When I was at University, there was a general animosity between those who majored in sciences and those who majored in arts. There was also animosity between those in sciences and engineering. We (science majors) were fighting a war on two fronts, see. I remember a friend once telling me this joke:
"What's the difference between yogurt and engineers?"
"Yogurt has culture."
I've been considering the question of culture recently. As far as I can tell, there are three basic approaches to the question of culture as it relates to the Church:
1. The Culture follows the Church. This would be the general approach of the "Religious Right": the Dobson-listening, Promise-keeping, Abortion-protesting people. These people believe it's the place of the Church to lead the Culture. In American evangelicalism, this is generally the "conservative" group.
2. The Church follows the Culture. This is the general view of the "liberal" branch of Evangelicalism. This is the approach that publishes gender-neutral Bible "translations", builds seeker-friendly mega-churches with classes on self-esteem, and ordains clergywomen.
3. The Church transcends the Culture. This is those who want to go between the horns of the dilemna. I suppose most genuine awakenings, renewals, and revivals started out this way; although they tend to settle eventually into one of the first two approaches.
I want to briefly argue that the correct approach is the third one: that it is most Biblical. However, there are traps there too.
I suppose it's obvious that the second approach is fundamentally incongruous with a literal view of Scripture. That is, it's not possible to follow the culture around us and Scripture at the same time. If you want to accept the values of the culture around us, you need to reject the values of the Scripture. There's no other way: society says we ought not to speak against various sexual perversions; Scripture explicitly does so. By American culture's standards, the Bible is certainly hate speech. You can't possibly reconcile Scripture to culture's values.
And perhaps I better point out that it's not only the liberals who choose culture over Scripture: conservatives do it too. Scripture certainly shoots liberal sacred cows; but conservative sacred cows are no safer. Scripture condemns the love of money as surely as it condemns homosexuality. Scripture condemns murder (whether through abortion or through "pre-emptive strikes") as surely as it condemns sexual promiscuity.
If you try to listen to both the culture and the Scripture, you'll end up having to choose between them. You can't choose both. If you choose to accept the culture's values and reject Scripture; that's your problem---it's not really any of my business. But I can't go along with you on that.
Now, the first approach (The Culture follows the Church) has as many problems. That is, there are equally intractable problems which eventually surface when we try to lead the culture. Fundamentally, the problems come to this: you can't expect people to act contrary to their nature. Unbelievers are children of wrath by nature (Ephesians 2:3). That is, they don't gradually develop into that: they are born that way. So, in fact, are believers. But the quickening of the one born of God is fundamentally lacking in the unregenerate. I remember once telling a class in a Christian school where I was teaching: "Let's suppose you were able to outlaw homosexuality. Let's further suppose you were able to actually enforce it, so that no man or women would engage in it any more. What do you think would happen? Those gay men would get girlfriends... they were fornicating before, they'll be fornicating afterwards. You would not actually have accomplished anything."
There is a certain level of morality in every person, and government fundamentally exists to legislate morality. Even the degenerate culture around us will balk at some things. But watch closely: those boundaries will be pushed too. TV and movies have succeeded in making homosexuality acceptable; they're already working on polygamy. I honestly expect society to eventually condone pedophilia; but they haven't yet. There are still some things they won't do, although that list appears to be shrinking constantly.
To expect the world that hated the Lord Jesus and crucified Him to bow to the demands of Scripture is foolish. They hate God, why would they choose to obey Him? "And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper" (Romans 1:28, NASB). It is not that the unregenerate were ignorant of God (at least, not at the start); but that "they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer". They knew who He was, and chose to forget.
And lest we forget: the Lord Jesus will eventually deal with culture. But that's our hope, not our present reality. We are waiting for the Son of God from Heaven, or ought to be.
I think the third approach is most Biblical. That is, the truth of Scripture transcends culture. It really doesn't matter what the culture around us says: we need to accept what the Word of God says. Conversely, we can't expect the culture around us to conform to our standards. Rather, we are to guard against being conformed to its: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2, NASB).
Does this mean we are to have no affect on the world around us? Not exactly. What it means is, we are to care about the individuals. The Lord Jesus didn't come to fix a culture: He came to seek and save sinners. Similarly, we are to look for the individuals. The culture as a whole is not our concern. We are neither to imitate it, nor demand it imitate us.
It is certainly possible that we'll affect enough individuals that we'll achieve a sort of critical mass in the culture, and the culture will change. But that's no measure of success: gross injustice is entirely possible in an overtly "Christian" culture; slavery (for example) flourished in the "Christian" culture of ante-bellum America. Conversely, a "Christian culture" can be full of unregenerates who are members of the national church: reformed Europe comes to mind.
But there needs to be the honest concern and care for the individual. Cultures won't burn in Hell, people will. So I completely reject the idea that we are to "reach our culture for Christ". It's nonsense: the Lord Jesus saves sinners, not cultures.
Please note, this is not to say that culture doesn't matter. If nothing else, we can't very well reach people whose language we don't speak. Culture matters, but our reaction to it must be transcendent, not combative or imitative.
Perhaps that's a good place to pause for now.