Redeeming the Culture (part 2)

It’s been a few weeks since I posted part 1 of this discussion. Since that time I have had the opportunity to listen to others, dig deeply, and gather a bit more insight into the concept of “redeeming the culture.” I even stumbled across a website where a guy had posted recordings of a video game he was playing. At different points in the game he overlayed Bible verses on the screen that highlighted the redemptive aspects of his gaming habits. You can’t make this stuff up.

Today I’d like to address some of the objections I received to my last post. cloudvisual-208962-unsplashSo grab the popcorn, it’s gonna be good! After dealing with these objections, I want to bring us back to why this all matters. I want to bring us back to the gospel.

Objections

  1. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do admit I have a limited perspective on this topic. I also need to point out, however, that blogging is not the best medium for extensive, in-depth discussion. My last blog post more than doubled the length of what I should write. And I’m sure a lot of people didn’t read it for that reason. So why write about this now?

    I tackled this concept because I wanted to hear back from people and learn more. But I also wanted to make a theological point that seems to be missing from the discussion. And, as it turns out, I’m not alone. After I wrote part 1 of this series, I discovered a theologian none other than D.A. Carson wrote a book several years ago entitled “Christ and Culture Revisited.” Apparently Carson doesn’t like the phrase “redeeming the culture” either. It turns out Tim Keller is in the same boat. I merely mention these men to point out I’m not alone.

    There is a lot more to read and discuss. But for now I am purposefully focusing these posts on the theological concept of redemption. I hope it provides you with some food for thought.

  2. You have misunderstood what the phrase “redeeming the culture” means.Last time I stated that redemption in the Old Testament is relational in nature. Even if property is involved, the role of kinsman redeemer was always filled by a particular person. And I made the argument that the only Redeemer in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. We are not in the position to redeem anything, especially culture.

    But—some have objected—we are commanded to redeem some things. We are told to “redeem the time” in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5 (KJV). It’s true, the Greek word in those passages literally means to “buy up” something. But Paul is using a metaphor. It’s very much like our modern phrase, “buying time.” We all know you can’t actually buy time. What we are really saying is a person is trying to make the best use of their time.

    So some proponents say that “redeeming the culture” simply means “making best use of the culture.” It’s not a term loaded with any theological meaning. It’s simply a metaphor, so don’t bring theology into this.
    ben-white-197668-unsplash
    But here’s my problem with that argument. If you read the modern translations, the vast majority of them no longer use the word “redeeming” in Ephesians 5:16 or Colossians 4:5 as in the KJV. Why? Because it’s clearly a metaphor. We do not want to confuse a New Testament concept as crucial as redemption. So, for clarity and accuracy, the translations say something like “making the best use of the time.” Even BDAG, the best Greek lexicon, makes it clear these verses use the word metaphorically (“to gain something, especially advantage or opportunity, make the most of“). The command is that we make the best use of something, not redeem it.

    IF (and that’s a big “if”) proponents of “redeeming the culture” intend to use the word “redeeming” or the concept of redemption metaphorically, I’d suggest they follow the lead of Bible translators and stop using the words “redeeming” or “redemption.” It gives the false impression that “redeeming the culture” is rooted in a theological argument, when in reality it is only a metaphor.

    But the bigger problem is proponents of “redeeming the culture” do in fact have a theological motivation for their view. “Redeeming the culture” is more than a simple metaphor. So they have hijacked redemption terminology to serve their theological view. What is that theological view?

  3. Redeeming the culture is a biblical mandate.
    I was not surprised to discover proponents of “redeeming the culture” use Genesis 1:28 to support their view. It says,And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

    Many Christians believe this passage provides a mandate for all of humanity. We have obligations to fulfill before God, “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Some Christians take that logic a step further and teach that part of exercising this dominion over the earth includes “redeeming the culture.”

    However, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Kevin Bauder has a helpful short article challenging the notion of a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28. He makes the point that God is blessing Adam and Eve rather than commanding them (as God says at the very beginning of the verse). I would encourage you to read the article. Through my own personal study of blessing terminology in the Old Testament I can say Bauder is definitely on to something here. I believe Genesis 1:28 teaches we are the blessed, crown-jewel of God’s creation. This is who we are (an ontological reality); we are blessed image-bearers of God.

    While we were made in the image of God, we were also created for a purpose. And, I believe, that purpose in our age is to preach the gospel. When we set our focus on “redeeming the culture” instead of (or in addition to) preaching the gospel, we damage the gospel in two crucial ways.

The Gospel Mandate

First, there is a Redeemer, and I am not it. This world needs so much more than any “cultural transformation” I can offer. They need Christ! I dare not substitute my works, which are filthy rags apart from faith in Christ, for the finished work of the Messiah. It’s not just a poor trade—it’s a destructive one that robs God of His glory. Redemption is not something Christ has called us to accomplish, because He’s already done it.aaron-burden-233841-unsplash.jpg

Second, instead of focusing on making disciples of all nations, we may easily settle for something far less. Make no mistake—Christians should make a difference in this world. I am seriously committed to abolishing abortion in America and have given of my time and talents to help our nation to that end. But my image-bearing actions ought to shine as salt and light to point people to the one Redeemer Jesus Christ! As is so often true in Christianity, what we don’t say is as important as what we do say. I fear some have exchanged the gospel of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, with a man-centered view of cultural redemption. What good is a culturally reformed nation that will still die condemned to hell apart from Christ?

What it boils down to is two competing systems. One system says the cultural mandate is our first priority, while the other says the gospel is our first priority. One view hijacks the idea of redemption to serve a theological system, the other view lifts up Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer for the sins of mankind. I know that some of my good brothers and sisters in Christ may disagree. I only ask that you carefully consider what I say in light of Scripture. We need to be careful, lest we rob God of the glory that is due His name.

CP

Redeeming the Culture (part 1)

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.

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The mountains of Moab, Ruth’s homeland, beyond the Dead Sea at sunrise

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. [1]  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?

  1. Protect hereditary property (Leviticus 25:25-30)
  2. Protect individual liberty (Leviticus 25:47-55)
  3. Carry out capital punishment (Numbers 35:12, 19-28)
  4. Receive restitution for crimes against deceased family members (Numbers 5:8)
  5. Pursue justice in court on behalf of a relative (Job 19:25; Psalm 119:154; Jeremiah 50:34)

wesley-tingey-1516402-unsplashWe’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.
Job 19:25-27b

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!
Psalm 119:54

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.

Problem #1

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.

Problem #2

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]. [2]

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.

CP

 

[1] Cundall, A. E., & Morris, L. (1968). Judges and Ruth: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 273). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Corbett, Steve, & Fikkert, B. (2012). When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.