Culture Influences Every Christian – Drew Dickerson

I recently met with a group of Christian parents concerned about our increasingly secular society. They longed for a time when so-called cultural Christians didn’t exist and “real Christians,” not influenced by the world, could live out their faith in a countercultural way.

Many of these parents seem to believe cultural Christianity is a recent development and that today’s challenges are unlike anything in the history of the church. The truth is that there have always been Christians who seemed more influenced by the culture than by their faith.

Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World aims to demythologize some of our church history. Nadya Williams shows that, much like believers today, Christians in the first five centuries of the church were prone to succumb to cultural temptations. And they faced many of the same cultural pressures we do today.

Cultural Christianity

According to Williams, a historian of Greco-Roman culture, cultural Christians are “individuals who self-identify as Christians but whose outward behavior and, to the extent that we can tell, inward thoughts and motivations are largely influenced by the surrounding culture rather than their Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus” (xiv).

In the ancient world, cultural Christians struggled in many of the same areas we do. As the New Testament makes clear, believers have always struggled with faithfulness. Early believers made idols out of their wealth, food, appearance, sexual relationships, and patriotism, all while claiming to be followers of Christ.

There have always been Christians who seemed more influenced by the culture than by their faith.

We can be tempted to write off these cultural Christians, both from the past and today, as hypocrites who lack sincere faith in Christ. But Williams doesn’t make this accusation. Throughout her book, she refers to those struggling with cultural sins as “believers” and “Christians.” Their succumbing to cultural pressure wasn’t a matter of salvation; it was a matter of sanctification. They struggled because it was simply easier to follow the surrounding culture than to live out their faith counterculturally.

But Williams acknowledges the danger for those who desire their cultural preferences more than they desire to follow Christ. Cultural sins can lead some who once claimed Christ to abandon him. As Williams acknowledges, “The allure of culture . . . sometimes proved more enticing than the countercultural community of the gospel” (63). The challenge for all Christians is to put their cultural sins to death and pursue Christ.

Exposing Roman Culture

Part of Williams’s mission is supplying historical context for the New Testament. Her grasp of ancient Roman culture shines when she gives background information that illuminates Christian history, which makes this a valuable book for pastors and teachers.

For example, Williams provides insight into ancient Jewish and Roman property customs as she recounts the story of Ananias and Sapphira. The tragic couple’s actions recorded in Acts 5 reflect the Roman practice of euergetism, which entailed beneficence with the expectation of glory to the donor in return. Ananias and Sapphira weren’t uniquely wicked; they were culturally captive. Though God ultimately held them responsible for their cultural sin, their story takes on a different flavor with this background.

New light shines on other stories from church history as well. Williams argues that the significance of two third-century martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, illustrates a countercultural aspect of Christianity. Within the church, women were ascribed worth apart from their ability to bear children. We see this because their stories were celebrated by church leaders for their spiritual accomplishments. All women, regardless of their marital status, were recognized as valuable members of the family of God. This was radically distinct from the misogyny of Roman society.

However, Williams shows the church has struggled to consistently apply its views in a changing society. Williams reminds us, “What remains unchanged, however, is the church’s call to minister to all believers. This ministry involves seeing every believer’s worth through God’s eyes rather than our own” (103).

Confronting Contemporary Culture

Williams clearly states her goal to show continuity between the errors of the early Christians and “the prominence of these same sins of cultural Christianity in the church today” (xxvii). Each chapter ends with parallels between modern and ancient cultural demands. However, many of the examples demonstrate Williams’s cultural or political preferences, which lean progressive on monetary and regulatory issues, rather than being instances of clear compromise. Some of her contemporary application is distracting from the historical scholarship she offers.

Within the church, women were ascribed worth apart from their ability to bear children and were recognized as valuable members of the family of God.

For example, Williams connects the expectation that Christians should be financially generous with an affirmation of higher marginal tax rates in the U.S. She argues we should see state-run social programs as “types of parachurch ministries” (20). Though the effectiveness of nonemergency foreign aid is questionable, she says those who oppose it “resemble the pagan Romans” (20). Similarly, she argues that Christian conservatives who oppose some governmental social programs are culturally compromised simply because of their opposition to those debatable policies (103).

Her approach to these issues cuts off argument, often jumping straight from a biblical principle to a preferred policy without considering the many ways the mandate can be accomplished. The command to be concerned for the poor doesn’t mean every government program aimed at wealth redistribution carries a biblical mandate. It doesn’t preclude considering the subsequent effects of those policies and how they may create new, undesirable social consequences.

Though I disagree with some of Williams’s preferences, her examples made me pause and examine my negative responses. More often than not, my disagreement could be traced to my cultural or political preferences rather than a deeper theological conflict. Williams’s book shows we all tend to view contemporary issues from a particular cultural perspective, which isn’t always a scriptural one.

Cultural Christians in the Early Church provides helpful context for early church history. There’s no period in the life of the church that we can restore to find flawless biblical fidelity. Williams is correct when she argues, “This ideal past when the church was fully holy and blameless is, in fact, a myth” (200). Instead, all believers, despite their cultural preferences, should look forward to the coming City of God.

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