What Makes a Culture Christian?

At next week’s 2018 Intersection Conference at Northern Seminary, Dr. Scot McKnight will kick off our time together with his session “A Biblical Foundation to the Culture Conversation.” To whet our appetites, we asked Scot to preview his thoughts on the Christoform nature of true Christian culture—and what differentiates it from American culture. 

By Scot McKnight

If we say a culture is accumulated traditions, even wisdom, that mark out the norms and boundaries of what a society thinks is good, we are plopped immediately into our world asking what that culture looks like more precisely. Take, for instance, how our economic society works for what is deemed the cultural norm: birth, family life, the development of a sense of ambition, preparation through education and temporary jobs, graduation and then finding a more permanent job, leading to success and marriage and purchasing a home and transmitting that economic way of life onto children, finding some kind of reasonable contentment in one’s job as a personal vocation, and then eventually grandparenting and retirement.  (That, however, may be the culture’s norm but it is not achieved or achievable by all, and this deserves some emphasis but can’t be unraveled here.) My point is that this forms a culture and a culture is about accumulating traditions and therefore wisdom by the people populating that culture.

It is too common for Christians in the USA to equate the American culture, not least that economic culture sketched above, with Christian culture. We do this not simply by assumption but by embodying that culture as Christians. To the degree we participate in that economic system we agree with it; to the degree we resist it we disagree with it. That culture, however, may not be as Christian as we assume or embody.

It is too common for Christians in the USA to equate the American culture with Christian culture.
What is a Christian culture then? Let us agree that the guiding light of our life is the eschaton, the kingdom of God, the new heavens and the new earth, and what we will be in that kingdom. In that kingdom, according to the apostle Paul, we will be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), which develops what Jesus had already instructed his disciples:

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Matt 10:24–25)

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

To sum this up, if the kingdom’s aim for our life is to be formed into Christlikeness, or Christoformity, then a Christian culture is nothing less. A Christian culture is a striving toward Christoformity in all ways.

A Christian culture is a striving toward Christoformity in all ways.
If Christoformity is the core of Christian culture, then the pastor’s role – from day begin to day end – is to nurture Christoformity. Christoformity, however, will never perfectly align with American culture. Why? Because Christoformity is the culture of the redeemed, it is the culture made possible only by the Spirit and those open to the Spirit, and it can only be achieved in this world in part as we await full redemption in the kingdom.

Christoformity, then, knows Christian culture from the world, from a culture formed by the unredeemed and often in contradiction to the redemptive ways of Christ. Which means, as Eugene Peterson once said, that a Christian pastor’s responsibility is to subvert worldliness in the culture of the church and in the lives of church members:

Most of the individuals in this amalgam [in his congregation] suppose that the goals they have for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same. It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, imagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation. And I, one of the priests they hired, am having none of it.

But if I’m not willing to help them become what they want to be, what am I doing taking their pay? I am being subversive. I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am helping them to become what God wants them to be, using the methods of subversion.

“Surely this is deceptive,” I mutter to myself. But I read on and he comes right back with a response to my mutterings about deception:

Not exactly, for I’m not misrepresenting myself. I’m simply taking my words and acts at a level of seriousness that would throw them into a state of catatonic disbelief if they ever knew.[i]

We need to hear this today for we are prone to slip into our American culture as God’s culture and to equate Christian culture with American culture. This will take some very serious work on our part to discern Christoformity from American culture, but we are given Scripture, the Spirit, and the church to guide us into Christoformity in each of our locations.

[i] Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 28–29.

  • Do you struggle with equating American culture to Christian culture? 
  • What is your reaction to Eugene Peterson’s statement: “A Christian pastor’s responsibility is to subvert worldliness in the culture of the church and in the lives of church members”?
  • How can we begin to discern Christoformity from American culture?
  • What questions do you want to ask Scot at #intersection18?

Scot McKnight is a world-renowned speaker, writer, professor and equipper of the Church. He is a recognized authority on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, and the New Testament. His blog, Jesus Creed, is a leading Christian blog. A sought after speaker, he has been interviewed on several radio and television programs as well as spoken at numerous local churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries in the United States and around the world. Scot is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for New Testament Studies. Scot also serves as a Chief Advisor to the Telos Collective and helps Bishop Todd Hunter lead it.