Cultural Christianity

Yesterday, I was speaking with a local brother and he was explaining how he had come to the point where he told God he didn’t care about keeping his theology or opinions, he just wanted God to show him the truth and to help him get his theology and opinions to match that. I loved this, but something about it struck me as odd.

Here’s the deal. I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t say something almost exactly like that. Yet most of us struggle with this where the rubber meets the road; when it’s actually time to change because of the truth God shows us.

There’s a term that got batted around a lot when I was a kid growing up in the extreme conservative church that I think applies directly to this discussion. The term is “Cultural Christianity”.

Growing up, this was a very strong term in my vocabulary. It was, in all reality, a slur that we used to describe thoughts and people that had no part in what we considered to be “real” Christianity because it described people that based what they believed on the world around them instead of God’s truth.

Maturity brings perspective more often than it bring anything else and, true to form, my maturing process has brought me a healthy dose. From my changed perspective I would like to offer three observations on the term “Cultural Christianity”.

1. Cultural Christianity is almost never intentional.

In the all too often us vs. them mentality of the conservative Church, cultural Christians are the way they are because they want to be. They know what they are doing is wrong but do it anyways because it’s convenient. Not only is this incredibly prideful and bigoted; it’s just wrong. While it’s easy to believe when you grow up in the cocoon constructed by parents and pastors, interactions with people who disagree with you will inevitable reveal real people who genuinely want to do what is right. For some reason they’ve just come to a different conclusion on what that is than you have.

Now, I know that there are people out there who approach the Bible looking for excuses not to live a life patterened after Christ. There are theologies that are based in excuse and not a search for truth. However, I have found that they are the exception and not the norm. Most people who are allowing their cultural perspective to influence their theology are doing so because they don’t see that what they believe is more cultural that biblical.

As an aside, I would suggest that it’s wrong for us to assume that someone is believing something out of convenience. If we are called to love one another and we’re told that love believes all things and hopes all things, shouldn’t we assume people are genuinely seeking if we’re going to assume anything?

2. Christianity that is defined by being against culture is still being defined by that culture.

It’s easy to go to a Church and find out what they’re against after one or two services. It usually takes many, many visits to really understand what they stand for. This is a basic political concept. It’s simpler to unite people against a common enemy than to bind them through shared goals.

So many Churches that I have attended and visited start with the axiom that modern culture is bad and build their teachings, lifestyles, and convictions in such a way that they are whatever culture is not. I can not say this clearly enough; cultural and biblical are not the only two options. Just because you don’t fit in with the culture around you does not mean you are by default being biblical. Instead, it means that you are focusing on culture when you should be focusing on God. Like I said, this allows your Christianity to be defined by culture as much as convenient theologies that agree with culture more than the Bible do. It just looks different; you know, more conservative.

Which brings me to…

3. Changing what culture we look and think like doesn’t make our Christianity less cultural.

This is the big one for me right now.   The modern Church is in such a fractured state that we have actually created dozens of sub-cultures that look nothing like the culture around us. You have Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, and countless others, each with their own culture that may or may not be scriptural. It is incredibly easy to let our alignment with a particular culture color our understanding of the Bible. This is especially true for those of us who grew up in a certain culture.

I know one young lady who insisted that when the Bible says we are to praise God with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, it meant we were to use scriptural psalms, hymns from the 1700-1800s, or African-American spirituals and nothing else when singing to God. Obviously, this is a ridiculous example, but it shows the extreme of what I mean. She felt like she was taking scripture at face value and the culture of her church/denomination backed her up.

I think we do the same thing when we insist that women wear skirts at all times; or when we claim that smoking and drinking are sins. We have scripture to back us up, but we’re allowing our reading of that scripture to be colored by our cultural background (as conservative as it may be) instead of looking for the meaning of the passage. Sure, we don’t look like the culture that we live in the midst of, but our Christianity is cultural none the less.

Remember up under point #1 when I said most cultural Christianity is unintentional? I’m talking about this brand too. We don’t mean to be cultural, but we are. It’s just a different culture helping us shape our theologies.

The challenge is to seek truth. More often than we’d like, truth is inconvenient. More often than that, it doesn’t fit in with the culture we are a part of – regardless of what culture that is.

Culture will always be a part of our life and understanding. The trick is to live in and relate to whatever culture we find ourselves in while reading the Bible in a way that transcends that understanding and seeks God without cultural trappings.


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