Is there a clear line of demarcation between Christianity and the secular culture?
I ask this question because it is, at least for those who care about the Christian tradition, of vital importance. Indeed, it is a matter related to the identity of Christianity: In a world in which the line which separates Christianity from the secular culture is blurred and unidentifiable, how is it possible to distinguish between the two? To maintain its identity, how is Christianity entitled to say “no” to things of the secular culture which have either nothing to do with Christianity or which challenge its identity in a compromising way?
Two things have brought Christianity in this confusing situation. First, for the sake of inclusivity and unity, almost everything in society has been “Christianized.” The second is the deliberate inability of Christians to agree on how to interpret certain biblical texts regarding the relationship between Christianity and culture. This deliberate attitude is mainly due to preconceived positions and opinions related to tradition and interests.
Regarding the initial question of this article, the answer is yes, there should be a clear difference between Christianity and culture, and no, there is nothing which distinguishes Christianity from culture.
Practically, the answer is no, there is (almost) nothing that differentiates Christianity from the secular culture today. True, there always has been an interest — and, indeed, an active one — in historical Christianity to answer this question in a clear and practical way. Also, the current situation is the result of a long process that has developed gradually, not an overnight event. There were, in my view, two traditions in historical Christianity which have dealt with this question: prophecy and order. While the prophetic tradition sought change, a return to early Christianity, the tradition of order sought to preserve the status quo.
In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In light of these verses, we could ask ourselves what it means to write, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Paul also writes to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Also, in Romans 5:13-25, Paul lists the world of the flesh and the works of the Spirit: “Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
Thus, should Christians dance, for example? Should Christians work in morally questionable jobs? Should Christians drink alcohol? Should Christians be involved in illegitimate sexual affairs? Should Christians speak irreverently of others? Should Christians be, in speech and/or action, a stumbling block to others? Is our consumption of “culture” — movies, shows and other forms of entertainment — something that is not affecting our understanding regarding the relationship between Christianity and culture? Should Christians be involved in questionable or corrupt social and political regimes and systems? Should Christians support questionable and/or corrupt social and political regimes? In short, should Christians be involved in dubious and morally questionable and compromising affairs?
The answer to these questions is not black and white. For example, there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol as long as it does not affect negatively the person who drinks it or those around that person. Also, there is probably nothing wrong with working in a pub or government as long as we are not compromising the faith. According to the above-mentioned biblical text, and other biblical texts, Christians should avoid any compromise and act according to the will of God.
Is there anything which differentiates Christianity from culture? Of course, there are people and groups which strive to dissociate from anything which is questionable, but in contemporary America the difference between Christianity and culture is hardly distinguishable. I grew up in Romania, and 20 years ago, one could distinguish between a Protestant Christian (Baptist or Pentecostal) and an Orthodox Christian on a street or in a place of work. The difference was noticeable in speech, behavior and association. Richard Wurbmbrand, for example, who was well-known in the U.S., was imprisoned for his opposition to the Communist system, some lost their jobs for the faith, and others were bullied for the faith.
Things have changed in Romania since the “invasion” of Western ideas and freedom. In Romania, Protestantism represented the prophetic tradition, a minority who sought a spiritual change, while the Orthodox represented the tradition of order.
In America, it seems that the prophetic tradition is in a crisis. How does it differ from the tradition of order? Indeed, it seems that the only tradition in America is that of order, and if there is a prophetic tradition, it seems that it is not easily and clearly distinguishable from the tradition of order. How is the prophetic tradition different from the tradition of order? In other words, how is Christianity different from the secular culture? Or, how is Christianity not conforming to the secular culture?
On the other hand, and ideally, the answer is yes, there is a line that separates Christianity from the secular world, because there is an absolute antithesis between Christianity’s values and those of the secular world. According to the Bible, the objectives and standards of the world are not God’s objectives and standards, and if the Bible is Christians’ main source and authority, we should take its words seriously. The verses from Romans distinguish quite clearly between the world of the Spirit and the secular world. Ideally, according to several biblical passages — for example, Romans 12:1, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Mark 1:15 and John 13:34-35, to mention just a few — Christianity must change the secular culture according to its principles.
People changed by God cannot be changed by the secular culture; indeed, they must change it. If they do not, they certainly are not animated by God’s will and Spirit. Those who are animated by God’s Spirit are known by their fruits (Matthew 7:20).
Considering what I have said, is America a Christian nation? Are Christians making a real difference in culture and society? Are they different form the secular culture? The truth is that the much needed change in our society cannot take place without small changes taken by all those who want to change society according to God’s principle, which are the most humane principles and perfectly summarized in Matthew 7:12 and John 13:34-35.