So, you take a frog and put him in a pot of water and then slowly turn up the heat.
According to legend, you can boil the frog without him even knowing what is going on. It's pretty remarkable that you can do this. At least in the frog's case, he has an excuse. God made him the way he is. His body takes on the temperature of his surroundings. There's nothing he can do about it. But if you take that same frog, before you boil him of course, and drop him in a pot of scalding water, he is aware enough to know that is not good for him, and he'll try to jump out. Even a frog knows he's in hot water when he's dropped in it.
In his 1990 book "The Frog in the Kettle," George Barna described the ways in which the church was endangered by incremental changes in culture that could lead to its increasing lack of relevance and effectiveness. He warned that the church was being slowly cooked and needed to wake up to what was happening.
To some degree, no pun intended, Christians have probably always been like frogs in the kettle. The kettle is human culture. We swim around in that culture like everyone else. At times, the culture gets the best of us. We all know of Christians and churches that have succumbed to popular culture or that have remained so stuck in the past that they cannot even relate to the current culture. In both cases, the church is no longer able to effectively bring God's worldview into the present culture.
For decades I have used the five-fold model developed by H. Richard Niebuhr to describe the different ways people relate to culture. In his 1951 book "Christ and Culture," Niebuhr described the positions Christians take relative to the culture. He named those positions: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. Niebuhr sought to explain these various attitudes of Christians toward culture by appealing to Bible passages that support them. He even named significant Christians in history who have represented them. His work remains helpful because it demonstrates the various ways we can relate our own Christian faith to culture.
D. A. Carson has recently critiqued Niebuhr's approach, however. In his work "Christ and Culture Revisited" he says, "...choosing one of Niebuhr's models is an exercise in reductionism." He spends much of his time discrediting Niebuhr's categories by appealing to biblical passages the categories don't take into consideration. Carson wants his readers to understand that the Bible's guidance on life in this world is a much more complex thing than Niebuhr's categories suggest. Niebuhr was not unaware of the problem posed by his method. In a number of places he also discussed briefly the problems inherent in some of the positions. He even agreed, with Carson, that "no one person or group ever conforms completely to a type."
This is an important corrective. No one, or at least very few people, fit neatly into any of Niebuhr's categories. There are points at which almost all of us step outside of our box and into one of the others. It is true that Christianity can be counter-cultural, but it isn't as though we operate completely in a bubble, either. We are part of human culture. We enjoy some aspects while we are repulsed by others.
But no matter how comfortable we might feel, we must remember that this isn't our home. In fact, this environment is always going to be somewhat hostile to us. Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them out like sheep among wolves. He warned them that the world would hate them because they represented God's judgment on the world for its sin. And we have the added problem that we have a spiritual enemy who seeks to destroy us as well. And he will use every means at his disposal to accomplish that.
We can't allow ourselves to get too comfortable here, but we can't just shut ourselves off from the world, either. The same Jesus who said the world would hate us also called us the salt of the earth and the light of the world and told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is hardly a combative stance. It sounds much more like a transforming relationship.
Clearly, there are different ways to think about our relationship to culture and what we think the Lord wants to accomplish here through His church. Niebuhr's types help us at the very least to reflect on how we each initially think about our place in this world. Is our primary inclination to our surroundings one of opposition, indifference, acceptance, or something else? If we can do that much self-reflection, it can help us begin to see ourselves as separate from culture and yet at the same time part of it. And we can begin to think about our role here.
As I think about my role in culture, the starting point for me is Matt 5:13-16. This passage reveals the complexity of living in culture that Carson attempts to get at in his book. It also compels me to understand that Christ expects His people to be both positive and negative agents toward human culture, depending on the issue. The Southern Baptist Convention's statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, shares this understanding. Its section "The Christian and the Social Order" states:
"All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth."
Human culture is a complex, constantly changing product of the interplay of personal, collective, private, and public activities. As the Baptist Faith and Message makes clear, Christians must seek to influence each of these in appropriate ways in order to fulfill our roles here on earth as Christ's ambassadors.
One aspect of this engagement is public policy advocacy. Public policy affects every life and practically every part of life. Issues like abortion, marriage, religious liberty, human flourishing, and end of life decisions are affected by our nation's policies. We cannot fully represent the gospel of our Lord and His intention to make the will of God supreme on earth as it is in heaven without involving ourselves in our nation's policies.
The reasons for this engagement in so many areas of national life are many as well. It can be helpful to understand why we engage. We aren't simply being busy-bodies when we get involved in public policy advocacy. So for the next six weeks, I will describe the following six motivations. We engage
• For self-defense,
• for the sake of others,
• for moral reasons,
• for stewardship reasons,
• for citizenship reasons,
• to deflect the judgment of God.
We are guided by Scripture in each of these motivations. I will share some passages that speak to each of these motivations, provide some examples from public policy and explain why they matter. I hope you find the explanations helpful as you consider your own role in the life of our nation.
Barrett Duke has served in the ERLC's Washington office as Vice President for Public Policy and Research since 2003. He came to the ERLC's Nashville office in 1997 after serving as founding pastor of a church in Colorado. Barrett holds a BA from Criswell College, an MA from Denver Seminary, and a PhD from the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.