14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Mt. 5:14-16, ESV)

How does the Bible describe the relationship between the Church and the World, individual Christians and their cultures? In Tim Keller’s Center Church, he summarizing the pioneering work of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in four different ways Christians have historically understood the relationship between the Church and the World. of these four, three are rooted in the Bible and useful for thinking about our relationship to unbelievers. Christians are “to be a contrast community and a sign of the future kingdom” (e.g., Matt. 5:14-16, Phil. 2:15). However, in doing so they are not to neglectthe importance of doing [secular] work in a way marked by an excellence that all can see” (e.g, Eph. 5:5-8, Col. 3:17, 1 Pet. 2:18-21). And, though Christians are not called to create an earthly kingdom, they are obligated to “[think and live] in all areas of life in a distinctively Christian manner” (e.g., Col. 3:17) . However, though Christians are called to do good to their unbelieving neighbours (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:15), they are never called to do “sacrificial service for the common good” (Tim Keller, Center Church, 235). We are called to sacrificial service before God for the spreading of His kingdom (we are not to seek the common good as man defines it but the common good as God defines it).

We see these truths confirmed by the way Jesus transforms God’s commission for humanity in Genesis 1:28 (sometimes called the cultural mandate). Christians are not called to continue the mandate of subduing and having dominion over the earth in the sense Genesis 1:28 intended. Instead, their mandate is to spread the kingdom of God, baptizing and teaching the nations Christ’s commandments (Matt. 28:18-20). Christians are to devote everything to the treasure they have discovered in the kingdom (Matt. 6:19-24, 33; 13:44-45; Mark 8:34-35). Christians primary goal, therefore, is to further the kingdom through their participation in the great commission. They are to use their God given gifts to further God’s purpose in the local church. Though Christians are to do everything they do in a uniquely Christian manner, they are not to try and convert culture—create an earthly kingdom that corresponds to their heavenly one.

In their commitment to the cause of Christ, Christians are to live as if in times of war, arming themselves with the Word, Spirit wrought character, and prayer; using the time given them to fulfill God’s will; and being ever vigilant in waiting for Christ’s coming. They are to offer their lives as living sacrifices in the service of God. As exiles in this world, adopted into God’s family, they are to identify foremost as citizens of Christ’s kingdom and members of God’s household (Eph. 4:19-22): Christians are to make their relationship to Christ and His Church their ultimate priority, their ultimate allegiance, so that they may be an effective witness in the world for His name. Thus, the way the Epistles envision the fulfilling of great commission is almost counter-intuitive: Christians are to prioritize their own community in order to be an effect witness to those outside. Christians are to be radically internalized, focused on the Church, so that they might be an effective witness to those outside. Christians, through their radical commitment to Christ and His Kingdom, to His bride and God’s family, are to draw a distinct line between themselves and unbelievers, without ever abandoning the world or withdrawing from it (John 17:15; 1 Cor. 5:10). Their community is to be so remarkably different that being excommunicated can function as a profound wake-up call for sinners (1 Cor. 5:3-5, 1 Tim. 1:20). They are to be radically distinct for the sake of those with whom they differ. Like a city set on a hill—or, to give a modern example, a lighthouse on the edge of the sea—they are to be faithful in building up the body of Christ so that together God’s people shine as a beacon of hope and truth amidst a culture mired in darkness.

See also, Biblical Themes that Define Us 

(adapted from the paper, “Appendix 2 – Christ and Culture“)

“Darkness imprisoning Crete” flickr photo by Nelo Hotsuma https://flickr.com/photos/63122283@N06/37406619220 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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