What is the relationship between Christianity and society? Between the Church and the world? Or to put it differently: how does the gospel impact and inform culture?
There are three views that one could take when it comes to the relationship between gospel and culture:
(1) The Isolation View: Gospel and culture are distinct, non-overlapping categories of life and the world, operating in isolation. The gospel guides the Christian as she delicately and deliberates navigates this world’s terrain; and it guards the Christian from traversing on unwelcomed territory. The culture is inherently evil, whereas the gospel is good news. The eternal truths of the gospel must be safeguarded, generation after generation, from the clutches of culture, for the sake of the Church’s purity and God’s glory.
(2) The Accommodation View: The gospel is always embedded in culture: they are inseparable and indistinguishable. Accordingly, it is the Christian’s duty to accommodate the gospel to the ethos of culture in order to “become all things to all people.” So, if in a theologically liberal culture the bodily resurrection of Christ is disbelieved, we creatively cater to the culture and speak of a metaphorical resurrection. Because gospel and culture are inseparable, Christians must be “wise as serpents,” and speak a compelling narrative within their cultural context.
(3) The Transformation View: The gospel transforms culture. Christians recognize that the gospel and culture are inseparable, but not indistinguishable. The gospel is not detached from culture; but neither is it defined by it. The gospel consists in eternal truths; but these truths are apprehended within and applied to various cultural contexts. The call of the Christian is to live faithfully to the Christ of the gospel, seeking to serve through its transformative power a culture-inhabiting world.
There is truth to be found in (1) and (2). Regarding (1): The gospel does acts as a guide in our journeying through this world; of course, it’s good news; and certainly we are called to safeguard the gospel and the Christian tradition (Ju. 3). But, the gospel is meant to impact the culture, not to operate in isolation from it. The gospel – which is the good news of the Kingdom of God – is meant to leaven its environment – culture (Mt. 13.33). Regarding (2): Yes, the gospel is embedded in culture. CQ: What is “the” gospel as abstracted from culture? Yes, there are timeless, literally eternal, truths in which the gospel consists; but think of the core of the gospel message – e.g., the cross’ being a Roman instrument of death: the gospel is embedded in culture both in its presentation and its continual expression. However, the gospel should not be accommodated, i.e., distorted, watered down, etc.; rather, Paul in 1 Co. 9 is talking about how he has become “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel – not that the gospel has become all things to all people.
Quite briefly, perhaps the following is a helpful way of understanding these various views. Typically, theological conservatives would say: “If you can’t beat ‘em, leave ‘em.” Theological liberals tend to say: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The Transformation View would say: “Beat ‘em.”