Breaking the Pagan Paradigm

Do Christians Have a Responsibility to Influence Our Culture for Good?

In recent years, I have written several articles to discourage Christians from getting involved in the pursuit of political power. (For example, read here, here, or find a full list of articles here).

In response to these articles, one objection is continually raised: Christians have a responsibility to be salt and light to influence our world for good. Therefore, when it comes to social and/or moral issues, Christians have an obligation to be politically involved.

In response to this objection, let us first consider the question, “Do Christians have a moral obligation to be salt and light, influencing culture for good?” I believe scripture makes the answer clear.

  • Disciples of Jesus have a responsibility to be the “salt of the earth“, and to be the ‘light of the world” (Mt. 5.13-14)
  • The church has the responsibility to “expose” the “unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5.11)
  • Christians should encourage the surrounding culture to glorify God (1 Pet. 2.12)
  • Peter instructs the church to “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2.15)

Other scriptures could be cited to this same end. I’ve never questioned whether or not Christians should strive to influence our culture for good. Although I have tried to discourage Christians being politically active, I’ve never believed that Christians should do nothing.

So why does the objection continue to come up? I don’t think anybody is intentionally trying to misrepresent my position. Why is the objection so common? Why do so many Christians feel they have a moral obligation to be involved politically?

The answer is found when we realize that many Christians continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm. Once we recognize this pagan paradigm, these objections begin to make a lot of sense.

Trapped In a Pagan Paradigm

For a vast majority of people in our world “influencing culture for good” is basically equated with “using political power for good.” This shouldn’t surprise us. If someone doesn’t believe in the power of the gospel, they will naturally believe that power lies elsewhere. From a worldly perspective, nobody has more power, more influence, or more capacity to do more good than those who wield political power. Therefore, according to this paradigm, if we have an opportunity to influence political powers for good, and we refuse that opportunity, we have forsaken the opportunity to influence our society for good.

Unfortunately many Christians struggle to break free from this paradigm. For them, whenever they read someone suggesting that Christians should not be politically active, it is assumed that they are suggesting that Christians should not influence culture for good. For those trapped in this paradigm, to withdraw from political involvement is to withdraw from being “salt” and “light”.

The problem with this paradigm is that it does not recognize the conceptual possibility that Christians could be socially active, engage moral issues in society, and influence society for good while at the same time separating the gospel from political involvement. Yet this is precisely what I understand that Christians should do.

At this point I anticipate another objection to be raised. “You’ve over simplified the matter. I don’t ‘equate’ being salt and light with being politically active. I recognize that there are other non-political ways a person could positively impact culture. But still, political influence is one of several methods a person may use to confront social and/or moral issues.”

Perhaps this is true. But if we really believe this counter-objection is true, why continue to raise the initial objection to Christians who withdraw from political powers? If we recognize that Christians can be “salt” and “light” in non-political ways, then why suggest that someone is forsaking their Christian responsibility by not being politically active? Either we don’t actually believe that Christians have a responsibility to be politically active or we don’t actually believe that Christians can influence culture for good while not being politically active. We can’t consistently hold to both at the same time.

I suspect the reality is that these Christians recognize that we can influence culture for good without being politically active, but view non-political methods as less influential than political methods. In other words, they don’t believe in the effectiveness of non-political methods in comparison to political methods. Thus they continue to essentially equate the responsibility to “influence culture for good” with the responsibility to “be politically involved.” They continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm.

Where Does This Pagan Paradigm Come From?

It is important to recognize that this way of viewing the world did not originate with Jesus. Jesus never so much as commented on the hot political issues of his day. Whenever Jesus was asked directly about sensitive political issues, he used these questions as opportunities to point people to the kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk 12.13-15). On multiple occasions, Jesus had the opportunity to gain political power (power He most certainly would have used for good) yet He continually refused that power (Jn. 6.15). This was precisely the kind of power Jesus rejected as a temptation from Satan (Lk. 4.5-7).

Would we suggest that Jesus was failing to be salt of the earth? Was Jesus forsaking an opportunity to be the light of the world? Does this mean that Jesus had forsaken the opportunity to be socially active? Does this mean Jesus didn’t care about the moral issues in His society? Did Jesus thereby fail to influence His culture for good? Of course not!

(For more on Jesus, read here.)

We should also recognize that this paradigm did not originate with the New Testament church. The only things the New Testament commands Christians to do in relation to political powers is to submit to them (Rom. 13.1-4; 1 Pet. 2.13-14), to strive to obey them (Tit. 3.1), to pay taxes (Rom. 13.7), to honor them (Rom. 13.7; 1 Pet. 2.17), and to pray for them (1 Tim. 2.1-2). More significantly, Christians are commanded not to act as judges over non-Christians (1 Cor. 5.12-13; 1 Pet. 4.17; Mt. 7.1-5). And yet, the early church was credited with “turning the world upside down” (NKJV), not because of the way they influenced Caesar for good, but rather because they claimed “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).

(For more on how the early church approached politics, read here, here, and here.)

So where does this paradigm come from? The answer can be seen in Matthew 20.25-28:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your salve; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

According to Jesus, the pagan world is characterized by their quest for power and ruling authority. The quest to influence the world for good by the means of political power is a pagan strategy resulting from a pagan paradigm. And it is precisely at this point that Jesus challenges His disciples to differentiate themselves from the world. The greatest in the kingdom of Christ do not rule; they serve. If Christians are to be “salt” and “light” in the world, we must be “salt” and “light” in the same way Jesus was salt and light; through self-sacrificial love. Christians should have absolutely no desire to take part in the pursuit of ruling power.

Jesus reinforced this point in John 18.36-37:

Jesus answer, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The way Jesus’ disciples are differentiated from the world is in their refusal to fight for power the way that kingdoms of this world fight for power.

Christians aren’t distinguished from pagans simply in that we want to influence the world for good (Christians and non-Christians both want to influence the world for good, though they may disagree what “good” should look like). Christians are to be “salt” and “light” by being poor in spirit; by being gentle; by being peacemakers; by allowing themselves to be persecuted by their enemies (Mt. 5.1-12). We must not lose this key distinction.

But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to the thrown out and trampled under foot by men. – Matthew 5.13

“But the Church Doesn’t Have Enough Resources”

“But the church doesn’t have enough resources. We can do far more good by influencing political powers than we could ever achieve by ourselves.”

I disagree.

If only a small fraction of Christians worked together and sacrificed to help the poor, to support adoption, to support struggling mothers who might otherwise consider abortion, or to lead the fight against racism, they could make an incredible difference.

Can the church do more? Absolutely. But the reason the church is not currently having a bigger influence in the world is because we’re too busy fighting over what Caesar should do about social and moral issues instead of actually doing what Jesus has called us to do. Too many Christians feel like they are doing their part by simply visiting the voting booth once every couple of years. “I voted against abortion, so I did my part” or “I voted to help the poor, so I did my part”. I’m not suggesting that Christians cannot vote, or that every voter fits this description, but we must never be deceived into thinking that political involvement excuses us from sacrificially serving.

The Power of the Gospel

Ultimately, hope for our society (and for our world) doesn’t depend on which party gets in power or which bills get passed into law. Hope for the world depends on Christians using the power God has given us. Hope for the world depends on Christians being distinctive from the world as salt and light.

The power to influence the world for good isn’t a power that gets released when we wrestle ruling authority away from our opponents. The power of the gospel is the power of the cross; the power we have even when our enemies are the ones sitting as rulers, as judges, and as executioners; the power we have when we are nailed into a completely “powerless” position.

The pagan paradigm was put to the ultimate test when Jesus was nailed to the cross. And the pagan paradigm was shattered when Jesus rose from the dead.

It’s time to break free from the pagan paradigm.