This is the script for Geekdom of God Episode 38, The Dangers of Cultural Christianity. The video of this episode can be found here.
Matthew 7:21-23—“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”Hello! Welcome to Geekdom of God. I’m your host, Sientir, and today I’m going to talk about the dangers of cultural Christianity.
I should start by defining what I mean by the phrase “cultural Christianity.” Cultural Christianity is a form of Christianity that is typically based on cultural values and traditions rather than on what the Bible actually says.
While cultural Christianity does use the Bible, it generally does so primarily to justify these cultural values and traditions—that, and as a source of platitudes.
This brings us to cultural Christians, which, much like cultural Christianity, are people who claim to be Christian, but tend to be more concerned with maintaining a culture and set of traditions than with obeying God. As we will see later, they have much in common with the Pharisees.
I think there tend to be two main types of cultural Christian. In both cases, they arise because being Christian is part of their cultural heritage—which, to be clear, isn’t a bad thing! It is important for Christian parents to try to pass Christianity on to their children.
However, these efforts have to be done carefully, as they can go wrong in many ways. Some of those ways drive people away from the church, while others result in cultural Christians. Which brings me back to the topic of the two main types of cultural Christian.
The first is someone who is very superficial with their religion. They think of themselves as Christian, but it’s mostly a coat of paint. It’s a part of their culture, and so they identify that way, but they don’t really engage with what it truly means.
This happens to every religion given enough time, when it becomes, for many followers, simply a part of their culture and nothing more. This results in many of the religion’s adherents interacting with its rituals, values, and practices in a very superficial way.
The second type of cultural Christian is the individual who pursues their religion as a moral security blanket. Like a scared child, they wrap themselves up with it, using it to encourage themselves and to feel like a good person. This also happens with every religion.
However, this second group tends to be what fuels the rise of a cultural version of their religion, such as cultural Christianity. This is due to what such a person needs from their religion—needs of moral assurance tend to lead to legalism, which is usually the core of a cultural religion.
But more on all of this in a moment. First, I want to address a few of the consequences of cultural Christianity more broadly before further exploring what it looks like and the harm that it causes in the hands of this second group.
Broadly, two of the major consequences of cultural Christianity are that it hides the lost and that it damages the reputation of the Christian church.
The Bible clearly warns that not everyone who claims Jesus as Lord is actually saved. The reality of that statement is both frightening and heartbreaking.
And, unfortunately, people who call themselves Christians and believe themselves to be saved when they’re not are rather harder to identify than are unsaved people who don’t call themselves Christians.
As for the second issue, cultural Christians harm the reputation of the church by not living according to Godly values while claiming that they are doing just that. It causes a misrepresentation of the church in the eyes of the world. This can happen in many ways.
The obvious ones are very loud individuals who espouse views and rhetoric that are not Biblically supported (often with Bible verses taken out of context or misrepresented in order to bolster their claims).
However, there’s also a quieter impact: Statistics.
When cultural Christians don’t live lives that are in adherence with Godly values, the resulting statistics they create make Christians look like hypocrites. How can we claim to be different from the world if the statistics about us don’t look all that different from statistics about it?
With those negative impacts covered, let’s return to the topics of religion as moral security blanket and legalism, as these two things go hand-in-hand. I’ll explain how in a moment, but first I need to define legalism.
I’ve talked about legalism before, but to quickly summarize it: Legalism is the belief that moral purification can be achieved through obedience to a set of rules. By obeying these rules, a person can become morally good. This mindset also often leads to idolizing these rules.
A common path to developing a legalistic mindset is this: A person wants to be able to believe that they are a good person, but they don’t actually believe this. So they look to an outside source to be able to assuage them, something they can use to convince themselves they are good.
What this outside thing is can vary a great deal. When Christianity is sought in this way, it can easily fall into one of two extremes. The first is overemphasizing grace at the expense of holiness. The other is overemphasizing holiness at the expense of grace, which becomes legalism.
Briefly, the overemphasis of grace leads to erroneously turning grace into a license for immorality. Jude writes about this in verse 4 of his one chapter letter.
Jude 4—For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.The grace-filled forgiveness granted us by God through the blood of Jesus does not give us permission to pursue ungodly desires as we please. Rather, it is meant to reconcile us to God by washing away the sin that separates us from Him.
The path to this erroneous extreme is quite clear: One learns of grace, and sees it as saying that nothing that they do will count against them. They then think they will be saved regardless of their actions, thus they can do whatever they want without worrying about morality.
The path to legalism is less immediately obvious. However, it is likely more compelling for most people.
This path generally looks like this: A person feels like they are a bad person. However, they accept the idea that someone who obeys some set of rules is a good person. So they set out to obey that set of rules.
The way this works is that obeying the set of rules allows them to reflect on their obedience so that they can convince themselves that they are a good person. The desire to do this pushes for ever more specificity of the rules so that they can more solidly convince themselves of their goodness.
This tends to lead to very black-and-white thinking, with very strict, clearcut rules.
This is how the desire for a moral security blanket leads to legalism. Legalism becomes that security blanket, because a person can convince themselves that they’re good by using the evidence of their obedience to legalism’s rules.
Christianity proper has no room in it for this type of thinking. This is because it asserts that humans are intrinsically wicked, and we cannot obey our way into salvation. Instead, we must rely entirely on God. Paul writes about this in Ephesians 2:8-9, among many other locations.
Ephesians 2:8-9—For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul makes it resoundingly clear that obedience to the law cannot bring about salvation. I don’t have time to read the entire thing, though I do encourage you to do so (a link is in the description), but I think it is worth reading his conclusion in Galatians 2:21.
Galatians 2:21—I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!Therefore, Christian confidence does not come from what we do, but rather from our faith in what God has done.
But this requires a high degree of faith in who God is and what He has done—far more faith than a system based on works requires, because it is easy to believe in our own works.
So we see that a works-based mentality is incompatible with Christianity. However, those who simply seek to pacify their consciences with a legalistic moral security blanket will subconsciously take whatever system is available to them and turn it to this purpose, regardless of its suitability.
This, then, is what creates cultural Christianity, which tends to focus more on obedience to a moral code than it does on a maturing faith and deepening relationship with God. It creates rules for itself to follow, then justifies these rules using the Bible as best it can.
This is not unlike the ways of the Pharisees. For, though Judaism provides many laws, they were not clear enough nor plentiful enough for the Pharisees. And so they invented more, to the point that they traded God’s law for human tradition. Jesus rebuked them for this in Matthew 15:1-9.
Matthew 15:1-9—Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”Cultural Christians likewise do the same thing. Like the Pharisees, they get caught up in following human rules rather than seeking God and knowing Him. In this way, they act as those who still belong to the world, as Paul points out in Colossians 2:20-23.
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”
Colossians 2:20-23—Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.In the end, this pursuit of rules instead of the pursuit of God leads to self-righteousness and judgmentalism, both of which tarnish the reputation of Christianity. They also push people away from the faith, and can cause a great deal of psychological harm.
And if those extremely serious consequences weren’t enough, the pursuit of legalism can ultimately lead to the damnation of those who engage in it.
Thank you for listening. Until next time, take care, everyone. Buh-bye!