Christians have always wrestled with how they should respond to the cultures around them. On the one hand, we recognize the goodness of God's creation and His common grace upon all people. On the other hand, we recognize that people are sinful and that the world is hostile to God and to Christians. So what are we to do?
There have traditionally been three basic answers to the question of how we should relate as Christians, and more specifically churches, to the culture of the unbelieving world around us.
The first answer was that Christians should completely separate themselves from the unbelieving world. We should avoid doing whatever unbelievers do simply because they are unbelievers. We should automatically and in every case be different than they are.
This view highlights the antithesis that exists between good and evil in our world, and insists that since good should never mix with evil, therefore Christians should have no similarities with unbelievers. Churches in particular should be completely separated from secular governments, and Christians should avoid active participation in those governments. This view characterized many Anabaptists and their descendants, including Mennonites and Amish.
The opposite answer to this question was that Christians and their churches should be active in the world, seeking to transform that world with the gospel. Christ is Lord of all, they argue, and thus it is the mission of churches to assert that lordship in all realms of life. Churches should be active in governmental affairs, in cultural endeavors and in feeding the poor and pursuing social justice in the world.
This view is built off of the assumption that God's purpose in the world is to redeem all things, and thus the church should be active even now in pursuing that redemption. It highlights the doctrine of common grace, insisting that nothing in culture is inherently sinful or beyond Christian use. This view is often called Transformationalism, Neo-Calvinism or Neo-Kyperianism and characterizes many Reformed groups.
A mediating position argues that Christians are members of two kingdoms: As Christians, we are members of the kingdom of God; as humans, we are members of the kingdom of this world. As Christians, we should be active in gospel pursuits, and as humans, we should be active in society pursuing the good of our fellow man.
This view also makes another important distinction: these two kingdoms have their own governments. The kingdom of God is governed by the church and regulated by Scripture; the kingdom of this world is governed by human government and regulated by natural law. These separate governments do not have authority over the other kingdom. In other words, civil governments have no authority over spiritual matters, and likewise churches should not be involved in temporal matters. This view characterized Lutherans and other Reformed groups.
The Separatist view helpfully recognizes the hostility of the world, but it tends to forget that God gives common grace even to unbeliever, that God is at work in the world, and that even unbelievers can do relatively "good" things.
The Transformationalist view recognizes that goodness, but tends to ignore that some culture is inherently sinful. It also erroneously equates God's purposes and Jesus' mission in the world with the church's mission. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians commanded to redeem anything, and the church's mission is explicitly to make disciples rather than "transforming culture."
The Two Kingdom view recognizes both the inherent hostility of the world and the common grace of God at work. It also helpfully distinguishes between Christians as individuals and their responsibility to work for the good of their fellow humans and the institutional church that is regulated by explicit biblical mandates regarding its mission. Churches are active in proclaiming the Gospel and discipling converts who will then go out into the world and work for the good of the society.
Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol.