Cultural Engagement In A Broken World

Nov 21st, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The late British theologian, J.I. Packer, reminds us of a profound truth:  “Christians are not to think of themselves as ever at home in this world but rather as sojourning aliens, travelers passing through a foreign land to the place where their treasures are stored awaiting their arrival” (see 1 Peter 2:11; Matthew 6:19-20).  We are citizens of Christ’s kingdom.   Indeed, Paul declares that, at salvation, God “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).  We are now ambassadors of our King, representing Him, His kingdom and the values, virtues and standards of our King. He defeated Satan at the cross and His return to earth will forever put down the rebellion and bring God’s rule to earth during His Messianic kingdom of 1,000 years (see Revelation 20).  Then the “kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).  Members of the church are citizens of this kingdom (Philippians 3:20), acknowledging Jesus as Lord and King (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9-10) and serving as His ambassadors until He returns (2 Corinthians 5:20).  The early church took this seriously.  Indeed, “in one third-century text, an early Christian describes followers of Jesus as those who dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners . . . They have a common table, but not a common bed . . . They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They . . . are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor.”


As citizens of Christ’s kingdom, who are “in the world but not of the world,” how do we engage this poisonous, politicized, decaying culture?   The default evangelical response to cultural decay has been to redouble our culture war efforts: elect people who will better pursue our agenda, boycott and denounce attacks on our values and way of life. As Packer argued, we often pursue “the modern equivalent of holy war in the Old Testament, in which God called upon his people to overthrow the heathen and take their kingdom by force . . . But holy war is not part of God’s program for the Christian church.”


Darrell Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary New Testament Research Professor, cogently observes, “If your life is like mine, then you have been in conversations where something you take for granted because of your faith is not a given at all for the person you are talking to. Walk into almost any space or place and we can see it: race, sexuality, public health, freedom of expression, gender, even aspects of Christian teaching. In many cases, that difference is something that ten years ago would not have been an issue. Now that shared common ground is gone and we are being asked to take a few steps back to get to a place we used to just assume existed. We all know our culture has changed. We feel it and see it. Social media shows it.  My friends often ask me ‘Why are people so angry?’ and they are talking about almost everybody, including even fellow believers.”  In the last half century, the Judeo-Christian net that surrounded much of our Western culture has disappeared.  Thus, as Bock argues, “We lack a theology of engagement in the church, and we desperately need it.”   “This shift in cultural values does mean that believers often find themselves in confrontation with the core beliefs of others, both outside and inside the faith. We are on opposite sides of truly significant issues. The challenge is how do we follow the great commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves when our neighbor thinks so differently than we do? How do we love our ‘enemies,’ or even now in many cases our own brothers and sisters in Christ? Loving those who oppose you certainly is a distinctive challenge given to us by Jesus. Maybe a place to start is not to see those on the ‘other side’ as enemies at all.  So how can we not see people as opposing forces that we need to defeat? Choices dealing with things like when life begins, sexuality, or the uniqueness of Christ meet with different, even hostile, views from many of our neighbors. This confrontation of ideas has led to the idea that we are in a ‘cultural war’ and military metaphors abound. Let there be no doubt, there is a battle for what it means to experience well-being and quality of life. However, military metaphors put us in a battle mode and that usually means a fight. But how does a fight help us to draw people into this distinctive way of life so foreign to those we pray might come to know God?”


In his book, Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World, Darrell Bock offers “Three Principles of Engagement:”

  • First, “Eph. 6:12 makes clear that our enemy is not people. Our battle is not against blood and flesh (the actual word order in Greek). Rather, recalling the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), people are not our opponent but are rather our goal. To be sure, these principalities and powers often work through people, and we are called to be wary of them and resist their evil (Jude 1:2-23; Rom. 1:18-32). But, it is clear that judgment against such people is reserved for God alone (James 4:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; Acts 17:31).  Jesus calls us to reach people outside of the church, people who often think quite differently than us. That outside audience actually is a given of the mission. We are called to seek those outside of our usual circles who are different from us. To view people as the enemy is to misdirect our energy and risk undermining our core calling to make disciples. Battle metaphors aimed at the wrong target undermine our ability to care about those we are called to invite.”
  • Second, “while we do not battle people, we do fight against spiritual forces. There are real dire enemies out there we best not underestimate. They are called rulers and authorities (v. 12), cosmocrats of evil in the heavens. These dark forces are unseen and deceive. Many people, especially those of a secular bent, do not even realize they exist. This is where we find the deepest challenge and the greatest irony of engagement. The real enemy is missing in action for most people, even though those enemies are still quite active. The fact that they are unseen is actually part of the deception. They work incognito.”
  • Third, “there is successful protection against these forces. That protection is not found in things the world sees as protective, such as power, ideology, or politics. Our armor is spiritual because the battle is spiritual. Ephesians calls it ‘the full armor of God’ (v.13). Look at the list: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit equaling the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit. These things enable us to stand our ground and live in ways that reflect sacred presence. These armor elements involve not only what we believe but how we live it out.  This description of spiritual armor tells us that what matters most is how we live out and draw on our faith, not just how we talk about it or contend for it. Part of the reason we do not seek to take over ground is that we know the world will not be transformed unless Jesus and the Spirit perform that transformative process. This involves a life of being reshaped that will not be complete until we are with him and/or he returns. That cannot start unless and until people come to see and know God’s presence. This is why inviting people into the gospel is so important, even necessary. We invite them into a new place and a new spiritual, indwelt space. That is where enablement to live a full life resides. The power the Scripture knows and embraces is that of the transforming work of God’s Spirit through Christ (Romans 1:16 with an eye to Romans 6–8). Every other solution falls short and the church has been as guilty of offering such false alternatives—such ‘fake news’—as anyone in our ongoing cultural battles.”

“What does this mean for effective engagement with culture? It means seeing people as humans made in God’s image to be embraced and persuaded and with the potential to be drawn toward God. It means the person sitting across from me with whom I disagree is not someone to defeat or humiliate. At the same time, I am to recognize an unseen battle, a conflict the person I am engaged with is probably unaware is even present. Our fight is not as part of an invading, conquering army but more like a rescue mission to those who don’t even know they are in danger and need a new home and refuge.”


Bock concludes with this powerful exhortation:  “When we engage as the world engages—with distance, withdrawal, barrages of insults, no empathy, or demeaning charges—we become just another special interest group guarding our territory or insisting on gaining new ground only on our terms. On the contrary, Jesus calls us to make disciples of all people and to invite them into a new, different kind of space. We are called to love those who hate us, even as we challenge them and ourselves with truth. The truth we extend is shown to be a truth that exemplifies the service and humility of the cross. What matters is not only what we believe, but how our belief interacts with the world and positively impacts relationships. Tone matters. Humility, grace, and love reflect the Most High One who also is unseen (Luke 6:35-36). The result is a spiritually rooted engagement with the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.”

See Darrell Bock, “We Need to Reset the Rules of Cultural Engagement” in (19 October 2020); Tish Harrison Warren, “The Early Church Saw Itself as a Political Body. We Can Too” (22 October 2020); and J.I. Packer, “How to Recognize a Christian Citizen” in Christianity Today (September 2020), pp. 65-69.

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