As disciplers of children and young adults, we need to talk about a trending topic in editorial columns: culture war. The war rhetoric keeps us in a constant state of urgency. As the adrenalin rises, we ask ourselves questions like: Do I need to engage the war? Do I need to prepare my kids for battle? For persecution? For argument? How do I make sure we win? What’s at stake if we don’t?
Our perspective on culture war has a profound impact on how we disciple others.
I would guess the phrase “culture war” has at least some significance for you. Hopefully, you trust me enough at this point not to click hurriedly away for some more pleasant topic. I assure you my desire is not to flood your tank with further argument. Rather, I want to acknowledge the 30-year-old theme and pursue a voice of wisdom and reason.
If you were born in the ’90s, you have lived in the constant shadow of “culture war.” With James Davison Hunter’s book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, and the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, the phrase began to pop up everywhere. In my opinion, Hunter’s use of the term was meant to be descriptive (observing something that is) in nature. As time went on and stakeholders and power brokers (people with vested interest in outcomes) increasingly leveraged the phrase, it became more prescriptive—requiring some kind of action, stoking a sense of anxiety or urgency.
News media, commentators, pastors, and politicians have, frankly, worn the term out. Unfortunately, overuse often results in a loss of meaning. Think of a dirty, threadbare dishrag that once brought clarity and cleanliness but now leaves dirty streaks on fine glassware: It no longer performs its intended function.
Consider the following examples: “We are involved in a culture war whether we like it or not;” “Discipleship requires that we engage the culture war;” “Culture warring seems to be the state of politics for the next several decades;” “It is irresponsible to claim that we are in any other state besides a culture war.” Do a quick Google search (it’s OK, I’ll be here when you get back) and you will see any number of opinion pieces and even academic work devoted to the subject.
It’s possible that the clash of ideas or the rallying cries in our current climate have caused confusion, stress, or even division in your personal relationships. I would suggest that our enemy delights in these outcomes. In his attempts to steal from the Lord’s glory, interpersonal division and strife foil our most effective tool for evangelism and discipleship: relationship.
So, let me pause and ask: How are you feeling? If you see red, feel tied in knots, or shrink back at the mere mention of “culture war,” maybe stop and take a few breaths—it’s what I’m doing, I assure you. Then, let’s find our thread of reason and a restoration of vision: the purpose of discipleship.
With that goal in mind, I want to start by defining terms. I echo past blog entries when I encourage this method for any volatile or difficult conversation you might have amongst your peers or with your kids. When we name, define, or give structure—exercise critical thinking and logic—we lay a foundation for productive conversation, helping avoid some, if not most, misunderstandings. That process pulls back the heightened emotions, “lowering the temperature of the room.” It allows us to reflect and respond instead of merely react.
First, I want to define culture. The following definition comes from Boston University’s website: “Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs, and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called ‘the way of life for an entire society.’ As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, art.” The writers of this site helpfully point out that “culture” comes from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning “to cultivate.”
Something of the original meaning of “culture” is nurturing in effect. In the biblical narrative, we observe the call to create culture even before humanity’s rebellion and creation succumbed to its effects. More on this later.
Let’s move on to the next layer.
“Culture war” as we are commonly using the phrase today (definition pulled from Wikipedia) is not only “a conflict between social groups” but also “a struggle for dominance of the particular values, beliefs, and practices of one group over the other within the important institutions of culture: the family, art, education, law, and politics.”
The one describes the inevitable friction which characterizes fallen humanity’s interaction with one another. The other communicates something akin to an ideological crusade. The former has a descriptive nature. The latter a prescriptive one—at least the way it has been applied since the mid ’90s.
Naturally, the culture war rhetoric has whipped many into emotional frenzy—even to the point of religious fanaticism and zeal. Though a “fight or flight” reaction seems appropriate, I would argue (and I have): It’s not the most helpful or healthful place to start. That impassioned posture leads to scary and hurtful outcomes. Both our hearts and our heads need to submit to something greater. Or rather, Someone.
So, what does the Father say in His word regarding war in general and culture war in particular?
A close read of scripture reveals neither prescriptive commands nor descriptive narratives in scripture regarding culture war in the latter sense above. Yes, there is war and conflict. Yes, that war occurs between cultures. But I struggle to find scriptural precedent from which we can justify “a struggle for dominance” in cultural institutions as those who claim Christ as King. Nor does it hang with a Biblical theology (a study of scripture in its entirety rather than selecting out-of-context “proof” texts).
In the Old Testament, we observe that Israel does not strive for either cultural or physical dominance within any society in which she was subjugated to another governing authority. It didn’t happen in Egypt. It didn’t happen in Babylon. It didn’t happen in Rome (and when the Zealots tried to fit Jesus into their political plans, He resisted them utterly).
The closest we get: the Lord’s punishment of Pharaoh and the Egyptians through His judging angel during the time of Moses, His vengeance on the Babylonians in Esther when His people had been threatened by Haman, King Darius’ response to Daniel’s steadfastness, even in the face of fire. The outcome, however, was never power falling into the hands of the faithful that they might dominate.
Instead, change within a culture or between competing cultures historically occurred when humble men acted as if God already ruled it all, and sought to act like faithful subjects of His kingdom within earthly, temporal kingdoms. The result? Even unbelieving rulers (like Darius) recognized the Lord’s dominion.
Moving into the New Testament, we read Jesus’ and the apostles’ instruction on what it means to be a part of His Kingdom. We read Jesus’ self-description as “gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29) along with what characterizes His kingdom and those who will inherit it in Matthew 5 (the Beatitudes). In the same passage Jesus names His disciples “salt and light” – agents of preservation and health. A culture must have such agents working within in it to move it from darkness and death and towards light and life.
New Testament writers explain that God has ordained and established earthly authorities to which we are to submit as unto Him (Mark 12:17 and Romans 13). 1 Peter 3:1-2 brings it closer to home and draws out our understanding of what submission looks like through a picture of Christian marriage (a reflection of Christ and the church): “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
He continues in verses 14-17: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” Our war is not against earthly beings, it’s against cosmic powers—“the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The weapons Paul commands us to use in the same chapter are just as spiritual: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the Spirit/word. These phrases stand out: “put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace… praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
What does this mean for discipleship?
As Christians we stand at odds with much of what we observe and even experience of culture. Navigating the complexities of faithful living in a pluralistic society is nothing short of challenging work. It requires wisdom, and wisdom comes only with time and experience. We must, therefore, train our children in truth and love and coach them to apply that learning: to help them develop wisdom and discernment in the time we are given with them.
Of primary importance: We must help our children discover their gifts and passions to use them within the world for its good and the Father’s glory. We must pray for, nurture, and expect to see fruit—the kind that nourishes others. Galatians 5 names the fruit James tells us we should expect: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Compare this to the works of the flesh: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” Sound familiar? Our efforts in the flesh cause enmity and strife. By contrast, the Spirit’s Fruit in us causes those around us to flourish.
These direct commands anchor us to our primary calling:
- The Cultural Mandate (or Creation Mandate) as iterated in Genesis 1:28: to be fruitful and multiply.
- The Discipleship Mandate: In Matthew 28:19-20 to make disciples among our children, our neighbors, our community…even to the ends of the Earth.
Do you sense the nurturing intention that humanity would express themselves in “sub-creation” (as coined by Tolkien), care-taking, and cultivating? We conclude: Our highest calling is not to conquer so that we might dictate or mandate certain cultural forms, but to disciple and evangelize: Create culture, grow fruit, gather worshipers.
The Lord placed us as believers within a specific time and space, even cultural era, for a specific purpose: to work in it and on its behalf as we await Christ’s return. (See Esther 4:14 and Matthew 5:13-16.) The Creator intended for us (the pinnacle of His creation) to fill the Earth and govern it. Parents, teachers, mentors of children: We have the great privilege to do the long and ordinary work of raising a family, of tending a garden, and of welcoming others into His Kingdom.
I’m reminded of the beauty of Micah 4:1-4, its invitation and its promise:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid…
This prophetic word applies to us even now. Let’s respond to this invitation and grasp hold of the promise, allowing it to transform our discipleship efforts from the anxiety and urgency of culture war to the joy and shalom of culture-making.
With this post we begin a multi-part series in which we will continue to explore the themes of discipleship and culture-making. Questions? Comments? Let’s wrestle with these ideas together as we seek the Lord’s glory in the world He has made. Email me at: email@example.com