Reductionist Christianity Gets Its Comeuppance
Our complex of crises has exposed the emaciation of anorexic Christianity
Dear friends and supporters:
Three discernible schools have emerged among conservative Protestants since the 2000s with respect to Christianity’s relationship to culture. Richard Niebuhr’s standard five-fold classification (Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture) is still germane. However, in the present situation, these three schools, though sometimes overlapping, best represent the Christ-and-culture debate among conservative Protestants: Kuyperians, Leftists, and Reductionists.
The Kuyperians (that’s my group) owe that designation to the Dutch pastor, scholar, university president, and prime minister Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was one of the first Christian thinkers to grasp the crisis that the Enlightenment unleashed on Christianity.
Most of the 18th- and 19th-century Christian thinkers tried creatively (and unsuccessfully) to appropriate the Enlightenment for Christianity. If we all just appeal properly to neutral reason and experience, we’ll arrive at agreement about religion and culture. We can enjoy a virtuous and productive, though by no means Christian, culture.
For Kuyper, however, there is no religious, ethical, or epistemic neutrality. We must glorify God as Christians in all we do. To end with God, we must begin with God — in everything. This Christ-glorification includes culture, and a God-glorifying life, as well as the comprehensive Lordship of Jesus Christ, demands a distinctively Christian culture.
Culture is not neutral. Nothing is. Jesus must be Lord of everything, everywhere.
Today’s Kuyperians perceive their calling as working for a Christian culture against pervasive secularism and paganism. In Niebuhr’s taxonomy, we believe in Christ the transformer of culture. God is interested in a culture that glorifies his Son, and we glorify the Lord when we labor to create that culture — in art, education, politics, economics, medicine, and everything else. The gospel is good news for all of life, overturning the power of sin first in the repentant sinner, but moving outward to all culture.
Noted 20th century Kuyperians operating broadly within his worldview include Chuck Colson, Herman Dooyeweerd, John M. Frame, and Francis A. Schaeffer. (While there have been small groups of Leftist Kuyperians, like those at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, the more visible school I’m referring to is solidly Bible-believing and orthodox.)
The evangelical Leftists believe in applying the Faith in culture, but they graft sociopolitical Leftism onto Christian social theory. In Niebuhr’s classification, they tend toward a strange amalgamation of Christ against culture and Christ of culture: they oppose Christian dominance in culture (in other words, they oppose Christian culture), but they find extensive agreement with secular and pagan cultural trends. They want the separatism of the Anabaptists without the holiness, and they want the accommodationism of liberals while being considered evangelical. Theirs is the worst of all Christian cultural viewpoints.
They support statist ideology, encountering almost no social issue for which bloated political power is not the solution. They have been ambiguous about abortion, and tend toward the pro-abortion position. They were among the first evangelicals to cave in to same-sex “marriage.” They have correctly opposed racism, but they have followed the secular Leftist racists in supporting racial privileging and de-privileging, and decrying “white privilege,” as well as other such nonsense like “toxic masculinity,” and advocating “intersectionality,” “gender fluidity,” and radical feminism (apparently not noticing the incompatibility of these last three viewpoints).
Since the 70s this has been the view of Sojourners, and folks like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, now the grandfathers of the movement. This is the school behind the Emergent Movement and, more recently, evangelical sympathy for Cultural Marxism and Black Lives Matter. They believe that the Christian Faith must impact culture. But the Christian Faith they embrace is radically different from the Faith embraced by us Kuyperians.
Finally, there are the Reductionists, my chief concern here. They find the Leftists’ Leftism just as repellant as the Kuyperians do. They are strong theological and sociopolitical conservatives. They are formally, fully orthodox, Bible-believing, and they correspond to Niebuhr’s Christ and culture in paradox.
They are convinced that both the Kuyperians and the Leftists share a fundamental error: applying the Christian Faith in culture in a distinctively Christian way. In their view, the Leftists are wrong on two counts: they are sociopolitically Leftist, and they believe the Christian Faith should transform culture. The Kuyperians are wrong on the second count only.
Separation of church and culture
The reductionists want to limit the gospel to individual salvation. They were the driving force behind The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, which was largely sound, but which contains the following reductionistic statement:
WE AFFIRM that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.
WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.
This is hardly a bold affirmation of a culture-reclaiming gospel. Pressing the imperial gospel in all of life is not “a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.” This reductionism hesitates in “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Some arguments and thoughts are just fine as they are, without Jesus Christ, apparently.
The Christian Faith is about getting sinners saved, getting them into church, getting them sanctified, getting them living a godly life, and getting them ready for heaven. This doesn’t mean we have no responsibility whatsoever in culture. We should vote responsibly, and refuse to support abortion and same-sex “marriage,” for example; but we should not work to transform culture, conforming it to the Bible and a Christian worldview. The gospel has no interest in the culture as such.
The church sidelined for the culture war
Reductionism comes at a high price. Professor R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary of California exhorts:
Leave The Church Out Of The Culture War ... This is not a plea for Christians to disengage with the culture .... Rather, it is a plea for Christians on both sides [conservative and Leftist] to stop trying to use the visible church as a lever in the culture war. The visible church, the institutional church, is not a soldier in the culture war for the right or the left. It is Christ’s embassy to the world ....
While it is true that the church of Jesus Christ must never be a partisan organization, neither can it avoid the culture war. Culture is religion externalized (Henry Van Til), and if the visible church is not an externalization of religion, nothing is.
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, the church might not want the culture war, but the culture war wants the church.
Ecclesial engagement in the culture war is inescapable.￼
Is the culture war necessary? Not only is it necessary; it is inevitable and inescapable.
And Christians will win it.
This video talk, including Q&A, is a brief but robust defense of a comprehensive, culture-reclaiming gospel.￼
Clark’s colleague David VanDrunen is a strong, vocal opponent of Christian culture. God’s central institution is the church, and attempting to bring all of life under God’s authority is a fool’s errand:
Christ came … not to transform the cultures of this world but to win the kingdom of God, the new creation, which will be cataclysmically revealed out of heaven on the last day, and to establish the church, for the time being, as a counter-cultural institution that operates not according to the cultures of this world but in anticipation of the life of the age-to-come….
[T]he only culture-shaping task in which the New Testament shows any serious interest is the formation of the [institutional] church…. [T]he only Christian culture — in the profoundest sense of the term — is found in the ministry and fellowship of true churches of Christ operating according to the teaching of Scripture alone. [emphasis in original]
My YouTube talk linked above refutes this viewpoint, but one could hardly find a more exemplary instance of reductionism than VanDrunen’s assertion: Build the church until the Second Coming. Nothing else matters redemptively. Jesus is Lord of the individual and family and church, not the culture or the world.
Professor Clark wants the church to avoid culture war. Professor VanDrunen wants redemption limited to the church. This evangelical reductionism denies Christ’s cosmic Lordship.
Theology versus worldview
It is helpful to note that one reason for the abysmal impotence of the church in the present cultural onslaught is that it hasn’t taken seriously Christian worldview and cultural theology, fixating instead on narrowly theological topics. Christians are learning too late that their church government arguments, baptismal theology, cessationism or continuationism, Bible translation battles, and predestianarianism versus free-will-ism have been no match for gubernatorial church lockdown edicts, Black Lives Matter, and “wokeness” theology.
Behind this opposition to a full-orbed Faith is often a pessimistic eschatology. Trying to change the culture is useless. The next big event is the “rapture” or the Second Coming, which will be preceded by a predestined apostasy. The Kuyperians’ cultural agenda isn’t merely mistaken; it’s doomed to failure.
The high price
The Reductionists have kept themselves pure from the culture-reclaiming paradigm of the Kuyperians. But the reduction of the Christian Faith to individual concerns and refusal to apply the Faith widely in culture have created a vacuum that has tragically been filled by unbelief and disobedience and apostasy.
I’m referring specifically to the millennials and others who have been reared in reductionist churches and ministries without any Christian cultural mandate, and who have been readily seduced by the culture-interested evangelical Leftists.
An example of this thinking is the so-called two-kingdom theology: The redemptive kingdom is the Christian kingdom, which applies to individuals, families, and churches. Then there’s the non-redemptive kingdom of everything in the wider culture, education and entertainment and science and the arts and politics, for example, which is not to be governed by Jesus Christ by the Bible, but by common notions of truth and morality on which both Christians and non-Christians can agree. This means that there are vast areas of life that are permissibly non-Christian.
Michael Horton, a third professor at Westminster Seminary California (if you’re getting the impression this is a poster-child reductionist seminary, you’re right), identifies the two-kingdoms theory with cultural pessimism (his original article is behind a paywall, but the gist is here.) He designates the “one kingdom,” or Christendom, view, inconsistently maintained by Augustine and Calvin, and more consistently by the American Purtians, as optimistic. The “one” kingdom doesn’t necessitate a unity of church and state, but it does demand a unity of both church and state with God. Church and state are separate spheres, each reflecting Christian truth in its own distinct way. This “two-kingdom” folk find this view dead wrong. They revel in cultural defeat for Christianity.
The kingdom of the church is governed by the Bible, but the kingdom outside the church is regulated by “natural” theology, on what both Christians and non-Christians can agree are common-sense, non-Christian principles: Jesus is an absentee landlord. This dualism always leads to a radically secularized culture and a radically pietized church. The culture abandons God, and the church abandons any field it can’t control. From Satan’s standpoint, it’s an ideal arrangement. (For a refutation, see Brian Mattson’s Cultural Amnesia.)
Despite their good intentions, this is a surrender of the Lordship of Christ in all of life, a surrender of the world to Satan, and a surrender of younger Christians to Leftism. They don’t counterpunch; they surrender.
Failure to address the whole counsel of God
Samuel Sey, in fact, has explained why many young Reformed Christians have embraced the so-called Social Justice Movement and Black Lives Matter, but his criticism is equally true of churches and ministries of other theological persuasions:
[M]any local churches — especially Young, Restless, and Reformed churches — failed to address the whole counsel of God. In their attempt to dissociate themselves from fundamentalists, they became uncomfortable addressing some burgeoning and controversial issues within our culture.
Therefore they failed address what the Bible says about racism, justice, and politics— to disastrous consequences. This produced what Voddie Baucham refers to as a “false unity” within some circles in the Church.
And that is the biggest reason why Reformed Christians are vulnerable to social justice ideology.
In their well-intentioned attempt to keep their ministries pure from cultural worldliness by avoiding a cultural application of a distinctly Christian Faith, Reductionists have created a vacuum now filled by Leftist worldliness like Cultural Marxism and Black Lives Matter that millennials who recognize that Christianity should speak to arenas larger than the individual and family and church are now eager to embrace.
I recall a conversation with my close friend and colleague Dr. Joseph Boot, leader of the Ezra Institute. He pointed out that pastors who try to protect their church from politics by refusing to address political issues don’t de-politicize the church but only allow the world‘s politics to infect the thinking of their members.
In the end, the question is never whether Christians will apply religion in culture, but whether that religion will be biblical religion or compromised, worldly religion. Evangelical reductionism, after priding itself on keeping itself pure from cultural concerns, has gotten its comeuppance after failing an entire generation of young adults very concerned with what the Faith has to say about and to culture — concerned now in a distinctively Leftist, worldly, accommodating and apostate way. Our complex of crises (COVID-19 statism, “Wokeness,” and Black Lives Matter) has exposed the emaciation of anorexic, reductionist Christianity.
Christian leaders must recover the biblical vision of Abraham Kuyper, of Christian worldview, Christian philosophy, a culture-reclaiming vision that contests every area of life and thought for Christ the King. Never again may we surrender the field of culture to Satan with the hopes that we can keep our churches pure.
We keep our church and other ministries pure by preaching the Faith in its totality, not in protecting ourselves from cultural issues.
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This coming week Sharon will be out of town for Jed Schlissel and Olivia Shay’s wedding, and I’ll be hunkered down near the California coast researching and writing. I’m finalizing Creational Theology: An Introduction, which is long overdue, and then plan to get back to The Meaning, Marring and Re-Making of Marriage.
I’ve been an omnivorous reader since 16 years old and now read more than ever. My chief topics of interest are the history of ideas, biblical studies, systematic theology, cultural theology, European and American history, political science, sociology, and philosophy. I’m generally reading 6 to 8 books concurrently and almost never sit down and read a book straight through without starting or continuing another book. My intellectual curiosity trumps my intellectual doggedness.
For my entire adult life I’ve advocated an intellectually informed and rigorous Faith, and the Center for Cultural Leadership’s vision as non-reductionistic, comprehensive Christianity wouldn’t be possible without this viewpoint. I thank all of you friends and supporters for helping me fulfill this ministry.
By God’s grace, I won’t let you down.
Yours for a non-reductionistic Faith,
Founder & President
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