Is Christianity Counter-Cultural?

At certain times in history, Christians have stood up to and even subverted culture. In the first century church the proclamation of Jesus was met with flogging, prison, and death as the Christian faith challenged the power structures of the synagogue and Rome. At other times, Christians have become dangerously aligned with the culture, lost their distinctiveness, and become complicit to sin in its various forms. So, is Christianity counter-cultural? I have often wrestled with this question, observing that it is far easier to define ourselves as being against something rather than explaining what we support.

To better understand the question let us briefly consider each term. The word “Christianity” suggests a community of individuals who seek to trust and follow Jesus as the Lord and Savior of their lives. The term Christianity does not merely refer to one set of values and practices over and against another although a Christian life clearly differs from the secular world. Distinctions between tenets are not superficial; they are expressions of the deep, internal metamorphosis that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christianity, then, represents a community transformed by faith.

Throughout the New Testament Christian cultural values and practices are presented in light of this transformed identity. Simply put, we are made holy through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Saved from sin and its grip on us, we receive an invitation to integrity in relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We leave behind our old ways and the sin that so easily entangles and seek the way of Jesus that leads to true freedom and life.

Christianity, as a transformed community whose ethics are defined by our new identity in Christ, is not inherently contrary to or oppositional to culture. God was for the world (John 3:16, Romans 5:8) and the community God instituted to display His goodness to the world is for the world as well. It is through being for the world that we find our own prosperity (Jeremiah 29:7). Therefore, our Christian community does not form its values or practices with reference to the ways of the world and stand in contrast; rather, our Christian values are defined by the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who loves the world and gave Himself up for her.

Christians are for God, not against culture.

Still, at times and unfortunately rather often today, standing for the way of Christ means living in contrast to culture. This is a reality that we ought to expect. Human sin and its effects pervade our world. Every individual, every organization, and everything that humanity touches bears the marks of brokenness and sin. As a result, we expect that Christians will live in contrast to the sin-stained parts of culture. Christianity stands counter to those values and practices which are not aligned with God’s ways—pride, injustice, senseless acts of violence, and racism, just to name a few. However, Christianity affirms culture when God’s freedom, justice, grace, love, hope, and generosity are manifest.

Christians are for the world, but against sin.

We see this idea reflected often in the writings of the apostle Paul. Consider Galatians 5, where he contrasts the fruit of the Spirit and the acts of the flesh. Paul describes the practices which are contrary to the ways of God and encourages the community to walk in the freedom of the Spirit:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other… (Galatians 5:16-17)

Jesus came announcing a contrasting Kingdom of God which He said broke into the present with His coming. His authority validates this kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus introduced a counter-cultural kingdom ethic that surpasses the legalistic righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. The Kingdom of God often stands in contrast to the kingdoms of the world because God loves the world and longs for the world to experience the freedom of life with Him. When a community is transformed by grace through faith and conformed to Christ, it becomes salt and light—both of which contrast culture by presenting a positive vision (seasoning and illumination) of God’s Kingdom. Like a city on a hill, Christianity is a beacon that summons the world to see the goodness of God manifest in community.

So, the Church is not simply counter-cultural; it is counter to sin, and it is counter to culture when the culture is saturated with sin.

As this contrast-community surrenders more and more to the leadership of Christ, it presents a contrasting vision of God’s kingdom. This vision is intended to winsomely lead the world back to God, who loves her and gave Himself for her.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons that the Church has been criticized by opponents of Christianity is because of an apparent lack of contrast. This ought not to dismay us but encourage us; the outside world recognizes that the way of God leads to a different manner of living.

This reminds me of the words of the apostle Peter: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12). As Christians, living good lives ought to be in contrast to the world. Christianity is a contrast community that lives for God, opposes sin, and seeks the healing and redemption of the world that God so loves.

by Pastor Brad Rogers