When some Christians hear about countering culture, they resonate with the idea that we need to take a stand against certain sins in our day—materialism, sexual immorality, a disdain for human life, etc. Other Christians hear about countering culture and they worry that it’s a call to put up your fists, vote for a certain political candidate, or become antagonistic toward your unbelieving neighbors. Sometimes the difference between these two groups can be seen in whether one views the culture as the enemy or as the mission field.
The terms counter and culture are, admittedly, susceptible to different interpretations. After all, engaging culture can look very different depending on the issue, the individual, and the kind of response that’s needed. Not to mention the fact that the term culture can include almost anything around us. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some right and wrong approaches to engaging our unbelieving neighbors when it comes to some of the most pressing social issues of our day. I’ll begin with three negatives and then end with three positives.
1. We should not be angry with our unbelieving neighbors.
It’s easy to see the moral filth that passes for entertainment on TV or read about a law being passed requiring Christian photographers to celebrate so-called same-sex marriage, and simply get irritated. However, we should not let frustration at larger cultural patterns and the devastation of sin spill over into anger toward the individuals who live and work around us. Our unbelieving neighbors should elicit our compassion, for they need the same gospel that rescued us.
2. We should not be against everything the culture is for.
We may differ with many in our culture on certain issues—abortion, marriage, etc. But that does not mean we must disagree with them on every issue. Our views and our actions should be motivated by Scripture, not by who agrees (or disagrees) with us. For example, we can support a law banning human trafficking even if we disagree with the worldview of the person who is proposing it.
3. We should not speak as if we’re the first Christians to face a hostile or counter culture.
There’s little doubt that Christians are facing increasing pressure in certain segments of our culture. However, it would be a mistake to think that the pressure we’re facing is unprecedented or that a hostile culture is a new development in church history. Jesus said that his followers would face opposition (John 16:33), and we see that word fulfilled in the lives of the apostles and in the lives of many Christians throughout the last two thousand years of church history.
4. We should face unique challenges in our generation.
While unbelievers always oppose the gospel, the challenges to the gospel rarely look the same for each generation. Christians in our day must discern and use their wisdom in order to see how the world undermines God’s Word. To take one example, our parents and grandparents didn’t have to explain why holding to the biblical pattern of marriage is not the equivalent of refusing to serve African-Americans at a diner. However, we must be prepared to answer this objection and to make a biblical case for why marriage is defined by the lifelong, one-flesh union of one man and one woman. There are a host of other challenges in our day that will demand that we know our Bibles and that we know how to apply them.
5. We should swim against the current.
Even though being counter culture does not mean being combative toward our unbelieving neighbors, we would be naïve to think that the world at large is neutral toward God. The apostle John tells us that the “whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). Paul tells us that we will face God’s judgment if we follow the “course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2). In other words, we have to be prepared to swim against the tide of cultural opinion on a number of important issues. We may find common ground on some issues. But there is reason to worry if we always side with those who care nothing about God and his Word. Some conflict is inevitable.
6. We should keep the gospel central in our response.
God’s Word should not only determine the positions we take on important cultural issues. But also the manner in which we engage those who differ with us. A “slash and burn” approach may work for the world, but it completely undermines the church’s witness. Compassion, conviction, and courage should adorn the message we proclaim. This doesn’t mean we can’t use the political process. But we must ultimately rely on God’s power and grace to bring about his purposes in his own time. Only the gospel changes hearts.