Politics, Culture, and the Church 

How involved should the church (as an institution) and Christians (as individuals) be in politics?

How Christians relate to politics and government is a sub-question concerning how Christians relate to broader culture at large. H. Richard Niebuhr offered a famous paradigm in his book Christ and Culture. Niebuhr believed each of the following approaches could be found in either Scripture or other early Christian writings.

1. Christ against Culture

This is the most uncompromising view toward culture that “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (p. 45). It says loyalty to Christ means complete disdain for culture. This view is similar to the approach of the Pharisees in the New Testament. This radical view sees government and politics as having no role in the life of the church or in the lives of believers. Rather, they stand in stark opposition. This view does well in understanding that the church is not the state and vice versa, but the potential danger of this view of government is that it can fail to see that God has placed rulers in the world as means of accomplishing his purposes (Rom. 13:1–7). However, there are times when it is important to stress the disconnect between Christ and culture: 1 John arguably contains this emphasis.

The church (as an institution) is ill-suited for shaping political processes and projects.

2. Christ of Culture

On this view, Christians “hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit” (p. 83). This group sees no tension between the world and the church—between social laws and the gospel. Rather, they would see the political sphere as simply being the imminent way that God works in the world. Biblically, this extreme would be similar to the approach of the Sadducees, while also being expressed in early Gnostic writings. In contemporary discussions, this position would be akin to those who say that social change and progress is the gospel. This view does well in recognizing that the gospel has cultural implications, but fails to distinguish cultural change from the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

3. Christ above Culture

In this view, there is no battle between Christ and culture; the conflict is between a holy God and sinful humans. God is the one who orders culture, which is neither good nor bad in itself. Human sin is expressed in rebellious cultural acts, so a harmony between Christ and culture is the best way to address the problem. Applied to the political sphere, this position would see some kind of possible synthesis between the church and the state, and the two can meaningfully co-exist and cooperate. Most notably, this position would recognize that God has ordained rulers and that there is a generally available natural law on which the basic tenets of government are based. Fallenness is the problem, not politics itself. This view can be seen in some motifs in Matthew’s Gospel (for example, Jesus’ instruction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s), and would represent the general approach of some Anglicans and Catholics.

The church (as an institution) should be concerned primarily with proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox

This view is similar to the “Christ above culture” view, except that instead of culture and Christ being synthesized into a unity, this position sees them as separate entities that can be held in paradox. This position encourages both loyalty to God and participation in culture.

Applied to politics, this type of view would see no conflict with Christian participation in politics and loyal allegiance to Christ, and would lead to an acceptance of political interaction with all of its good and evil. This position does well in avoiding simplistic rejection of politics as a whole, but it can lead to mere acceptance of how things are in the political realm. Niebuhr sees such a view in the Apostle Paul’s approach, and it could also describe the approach of some Lutherans.

5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

This is a view that has a “hopeful view toward culture” (p. 191). This view recognizes that God created the world good, and that because God acts in historical events, human culture can be “a transformed human life in and to the glory of God” through the grace of God (p. 196). In practice, this view means that Christians work in culture for its betterment, because God ultimately has some hand in human creativity. While there is sin in culture, all is not lost because there is hope through Christ for the redemption of culture. Niebuhr sees this emphasis in John’s Gospel.

Represented by some of the Reformed groups, this fifth position would see Christians as responsible for transforming the fallen political realm. In a sense, this view strives to see the kingdom of God represented in all spheres of life, including politics. This view does well to understand that God has called Christians to be active transformers of culture, but it can fall prey to viewing the government as more powerful than it is. That is, it can wrongly see government as the primary way to bring about transformation in the world.

Political involvement is a task for individual Christians, who find themselves living “between two worlds.”

Miroslav Volf’s ‘Soft Difference’

Contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf offers a corrective view to the Christ and culture paradigm set out by Niebuhr in his essay “Soft Difference.” Drawing from 1 Peter, he argues that Christians can transform the world not by attacking culture or actively working to impose the values of the kingdom of God on the world, but instead by living “in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same.” Rather than either ignoring or seeking to coerce others, he urges a Christian way of life in which “mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation . . . [seeking] to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even ‘without a word’ [1 Pet. 3:1].” The goal of Christians should not be force unbelievers into obedience but instead to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Institution and Individual

The church (as an institution) should be concerned primarily with proclaiming the gospel of Jesus, making disciples, and caring for the poor and marginalized. The church is primarily concerned with the kingdom of God, which is not the kingdom of this world. The church (as an institution) is ill-suited for shaping political processes and projects, and political involvement can only distract the church from its mission. This is a task for individual Christians, who find themselves living “between two worlds”—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.