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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 138–143 

The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture

Paul Doerksen

The question that is being considered in this sermon is: How might we, how can we, how ought we to think about the relationship of Christ and culture? 1 When I hear the term “Christ and culture,” I always think of at least two things: first, I’m reminded of a shocking statement that originates in a play written by Hans Johst, a play which celebrated Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. The play is, among other things, an attempt to combat Jewish influence on German culture. One character says, in the middle of a conversation, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver,” indicating that he’d rather fight in order to dominate German culture than study or discuss these matters—a sentiment that became a practice and pursuit within Nazi Germany.

We will always struggle with making the gospel “relevant” to culture precisely because gospel, Christ, culture, and relevance itself are all contested realities.

The second thing I am reminded of when I hear the term “Christ and culture” is a book by that title, published originally in 1951, written by American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture is perhaps the most famous and influential attempt to work at the question we’re trying to address here. We often frame discussions in Niebuhr’s dualistic way precisely because of his enormously influential book. 2 His famous fivefold typology—Christ Against Culture, the Christ Of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transforming Culture—continues to set the terms of the debate, either by way of {139} functioning as the framework of discussion, or by way of setting oneself in relation to that very typology. 3

Niebuhr (in)famously places Mennonites in the first type—Christ Against Culture: “The Mennonites have come to represent the attitude most purely, since they not only renounce all participation in politics and refuse to be drawn into military service, but follow their own distinctive customs and regulations in economics and education.” 4 Niebuhr thinks that we’re nice to have around—in fact, he calls Mennonites (and others) “necessary but inadequate” (which has a striking parallel to the way teenagers sometimes see their dads). Niebuhr draws a sharp distinction between withdrawal and renunciation on the one hand and the necessary movement of responsible engagement in cultural tasks on the other. 5 Therefore, if one accepts his typology, it appears obvious that everyone who is in this necessary but inadequate category should become adequate, which is presumably done through more “responsible engagement,” or “transformation,” understood on his terms.

Quite aside from his condescending tone, his wrong-headed categorization whereby Leo Tolstoy, monastics, Quakers, and Mennonites are all lumped together, it seems to me that the categories of Christ and culture are themselves problematic. In a lengthy essay, 6 John Howard Yoder levels a series of criticisms of Niebuhr that range from an analysis of the use of types, the feigned objectivity of Niebuhr’s work, which clearly favors the final type (Christ transforming culture), the particular (and misleading) portrayal of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity that comes dangerously close to modalism, and so on. But the basic criticism is that both sides of this dualism are treated as monoliths, subjected to a process of reification that simply cannot stand close scrutiny.

In the case of Christ, it is true that every statement we make about Christ is already enculturated; no single statement can be reduced to enculturation only, but it is surely, in part at least, a statement about ourselves and the times and cultures we inhabit. Therefore, any engagement of Christ and culture cannot be separated from enquiry into that engagement itself: there can be no full distillation of Christ from cultures; there is no single access to Christ. 7


If Christ and our statements about him are enculturated and therefore constantly held before us for consideration and reconsideration, then we must hasten to add that all cultures are complexities that are in constant flux—all cultures are human and inhuman, graced and ungraced. 8 There is no notion of global culture that can be used to function the way Niebuhr wants it to, and therefore there is no strategy that can be {140} applied uniformly either by rejecting or transforming culture (or anything in between). 9

Whenever any term is used that is dualistic in structure and includes “culture” (that is, some version of “______ and culture”), a mistake has already been made, argues Stanley Hauerwas. What he means is that the very way in which we structure the discussion, the categories we press into service, and the language we use must all be scrutinized and perhaps reformed, filled with new meaning, or even rejected. In other words, we must not begin with the presumption that the Gospel is one thing, culture another, and that our task is to simply learn how to make one “relevant” to the other. To see things in such a dualistic or binary fashion opens us up to all manner of distortion. 10

Put another way, culture isn’t a static thing, a solid entity, an autonomous realm; it doesn’t have the status of being. More formally, it doesn’t have ontological status, and therefore shouldn’t be reified. It might be more accurate to describe culture as a sort of metaphor for the process that happens to people—temporal, human activities which also include the possibility of divine activity. If that’s true, if culture is better understood as process rather than thing, then we ought not to think that there’s some neutral space from which we can observe or transform culture; rather, we participate in it already. So the question isn’t primarily Should we participate in culture? but How should we participate in the culture in which we find ourselves?

If I’m right to think of culture as activity, then it’s also true that our understanding of Christ, our faith, our embrace and expression of the Gospel, is enculturated to a significant degree. We don’t have a pure faith over against a static culture, with the task of trying to get one thing to change the other thing. It’s all much more fluid than that, and suggests that there is in fact no single mode of relating Christ to culture.


So, now what? Here’s where I want to take up the title of this sermon, which comes from the work of Andrew Walls, long-time Christian missionary and professor. In fact, I took the title of the sermon directly from the title of one of his essays. 11 His work on the transmission of faith is wonderful, in my view. He argues that Christian history has always and always will be a battleground for two opposing tendencies, both of which originate in the Gospel itself. On the one hand, we discover the homing or indigenizing principle. That is, we live as Christians and yet are members of the culture in which we find ourselves. In fact, the expression of Christian faith finds its shape from our culture to some extent. There is a positive sense in which all churches are culture churches. {141} To use the language of the title, the gospel is a prisoner of whatever culture in which it finds itself, and not necessarily in a bad way. So, a Christian in some part of Winnipeg expresses the Christian faith the way she does at least in part because she’s in that area of Winnipeg. A Christian in Istanbul, say, expresses the Christian faith the way he does in part because he’s part of some cultural community in Istanbul. (Insert whatever person or place you want.) That is the indigenizing desire or impulse that is part of the gospel—it seeks to be incarnated within whatever setting it finds itself in a way that will be familiar to the people in that setting.

On the other hand, according to Walls, the gospel also has a pilgrim tendency. It is out of step, it is in tension, at an angle in important ways to the society in which it finds itself. No society or particular culture can ever absorb Christ painlessly into its system, because the gospel will recognize dimensions of cultural expressions that are in desperate need of transformation and liberation, precisely on the terms of the gospel itself. That is, the gospel is both a prisoner of culture and a liberator of culture.

It’s very important to remember that both of these tendencies—the homing and pilgrim quality—are the direct result of the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is, the process whereby God redeems the world is through incarnation and translation of Jesus Christ into this world. The birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are fully enculturated in a particular time and place. The gospel is indigenous, and that particularity is at the same time universalizable; the gospel is pilgrim, mobile, and able to find a home in whatever culture. That particular gospel is infinitely translatable across time and space. And so these two tendencies—the homing and the pilgrim, prisoner and liberator—must not be balanced, but must be kept in tension at all times. There’s a real sense in which you can never have too much of either or both of them.

The well-known account in Acts 15, often referred to as the Jerusalem Council, displays a clash of cultures in which the central question being considered is: Does a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Christ? The short answer is no, but as you might expect, this isn’t easy, straightforward, or uncomplicated. The account of Acts 15 brings to view the possibility of being Christian in two distinct but related ways, namely within a Jewish setting or as a Gentile, and a person didn’t have to become one or the other in order to follow Christ. What was called for in both cases was conversion to Christ. What we’re watching here in Acts 15 is not mere proselytizing of the sort that Jews had always done in inviting others to become part of the Jewish faith. {142} Rather, here we see the call to something else: to Christ, where both Jew and Gentile, while remaining Jew and Gentile respectively, are all called to change their ways of thinking and doing things toward Christ, opening themselves up to his influence. In the first century, we see Jews who follow Christ, and in so doing they confront what it is about their culturally embedded lives as Jews that needs to be changed in order to remain faithful to Christ. We also witness Gentiles who follow Christ, and in doing so confronting what it is about their culturally embedded lives as Gentiles that needs to be changed in order to remain faithful to Christ. We see the gospel imprisoned by Jewish culture and liberating that culture in the direction of faithfulness to Jesus; we also see the gospel imprisoned by Gentile culture and liberating that culture in the direction of faithfulness to Jesus. This is an important turning point for the emerging early church, not establishing that there are two ways to express the Christian faith, but establishing that it is the nature of the gospel to move across boundaries into new cultural expressions in order to be incarnated there, and it is the nature of the gospel to keep doing that time and time again.

St. Paul’s writing in Ephesians 2:13–22 functions as the theological expression of the truths I’ve been trying to express. St. Paul shows here in this moving passage how the fullness of Christ’s humanity can take diverse cultural forms, in this case as Jewish and Gentile. Both of those groups can come together socially to experience Christ, with any kind of dividing wall effectively torn down by the work of Christ. Both groups are being reconciled to God, being brought near to God and to each other by Jesus Christ. Here then is a Christian vision of Christ and culture, if you will, in which diverse groups embody the gospel in culturally specific ways and yet are brought near to each other because of the fact that each and both of them are experiencing the work and person of Christ, causing each specific cultural expression in turn to express their faith in terms of their culture while also having that cultural expression transformed by the gospel.


The implication of all of this is that the church needs to move by discrimination, ready to reject some things, accept others within limits, offer motivation and coherence to other dimensions of the world, strip others of claims to autonomous truth and value, and in some cases, create new aspects of culture that are missing, as argued by Yoder. 12 He ends this specific passage with a call not to withdrawal, but to authentic transformation—transformation that is both procedural (how?) and substantial (what?). At every point then, there is a call for the follower of {143} Jesus to assume a stance of discernment. There is no simple, definitive, appropriate response to the question of Christ and culture, but a series of questions such as: Shall we go with this? Shall we oppose this? Shall we opt out? Shall we subvert matters? Shall we encourage change and transformation? 13 We cannot possibly know the answers to these questions before we ask them, we must refuse to embrace some mode of relating prior to the experience of relating.

We will always struggle with making the gospel “relevant” to culture precisely because gospel, Christ, culture, and relevance itself are all contested realities. It is not simply taking a thing and repackaging it so that some other thing will accept it or be transformed by it. Rather, we are called to a stance in the world; a posture whereby the gospel, Christ, and culture are always under scrutiny, and the process by which we scrutinize is itself under scrutiny.


  1. This sermon was delivered at the Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on April 12, 2015. It was part of a series entitled “Trending Toward Faith: Christ and Culture,” shaped by Carl Heppner, lead pastor of the church.
  2. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951). Many of us wish we could write a book that’s discussed for a week, never mind more than half a century.
  3. Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 13.
  4. Niebuhr, 56.
  5. Ibid., 68.
  6. John Howard Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,” in Glen Stassen, Diane Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 31–89.
  7. See Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 2–21.
  8. Alan Kreider, “Christ, Culture, and Truth-Telling,” Conrad Grebel Review 15, no. 3 (1997): 210.
  9. Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 69.
  10. Including the kinds of bizarre possibilities such as are described in Matt Richtel, “Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church,” The New York Times, October 7, 2007.
  11. Andrew Walls, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996). I draw extensively on this essay for shaping my own argument for much of the remainder of this sermon.
  12. Yoder, “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned,” 69.
  13. See Kreider, “Christ, Culture, and Truth-Telling.”
Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His most recent book is an edited compilation of the political writings of A. James Reimer, entitled Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology (2014).

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