As time marches through the 21st century, James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminds Christians on how they are to live their lives, no matter the time:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
—James 1:27, ESV
Although it seems like a simple question, it needs to be asked: what does this look like? In light of the issues that Christians are now facing in society and trying to navigate when it comes to societal interaction, the topic of cultural engagement should be revisited. In order to effectively engage culture and effect change for the kingdom of God, Christians must know how to balance doctrinal commitments and social concern.
Examples on Display
In the news recently, Hillview United Methodist Church in Idaho, led by Reverend Brenda Sene affirmed that her congregation was “a Reconciling Congregation, welcoming all persons into full participation in the life of the congregation regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity, family configuration, racial or ethnic background, economic status, or mental or physical ability.”
On the flip side, Westboro Baptist Church trekked to San Diego to protest in front of two of the high schools due to their stances on “homosexuals, Jewish and Muslim people, and atheists” (Pearlman).
Finally, one of the main Protestant leaders in China voiced support of the government to “[reduce] Western influence on religion and [make religion] ‘more Chinese’” (Schottelkorb and Pittman). In light of these recent news events and how Christians interact with culture, the question must be asked: how in the world are Christians going to engage culture?
Now, Christians did not one day decide to place themselves in their current predicament. Therefore, one must consider the historical data of cultural engagement in the United States and what each side believes about God and how they interact with society.
First, the ground work will be laid for understanding fundamentalists and liberals.
Second, the following question will be answered: how do fundamentalists and liberals emphasize the gospel?
Third, the next question will be answered: how do fundamentalists and liberals interact with society?
Finally, after the groundwork that impacts this conversation has been laid, a path will be charted that will navigate the fundamentalist and liberal cultural engagement that currently exists.
The fundamentalists, those who “insisted on fidelity … to the doctrinal commitments that had historical defined Christian orthodoxy, and to Christianity’s basic character as a religion based on historical events” (Forester 50), have their own view of cultural engagement. There are several considerations of the fundamentalist stance of culture engagement (both positive and negative) that must be considered.
For the fundamentalists, their commitment was to the Word of God and its power to save. Therefore, to focus on anything else “will distract us from our real job: Maximizing the number of people who convert” (Forester 37). Essentially, “they sought to influence society by ‘focusing on evangelism’ and making more converts” (Forester 55).
While fundamentalists were not entirely reactionary people, “they correctly foresaw that the breakdown of consensus on church teaching would ultimately undermine public morality far beyond the specifically theological subjects of the controversy” (Forester 51). They took this queue from “the liberalism of American Protestant leaders … that when churches act as cultural leaders, they compromise on sound doctrine in order to maintain respectability” (Forester 54).
However, this type of cultural engagement did not work as “evangelicals invested in strategies that created short-term positive impacts but depleted their cultural capital—sacrificing their standing in the American social order—over the long term.” (Forester 52)
The liberals, those who “wanted to make most of Christianity’s historic doctrinal commitments … optional” (Forester 50) have their own view of cultural engagement. There are several considerations of the liberal stance of cultural engagement (both positive and negative) that must be considered.
Forester claims that “the overarching aim of the [liberals] was to detach Christianity from claims about supernatural historical events, reinventing it as a collection of timeless ethical/philosophical teachings and edifying cultural rituals” (50). Essentially, their “strategy was to ensure Christianity’s survival by withdrawing from all questions concerning historical facts” (Forester 50). In essence, for Christians to be culturally relevant, they had to deemphasize – or abandon – their commitment certain doctrines that were looked down upon by society.
On the surface, their motivation was pure. However, in trying to remain culturally relevant and supporting worth-while causes, Christianity was being damaged. Forester, in retrospect, recognizes that “where churches seek cultural impact only by signing on to support the latest fashionable cause, Christianity is reduced to a marketing agency for secular do-gooder movements” (60). Rather than these movements appreciating support from a diverse group of people, they began to view Christianity in flux.
In short, Christianity only supported a social cause as long as it kept them relevant, never supporting a cause for what it truly meant.
This is the first post of four that defines and explores the relationship between fundamentalism and liberalism. This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Michael Freeman in Christian Perspectives: Sin & Culture at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School. It has been modified from its original version. This paper also appears in The Front Porch magazine, published by The Row House in an abridged version.
- Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
- Pearlman, Karen. Westboro Baptist Church members plan protests at East County high schools. 16 March 2019. 22 March 2019. <https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/east-county/sd-se-westborobaptistchurch-elcajon-springvalley-20190313-story,amp.html>.
- Schottelkorb, Kerry and JoAnn Pittman. China Tells Christianity To Be More Chinese. 20 March 2019. 22 March 2019. <https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/march/sinicization-china-wants-christianity-churches-more-chinese.html>.