Christ, Church, and Culture

The following article by Michael Horton is posted at the Nine Marks Ministry site (I provide a link to Nine Marks on this blog). Dr. Horton is, I believe, one of the most thoughtful and challenging theolgians of his generation. I know this article is a bit lengthy but I think there is relevance for the people of Metro East as we have, over the last nine weeks, been studying what it means to be a church that is driven by the Gospel.

Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex

By Michael Horton

Evangelicals have been talking lately about transforming the culture, doing kingdom work in all of life, and incarnating the church in the world. Sound good? The trouble is, these movements can conceive of the church as a substitute for Christ, shifting the focus of Christians from his promised return to your best life now.


To understand this, it’s helpful to consider how the evangelical church has related to the wider culture over the last couple of centuries. We are often told that evangelicalism was a sleeping giant—aloof and passive toward social, political, economic, and wider cultural concerns. As the story goes, the separatist giant was awakened from its dogmatic slumbers by Francis Schaeffer and the Moral Majority, unleashing the enormous energy of conservative Protestants, with the result that, at least since the 1980s, evangelicals can make or break political campaigns.
However, this picture isn't quite accurate. The evangelical revival in Britain, led by both Calvinists like George Whitefield and John Newton as well as Arminians like John and Charles Wesley, contributed significantly to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the empire. Historians often credit this movement, known in its American theater as the Great Awakening, with galvanizing the colonies into a republic. It is impossible to tell the story of American independence, abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor legislation, and prohibition without mentioning the impact of revivalism.

Moral Reform
In fact, by the nineteenth century, the leading evangelist Charles Finney was actually defining the church as "a society of moral reformers." Taking advantage of every opportunity to attack Calvinism, Finney's theology was not even Arminian, but Pelagian: he explicitly denied original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification; and he considered the new birth to be a self-generated conversion from sinful behavior to upright living. His sermon with the title "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts," which he preached at Park Street Church in Boston, summarizes the Second Great Awakening and much American revivalism ever since.
True to their pragmatic and self-confident instincts, American Protestants did not want to define the church first and foremost as a community of forgiven sinners, recipients of grace, but as a triumphant army of moral activists. Even if one does not explicitly endorse Finney's Pelagianism, the undercurrent of assumptions and practices that evolved from his Pelagianistic social activism are powerful and pervasive. In the nineteenth century, most Protestants were optimistic about wider cultural change. Temperance societies emerged as one of many movements organized around the vision of a Christianized America.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, fellow evangelicals Josiah Strong and D. L. Moody would represent the growing cleavage between the triumphalistic postmillenialists and the pessimistic premillennialists. "The kingdoms of this world will not have become the kingdoms or our Lord," Strong opined, "until the money power has been Christianized." Long before the conservative-liberal polarizations, American evangelicalism had championed the so-called "social gospel," as one notices in the following comment from Horace Bushnell:

Talent has been Christianized already on a large scale. The political power of states and kingdoms has been long assumed to be, and now at last really is, as far as it becomes their accepted office to maintain personal security and liberty. Architecture, arts, constitutions, schools, and learning have been largely Christianized. But the money power, which is one of the most operative and grandest of all, is only beginning to be; though with promising tokens of a finally complete reduction to Christ and the uses of His Kingdom….That day, when it comes, is the morning, so to speak, of the new creation. Is it not time for that day to dawn?

But evangelist D. L. Moody marched to the beat of a different drummer. Although he was initially representative of Charles Finney’s social activism, Moody became increasingly pessimistic about the extent to which earthly empires could become the kingdom of God. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," he would later write. "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’" Whereas many people increasingly regarded revival as an instrument for Christianizing society through evangelism and social action, Moody saw it as a means of converting individuals. In Josiah Strong’s vision, however, an American version of the Holy Roman Empire began to proliferate with Protestant hospitals, colleges, women’s societies and men’s societies, all signs of God’s approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Everyone’s Hero
Finney has been hailed as an evangelical hero by Protestants as diverse as modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and fundamentalist Bob Jones, Sr., and, more recently, as the exemplar of left-wing political causes by Jim Wallis and right-wing causes by Jerry Falwell. It is perhaps no wonder that a bewildered visitor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could describe American religion as "Protestantism without the Reformation." As George Marsden has documented in various places, both the Christian Right and the Christian Left derive from this late nineteenth-century evangelicalism. It is this quite recent train of thought (or, more precisely, activism), rather than the profound reflection of Augustine and the reformers, that guides contemporary evangelical activism. Ironically, even staunch premillenialists like Jerry Falwell sound a good deal like the postmillenialists of yesteryear. The agenda for moral reform may have divided in liberal and conservative directions, but both owe their origin to the revivalism of Charles Finney.

So when a conservative Southern Baptist like Rick Warren embraces "new measures" in church growth by advocating a vision of the church as an army of reformers who can end the plagues of disease, war, and poverty as well as promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and alcoholism, he stands in a long line leading from Finney to Strong to Sunday to Graham. "Deeds, not Creeds!" used to be the mantra of the social gospel of mainline churches, but Warren has revived it today as if it were newly minted. After a brief dispensationalist interlude, American evangelicals returned to their more positive and triumphant (postmillennial) message of transforming American culture into "a shining city upon a hill."

Of course, this cursory overview does not answer the normative question about what the church should be doing in relation to the wider culture, but it does provide a context that helps us understand perennial assumptions often taken for granted at least in American churches. Ironically, in the land that prizes the legal separation of church and state, the identification of church and sub-culture, each with its political agenda, is nearly total: white suburban evangelicals, the Black church, mainline social gospels, and the more recent "new urbanism" of the emergent movement. Yet in spite of their different agendas, each of these ecclesiastical demographics is largely dependent on the heritage of American revivalism.

So far we’ve considered the historical context of the question, "What should the church's role be in the wider culture?" Now to the biblical and theological context.


Many writers today are calling for a greater emphasis on the resurrection. What’s overlooked, ironically, is the importance of Christ’s ascension.

Christ’s Ascension
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus generate a remarkable paradox. Right at the place where the Suffering Servant has been exalted as conquering Lord, the first fruit of a new creation, and the head of a body, he disappears. Then, precisely in that place that is vacated by the one who has ascended, a church emerges.

The most direct ascension account comes from Luke (Luke 24:13-27; 24:50-53). Acts 1 reprises this episode in its opening verses (Ac 1:6-11). Thus the ascension (and parousia) became part of the gospel itself. Not only was Jesus crucified and raised according to the prophets, but the Messiah will be sent again. Jesus, says Peter, "must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets" (Ac 3:20-21, emphasis added).

As they were taught by Jesus in the Olivet and Upper Room discourses and on the road to Emmaus (Matt. 24-25; John 14-16; Luke 24:13ff), the apostolic preaching in Acts follows the familiar pattern of descent-ascent-return, justifying the confession in the eucharistic liturgy, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Jesus’ departure is as real and decisive as his incarnation, and he "will come [again] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Ac 1:11)—that is, in the flesh. In the meantime, he is absent in the flesh.

Under-realized Ascension, Over-realized Eschatalogy
One problem in the history of interpretation, however, has been to treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than as a new event in its own right. The ascension of Jesus in the flesh opens up an interim within history that keeps us looking forward to the return of the same Jesus. Nothing can replace Jesus in the flesh.[1]
As the first fruits of the new creation, Jesus in his ascension does not abandon history but redefines all that has preceded it as the old age of sin and death, subjecting it to judgment.[2] The history of human misery and pomp, autonomy and strife, which can only yield the fruit of condemnation, is now passing away. It’s becoming obsolete. Even now the "age to come" is reconfiguring reality around its glorified head. The time that the church thus occupies because of the ascension is defined neither by full presence nor full absence, but by a eucharistic tension between "this age" and "the age to come." The church is lodged in that precarious place of ambiguity and tension between these two ages, and it must live there until Jesus returns, relying only on the Word and Spirit.

Yet the church does not like to stay put. It wants to jump the gun and realize the kingdom of glory when, for now, God has determined for it to be a kingdom of grace.[3] Looking away from the absence of Jesus of Nazareth, the church, as the body of Christ, can easily come to see itself as his visible and earthly replacement. As Douglas Farrow notes, "When the earthly church is seen as a mirror of heavenly triumph, when its success on the horizontal axis is thought to display the dizzying heights to which its Lord ascends, it is difficult to set limits to the glory which should accrue to it." Augustine spoke of a totus Christus, the whole Christ consisting of its head and its members.[4] In other words, that which is human about Jesus—visibility, temporality, fleshiness—is now transferred to the church as a historical body. Jesus proclaimed himself as Jacob’s ladder (Jn 1:50-51), but in his bodily absence the church offers itself for that mediation. The history of Jesus in the flesh is at least implicitly replaced by the history of the church as the kingdom of God. The deity of Christ remains transcendent, but his incarnate existence is "fleshed out" by and as the church.

In this context, it is not surprising that the kingdom of God was identified directly with the church—a kind of "over-realized" amillennialism that was no longer palpably aware of the church's location in the already/not yet tension of God's plan in history. The kingdoms of this world are gradually becoming the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

Church As Christ’s Regent
This transition to what we might call anachronistically a "postmillennial" optimism was more plausible with the conversion of Constantine since Christianity was given imperial status. Constantine's admiring assistant and biographer Eusebius announced that Christ had, as it were, handed over earth's title deed to his servant, Constantine, who advances Christ's reign "through the ordinary usages of war." Eventually, the bishop of Rome would vie for the keys to the kingdoms of this world.

For Thomas Aquinas, Christ's physical presence was under the control of the church, which could summon him with the ringing of a bell in the mass. The miracle of transubstantiation "placed Christ fully in the church’s possession," notes Farrow. "Indeed, it meant that the church now controlled the parousia. At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens…Seated comfortably with the Christ-child on its lap, the church soon became his regent rather than his servant."[5]

Incarnation Or Substitution
Why this excursus on the ascension? Because there is so much dangerous talk these days about the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, the active agent of redemption, who completes the work that Christ came to accomplish. In short, the church is substituted for Christ.[6] Both Protestant and Roman Catholic followers of German idealism have made this move, and the trail leads all the way to Pope Benedict XVI, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, and the circle of brilliant writers known as Radical Orthodoxy.[7]

Graham Ward, a representative of Radical Orthodoxy, has recently written,
"We have no access to the body of the gendered Jew…It is pointless because the Church is now the body of Christ, so to understand the body of Jesus we can only examine what the Church is and what it has to say concerning the nature of that body as scripture attests it...As Gregory of Nyssa points out, in his thirteenth sermon on Song of Songs, ‘he who sees the Church looks directly at Christ.’"

I realize that most evangelicals bristle at such grandiose claims for the institutional church, much less the pope, but do we not regularly encounter the claim that Christians are called to save Western civilization, transform the culture, and build the kingdom of God as the extension of Christ's redeeming mission in the world?

According to the late Archibishop of Canterbury, William Temple, "The church should recognize in itself the earthly body of the ascended Lord; and not only in itself, but also in the world, it should recognize the work of the Spirit drawing all things to God." The question of Christ's bodily whereabouts is no longer important, because the church is alive and well, picking up where he left off.[8]

In fact, "incarnational" is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness.[9] Christ’s person and work easily becomes a "model" or "vision" for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness.[10] We increasingly hear about "incarnational ministry," as if Christ's unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in "high church" or "low church" terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. In its train, the sacramental cosmos returns. As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.

It is this recurring temptation to look away from Christ’s absence—toward a false presence, often substituting itself as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and reconciling work—that distracts it from directing the world’s attention to Christ’s parousia in the future. Yet a church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ; instead, it’s tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely.

The parallel with Moses is striking:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Ex 32:1).

Of course, the church has seen and heard a lot since then, including confirmation upon confirmation of God's saving promise. Yet we must wait for the restoration at the end of the age. We hope and act in the present not in order to save the world or build the kingdom of God, but because "we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb 12:28).

If this theological argument is correct, then we should question popular statements like, "All of life is kingdom work." No, proclaiming the Word, administering baptism and the Supper, caring for the spiritual and physical well-being of the saints, and bringing in the lost are kingdom work. Building bridges, delivering medical supplies to hospitals, installing water heaters, defending clients in court, holding public office, and having friends over for dinner are "creation work," given a pledge of safe conduct ever since Cain under God's regime of common grace. In this work, Christians serve beside non-Christians, as both are endowed with natural gifts and learned skills for their common life together.

Only when Christ returns in glory will the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Until then, the New Testament does not offer a single exhortation to Christianize politics, the arts and sciences, education, or any other common grace field of endeavor.

Of course, Christians will bring their worldview and values to their secular callings. Instead of simply working for the weekend out of pure self-interest, believers should choose and fulfill their vocation as a way of best loving and serving their neighbor. What the church does for those who are of the household of faith is different from what individual Christians do as neighbors in the world.

Where we might hope for triumphant calls to "redeem culture," the New Testament epistles offer comparatively boring yet crucial exhortations to respect and pray for those in authority, to treat employers and employees well, and to be faithful parents and children. We are called "to increase more and more" in godliness through the ordinary means of grace in the church. And in our secular vocations we are called to "aspire to lead a quite life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside and that you may lack nothing" (1 Thes 4:10-12).

Again, if this theological argument is correct, we should ask whether there should be Christian hospitals, Christian businesses, or Christian entertainment industries. Haven't such enterprises, which often do no more than mimic their secular counterparts, distracted the church from its primary focus and ministry? What if churches were more seriously Christian, concentrating on Christ as he is delivered to sinners through Word and Sacrament, and their members were scattered throughout the week to occupy posts alongside their non-Christian neighbors instead of being driven into an ostensibly Christian sub-culture? What if, instead of trying to discipline a pagan culture, we restored the evangelical practice of church discipline in our own churches (a point made better by Paul in 1 Cor 5:9-12)?

Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work. Yet in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished slavery, but Christians in public office who had been formed by the church's ministry. When William Wilberforce came to John Newton for advice on whether he should enter the ministry, Newton encouraged his friend to pursue politics instead. It was as a member of parliament that Wilberforce loved and served his neighbor, benefiting from the ordinary means of grace that Newton ministered to him. The church preaches God's transcendent law and gospel, and her children pursue their cultural mandate in their secular vocations. One wonders what might have happened if, instead of dividing over national policy, Protestant churches in the antebellum American North and South practiced church discipline against slave-holders. After all, according to numerous accounts, South African apartheid in our own time came crashing down when the Dutch Reformed Church confessed that its religious justification of the system was "heresy." Disciplined by its sister Reformed churches around the world, the church did what only the church could do, and the result was that the system lost its moral legitimacy.

I realize that this argument only scratches the surface. It is too broad to offer an adequate answer to important questions about whether and to what extent mercy ministries should be extended to those outside of the household of faith. However, I hope to have offered some more general thoughts to help frame such a discussion.

The ascension highlights Christ's bodily absence, while Pentecost highlights his presence in saving action by his Spirit, working through the Word. Even now, the powers of the age to come are breaking in on this present evil age, yet we remain pilgrims, not emperors or architects of a new world order.

In imitation of our Father, who in this era of common grace sends rain upon the just and the unjust alike, we are called to fulfill our secular vocations as a loving service to our neighbors. As citizens of the City of God, we are called to grow up into maturity together in the body of Christ and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. Only at Christ's appearing will these two callings—the creation mandate and the Great Commission—become identical.

The law can guide us in godly living, but it can never—even after we’re justified—give us any life. "Deeds, not creeds!" means "Law, not Gospel!" By going beyond God's law, this moral agenda imposes on Christ's sheep burdens that he has not commanded to be borne, agendas that do not have his authorization; and it dulls that patient and hopeful cry engendered by the Spirit in our hearts, "Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!"

At the same time, by placing an emphasis on unwarranted "kingdom movements," Christians are distracted from the concrete vocations God has given us in the world simply to love and serve our neighbor with patience, respect, and excellence.

Just as we cannot derive any life from the law, we cannot derive any confidence in our cultural triumphs in so many fields. As with law-and-gospel, our earthly and heavenly citizenship are not opposed unless we are seeking a way of salvation for ourselves or our nation. But once we recognize that there is no everlasting rest from violence, oppression, injustice and immorality through our own political or cultural works, we are free to pursue their amelioration with vigorous gratitude to God for his saving grace in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, we pursue this cultural task looking back to the creation which God blessed and looking forward to this same creation that will be restored when the kingdoms of this world will finally be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ forever, world without end. Amen.

Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, and a host of the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio/internet broadcast. His latest book is Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (WJK, 2007).


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