Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is one of the most significant theological and missiological works of the 20th century, offering a categorisation of the ways Christians have related to culture throughout history.

Even though most Christian leaders have read Christ and Culture, it’s helpful to revisit the ideas every so often, especially now that the old ideas of mission and discipleship are being challenged. Niebuhr outlines five ways Christians have sought to live faithfully under the authority of Christ as they relate to the culture surrounding them.

1. Christ Against Culture

In the ‘Christ Against Culture’ model, all culture outside of the church is seen as corrupted beyond repair. Christians should avoid, reject and withdraw from culture – ‘come out from among them and be separate.’ Ideally, these Christians look to create a pure Christian culture apart from the culture of the world around them. This approach requires a radical conversion build around a ‘Centred Set’ of do’s and don’ts. John Calvin’s experiment in Geneva, modern Fundamentalists and groups like the Mennonites hold this position.

 2. Christ of Culture

In the ‘Christ of Culture’ model, culture is seen as inherently good and without any conflict with Christian truth. Jesus is seen as the embodiment of the greatest human ideas, as the ultimate hero of human culture, representing the very best of culture. Proponents of this view attempt to view Christian Truths equally to cultural truths. This approach can lead to a syncretistic form of discipleship because cultural values generally outweigh the values of Christianity. Niebuhr identifies classic liberal Protestantism as a holder of this view.

3. Christ Above Culture

In the ‘Christ Above Culture’ model, culture is seen as basically good. However, Christian revelation is required to best explain and perfect those cultural expressions. This approach can lead to a specific organisational approach to discipleship rather than a biblical approach. Niebuhr points to church fathers like Thomas Aquinas, with his belief in combining reason with revelation, as proponents of this view. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches tend to fall into this view. This model can lead to an institutionalisation of Christianity.

 4. Christ and Culture in Paradox

In the ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ model, there is a tension that is ever-present between Christians and their interaction with culture. Christians are forced to simultaneously live between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven by accepting some aspects of culture and rejecting others. This approach can cause problems for new disciples if they are not imprinted on Jesus very early in their development. Niebuhr points to Martin Luther as an example of this view. This model can lead to a more conservative engagement with culture.

 5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

In this final model, the Christian recognises the corruption of culture but is optimistic and hopeful about the possibility of cultural renewal and seeks to transform the values and objectives of culture to the service and glory of God. Christ came to redeem all of creation and, as Christians, we are to participate in this redemptive work now, while awaiting his coming Kingdom. This approach can cause problems because there is a temptation to try to change culture through political action instead of spiritual transformation. This view is traditionally held by Evangelical Christians.


The value of Niebuhr’s work is in drawing our attention firstly to the reality that Christians cannot divorce themselves from culture and secondly to the complexities that are involved as Christians attempt to respond to the “enduring problem” of how to be “in the world but not of the world.” It reminds us that there is no cultureless gospel, that the church is always culturally embedded, and that we cannot see our practice of faith as somehow above or outside of “culture.”

Careless and indifferent denunciation of “the world” and its ways remain much too common in Evangelical everyday speech, sermons and popular literature. Living in a pluralistic, multicultural, post-modern culture that celebrates diversity has made Christian leaders more acutely aware than ever of the need for discernment. The challenge is to find incarnational ways to live and articulate a vision of life that discerns how to be appropriately influential and transformational.

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