I don’t think you can tell it from reading on the internet, but among many younger leaders with Reformed and evangelical convictions there may be a slow convergence coming on the subject of the mission of the church and the relationship of Christ and culture.
On the surface, the Reformed and evangelical world seems divided between “Cultural Transformationists” and the “Two Kingdoms” views. Transformationists fall into fairly different camps, including the neo-Calvinists who follow Abraham Kuyper, the Christian Right, and the theonomists. Though different in significant ways, they all believe Christians should be about redeeming and changing the culture along Christian lines. On the other hand, the Two Kingdoms view believes essentially the opposite—that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society. Again, there are very different camps within this stance. The Reformed and Lutheran proponents of the “2K” view believe that Christians do their work in the world alongside nonbelievers on the basis of commonly held moral standards “written on the heart” by natural revelation. Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a “distinctively Christian” way. The Neo-Anabaptists are much more pessimistic than Reformed 2Ks about the systems of the world, which they view as “Empire,” based on violence and greed. However, both groups reject completely the idea that “kingdom work” means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.
Critiquing Both Sides
However, over the last two or three years, several publications have been produced that critique both the Two Kingdoms and Transformationist views. And these books and articles are pointing in a similar direction and are being carefully read and discussed by a wide number of younger leaders. I’m thinking of Don Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, James Hunter’s To Change the World, Dan Strange’s articles (the latest being “Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology” in Themelios, vol 36 issue 2) and Miroslav Volf’s Public Faith. All these works consider the two positions, as they are commonly held today, to be seriously unbalanced.
Transformationism is seen as too triumphalistic, coercive, naïve about sin, and often self-righteous. It does not sufficiently appreciate God’s common grace given to all people. It may not prepare Christians well to make common cause with non-believers for the common good, or to appreciate the goodness of all work, even the most “menial” kind. It is criticized for putting too much emphasis on the intellect—on thinking out your philosophical worldview—and not enough on the piety of the heart and the reordering of our loves. It is critiqued for putting too much hope in and emphasis on Christians taking political power and not enough on their being a faithful presence in the professions and other existing cultural institutions.
The Two Kingdoms approach is seen as too pessimistic about the possibility of social change. Paradoxically, many holding this position are also too naïve and optimistic about the role of common grace in the world. They argue that Christians can work beside non-believers on the basis of common moral intuitions given to all by natural revelation. But Dan Strange in Themelios writes that this idea of common standards does not work well in cultures that have never known Christian influence, and, therefore, “What is often taken as evidence of general revelation . . . in our Western culture may actually be rather the historical influence of special revelation, biblical law, and the gospel.” In short, the Two Kingdoms approach gives too little weight to the fact that every culture is filled with idols, that sin distorts everything, that there can be no final neutrality, and that we need Scripture and the gospel, not just natural revelation, to guide us in our work in the world.
Avoiding the Mistakes
The aforementioned writers call Christians to new balances that honor the insights of both views and avoid the mistakes. One of the balances is between the church and Christians living in society. While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do. Another balance has to do with society’s cultural institutions. Rather than taking them over, or avoiding them as a corrupting influence, or treating them with indifference—Christians are to be a faithful presence within them.
As I said, if you look at the internet you get the strong impression that the Reformed and evangelical world is divided over this issue. I’m sure that is true to some degree, but I’m not sure how sharp the division really is. Many already stand in a middle space between the two, and the authors who have argued for the middle way are being read widely and carefully by the younger Christian leaders I meet. And even though the authors I’ve named do not have identical positions—some are more friendly to one end of the spectrum or the other—my informal analysis of the situation is that these books are slowly bringing churches toward one another not only in their theorizing on this subject, but also in their practice. We’ll look at the practical aspects in an upcoming article.