I’ve had conversations with Christians, and heard missionaries or public speakers, who champion the idea of redeeming the culture. As best I understand, they mean that we as Christians can take elements of our culture that may have been created for evil purposes and transform them into tools for use in the service of Christ. From my experience, when Christians speak of “redeeming the culture,” they often are referring to the idea of adopting secular music styles for use in the church. Since the building blocks of music are morally neutral, and the music itself is not the problem, we simply need to infuse this music with thoroughly Christian elements. Then we can use it in our churches. This is not only a permissible thing to do, it’s actually good stewardship of what God has made (Colossians 1:16-17). It is well-pleasing in God’s sight. It is the act of redemption being carried out before our very eyes.
I may be oversimplifying things, but I hope I have fairly expressed the core argument. To be clear, I am not saying that this is the only line of reasoning Christians follow when adopting secular music styles for use in the church. But it is one I hear fairly frequently. Yet rarely do I hear any serious discussion of this concept on biblical grounds.
So I’d like to ask the question: is “redeeming the culture” a biblical concept?
This is a big question, one that will take some time and careful thought to unfold. Today I’d like to focus what the Bible means by the word “redeem.” And, to do that, we need to start with a love story from the Old Testament.
Redemption in Ruth
Most of us are familiar with the story of Ruth. God providentially preserves the line of the Messiah through the loyal love of two individuals, Boaz and Ruth. As far as stories go, it’s like the mother of all Hallmark movies. It’s a tear-jerking, warm-and-fuzzy feeling, domesticated, suspenseful romance thriller (OK, maybe I got carried away just a little bit). We could draw a lot out of the story of Ruth, but what I want to focus on is the role of the kinsman redeemer.
Understanding the Drama
What most people don’t realize is that the act of redemption, or redeeming, finds it’s origin in Old Testament Israelite law. Only a kinsman redeemer (גֹאֵל in the Hebrew) could “redeem.” For two widowed women in Israel, Naomi and Ruth, the mere presence of a kinsman redeemer would give them hope of provision, protection, and direction. Women had no legal representation in court (the city gate) without a male relative. Without a male kinsman representing them in court, they couldn’t keep their land or work it (provision), they couldn’t defend themselves against a physical threat (protection), and they couldn’t make any legal transactions (direction).
Compounding this problem is the fact that each male continued the family line. With Naomi’s husband Elimelech dead and both of her sons Mahlon and Chilion deceased, Naomi had no legal representative and no way to continue the family line. She was long past child-bearing age, and Ruth was a despised, widowed Moabitess.
Not only did the men continue the family line, they also retained possession of the family property. God gave every family its promised “lot,” so the land was a crucial aspect of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. Families weren’t supposed to lose land, and it was a tragedy when it happened. Naomi stands on the brink of tragedy. In fact, the land is so important that “the land is mentioned before the lady” in the big court scene of Ruth.  Naomi needs help, and only one person can help her.
The Necessity of a Kinsman Redeemer
Enter Boaz. Naomi gets pretty excited when Ruth tells her mother-in-law that Boaz has noticed Ruth. Why? Boaz is one of their kinsman redeemers (Ruth 2:20). And when his punk relative refuses his responsibility as the nearest male kin to “redeem” (buy) Ruth and “redeem” (buy) Naomi’s land, Boaz gladly takes charge as next in line. Quite literally, as “the man of the family,” Boaz was a legal representative in court for Naomi and Ruth.
Why does it matter? Because we will never properly understand the act of redemption until we understand the office of the redeemer. Redemption, at its heart, is a technical transaction term. It means “to buy something.” It could be used to describe the process of purchasing slaves in the Old Testament. But only certain people, redeemers, could practice the act of redemption. If you read the story of Ruth closely, you find that Boaz bought the land and the lady (Ruth 4:9-10). Is that weird? To us, yes. To them, no. It was how society functioned.
And this simple truth unlocks a whole new world for our understanding of the Bible.
Redemption in the Old Testament
Once I understood the role of the kinsman redeemer in the book of Ruth, I had to dig deeper. Ruth is the best story in the Old Testament that sheds light on how the Israelites understood the role of the kinsman redeemer, but we have other passages. And these passages do not give us the “feel good” warm and fuzzies of Hallmark movies (see Genesis 38 for a negative contrasting story that later comes up in Ruth 4:12).
What was the role of the kinsman redeemer in the Old Testament?
- Protect hereditary property (Leviticus 25:25-30)
- Protect individual liberty (Leviticus 25:47-55)
- Carry out capital punishment (Numbers 35:12, 19-28)
- Receive restitution for crimes against deceased family members (Numbers 5:8)
- Pursue justice in court on behalf of a relative (Job 19:25; Psalm 119:154; Jeremiah 50:34)
We’ve already seen #1., #2., and #5. in the story of Ruth. But check out #3. and #4. Carrying out capital punishment? Resolving crimes against deceased family members? These are not tasks for the faint of heart. These are government-backed matters of legality that a kinsman redeemer was obligated to carry out. He had the power of attorney. And executioner of vengeance.
Testing the Theory
Any time you make an assertion about the interpretation of a text, it’s good to test your idea in other passages. Consider this statement from Job in the midst of his trials.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Here we find the same Hebrew word as in the book of Ruth. Job wanted to meet God in spiritual court and have his case pled by a legal representative. He felt as if he had been treated unfairly and wanted to launch a defense.
Consider David. He, too, wanted God to save him from his troubles by representing him in divine court when he cried out,
Plead my cause and redeem me;
give me life according to your promise!
We often interpret this idea through the lens of our New Testament assumptions. But, in order to accurately apply the idea of redemption to the New Testament and to our lives today, we first need to understand what it meant in the Old Testament.
Applying the Truth
What I find in the Old Testament is the redeemer filling a particular role in an intensely personal way. He performs legal transactions in court that include both the purchase of people and property. He carries out legal judgment for the safety of his family. He directs, protects, and provides for those under his care.
When I take this concept of redemption and apply it to the concept of “redeeming the culture,” I run into two huge problems.
If we are redeeming something, I have to ask myself who fits this role of “redeemer.” The kinsman redeemer is a role reserved for the Old Testament Israelite males who provided leadership for their family units. Nowhere in the church do we find Christians fulfilling this role. We do, however, have one New Testament passage in which Stephen calls Moses (surprise!) a “ruler and redeemer” (Acts 7:35).
You probably know where this is going; the only person who “redeems” anything in the New Testament is God, in Jesus Christ. My next blog post will focus on the act of God’s redemption in the New Testament. But for now we need to be honest and say New Testament believers have never, ever been commanded to “redeem” anything (I’ll deal with Colossians 4:5 and Ephesians 5:16 next time). That simply is not our role. And next time we’ll see why it actually distorts the gospel to say otherwise.
Nowhere in the Bible, in either the Old Testament or the New, is the act of “redeeming” divorced from a relational context. When we use an amorphous phrase like “redeeming the culture” we rip the idea of redemption out of its intending context (for you language nerds, semantic domain).
This may get a little bit deep, but let me share with you a quote from a popular evangelical book on poverty alleviation that supports the idea of redeeming the culture from Colossians 1:16-17.
“Hence, Christ is actively engaged in sustaining the economic, social, political, and religious systems in which humans live. There is certainly real mystery here, but the central point of Scripture is clear: as humans engage in cultural activity, they are unpacking a creation that Christ created, sustains, and as we shall see later, redeems” [emphasis added]. 
I am glad they give credit to Christ as the Redeemer. But notice how “cultural activity” suddenly becomes the focal point of our purpose here on earth. And notice that the focus of Christ’s redemption has suddenly shifted from people, the image-bearing crown of His creation, to encompass all of creation. These authors have grounded their intepretation of Scripture in secular cultural anthropology arguments rather than biblical theology. That shift, though subtle, is seismic.
I find no place in Scripture that teaches Christ will redeem creation or the cultural activity that goes with it. I do find a promise that God will reverse the curse on the physical earth. And I find the promise of Christ redeeming fallen people. But I do not find cultural redemption anywhere in Scripture. That is because redemption is an exclusively personal act. So it is not our job to “engage in cultural activity” by “unpacking a creation that Christ created.”
It’s time we challenged the concept of “redeeming the culture.” If we ignore the Old Testament truths that ground our New Testament understanding, we begin drifting like a lazy beach swimmer on the current of the waves. We drift so far we even threaten to distort the gospel. We’ll dive into that topic next time as we look at redemption more closely in the New Testament.
 Corbett, Steve, & Fikkert, B. (2012). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.