Christians and Culture: What Is the Way Forward? (Part 1)

In his book Center Church, Tim Keller helpfully distills and adapts from H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories of models for the relationship between Christianity and culture. Keller identifies four different models:

1. The Transformationist Model: This model proposes that Christians should seek to influence and transform culture by the application of the lordship of Christ to all areas of life. Think of Abraham Kuyper and Dutch Calvinism as the historic expression of this approach.

2. The Relevance Model: This model sees evidence of God’s redemptive work in the culture at large and, therefore, sees no major incompatibility between Christianity and the surrounding culture. The church must adapt itself to the world in order to participate in God’s broader redemptive work and in order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. Think of Protestant Liberalism as the main expression of this approach.

3. The Counterculturalist Model: This model is virtually the opposite of the “relevance model,” seeing no redemptive work outside the church and viewing the world as a potential corrupting influence. It seeks to uphold the purity of the church by separation from the world. Think of the Amish as extreme representatives of this view. In more recent times, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” follows the same kind of mindset.

4. The Two Kingdoms Model: This model sees Christians as belonging to two kingdoms at once: the common kingdom of this age (that believers and unbelievers share together) and the redemptive kingdom of the age to come (that only believers will inherit). As such, Christians have responsibilities to both kingdoms, expressed in their daily vocations in the common kingdom and in their devotion to the church, which is the present expression of the redemptive kingdom. Many Lutherans have held to a “two kingdoms” approach, as do a number of Reformed thinkers today.

In evaluating each model, Keller rightly notes that each one has strengths and weaknesses, and he proposes a way forward for thinking about how to make use of these models in our own lives today. I will address that issue in the next post, but for now I would enjoy hearing your insights in the comments section.


2 thoughts on “Christians and Culture: What Is the Way Forward? (Part 1)

  1. I don’t know about insights, but I do have questions. Let me just ask this one:

    Is there Scriptural backing people attempt to use to argue for each of these?

    I ask because off the top of my head, all the Scriptural illustrations I can think of include a small beginning and a spreading out from there (Matt 13:31-33, Daniel 2:34-35). I appreciate that there is more to those passages than spreading out. Do you have any go-to verses that advocates would use to support their model?


    • I don’t think people have arrived at these differing conclusions based on specific go to verses, but rather based on the way they synthesize the whole teaching of Scripture. Transformationists lean heavily on passages that speak of Christ’s universal lordship. Two kingdoms proponents note the difference between the common covenant (i.e., the Noahic) and the redemptive covenants, as well as biblical teachings that Christians have obligations to both the common sphere of life and to the church. They seek to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

      The counterculturalist model appeals to the biblical teaching on the distinctive nature of the church over against the world. The relevance model appeals to biblical examples of adaptation for the sake of mission (e.g., accepting Gentiles as Gentiles into the church instead of requiring them to be circumcised).


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