective of the Gospel
The objective of the gospel is to defeat sin and its consequences wherever and whenever they are found. “The sweep of redemption is as comprehensive as the sweep of sin.” The protevangelium, the first gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, speaks of the seed of the woman (Jesus Christ) crushing the head of the seed of the Satanic serpent. The gospel is not only a message of individual salvation; it is also a message of cultural reclamation. The good news is about salvation from all sin, not just individual and private sin like pride, lust, prayerlessness, and unbelief. For the church to labor for the sanctification of its members from these sins but not more pubic and visible and social sins is not to live in the fullness of the biblical gospel.
The old covenant prophets routinely thundered against the cultural evils in the ancient Jewish church and society.
In his first sermon as Messiah at his hometown Nazareth, our Lord invoked the Hebrew Scriptures to identify his ministry as not merely rescuing individual sinners but also overturning cultural evil.
Paul confronts the cultural evils of the magic arts and commerce derived from idolatry while preaching at Ephesus (Ac. 19). He preached the gospel of the kingdom, which is the gospel of the reign of God in the earth: his reign over all things, including culture.
The message of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia Minor is suffused in warnings about and denunciations of imperial Rome and all of its seductive but oppressing cultural depravities.
Confronting All Sin Everywhere
The gospel of Jesus Christ is calculated to confront and expose all sin everywhere and to restore God’s justice, his rightness, in the earth. For church leaders not to decry (for example) abortion, homosexuality (and all other extramarital sex), machismo, feminism, state socialism, covetous consumerism, and military pacifism is to say that some sins are not the gospel’s target of destruction. For ministers blithely to accept members who unrepentantly practice or advocate these and other cultural sins without an attempt to persuade them to trust Jesus Christ for salvation is to stunt the gospel. To argue, “We have Obama and Trump and Sanders and Cruz supporters all in our congregation, and we have many shades of belief on Obamacare and the LGBT community and abortion and gun control, and we all live together as one big, happy family because we center on the gospel” is actually to practice a form of ethical syncretism. Make no mistake: the Bible permits (no, demands) tolerance and grace on issues that are secondary and unaddressed. You won’t find in the Bible what a nation’s capital gains taxes should be, whether energy companies should opt for natural gas or solar power, or when a family should or should not adopt children. But the most pressing cultural issues of our time do not fit into this classification; the Bible is quite clear, explicitly or implicitly, about excessive confiscatory taxation, abortion, homosexuality, judicial activism, property rights, euthanasia, parental authority, human egg harvesting, and religious liberty.
Getting Back to the Gospel-Centered Church
The churches that avoid biblically defined cultural issues under the mantra, “We need to get back to the gospel” have the mantra right but the meaning wrong. If our churches would only get back to the gospel of the Bible, the good news that God by means of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is setting the world right, they would preach the convicting and healing and hopeful message to the proud and pharisaic, fornicators and adulterers, human egg harvesters and motherhood surrogates, the legalists and racists, socialists and authoritarians, feminists and abusers, and all other sinners.
Shying away from cultural issues is to omit a critical dimension of the gospel. It is neither brave nor beneficial. It might increase attendees but it will never increase God’s blessings. A chief calling of the church in culturally apostate times is to confront the apostasy with the gospel, living in glorious hope of great gospel victory in time and history.
Hiding the culture-reclaiming gospel under a bushel is to succumb to ecclesial delinquency.