(This essay expresses my reflections on Richard Niehbuhr’s book of that title).

For almost 350 years the church of Christ operated from the paradigm described as, “Christ Against Culture.” Reviewing the cultural setting in those first three and one-half centuries quickly reveals why: the church was a threat to society, hated by the dominant culture, and often persecuted by those in power. For many latter-day restoration movements this paradigm is the most attractive because it is the one followed by the early, primitive church. But, is this the paradigm required by Scripture? Is it the most helpful view of the church?

Starting in about 325 AD the paradigm of the early church began to shift. With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the church of Christ became more mainstream—more politically correct. After the death of Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. A new paradigm entered: “Christ OF Culture.” Christ and human culture began to blend into each other. The line between the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire was increasingly difficult to discern.

It did not take long for there to be a reaction against what many perceived as a “watering down” of Christian discipleship. For these, being a follower of Jesus Christ had to mean more than merely being born in a Roman Province. And it certainly meant more than merely being a good Roman citizen. Christ is ABOVE Culture—His reign creates two kingdoms here on earth: one of nature and one of grace. God rules over both but, obviously, the reign of grace—the Church—is to be preferred.

As this third view was hammered out historically, it became apparent that not only was Christ ABOVE Culture but that He stood in a relationship of conflict and contradiction to it. This view is described as “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” It is in agreement with the view that Christ is above culture; however, there is an intensification of the opposition between the two. This fourth view recognizes far more than the third the intense sinfulness of human culture and seeks to distance the church from culture.

The fifth view, and in my judgment the most biblically helpful view, is described as, “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” Using this view, the arguments and observations of the preceding four views can be affirmed; however, this view demands that the church NEVER forsake culture but, rather, be constantly about its mission of transforming human beings through the power of the gospel.