God in Culture

Many of the issues that confront the church today–and young Christians in particular–have to do with the relationship between Christianity and culture. Arguments about music and entertainment, questions about politics and social activism, debates about worship and evangelism often take on a theological guise, but in reality they are about the culture and how the church should relate to a culture that, while once in synch with Christianity is now hurtling in a very different direction.

Different theological traditions have different things to say about the relationship that Christians should have with “the world.” Often, we take our stand on some cultural issue without noticing the theology that lies behind our decision. Sometimes we react in a way that reflects a theology that we really do not believe in.

Lutheranism has a specific theology of culture, one that is more liberating, more practical, and more helpful–not to mention more Biblical–than any of the competing views. Understanding the “doctrine of the two kingdoms” can help untangle many of the cultural issues that Christian young people face, and the “doctrine of vocation” can give them the direction they need to take their own places in the culture.

The Competing Views

To appreciate the Lutheran position, it will be helpful first to understand the competing views (which often can be found in Lutheran circles).

One option is for the culture to rule Christianity. In the words of the National Council of Churches slogan, “The world sets the agenda for the church.” When the culture changes, Christianity must also change. If the culture cannot accept the supernatural, then the church must downplay the supernatural claims of Christianity. In an age of sexual freedom, the church must change its teachings about sexual morality. In an age of consumerism, hedonism, and instant gratification, the church must change its worship and give religious consumers what they want. The view that the church must follow the lead of the culture is called liberal theology.

The problem with all of the different varieties of liberal theology is that the culture, sins and all, becomes the authority for the church rather than the Word of God. The church essentially disappears, fading into the culture to which it has nothing to say.

Another option is to have Christianity rule the culture. If we could just make this a Christian culture, enforcing the laws of the Bible, we would solve all of our problems. Not only government but also every facet of the culture should be Christianized, so that there must be a distinctly Christian approach to art, music, business, science, and every other sphere of life. This is the view of most Reformed theology, as well as the Roman Catholic position that the pope is supreme over secular rulers.

The problem here is that even Christians cannot keep God’s law perfectly, much less non-Christians. Nor can faith ever be coerced. The church becomes a political organization–and often a tyrannical one–and forgets its mission to bring people into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another option is Christianity against culture. This view recognizes the sinfulness of human institutions and calls Christians to separate from the corrupt culture, withdrawing into distinct Christian communities. The church becomes an alternative to the mainline culture, and Christians refuse to take part in the culture as a whole. This is the approach of the Anabaptists, from the Amish to many Protestant fundamentalists, and can also be found in Roman Catholic monasticism.

Christians may “flee the world” by not watching television, not going to movies, not listening to secular music, and associating only with each other. But this stance violates the words of Jesus: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world…. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 18). Jesus directs us not into the protection of a fortified bunker; rather, he sends us into the world in service and evangelism.

Two Kingdoms Under One King

The remaining possibility for the relationship between Christianity and culture is the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. This view accounts for the insights of the other positions, acknowledging that we are cultural creatures, that God is sovereign over every sphere of life, and that Christians must be both separate from the world and actively involved in it. This is the Lutheran position, developed in detail by Luther and enshrined in our Lutheran confessions, but it probably describes the way most faithful Christians have always carried out their fidelity to Christ in their secular callings.

According to this view, God is sovereign both in the church and in the culture, but He rules the two in different ways. In the church, God reigns through the work of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit through His Word and Sacraments, creating faith by means of the Gospel and equipping His people for everlasting life. In the world, God rules by virtue of His creation, His providential care, and the “first use” of His moral law.

God also rules in the world through human vocations. God calls people and places them in families, in workplaces, and in cultures. God works through these “callings,” bringing new life into the world through the vocations of marriage and parenthood; giving us our daily bread through the work of farmers, bakers, storekeepers, and the rest of the economic system; protecting us through the police, the military, and our legal system; bringing healing through doctors and nurses; creating beauty through artists.

In this view, Christians must play their part in their cultures. The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors. This entails serving God in His secular kingdom in secular ways. A Christian farmer is expressing his love for God and neighbor by growing food for everyone, not just fellow believers; a Christian CEO serves God and neighbor by selling useful products, giving a livelihood to employees, making money for stockholders, and contributing to the good of the economy.

A Christian is thus a citizen of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. These spheres have different demands and operate in different ways. But God is the King of both. And Christians are “in” the world without being “of” the world (John 17:16-18).

God already reigns in the world. There is no need to “win the world for God.” It is already His. So-called “secular” occupations, knowledge, and activities are already His territory. Thus, Lutheranism, more than most theologies, strongly affirms culture.

Does this means anything goes? Not at all. God’s moral law needs to be applied to this fallen culture. Contrary to the common assumption, morality is not the same as religion. The church is the realm of the gospel, not the law. But the law does apply in the secular sphere, so that Christians are right to work for moral improvement in the world–protecting the unborn; promoting justice; upholding sexual morality.

God’s Two Kingdoms are distinct from each other. The church is not to be shaped by the culture. The church is ruled by the Word of God, not the dictates of the culture. The individual Christian, though, lives in both kingdoms at the same time.

Young people in the Two Kingdoms

What does this mean for teenagers? Here is how it might be applied to one often contentious issue.

Is it all right for Christian teenagers to listen to secular music? Or should they just listen to Christian music? Under the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Christians are certainly free to listen to secular music, although they will need to apply God’s moral law to what they listen to and to how it affects them. Otherwise, they are free to enjoy any style they want. This does not mean, however, that the church needs to adopt that style in its worship, since the church is to be separate from the world.

Much “Christian music” comes out of the Reformed one-kingdom model, which assumes that a song has to be Christianized in order to make it acceptable, a view that Lutherans cannot accept. If the music presents theology, it must be assessed by the Word of God, which often means that Lutherans will prefer an innocent secular song to a “religious” song whose theology is all wrong.

Youth leaders would do well to teach their charges the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, and then discuss with the group how it might apply to issues they face with the school culture (how can Christians be “in” but not “of” the social, the athletic, the academic scene?); political involvement (can this world ever be a peaceful place, or does peace only come from Christ?); the pop culture (what is innocent and what do we need to resist?).

Young people also appreciate learning about the doctrine of vocation, since it relates directly to their pre-occupation about their future, finding a spouse, finding a job, and finding a meaning to their lives as they unfold. (A useful resource would be my book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. See also the resources on vocation posted at the Cranach Institute website:

The Lutheran approach affirms culture, without surrendering to it. It helps Christians become engaged with their world, while keeping their sense of belonging to a higher Kingdom. It gives purpose to our everyday cultural lives, while reminding us that this is not all there is.

Christian young people struggling with cultural issues will find the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms both liberating and challenging. It will also amaze them with the practical wisdom of the Lutheran confessions and make them appreciate that they are Lutherans.

Published October 1, 2004

About the author

View more from Gene

Related Resources

Why Build Resilient Youth in Youth Ministry?

Why Build Resilient Youth in Youth Ministry?

What is a resilient identity in Christ and why is it important for a healthy youth ministry? Check out this blog from the Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry to find out more.

The Habits That We Make – Fundraising

The Habits That We Make – Fundraising

Should youth ministry, or any other ministry for that matter, rely on fundraising to significantly support their ministry functions? Sometimes the habits of fundraising get youth ministry into trouble. This article is designed to help you think more strategically about fundraising.

The Habits That We Make: Parents

The Habits That We Make: Parents

We all have harmful habits, even in our churches. This article helps us think about how we might have habits where parents are not growing in their own Biblical education or even expecting the church and its workers to be the primary teachers of the Christian faith for their children. By identifying these kinds of habits, we can see how we might change them.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: Change or Experience?

The COVID-19 Pandemic: Change or Experience?

As youth workers, we need to remember that this cohort that experienced the COVID pandemic during their younger years experienced it differently than adults. Through research, Dr. Tina Berg has been able to identify key learnings that can help us care for young people, particularly confirmands, in the wake of the pandemic.

The Habits That We Make – Isolation

The Habits That We Make – Isolation

We all have habits, some intentionally developed and others not. Knowing our habits in ministry can be important. For example, we may tend to isolate kids and/or youth from the rest of the congregation. This article talks about how to identify this habit and push against it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How do I know if our youth ministry program is healthy and properly caring for our teens?

Discover how you can enhance your youth ministry and serve the youth in your church with Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry.

Share This