When Culture is Right and the Church is Wrong

Support for marriage equality grew considerably after the turn of the century. According to a recent Pew study, 57% of Americans opposed it in 2001 and only 35% favored it. But in 2016, those numbers flipped with 55% of Americans favoring it and only 37% opposing it.

Though opposing marriage equality was the historic position of the church, Christians appear to be following culture as another Pew study shows 54% of them favored it in 2014. Among them, 70% of Catholics and 66% of mainline Protestants favored it with evangelicals lagging behind at 36%.

While the majority of all Trinitarian Christian sects now support marriage equality, evangelicals remain the only stubbornly opposed segment. And a big part of their opposition is found in the concept of cultural capitulation.

Apart from a hermeneutic that views most didactic texts in Scripture as universal, the reason most evangelicals refuse to even entertain favorable arguments for marriage equality is because they believe that congruence with culture is capitulation. Any attempt to defend it invariably ends with this tired rebuttal: "I think you're just trying to be accepted by culture." 

The cultural capitulation argument is ultimately an ad hominem that appeals to motive, but it is grounded in the assumption of counter-culturalism or the belief that true Christianity is naturally opposed to the culture of the day.

For example, Paul's words about not being conformed to the world are often appropriated without regard for its context of unity, modesty, and love. Likewise, numerous books have been published on the subject from Carl Henry's Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture to David Platt's Counter Culture.

The Supreme Court's ruling in favor of marriage equality two years ago provided another occasion for evangelicals to rally the troops with counter-culturalism. Following the decision, megachurch pastor Carey Nieuwhof argued that the church has always been counter-cultural:
Regardless of your theological position, all your views as a Christian are counter-cultural and always will be.
Many have contended with the statement, none more succinctly than Steve Thorngate:
If all your views are countercultural, then you aren't really engaging the culture at all, other than to oppose it.
Jesus couldn't agree more as he called us to be as savory and pleasant as salt. Though he warned us that we would be hated for his sake, he did not say this as a challenge but as a warning that our defining characteristics of love and unity would enrage God's enemies.

In other words, Christianity has never been de facto counter-cultural. Like every community, the church opposes mainstream thought at times, but counter-culturalism is a wholly irrelevant barometer for a religion built on unity, not division. And it assumes that the church is always right and culture is always wrong.

The Galileo affair was a particularly embarrassing moment for the church as it resisted the cultural tide of heliocentrism with overwrought proof texts. Especially the repeated Scriptural refrain that the world is firmly established and cannot be moved. Much like the anti-homosexuality proof texts, these verses were seen as irrefutable evidence that the earth could not possibly move, let alone revolve around the sun.

Science has since vindicated the culture of the day and shamed the church for ardently opposing that which it did not bother to consider.

Troublesome as it's been for science, the church's counter-culturalism has been far worse for African-Americans. Most Christians are probably unaware that the largest evangelical denomination was partly founded in support of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thornton Stringfellow, a nineteenth century preacher, made the early views of the Southern Baptist Convention painfully clear--in direct opposition to America's growing discomfort with slavery:
[God] established slavery by law in that kingdom over which he condescended to preside; and to Jesus, who recognized it as a relation established in Israel by his father, and in the Roman government by men, which he bound his followers to obey and honor.
Stringfellow also argued that slavery prevented the "eternal ruin" of black people based on an ancient curse. Genesis recounts Noah cursing Ham's son, Canaan: "The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." And since Ham was believed to be the ancestor of Africans, it followed that all black people were damned and in need of the gospel through benevolent slaver-owners such as himself.

We have since been reminded through Dr. King's allusion to Galatians that no race or class separates us from the gospel, and that the church was wrong in its support of slavery (the SBC formally apologized in 1995).

Sometimes cultural capitulation is bad thing, like when the church got in bed with the state and created a holy empire guilty of numerous crimes against humanity. Other times it's merely a reflection of innovation and progress, like heliocentrism and evolution or civil rights and gay rights.

Let Scripture be your counsel and the Spirit through the church your guide rather than arbitrary rubrics. We've been wrong before, but when the majority of the church shifts from hate to love, I have to think we're right.

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes via Foter.com / CC BY-SA


  1. Good post.

    If you think about it, it’s clear why Evangelicals think God is against homosexuality. Without an understanding of evolution, it sure looks like men and women were designed—meant—for each other. Their position makes sense in that context. To them, God is involved. Look at sexual complementarianism. It’s obvious it was designed by God. Insert Flange A into Slot B. Their rejection of evolution dovetails with their belief in the Bible as God’s word. God has spoken.

    So . . . case closed.

    They can’t even hear your arguments.

    For example, gay evangelicals, like Matthew Vines, say that what Christians are essentially saying is gays can’t have love in their lives.

    That makes absolutely no sense to evangelicals. When you say that to them, all they hear is that trombone sound the grown-ups make on the old Peanuts TV specials: bwup-bwup-bwup.
    Evangelicals reject outright the idea that Jesus came to facilitate the self-actualization of humans—to help us be the best people we can be, the most fulfilled. We all have to make sacrifices, large and small. Everything for the Kingdom of God. Crucify the flesh and live for Christ.

    To their way of thinking, gays should feel ashamed of their inclinations. In fact, society’s loss of the whole concept of shame is just one of the evidences that everything’s going to hell in a handbasket.
    In other words, don’t waste your breath.

    1. Indeed. A very cogent response, thank you!

  2. This is a good topic to be discussed about marriage and I think people should not become blind to their ego nature and ignore people's happiness.


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