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7 principles for biblical cultural discernment

Updated: May 30

It is pretty clear that we now live in the most information-immersed society to date.  As of late 2023, a staggering 4.9 billion people use social media worldwide, a number that is expected to grow to nearly 6 billion by 2027.[i]  That is over half the world’s population.  What’s even more amazing is these users aren’t tied to a single platform, but have a digital footprint that spreads over 6-7 platforms each month.[ii]

 

In addition, YouTube is used by roughly 83% of all U.S. adults.[iii]  As Christians, we too often let these kinds of statistics scare us, or lead us into a negative space around engaging culture.  While we should remain vigilant and careful around what kind of information we are exposed to, we also need to do a much better job at intentionally seeking God’s wisdom as we interact with the ideas, philosophies and agendas that make up the cultural waters we are all swimming in.


As I speak to audiences and engage different demographics of Christians, the number one question I get is this: how can we engage culture without allowing it to disciple our hearts and minds away from Christ?


All throughout scripture, Christians are called not to conform to the world (Romans 12:2); not to make the world our friend (James 4:4); not to love the things of this world (1 John 2:15); and not to live as the people of this world live (Ephesians 4:17).  We are to stand out, be set apart, and grow each day into the image of Christ – ALL while being swept along by the tides of dominant culture. 


How can we live in a post-Christian society without blindly conforming to it’s ideas and values?  It isn’t easy, but it is our calling as counter-cultural Christians.  If you are raising kids today, it is crucial to be intentional about this.  If you are a campus minister, you have to learn how to speak the language of the next generation.  If you are a young person today, you need to know how culture is seeking to form you.  And if you are a leader in the church, your people are begging to be practically equipped.

 

The following are 7 principles for Biblical Cultural Discernment.  They certainly aren’t exhaustive, or the whole story, but I believe they can offer a good template of engagement for Christians of all ages.

 

do not fear culture

Here is a good broad definition of culture: “The characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”[iv]  Theologically, it is: “(From Lat. Colere, “to till,” “to cultivate)  Most generally, the description of all human endeavors and activities.”[v]  In other words, it is humans trying to make sense (cultivate) of all that God has made.

 

There may be some dangerous ideas in culture (some extremely dangerous!), but we probably shouldn’t approach it as if it were evil.  Our culture represents the fruit of men and women doing their best to find meaning.  I would say that search for meaning is a part of being made in the image of God.  In that sense, we are all stumbling around trying to find God in this world, even if we don’t call it that.  We would be wise to engage culture knowing that if we approach things spiritually, we can come to an understanding of who God is and how He desires a relationship with us (Proverbs 2:2-5).  In that sense, culture is a kind of blessing.

 

culture is fallen

The entire Biblical narrative is based on the fact that Satan confronted humans in the garden and intentionally distorted the words and motivations of God.  They fell for it, and decided to use their own wisdom to navigate life (Genesis 3). 

 

Since then, the story of humans has been a tragic misapplication of God’s truth.  Our world is a result of the Fall of man, the effects of sin.  In that sense, we will always find a mixture of good and bad ideas, solid wisdom and horribly distorted philosophies.  This should humble us, make us cautious about accepting society’s version of truth, and eager to discern what in our world is in line with how God sees things.  As smart and well-meaning as we humans are, we are fallen and imperfect people, in desperate need of an objective moral compass.


culture is not neutral

Way too many Christians naively walk through life.  Theologians often remind us that culture, even if it is secular, is religious.  It is trying to form us, and as people created for worship, we will end up worshipping something.

 

For example, social media is designed to feed you opinions that agree with your way of seeing the world, so do you really think there is no agenda?  Deeply entrenched political talking points are geared to draw you into one groups idea of truth, and our consumer-driven culture is steering you towards visions of reality made up by marketing executives.  So many more examples…

 

Our hearts and minds are being intentionally discipled to conform to the dominant culture, whether we know it or not.  Theologians call this “blind conformity,” unwittingly becoming like the things we value. 

 

We need to pay attention.

 

desire righteousness

Each morning I pray that God will keep my heart devoted to what HE values, and I thank Him that the words of scripture still convict and inspire me.  It is way too easy to mindlessly allow our thinking to go from sacred to secular.  The Psalmist tells us that when the fear of God is gone, it is difficult to even detect or hate our own sin (Psalm 36:1-2). 

 

What does it mean to desire righteousness?  It means we prioritize Biblical visions of life – we do our best to confess sin – we let spiritual people influence us – we seek to be Godly, not just church-goers – we try and practically apply scripture, repent often, and intentionally try to live a life modeled after Jesus.  It’s not easy, but once we become calloused to the things of God, the dominant culture around us will slowly define who we are and how we live.

 

start with scripture

Worldly wisdom and the prevailing philosophies of our day change with each generation.  The one thing that remains true and powerfully transformative is the Word of God (Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, Hebrews 4:12, 1 Peter 1:24-25).  Make no mistake, the number one goal of a post-Christian society is to remove or demolish anything that claims to be objective and undeniable truth, so the Bible is directly in the cross-hairs of culture.  Don’t fall for it.  The only way to make sense of this world is to start and end with the Holy scriptures, and use them to filter or evaluate everything you do.

 

Do your views on politics, race and sexuality line up with the values laid out in God’s word?  When you find an idea or philosophy particularly appealing, do you eagerly get advice from spiritual people and search the scriptures to see if it is consistent with God’s way of seeing life?

 

Once scripture is taken out of the mix, real truth is impossible to locate.

 

test everything

The apostle John tells his readers to test things to make sure they are valid: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)  That word test is dokimazō, which means to “examine, scrutinize, put on trial.”  Hmm, putting our ideas on trial before God?

 

Satan is so good at offering us falsehoods that look so true and right.  Christians need to be discerning people, holding all ideas up to the light of scripture, asking questions like: is the foundation of this idea or practice in line with God’s truth?  Are these ideas leading me closer to God’s vision of life, or farther away?  Are they making me closer to my brothers and sisters, or more suspicious?  Do secular ideas water down God’s truth about sin and judgment?  So many more…do not blindly conform to society’s vision of life – test everything to make sure it contains God’s truth.

 

exercise humility


The church is a diverse body of believers (1 Cor. 12:12-27).  Each one has a unique family of origin, collection of life experiences, and set of values through which they see the world.  Don’t be surprised if agreement on approaches to culture within the church gets a little messy at times.  All of us need to embrace Paul’s instructions to a church in Ephesus that was full of Jews and Gentiles, people who saw the world in very different ways:

 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:2-3

 

Individual cultural discernment is tested when brought into congregational conversation.  Be patient if others don’t see things exactly the way you do, or come to the same conclusions about what kinds of things are healthy or right. 

 

Having said that, church leadership needs to actively guide people in the way they determine is right, studying out difficult issues and finding unity on approaches that the entire church will need to consider and abide by.

 

This really is the hard work of living as counter-cultural Christians in a complex and godless age, but the work is worth it, and in the end will show a lost world a church that acts as that “city set on a hill” that Jesus calls us to (Matthew 5:14).

 

Daren

 


[i] (2023, May 18). Top Social Media Statistics and Trends of 2024. Forbes Advisor. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/business/social-media-statistics/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] (2024, January 31). Americans' Social Media Use. Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2024/01/31/americans-social-media-use/

[iv] (2024, January 31). Culture. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture

[v] McKim, D. K. (1996). Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. John Knox Press.

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