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Christ, Lord of Culture

The Rev. Dcn. Joshua P. Steele is a Transitional Deacon serving at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL, as well as a Ph.D. student in Theology at Wheaton College. Dcn. Joshua also writes and edits at AnglicanPastor.com.

Jesus Christ is Lord. _____ is not.

My guess is that if you’re reading this, you likely agree with the truth of those first two sentences, no matter what or whom you put in the blank (the other two Persons of the Trinity notwithstanding).

Yet, tragically, many of us Christians today operate at the intersection of the Christian faith and the cultures of this world — the recognizable patterns of human belief and behavior around us — as if Jesus Christ were NOT really, meaningfully Lord.

Instead, we act as if someone or something else were the main actor on and director over the cultural stage of human history. This is, plain and simple, idolatrous.

Two Signs of Cultural Idolatry: Compromise and Fear

Often, we act as if the “powers that be” call the shots. So, we attempt to curry favor with these movers and shakers, pragmatically aligning our Christian communities with whatever earthly powers promise the church the most influence.

Compromise is the main sign of this form of cultural idolatry.

Other times, we act as though we ourselves are the lords of culture and history. So, we shout ourselves hoarse about how our culture(s) are going to hell in a handbasket. We wear ourselves ragged with worry that we’ve fallen so far from our former glory — the “good ol’ days” when “people like us” felt like we had things more under control. (It’s up for debate whether the “us” in the previous sentence is defined racially, nationalistically, or socio-economically, instead of theologically.)

Fear is the main sign of this form of cultural idolatry.

Yet, if this whole Christianity thing is worth its salt, the fact remains: Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord of all, including the cultures of this world.

What does this mean for us, Jesus’ followers, today?

First, recognizing that Jesus Christ is Lord of culture should prompt us Christians to resist cultural compromise.

The church is something very much like a culture in the midst of other cultures. However, it is not to be identified with any particular culture of this world. First-century Palestine was not “the” Christian culture, nor was 1950s White America. Instead, the culture of the church embraces, challenges, and transforms all cultures of this world.

In fact, the main way that the church’s “culture” distinguishes itself from the cultures of this world is that, without aligning herself too closely with or distinguishing herself too sharply against the cultures of this world, the church offers herself in self-sacrificial service to the cultures and people of the world. The church’s culture is distinct from the power-mongering cultures of the world to extent that it bears resemblance to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.

Second, recognizing that Jesus Christ is Lord of culture should prompt us Christians to resist fear as a motivating factor in our engagement with culture.

Brothers and sisters, the people of God have been radically at risk in this world for a long time. On our own, we do NOT have it all figured out. On our own, we have every right to freak out about how desperate our situation(s) may seem.

But guess what! Despite decades and centuries of Christians freaking out about cultural climates, we are still here. Why? Because we are not alone. We are not in control. (I appreciated that Bishop Todd Hunter made this a focus at this year’s Telos Collective Intersection Conference on the topic of culture.)

Jesus Christ is Lord of the cultures of this world.

May that fact motivate our self-sacrificial service to the world. May it preserve our distinction from the world. And may it calm the fears in our hearts. Amen.