A Christianity that flirts with the reigning culture is on the way to secular enslavement

ROBERT H. LAUERRobert H. Lauer is pastor of Salem Baptist Church, Florissant, Missouri. He holds the B.S. in electrical engineering from Washington University, St. Louis, and the B.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Long ago, William Law warned that the world is now a greater enemy to the Christian than it was in apostolic times:

It is a greater enemy, because it has greater power over Christians by its favours, riches, honours, rewards, and protection than it had by the fire and fury of its persecutors.
It is a more dangerous enemy, by having lost its appearance of enmity. Its outward profession of Christianity makes it no longer considered as an enemy, and therefore the generality of people are easily persuaded to resign themselves up to be governed and directed by it [A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, London, 1906, p. 228].

Law here describes what is perhaps the most subtle temptation of the Christian church—to be captive to its culture. The Church succumbs to this temptation when it reflects its culture rather than exposing it to the light of God’s will, when it is a mirror of its age rather than an imitator of its Lord. So often has this cultural captivity been evident that Herbert Butterfield says the Church on the whole has been the “cement of society, the buttress of whatever was the existing order, and the defender of the status quo … (Christianity and History, New York, 1950, p. 176).

Since none of us can wholly detach ourselves from our culture, any criticism of contemporary religion cannot escape a certain ethnocentric tinge. It is far easier to discern the failings of our forebears than to perceive our own cultural shackles. But the very recognition of past failure compels us to examine the present, lest we too become merely a footnote of our times rather than a molding force for the future.

In his autobiography, From Pagan to Christian, Lin Yu-T’ang speaks of our age as one of destruction. He takes note of Picasso’s dissection of the material world, then continues: “Stravinsky laughed at harmony, Gertrude Stein destroyed grammar, E. E. Cummings destroyed punctuation, Lenin destroyed democracy, Joyce destroyed idiom, and Dali destroyed sanity. Everyone was tearing up something” (From Pagan to Christian, Cleveland, 1959, p. 200).

Unquestionably there is a strong iconoclastic hue to contemporary culture. And quite often it seems to overflow into capricious destructiveness. When we turn to theology’, therefore, we should not be overly surprised to find someone crying that God is dead. We can expect that in some way the destructive tendencies of our age will find expression in theology.

Article continues below

Another obvious aspect of our culture is its love-affair with science. In an age when the word of the scientist carries the authority that once characterized the word of the priest or king, we should not be surprised at the attempt to demythologize the Scriptures, to make them more scientifically palatable.

Some claim that these are attempts to interpret the Gospel to modern man. True, such interpretation is a never-ending task of the theologian. But insofar as these movements depart from the biblical revelation, they are not interpretations but cultural distortions. The Church has the hard task of communicating the Gospel without becoming merged with the culture of the age.

In personal and social ethics there is the same temptation to reflect cultural patterns rather than to imitate our Lord. We saw this in the Bible-quoting defenders of slavery and see it now in their progeny, the Bible-quoting defenders of segregation. We saw it in the German pastors who bowed before Hitler. We read it in the Kinsey reports, which indicated that social strata are more significant in sexual attitudes than religious affiliation.

Recently I heard a man high in my own denomination ask, “Are we trying to convert people to our culture or to our Lord?” He went on to say that the problem of any First Baptist Church in the South is the same—a cultural one. If a Negro enters, an aggressive church member may bodily escort him out. But if a frayed malodorous white man enters, in two or three weeks he will be frozen out. It was perhaps an awareness of this situation that led another to declare that we need to develop ways to win some people to Christ whom we will never win to our church. One’s thoughts are wrenched to James 2:1–9.

In the above cases, Christians were busily at work in the dreary business of defending the status quo. At the other extreme are those who wear the label of Christian and defend the new morality. They, too, are subject to their culture, though in its radical rather than its conservative expression. Max Lerner has said that the “reigning moral deity in America is ‘fun.’ ” As the song puts it, we must enjoy ourselves—it’s later than we think. Couple this with the moral relativity that has leavened our age, and the new morality becomes a logical, cultural development. Those who defend it are not merely making a realistic adjustment; they are capitulating to a cultural pattern.

Article continues below

The primary goal of American man is money. So claimed the late C. Wright Mills in his book The Power Elite. And one is tempted to believe it. A sign on a large Protestant church in St. Louis said, “The Church is America’s first business, because if the Church fails, America’s business fails.” One can only conclude that if we want our prosperity to continue, we had better let the Church have its share.

Is the Church of today using materialistic goals as a kind of lure to secure the loyalty of its members? I have read more than one tract and heard more than one sermon that implied that an increase in income awaited the tither. And I once responded to an ad that spoke of a new way of prayer. In the printed material I received there were such testimonials as, “Money is coming in from everywhere.”

What is the goal of the American Church? Many people choose a church for its social level rather than its doctrinal and spiritual level. Perhaps this is why Americans erect magnificent edifices in which they may worship, while channeling only meager funds into world missions. And perhaps this is why officials of a Presbyterian church in a metropolitan area, while interviewing a prospective pastor, told him, “We don’t care to have any new members. We just want you to come and minister to the ones we already have.”

What is the goal of the American minister? To be conformed to the image of his Lord? Or to slip into a comfortable position in his culture? In an article entitled “Slick-Paper Christianity” (The Nation, Vol. CLXXXV, No. 18, pp. 56–59) Dan Wakefield tells of a literature class at Columbia University in which Mark Van Doren discussed the modern minister and Christ. Jesus, said Van Doren, was far different from the ministers today “who try to be ‘one of the crowd’ and take a drink at a cocktail party to prove it, or tell an off color joke.” Van Doren paused, then added, “Maybe that’s why we hate them so much.” A survey of the minister’s image in modern literature confirms this attitude of contempt. Modern culture, like its ancient counterpart, will make every effort to quell the prophetic voice, and then despise the fallen prophet.

If the Christian Church is to rise above its culture, if it is to be a lamp and salt rather than mirror and cement to its society, it must be constantly vigilant. Reinhold Niebuhr has rightly said, “Only the most rigorous searching of hearts can prevent prophets from mixing the prejudices of communities and the desires of kings with the counsels of God, and offering the compound as the word of the Lord” (Beyond Tragedy, New York, 1937, p. 83). To this we could add one amendment: Above all, the Church must unceasingly search the Scriptures, subjecting its theology, its ethics, and its values to the light of God’s Word.

Article continues below
Fishers Of Men

There could be a hundred million new Christians in the world today … one hundred million new converts to Jesus Christ … if just one in every nine professing Christians were really interested in winning a friend to Christ, influencing a friend for Christ.

One hundred million persons might be born into the Christian family through the power of God today … translated by the heart-changing dynamic of the Gospel from darkness to light, out of death unto life … if one-ninth of us who claim to be Christians were really faithful followers of the One who said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Of course you don’t regiment the Spirit of God—and it is he who gives birth to the children of God. You don’t dictate to God—setting quotas or schedules for the harvest of souls.

Nevertheless, the statistics dramatize the thrilling possibilities of one day—any day—if we Christians were really serious about the mission to which our Lord has called us.

Who can measure what the Spirit of God might do today if we who make professions of faith in Jesus Christ were obedient to the mandate which he left his Church? What an absolutely exciting prospect if today each of us decided it was his duty—his vocation, his holy calling—to be a witness, by the Spirit, among his colleagues, friends, and associates.

Certainly the failure is not God’s! It is “not his will that any should perish.”

He who loved the world so much that “he gave his only begotten Son” is certainly not indifferent to the lostness—the waywardness—the disorientation of men.

He who loved the world so much that he laid down his life on the Cross—submitting to the ignominious treatment and shame of ruthless and profane men, letting his own blood pour out as a sacrifice for the sin of the very men guilty of the atrocity—surely he is not without care and concern for men everywhere. Surely he would speak to the hearts of men, woo them to himself, if he had a faithful servant through whom to speak and love.

Jesus Christ has his people everywhere! But many are indifferent. They are cold and heartless and preoccupied with their own achievements and acquisitions.

You aren’t responsible for the 900 million who call themselves Christian—but you are responsible for you! DR. RICHARD C. HALVERSON, in Perspective, a weekly devotional letter to businessmen.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.