It’s coming to be called Cultural Christianity. Although my pastoral battles with it are relatively recent, it is not a new phenomenon. William Wilberforce battled it, and wrote an excellent treatise against that “prevailing religious system,” masking itself as “real Christianity” in 19th century England.
Besides not being true biblical Christianity, what makes this cultural impostor so dangerous is its wide-spread appeal and cultural acceptability. Although it is not a threat to true Christianity, it is to the masses who seek its temporal salvation. For many, this Christianity is all they have known, and as such, it cannot be wrong; it is too widely accepted and practiced.
Cultural Christianity is not practiced by a shadowy group on the fringes of the faith. As Wilberforce described, it is the prevailing religious system. It is believed to be true Christianity, despite its obvious contrast with the historic faith.
Cultural Christianity has as its core value numerical church attendance for the benefit of the people who attend. This is in contrast with the biblical value of making disciples for the work of the kingdom and the glory of God. This is evidenced by the church growth obsession, and the phenomenon of the mega church within a biblically illiterate culture.
In order to facilitate its value of church attendance, Cultural Christianity has adopted the practice of attracting attenders by the beneficial programs they offer. These programs have moved beyond even the many gender and age specific ministries, to include health and fitness, recreation, and entertainment. This value is creating, inadvertently though it may be, a church culture in which people come to be served and not to serve or be equipped to serve.
Hopefully this short characterization is sufficient to give you a glimpse of the symptoms. I suggest they’re symptoms, because I believe the root of Cultural Christianity lies deeper than our practices. Our practice arises from our faith. I believe the cultural Christianity that we see is a reflection of humanity’s exchange, referred to in Romans 1.
Romans 1:22–23 (NAS): 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
As a result of suppressing the truth about God, Paul says in this verse, that men exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image. While we do not make the same kinds of 1st century images that are mentioned in the following verse, we have indeed made the same exchange.
The god of Cultural Christianity is simply an image of the God revealed in scripture. He closely resembles the God of scripture, but he wants very different things from his people. The kingdom of the god of Cultural Christians is this present world, and all his blessings he bestows, are for the benefit of his people’s well being in this life. Since his kingdom is now, suffering has no place and along with it’s rejection go sacrifice and service. For this god, our happiness is His glory.
Of course these ideals are not true of the one true God of scripture. He asks a sacrifice and even suffering of His people, for His glory and for the love of His Son, who gave His life a ransom for many. His kingdom has not yet been fully realized; it awaits His Son’s imminent return. Only then will there be no more suffering. Until then, we count it all joy that we may share in the sufferings of Christ.
Oddly, none of these things I have mentioned are unfamiliar. Cultural Christianity is a result of suppression and not ignorance. In fact, Paul says that the great exchange of the incorruptible God for an image is simply the result of the suppression of the knowledge of God.
That we justify this prevailing religious system suggests the suppression. We simply prefer the image of god with which we are more comfortable. So we make the exchange.
We are all susceptible to Cultural Christianity and its trappings. Therefore, we must always return to the bible, and let it shape our image of God. When we do so, we will find Jesus. He is the exact representation of God’s being. His life of sacrifice, service, and yes, even suffering, becomes our example. As we draw near to Him, we will find grace and the truth about God that we have suppressed. He is the radiance of the glory that we have exchanged for an image.
So, we must make one more exchange. We must exchange the lie for the truth; and Christ is the truth. We must exchange the image we have made, for Christ, the image of the invisible God. And when we do, we will find what Wilberforce called, True Christianity.
Your post here unmasks demons in our midst, I think. You expose lies masquerading as truth. Your post is timely, insightful, and powerful. I think this conversation is among the most important that the church at large needs to engage in and account for, but mostly does not.
Thanx for posting this.
AT THE SAME TIME… I see so much complexity in this subject that one post cannot possibly account for it all. I think there is a LOT here to explore too.
I am particularly appreciative of your inclusion of Wilberforce in this discussion. I have familiarity with him on other fronts, but not this one. (I saw the movie and read a few articles, but I don’t recall any of the “cultural church” subject matter coming up for review in it.)
I am aware that there is not just one monolithic “cultural church” either. I am thinking of either the same phenom by another name OR a very similar phenom (by another name, alright, but…) which very nearly approximates your analysis at a lot of points. In particular, I am talking about “civil religion” – a term I have found particularly used by Richard Hughes (though I don’t think he coined it). But civil religion is a blending of church and state which puts state in the driver seat with a particularly patriotic style of pomp and circumstance featuring swells of emotion and symbolism hijacked by the state and devoted to the state but borrowing from the clout of divinity. Such as slogans like “God bless America” or hand-on-heart, tear-in-the-eye salute to a flag with special music and fireworks accompanied by religious trappings. (And more)
No doubt the Emperor Constantine proved a pivotal character in exactly THIS issue as far as the church and Rome are concerned. In fact it is easy to trace this/these problem(s) to exactly this point in history since previous to it, so much of the relationship between Rome and the church was flat out persecution. Christians were hunted, tortured, and killed by the state at some points previous to Constantine, and thus there was a certain kind of purity seemingly built-in to church membership. And of course immediately upon Constantine’s endorsement, there were all manner of ulterior motives for church membership – including advancement within the state!
However, it is naïve to think Constantine is the sum total or the beginning of this problem. No doubt his involvement was pivotal at some important levels, but there were issues already at work which were converging when Constantine came along.
For one thing, Civil Religion WAS Rome’s thing! Rome practically invented it long before Constantine came along, and found it expedient among the pagans. The pagan religions were being hijacked by Rome long before Rome turned its sights on the church, and in fact, during the days of Jesus’s “earthly ministry” and Paul, the imperial cult was the fastest growing religion in the world. And this religion tolerated, even promoted, other pagan divinities and coopted them along the way as it then deified the emperor too. Thus the emperor was called a “son of god” and they provided temples where people could burn incense or sacrifices, throw banquets, hold parades and orgies and other celebrations in honor of the emperor.
On the other hand, we hear even St. Paul in discourse with “opponents” who appear to be within the church. There are false teachers and people opposed to the cross of Christ. (It seems, in my view, that at the core of all these subsequent heresies is either a rejection or marginalization of the cross of Christ. Suffering in this world is part of the calling, and the cross is crucial and central to any suffering which is not in vain. But those who oppose it or marginalize it often seek to secure favor with the state and/or larger culture and the powers and principalities and demons so as to sidestep suffering and embrace peace and security on OTHER terms.) Yet somehow even though these opponents cause Paul pain, he is still glad they preach the name of Jesus! Hmmm… That puts a kink in things… Gotta do some serious thinking on that.
At any rate, these are a few of the complexities I think need to be explored carefully. There are more still, but this is just a comment, not a series of posts. I merely ask they be acknowledged at this point. But all of THAT is secondary to the unmasking you have already done a very find job of with this post.
I am very much gravitated to your post, alright. You are singing a verse from the same song as me. I hear you! I sing with you. And I bookmark here so much more too.
Thanx for this…
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I don’t know if you follow this site or if you are interested, actually, but I find this post to be very good, insightful, and worthy of rich discussion and exploration. I also think it is better suited, in general, to your blog than mine (or I might reblog it). But whatever… I don’t want you to miss it on account of me not pointing it out.
Let me invite you to John Ellis’s blog post on sex and marriage. You and any of your readers.
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Thanks, I’ll check it out.