Rethinking Counter-Cultural Christianity
How should Christians approach culture? The question has been debated since the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The first-century theologian Tertullian later asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Many centuries later, H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work Christ and Culture (1951) offered five models for the relationship between Christianity and culture. In recent years, other approaches have been posited from “The Benedict Option” to “Third-Wayism” and beyond.
While various strategies have been considered, an underlying theme is a sense that Christians must be “counter-cultural.” The trendy catchphrase has a biblical basis. Yet, against the backdrop of the current “culture war” that thrives on pitting believers against secular society, it may be time for Christians to re-evaluate the “counter-cultural” approach.
What Is Counter-Cultural?
Jesus said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16). A church that marches fully in step with the world isn’t following Jesus. Faithful Christians will be counter-cultural. Yet, to be counter-cultural can mean either to be “set apart and different” or “in opposition to.” The differences between Christians and the surrounding culture can be a symptom of having an alternative life mission or the differences themselves can become the focus.
Several years ago, shock-rocker-turned-outspoken-believer Alice Cooper declared, “There was never more of a rebel than Jesus Christ. You wanna talk about a rebel — he was the ultimate.” Cooper’s statement reflects a widespread notion that the church is a group of cultural rebels. Leaning into the idea of “cultural rebellion” became a way for youth pastors to make sexual abstinence, sobriety, modest dress, and evening Bible study edgy and cool.
A consequence of embracing this mindset, however, is that when fertile soil is watered by the ongoing “culture war,” it can grow a contrarian spirit and reactionary faith. Thus, the Christian identity is defined by being “anti-culture” rather than “pro-Gospel,” Christians known for what we are not rather than what we are.
A New Creation
The Bible emphasizes that Christians should be radically different than the world around us. Scripture is also clear that Christians are called to follow Christ, not to rebel against culture. Christians don’t swim upstream because we’re at war with the river but because Jesus is leading us in that direction.
The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that what sets Christians apart is a fundamental change in us: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2); “But God’s mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ.” (Ephesians 2); “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
When Jesus talked about the ways his followers should be different from the world, he spoke of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving and praying for those who hate and persecute them (Matthew 5), and putting themselves last (Matthew 23). In other words, Christians are not to be “counter-cultural” in the sense that we stand with a cross icon on our boxing gloves, ready to start exchanging haymakers with the world. Rather, Christians should stand out because Jesus’ way is different than the world’s way. It isn’t about playing the world’s cut-throat game on Team Jesus; Christians are playing an entirely different game, with different rules, and with different metrics for success (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Beyond the Culture War
Of course, the Bible doesn’t prescribe total cultural pacifism. Scripture has been the basis for virtually every major civil rights movement in history. Christians are citizens of heaven, but—for a time—we are also citizens of this world. As the latter, we vote for certain political candidates, fight against sexualization in entertainment and media, and seek to preserve biblical truth in an increasingly post-truth culture. Sometimes “love of neighbor” requires Christians to push back against injustices in society. But there is a fine line between opposing serious falsehood and cultural evil and merely being a contrarian. If Christians spend more time outraged about “woke Hollywood” than we do celebrating the works of God, we’ve fixed our gaze in the wrong place.
Jesus said and did many things that were “counter-cultural” in his day, such as elevating women and preaching love in response to hate, but he was not a social revolutionary. In fact, he angered and perplexed religious leaders by not rallying people to fight against the oppressive and evil culture: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). The abundant life he offered was against the grain of the world, but his focus was always on the will of his heavenly Father.
The present-day “culture war” feigns to offer Christians a quick path to counter-culturalism. If being a Christian means to be different, then the easiest solution is to look at everything the world does and then take the opposing position on the battlefield. Yet, that mindset sets Christians up to be reactionaries, guided by the whims of the world rather than being steadfast in God’s truth. It also embraces—rather than resists—the world’s destructive “us v. them” framework, making culture a battleground rather than a mission field. A Christian who opposes the world’s ideologies but embraces its methods is not truly a counter-cultural Christian. Jesus said of his followers, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16). It’s not enough just to be different from the world; Christians must be different in the way Jesus was.
Christians today must be for Jesus rather than merely against culture. To sacrifice Christ-likeness on the culture-war altar is to abandon what makes Christians different in the first place. Christians are not called to be counter-cultural; we are called to be like Jesus. We should leave no doubt that we are set apart from the world around us not because we constantly rail against culture but because we have been transformed by the one who has already overcome the world (John 16:33).