By Alyssa Roat, Crosswalk.com
Being a Christian in the first century was countercultural. Christians were persecuted, killed, and even fed to beasts for sport in the Roman Coliseum. To be a Christian, a person had to be willing to give up everything for Christ.
However, as time went on, Christianity became more acceptable. In 313, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, declaring Christianity legal in the empire. By the middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church held more power than most secular rulers in Europe. Even once the 1800s hit and the United States of America continued to grow, Americans considered the country a “Christian nation.”
It became comfortable to be a Christian. It was respected, even expected. Folks could freely call themselves “Christian” (even if they’d never prayed) just because their family and neighbors were Christians.
But as cultural Christianity rose, biblical Christianity suffered. The lines between the two became blurred. So what is the difference?
Here are 5 ways cultural Christianity is different than biblical Christianity:
1. Anyone can be a cultural Christian.
Renowned atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion and Outgrowing God, among many other books) has on several occasions identified himself as a “cultural Christian.” He recognizes the benefits of Christian morality and celebrations, though he does not believe in God and is outspoken against religion.
This example shows how anyone can be a “cultural” Christian. Anyone can recognize the cultural or moral benefits of Christianity without embracing Christ or even belief in God at all.
On the other hand, biblical Christianity is nothing less than a commitment to serving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the Son of God, and surrendering oneself to Him for salvation and forgiveness.
2. Cultural Christianity is comfortable.
In a “Christian” nation that generally adheres to Christian principles of treating people well and striving for peace and justice, it’s comfortable to claim Christianity. There are no downsides socially, and it means that one can look to religion for comfort when necessary.
In this case, cultural Christianity is often called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This belief is usually not clearly expressed, but involves a belief in a loving, mostly hands-off God who wants everyone to be nice to each other and happy.
This God might occasionally step in to help when needed if a person asks. Good people go to heaven, and most people are categorized as “good.” Sin doesn’t figure much into the picture.
In contrast, Biblical Christianity requires something of believers. God is not a genie who grants wishes when needed and spends the rest of his time happily in the lamp. He is an immense, powerful God intimately involved in the minutiae of the world who places demands on His people.
He is not “okay with whatever” as long as people get along. He condemns sin and enacts justice. He’s more interested in a person’s eternal wellbeing than their temporal happiness. This God requires commitment, repentance from sins, and a relationship with His followers.
3. Cultural Christianity is more about outward appearance than personal relationship with Christ.
Cultural Christianity embraces being pleasant, gathering with other friendly people, and enjoying the benefits of a comfortable social environment. The cultural Christian might even have a fish bumper sticker and attend church from time to time.
However, this cultural Christianity misses out on the most important aspect of Christianity. Biblical Christianity emphasizes a relationship with Christ. What defines a Christian is not who one associates with or how often one sets foot in a church. Rather, it is the relationship one has with the risen Christ and God the Father.
A biblical Christian is defined by communication with and submission to God. Those who adhere to only cultural Christianity miss out on the true joy of Christianity: knowing God.
4. Cultural Christianity picks and chooses.
When culture and Christianity clash, the cultural Christian adjusts his or her worldview accordingly.
Cultural Christianity focuses on passages about loving everyone and a caring God and ignores passages about sin, death, and repentance. When directives in the Bible don’t line up with what the cultural Christian wants to do, a person will rationalize that God doesn’t care, as long as they’re a nice person.
When culture dismisses claims of the Bible as fanciful, such as the miracles and divinity of Jesus, the cultural Christian is often willing to acknowledge Jesus as a “good man” or the historical books of the Old Testament as moralistic tales rather than history.
Biblical Christianity embraces the fullness of the Bible, even when it is unpopular or uncomfortable. Biblical Christianity puts the Bible first, culture second. All of the Bible is considered the true, inspired Word of God (see Hebrews 4:12).
5. Cultural Christianity requires little sacrifice.
It doesn’t take much to claim the label of Christianity. Being a “nice person” doesn’t take much either; a nice person tends to get what he or she wants. Being nice and tolerant leads to acceptance from culture, as does putting in the occasional hours of community service or donating a few dollars to a worthy cause.
However, Jesus didn’t say Christianity would be easy. He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Jesus also expected that Christianity would be hard to swallow:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)
Jesus demanded radical sacrifice. To the rich man he said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
Eleven out of twelve of the apostles died martyrs. Even John, the only apostle believed to have died peacefully, faced persecution and exile on the Isle of Patmos before his death.
The New Testament Christians were generous givers to anyone who had need. Acts records of the early church,
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)
John put it bluntly.
“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19).
Being a Biblical Christian is more than believing; it means giving up everything to God. Though God may require different things from different people, He will never accept being an afterthought. God demands to be the center of our lives. All actions and thoughts are to be informed by allegiance to Him; He is to be our greatest joy and fulfilment.
Only biblical Christianity offers true hope for all.
However, a history of cultural Christianity still has a grip on today’s Christians. As the public popularity of Christianity dwindles, a nominal, cultural Christianity will not be able to stand in the face of advancing secularism. Only a biblical Christianity based on the Bible and a relationship with Jesus Christ will be able to offer hope to the world.
Suggestions for further reading:
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Benjavisa
Alyssa Roat is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. More than a hundred of her works have been featured in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.