The Cultural Accommodation Of American Evangelicals

Jun 22nd, 2024 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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Brad East, associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University, makes this astute observation:  “Something has happened in the last 25 years in American evangelicalism—what I believe to be a massive generational shift . . . I have in mind low-church Protestant traditions in the United States: churches centered on the Bible, evangelism, and personal faith in Jesus; often but not necessarily nondenominational, with moderate to minimal emphasis on sacraments, liturgy, and ecclesiastical authority; and marked by a revivalist style as well as conservative beliefs about sex, marriage, and other social issues. Historically, these congregations were predominantly white and middle-to lower-class, though not as uniformly as is often imagined. Many were founded within the last three decades . . . These are the churches in which I’ve noticed what I would call a kind of loosening. This shift is largely unwitting, or at least unplanned. It is not consistent or ideological; it is not a program or platform; it’s not even conservative or liberal per se . . . This loosening consists of a broad relaxation of previously unspoken—or at least unwritten—social norms.”

He cites several examples of this “loosening:”

  • “The most obvious example is attitudes about alcohol. For generations, American evangelicals were known to be highly suspicious of drinking, sometimes to the point of being teetotalers. This remained true through my teen years, and when I heard that Brother Joe or Sister Jane enjoyed a glass of wine before bed, it was whispered knowledge about private behavior. Joe and Jane were not drinking in public. They certainly weren’t microbrewing beer in their garage and handing out samples at small group.  Two decades later, so far as I can tell, this taboo on alcohol has all but disappeared. “
  • “Or consider entertainment. Churches and Christian parents continue to police the boundaries of appropriate content, but the window has widened considerably. Once upon a time, Disney movies were suspect. Onscreen sex, language, and violence were known to be dangerous causes of adolescent misbehavior. But now evangelicals’ viewing habits appear interchangeable with your average Netflix or HBO subscriber. Some even cast watching Game of Thrones or The Sopranos as a task of cultural engagement: I’m just doing my missional duty. If the gore, cruelty, and nudity offend your fundamentalist upbringing, so much the worse for you, weaker brother.”

“Now, I called this loosening a ‘generational shift,’ and, in one sense, it is. But in my observation, it’s not only the under-40 crowd doing these things. If that were the case, we’d still have an important change underway, but it might be nothing more than the normal pattern of children unlearning their parents’ ways.  My contention, instead, is that it’s not just millennials and Gen Zers who are loosening. It’s their parents and grandparents too. Former teetotalers are now drinking; one-time Disney boycotters are binging Netflix; erstwhile skeptics of gambling are hosting poker nights.  If I’m right, this is a seismic shift, not business as usual.”

East draws several conclusions about this evangelical  “loosening:”

  • “First, this loosening suggests to me that American evangelicalism’s many unwritten norms were not sustained solely by doctrine, congregational authority, or biblical teaching. Norms against drinking, tattoos, formal liturgy, and the like were extraordinarily powerful and uniform because of the ambient culture surrounding the church.  In many cases, that outside support included the state. It’s no coincidence that this loosening has occurred while laws related to ‘vice’—alcohol, divorce, drugs, and once-illegal sexual activities—have been falling like dominoes across the last half-century. Sometimes law is downstream from culture, sometimes upstream, but either way, the church is part of this social river.
  • Second, a less Christian and more secular culture creates new incentives and pressures on ordinary believers. If everyone in the non-Christian majority believes or does x, it becomes a conspicuous sign of Christian discipleship (or intransigence) to continue abstaining from x. This leads all believers, pastors included, to reconsider their commitments: Is alcohol, after all, forbidden by God? In black and white, chapter and verse? If not, then why am I suffering my neighbors’ or coworkers’ scorn? Besides, everyone always knew about Joe and Jane’s wine collection. Let’s go ahead and join them.
  • Third, when Scripture is ambiguous or disputable on some matter while the wider culture’s position is clear, the onus falls to pastors or the institutional church to convince congregants to reject that wider cultural norm. And what we have seen in recent decades is a decline of pastoral authority, the death of thick denominational identity, and a crisis of confidence in Christian institutions.
  • Fourth and finally, there are no sectarians in post-Christian foxholes. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the same forces leading evangelicals to start drinking, getting tattoos, and watching HBO are also leading them to say the creeds, receive ashes on their forehead, and read Pope Benedict XVI.   This is what I mean when I say that the loosening I see is no top-down, organized, ideological plan. It’s happening organically, all at once, sometimes in apparently contradictory ways.”

Permit me a few concluding observations about East’s concept of evangelical “loosening.”  The Bible warns against “worldliness” and the devastating consequences of following the world and not Christ (see James 4).  From the Old Testament we observe that the children of Israel imitated their pagan neighbors and brought their altars and images into the Temple.  Consequently, God sent them into Exile.  In the New Testament, Jesus challenges us to be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:13-19).  Because of Christ’s finished work, Christians have been removed from the world’s power at conversion (Galatians 6:14) and, because the cross established a judicial separation between believers and the world, Christians are citizens of a new kingdom (Philippians 3:20).  The Bible both discourages absolute physical separation from the people of the world (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10), yet instructs believers to witness to this world (John 17:15), all the while keeping from the influence of the world (James 1:27; 1 Corinthians 7:31; Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15).  Therefore, how we function in our culture creates significant tension.

In a culture that is increasingly pagan and relativistic, how one “speaks” Christianity to the culture is critical.  Should Christians separate from the culture and live in isolation?  Should Christians seek to accommodate completely to the culture and seek to influence its institutions and values from the inside?  Or should Christians seek to transform the culture by seeking to control its institutions and claim each for Christ?  Historical models for each are readily available from church history and are present today in our world:

  1. The Separational Model argues that Christians must withdraw from any involvement in the world.  There is an antithesis between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world and the choice is clear—withdraw.  Clear biblical examples of this choice are Noah (whom God called out of the culture before He destroyed it), Abram (called to separate from pagan Mesopotamia) and Moses (called to separate from idolatrous Egypt).  The New Testament buttresses this conviction with verses like Matthew 6:24 (“You cannot serve two masters . . .”), 1 Peter 2:11 and 1 John 2:15.  For this model, the church of Jesus Christ is a counterculture which lives by kingdom principles.  It is to have nothing to do with this world.
  2. Accommodation to the culture is the key word for this model; to live both in the kingdom of God and in the world. Identifying with, participating in and working within all cultural institutions (e.g., business, government, and law) is part of the mandate for the Christian.  Christians are, therefore, to live both in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.   Biblical examples of this model abound. Joseph rose to the top of ancient Egypt, serving as Prime Minister (Genesis 41:41-43).  Similarly, Daniel played key political and advisory roles in the empires of both Babylon and Persia (Daniel 6:1-4).  Jesus identified with the world, eating and drinking with tax collectors and assorted sinners.  He clearly did not separate from the world, for he was a friend of Nicodemas and associated with key officials of the Roman army (e.g., the centurion).  Finally, the book of Acts demonstrates apostles associating with the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius, another Roman official.  Paul, in Romans 13:1-7 sees the state as a clear sphere of God’s work.
  3. This model takes the transforming power of Christ and applies it to culture.  Despite the fallen nature of humanity and the subsequent curse of creation, Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection reversed the curse for both humans and culture.  There is now hope of human release from the bondage to sin and for creation as well.  This is the center of ancient Israel’s hope that the world would be restored (see Isaiah 65 for example) and of the New Testament’s focus on Christ’s redemptive work (see Romans 5:12-21).   Romans 8:19-22 also emphasizes the complete re-making of creation from sin’s curse.  This hope is easily translated into an optimism about culture’s transformation.

Historical examples of this model center on the transforming work of the gospel in a geographical area.  During the Reformation, John Calvin’s Geneva reflected this transforming power.  Calvin taught the total Lordship of Christ, that it extended to the state and to economics.  Therefore, the government of Geneva experienced radical reform and pursued righteousness in making and enforcing its laws.  Work to Calvin and Geneva was a God-ordained vocation, whatever its specific nature.  The city, therefore, experienced remarkable economic transformation as well.  A similar transformation characterized the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay in the 1600s.  All aspects of the Puritan culture were brought into conformity with God’s revelation.  It was complete cultural transformation.

  1. Years ago, Robert Webber proposed a synthesis of all three models as the proper one for the believer.  Weber’s proposal was modeled after Jesus, for He separated from the evils of His culture, identified with its institutions and people, yet sought to transform it from the inside out.  By adding to His deity humanity, Jesus identified with the world and its social order (e.g., its people and its customs).  Similarly, the church is to do the same.  At bottom, this is the heart of Christ’s admonition that we are “to be in the world but not of the world.”  Yet Christ separated Himself from the evil distortions of the created order.  He had nothing to do with the distorted use of wealth, social position or political power.  Finally, through His death, burial and resurrection, He broke the power of sin and Satan and guarantees the world’s transformation when He returns in glory and power.  Similarly, the church is to move culture’s institutions toward genuine, biblical righteousness, all the while anticipating His final transforming work when He returns.

How does the believer live out Webber’s incarnational model?  First, the Christian always lives with tension, the tension between that which is transformable and that from which he or she must separate.  For example, there are many good structures in the culture—art, economics, sports, and vocations–yet there are always the evil distortions of those good structures (e.g., pornography, greed, workaholism, idolatry).  The Christian should identify with the good structures and seek their transformation but always separate from those evil distortions.  Second, there is no simple formula for living with or resolving this tension. Looking for the biblical answer to each practical question is rarely possible.  Applying the principles of Scripture to each person’s situation may well produce considerably different judgments.  The believer’s responsibility is to know God’s Word, practice wisdom and discernment (e.g., see Proverbs) and then choose a course of action that each believes most faithfully represents God’s will.  How Christians personally resolve this tension should produce a healthy biblical tolerance, and a thankfulness for the multiplicity of expressions of Christianity.  It is not easy to resolve the tension between identifying with the culture’s institutions and structures and seeking to separate from the distortions of each.  Some Christians will choose not to own a TV, not to listen to secular music and to discard old socks rather than darn them.  Agreeing to disagree on such matters guards against unhealthy legalism and promotes a healthy dialogue about living within a non-Christian culture.

See Brad East, “The Loosening of American Evangelicalism” in (20 May 2024); James P. Eckman, Biblical Ethics, pp. 19-26.

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