October 2019

Are Christianity and society in conflict?

Christopher Watkin

Are Christianity and society in conflict? by Christopher Watkin


We increasingly hear the argument that biblical values are in fundamental conflict with contemporary Western society, but is that really the case? This paper considers the example of freedom, a core value of Western liberal democracy and also a major biblical theme. Paul’s treatment of the dominant values of his day in 1 Corinthians 1 shows the inadequacy both of straightforwardly opposing biblical and societal values, and of seeing them in simple continuity. The paper draws implications from Paul’s cruciform account for the areas of evangelism, apologetics, and cultural critique.

Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.[1]

Help us to know you that we may truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom.[2]


A new conflict thesis

Our thoughts, attitudes and actions are shaped and given meaning by stories, even if those stories are false. The ‘conflict thesis’ of science and Christianity is one such story, peddling the widespread but incorrect idea that Christianity is and always has been the enemy of scientific progress. It has been expertly debunked by Alvin Plantinga and Peter Harrison among others,[3] but it nevertheless has an important and ongoing influence on public perception, with one survey showing that over half of Americans believe that science and religion are often in conflict.[4]

Today we are increasingly witnessing a similar – and similarly misconceived – ‘conflict thesis’, not this time between Christianity and scientific progress, but between Christianity and social progress. This narrative is most vigorously and unsubtly propounded by the new-atheist argument that religion ‘poisons everything’,[5] but it is increasingly being assimilated into more mainstream discourse with suggestions that religious rights and sensibilities are among the main obstacles to social progress in areas such as promoting equality and tackling climate change.[6] Two-in-three Australians think religion does more harm than good in the world, along with more than half of the British, French and German populations, with the global average nearing the tipping point of 50 per cent.[7]

This conflict thesis seeks to isolate Christianity from mainstream values such as justice, freedom, fairness and equality, just as the conflict thesis of science sought to isolate Christianity from the scientific inquiry and progress in which it has, as it happens, played such an important role. The implication of the thesis is often that society must be stripped of all Christian influence and meaningful presence in the public square if we are ever to achieve social progress.

In seeking to resist this growing conflict thesis, however, Christians must be careful not to underplay the real and important distinctions that exist between a biblical view of society and the unbiblical ideologies that, alongside the Christian tradition, shape contemporary society. A common alternative offered to the conflict thesis in mainstream society is a weak and fuzzy tendency to stress that Christianity, along with other major religions, is at bottom characterised by the same values of love, tolerance and respect that – so the argument goes – shape the contemporary secular West, and that there is no fundamental antithesis between this ‘essence’ of Christianity and the broader culture. Christianity becomes like Dante’s Virgil, a guide able to lead us only to the foothills of a modern pluralist democracy, at which point it must leave us to more worthy guides.

It is too simple to argue only that the values of our society are utterly antithetical to those of the Bible, just as it is too simple to argue only that they are in fundamental or ‘deep’ continuity. If Christians are to engage faithfully and carefully in debates about the relationship between Christianity and contemporary society then what is required is a more nuanced, biblical approach to culture that can take account of complex relationships between biblical and cultural values.

Christ and culture

St Pauls London

So how can we avoid either over-emphasising the continuity between biblical values and those of the modern West, or conversely over-emphasising their antithesis? Before we leap to a particular stance, let us consider one influential account of the possible options. In his classic treatment of Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr discerns five tendencies among Christian thinkers as they respond to the question of how Christ and culture are related. The first two are the most extreme, and they represent the positions of antithesis and continuity briefly sketched above:

•    ‘Christ against culture’ is the tendency of those who, like Tertullian and Tolstoy, hold that ‘The counterpart of loyalty to Christ and the brothers is the rejection of cultural society; a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world.’[8]

•    ‘The Christ of culture’ paradigm maintains, by contrast, that Christ and culture are in fundamental continuity, that there is no gap between them and that Christ is ‘the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace’.[9]

Niebuhr’s latter three positions describe what he calls the ‘church of the centre’, the more mainstream views in the history of Christian theology:

•    ‘Christ above culture’ is the position of the ‘synthesists’ like Clement of Alexandria and, supremely, Thomas Aquinas, who hold (contrary to the ‘Christ against culture’ position) that God is the Lord of culture, and (contrary to the ‘Christ of culture’ position) that God is not identified with but separate from culture.

•    ‘Christ and culture in paradox’ is Niebuhr’s term for the ‘dualists’ like Luther and Kierkegaard who reject any attempt to synthesise Christ and culture, and hold to the corruption and unworthiness of all human faculties and all human endeavour, including their own. If the synthesists present a nuanced version of the ‘Christ of culture’ position, then the dualists espouse a more sophisticated version of ‘Christ against culture’ for they ‘seek to do justice to the need for holding together as well as for distinguishing between loyalty to Christ and responsibility for culture’.[10]

•    Finally, ‘Christ the transformer of culture’ describes the position of ‘conversionists’ like John the evangelist and Augustine, who do not seek to escape this world to a spiritual reality either above or after it, but whose ‘interest is directed toward the spiritual transformation of man’s life in the world’[11] along with all aspects of culture.

Niebuhr warns against confusing these five ‘hypothetical types’ with ‘the rich variety and the colourful individuality of historical persons’.[12] No theologian, let alone movement, is adequately characterised by any one tendency alone.

Nuancing the debate

In one of the most thoughtful recent treatments of Niebuhr’s five tendencies, Don Carson cautions against hitching our wagon to any single one, but he similarly cautions against rejecting them out of hand either, with the exception of ‘the Christ of culture’ for which he admits it is ‘difficult to find any biblical warrant’.[13] Carson argues that the difficulty for the reader of Niebuhr is to know how to relate the different tendencies to each other, and to know what relative emphasis to accord to each one in any given context. This is also our question in the attempt of this paper to move beyond the ‘Christ against culture’ and ‘Christ of culture’ accounts of the relationship between social progress and Christianity.

For Carson, the best way to find the right emphases between Niebuhr’s five modes is to understand them in the context of the biblical storyline running through creation, fall, redemption and consummation, for ‘that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption.’[14] Such an ‘emplotted’ approach, taking the whole of the biblical plotline as a basis for Christian cultural critique, is an exhilarating prospect but alas one too expansive for the present paper.[15] I therefore propose to take just one key moment of the biblical plotline, namely the cross of Christ, and show how it is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:17–31 to analyse non-Christian values in a way that can be reduced neither to simple continuity nor to straightforward antithesis.[16] This worked example will indicate how a broader biblical theological approach to the ‘conflict thesis’ of Christianity and society might develop.


1. ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom…’

In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul identifies two dominant cultural values, one among Greeks of his time and one among the Jews. Jews demand signs (semeion, 1:22), that is, miraculous events. It seems uncertain at first what it is that the Jews prize in such miracles, but Paul makes it clear as the passage progresses by substituting wisdom/signs (1:22) with wisdom/power (1:24). The Jews desire a direct demonstration of God’s supernatural, miraculous power. Greeks, for their part, seek wisdom (sophia). Paul particularly has in mind rhetorical impressiveness and skill in debating (see verses 17 and 20). To help us appreciate Paul’s argument we can represent it in the form of a diagram, with this demand for signs and wisdom as a line ascending from left to right, the rising trajectory indicating that these values embody, for those who hold them, something to be desired.


2. ‘…but we preach Christ crucified…’

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but what they get from Paul is the word (logos, 1:18) of the cross. No amount of highfalutin rhetoric could hope to convey to a contemporary readership the outrageousness of the idea of ‘Christ crucified’ to ancient ears. It would be as oxymoronic as a boiling ice cube or a successful failure. So to claim for the cross anything like ‘wisdom’ or ‘power’ must have struck Corinthian ears as sarcastic and absurd. ‘Christ crucified’ is shown on our diagram by a line descending from left to right, representing the downward trajectory of Christ’s self-emptying on his journey to the cross.


3. ‘…a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…’

This message of Christ crucified, Paul insists, is judged by Jews and gentiles alike to be singularly unable to satiate their cultural thirst for wisdom and power. For the Greeks who seek wisdom the cross is stupid (moria, from which we get ‘moronic’) and for the Jews searching for a miraculous manifestation of God’s power it is a ‘stumbling block’ (skandalon, which can be translated both as ‘offence’ and ‘means of stumbling’ and is the root of the modern English ‘scandal’). The combined judgement of Jews and Greeks is that the cross is offensively stupid.

This dismissal of the cross on the grounds of its offensive stupidity is represented in our diagram by a descending line leading downwards to the right of the cross: Jews and Greeks have failed to find the power and wisdom they were looking for in the cross and are repulsed by it, turning away. The experience of the Jews and Greeks in Paul’s discourse can therefore be represented as the caret shape (^) forming the lower half of the diagram: when, in their search for powerful signs and wisdom, they encounter the word of the cross they find in it only stupidity and offence.


4. ‘…the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’.

Fourthly, however, this same crucified Christ is proclaimed by the apostle to be the power and wisdom of God. This is an ironic twist in the argument just as likely to raise ancient hackles and smirks as the affirmation that God’s Messiah could be crucified. According to Paul it is at the cross, seemingly the least likely of all places on earth, that the cultural values of power and wisdom find their ultimate expression and fulfilment.

Now we can follow the whole bottom-left to top-right diagonal: if the search for power and wisdom is to find its true object then it must pass through the cross to find God’s power and God’s wisdom, for as Paul reminds his readers ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (1 Corinthians 1:25). We can also follow a v-shaped path through the top half of the diagram: Christ crucified is revealed as God’s true power and wisdom.

We can now return to the question of the relationship between Christianity and cultural values. How shall we summarise Paul’s approach in this passage? Is it one of ‘Christ against culture’, ‘the Christ of culture’, or perhaps one of Niebuhr’s other modes? In truth, none of these modes alone is adequate to summarise Paul’s cruciform account of cultural values. He does not advise that the Greeks abandon their search for wisdom and the Jews their desire for power and pursue some unrelated values instead. Nor, however, does he counsel that the Greeks and Jews just continue on as they are, assuring them that they will find wisdom and power in the end if they continue to look for them apart from Christ. His understanding of the relationship between Christ and culture is much subtler than either of those options, or than any simple combination of them. On the one hand, the ‘stumbling block’ and ‘foolishness’ of the cross in Jewish and Greek eyes, is antithetical to their most cherished cultural values. But on the other hand Paul recognises that there is enough resonance between Greek wisdom and God’s wisdom, between Jewish power and God’s power, for them to carry the same name (if not, then Greek wisdom would be no more related to God’s wisdom than to any other of his attributes, and the Jews’ demand for powerful signs no more related to God’s power than to anything else about him). What Paul demands of the Greeks and Jews is that they transform their existing, inadequate understanding of wisdom and power into richer concepts shaped round the cross and resurrection of Christ.[17]

Antithesis, analogy, paradox and transformation are all present here but, importantly, these Niebuhrian modes are not equally distributed throughout 1 Corinthians 1, nor do they receive equal emphasis. It is the Bible’s plotline of Christ’s descent to the cross and subsequent resurrection that gives them their relative places and their relative weights.

Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom and moderns desire freedom

Let us now return to our own culture and our own time. What might Paul write about today’s society? Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, and modern westerners… well, what do we want? What cultural value would be highlighted in chapter 1 of ‘1 Parisians’, ‘1 New Yorkers’ or ‘1 Cantabridgians’?

One value with a very strong case to encapsulate contemporary Western desires and convictions is the value of freedom.[18] In an age cynical of ideals such as public service and integrity, freedom remains one of the few ideas that resonate widely across society. Freedom is everywhere: the European community sees itself as promoting the four freedoms: free movement of goods, of capital, of persons, and freedom to establish and provide services, while proponents of Brexit similarly argue using the language of freedom.[19] We prize our freedoms of speech, of conscience, and of the press; we worry about the erosion of our freedom from surveillance by multinational tech corporations harvesting vast amounts of data about us. Modern religious unbelief sees itself as having freed itself through being liberated from former superstition,[20] and more broadly the story of progressive emancipation from past oppressions is baked into the modern West’s sense of identity.[21] Wars are even fought in freedom’s name, and foreign aid is withheld from countries that deny it to their citizens.[22]

Freedom is also, of course, a central theme of the Bible.[23] In the Nazareth manifesto Christ announces his mission as one of liberation: ‘He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18), affirming later in his ministry that ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). John Stott presses home the centrality of freedom to a Christian account of salvation by arguing that ‘[f]or those who find “salvation” a bit of meaningless religious jargon, and even an embarrassment, “freedom” is an excellent substitute. To be saved by Jesus Christ is to be set free.’[24]

And yet, just like the wisdom and power of the cross that Paul evokes in 1 Corinthians 1, Christian freedom looks from the outside like the very antithesis of liberty for it consists in nothing other than slavery to Christ and to one’s neighbour. Jesus warns his followers that ‘whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (Mark 10:44); Paul and James both announce themselves at the beginning of their letters as slaves of God; and Christians are slaves to righteousness and to God’s law (Romans 6:19; 7:25). Paul describes how Christ took ‘the very nature of a servant’ and became ‘obedient to death’, with the exhortation that Christians should ‘have the same mindset’ (Philippians 2:5–8). Just like God’s power and wisdom, ‘True freedom is, then, the exact opposite of what many people think.’[25]

Nevertheless, the Bible and Christian reflection throughout the history of the church[26] attest that slavery to Christ is in fact authentic freedom. In language borrowed from 1 Corinthians 1, we might say that ‘the slavery of the cross is freer than men’s freedom’. Understanding and articulating what that means, both for Christians and for wider society, brings us back to the question of how we might respond to the growing conflict thesis of Christianity and society.

Christianity and freedom: four distinctive contributions

Four points can be made. First, we must not allow the airbrushing away of the important contributions of Christians and Christian thinking to the establishment and preservation of the civic freedoms that we hold dear, and that we see challenged and denied in many parts of the world today.[27] In the UK Nick Spencer laments ‘our increasingly amnesiac present’ that forgets the Christianity that gave it many of its values,[28] while in Australia Greg Sheridan warns that Christianity is being frozen out of the nation’s history.[29] If Spencer is right when he paraphrases George Orwell’s claim in 1984 that ‘who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past’, then this religious amnesia is not a mere historiographical footnote or a case of absentmindedness but a bid to distort history in the service of an agenda that is singularly unfavourable to Christianity.

‘St. Paul in Prison’, Rembrandt, 1627 Paul provides an example of Christian freedom

Secondly, given that freedom is a dominant value in contemporary Western culture as well as in both Old and New Testaments, Christians should be bold in preaching the gospel of freedom today. Like Paul we would do well to challenge our society to overcome its prejudices and find the freedom it seeks in the most unlikely of all places: at the foot of the cross. We should not be ashamed of insisting on the distinctiveness of the Christian account of freedom, contending that slavery to Christ is freer than man’s freedom and that it brings ‘freedom from guilt because he died for us, freedom from self because we may live in the power of his resurrection, and freedom from fear because he reigns, with all things under his feet’.[30]

Thirdly, a biblical approach to freedom also provides the Christian with tools of cultural critique, equipping us to make constructive and faithful interventions in public debate. For example, according to the biblical diagnosis it is overly simplistic to oppose utter, unconditioned freedom to absolute, unqualified slavery. The human heart is always a slave to something or to someone (2 Peter 2:19), subject either to the desires of the Spirit, or the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16–18). We are either slaves to sin, or to righteousness (John 8:34; Romans 5:15–18). In other words, freedom always brings with it concomitant restrictions and limits: I cannot be both a slave to sin and a slave to righteousness; I am not free to pursue both at the same time. In the words of Bob Dylan, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody, Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.’[31] This biblical truth dispels two illusions: that I can serve nobody, and that I can serve everybody – the myth of objective indifference and the myth of universal inclusiveness. So, every freedom brings with it certain limitations, requires certain denials and abstentions. The important question is not whether we serve, but whom or what we serve; not ‘am I free?’ but ‘have I chosen my slavery wisely?’ (see, for example, Romans 5:19–23).

This question of choosing the best or wisest limits on freedom also has a dimension of social critique. Freedom to purchase what I want at a price I can afford can often come at the cost of low wages and inhumane conditions for workers overseas; freedom to pursue a career unhindered by relational responsibilities and constraints often comes at the price of an impaired ability to love and commit. Ultimately, we can become slaves to freedom itself, rootless, superficial creatures who resist the obligations and limits that constitute deep relationships and community life. We should always ask ‘freedom of what, for whom, and at what cost?’

Fourthly, from the principle that ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’, it follows that no idea of freedom is purely negative, purely freedom from restraint, intervention or coercion. Every idea of freedom harbours a vision of the good, is freedom for something, even if that something is the good of being left alone to do what I want. Christians should resist the accusation that it is only the Christian conception of freedom as service of God that is constrained by a determinate vision of the good and of human flourishing; we should uncover and critique the implicit goods veiled behind accounts of freedom that present themselves as purely negative, for every account of freedom brings with it a vision of the good life.

So then, let us return one final time to our question. Using the concept of freedom as a litmus test, are society and Christianity in conflict? Simply to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is insufficient, for it sells short the complex relationship that Paul sketches in his cruciform account of power and wisdom, which itself is only one part of a rich, biblical theological or ‘emplotted’ approach, taking into account all the turning points of the Bible’s plotline. 1 Corinthians 1 provides us with a powerful and subtle tool of cultural critique: there is antithesis between Christianity and cultural values, to be sure, but there is more than antithesis. And freedom is affirmed, but not without a radical transfiguration of what freedom means, in the light of the cross of Christ.

About the author

Dr Christopher Watkin lectures at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He has written extensively on modern and contemporary European thought, atheism, and the relationship between the Bible and philosophy. Chris blogs about his academic work at christopherwatkin.com, and posts reflections on the Bible and culture at thinkingthroughthebible.com. You can find him on Twitter @DrChrisWatkin.

Next issue: AI and simulated relationships

[1] Oft-quoted lines falsely attributed to Denis Diderot.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, in Michael Counsell (ed), 2000 Years of Prayer, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011, p.30.

[3] See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011; and Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[4] See pewresearch.org/science/2015/10/22/perception-of-conflict-between-science-and-religion/

[5] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, London: Allen and Unwin, 2008.

[6] See, for example, theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/feb/14/marriage-equality-campaign-seeks-abolition-of-religious-rights-to-discriminate and climateaccess.org/system/files/PRRI%20AAR_Religion%20Values%20Climate%20Change%20Survey.pdf

[7] According to the 2017 Ipsos poll ‘Global Views on Religion’. See ipsos.com/en-au/ipsos-global-study-shows-half-think-religion-does-more-harm-good.

[8] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: HarperCollins, 1956, p.60.

[9] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, pp.101–2.

[10] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p.154.

[11] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p.205.

[12] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p.126.

[13] Donald A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012, p.205.

[14] Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, p.83.

[15] I begin to give a fuller response to this important question, and to sketch the contours of a ‘Christian theory’ that would be adequate to this task, in Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique, Phillipsburg: P&R Press, 2017.

[16] The original inspiration for this schema came from the lecture course ‘Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World’ by Dr. Tim Keller and Dr. Edmund Clowney, available at https://subsplash.com/reformtheosem/learn-about-rts/ms/+d5da03d. I have modified the schema here.

[17] The model of the death and resurrection of Christ is, in fact, a more radical transformation than Niebuhr’s ‘Christ the transformer of culture’ paradigm, which he draws substantially from the fourth gospel. Niebuhr – falsely, in my view – consigns Paul mainly to the ‘Christ against culture’ tendency, and so misses the sort of radical death-and-resurrection transformation that Paul unfolds in 1 Corinthians 1.

[18] See for example George Lakoff, Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

[19] Such as the memorable maiden speech of the Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe in the European Parliament, likening the Brexit process to the striving for freedom of oppressed groups throughout history. See bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48869520.

[20] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, p.269.

[21] Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p.178.

[22] Steve Lee Myers and Helene Cooper, ‘U.S. To Aid Gay Rights Abroad, Obama and Clinton Say.’ The New York Times, 6 December 2011.

[23] My focus here is on the New Testament, but the theme of freedom is also, of course, central to the Old Testament, primarily in the events of the Exodus which also shape the New Testament’s understanding of freedom. See Alastair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Crossway, 2018.

[24] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992, p.47.

[25] Stott, The Contemporary Christian, p.55.

[26] See Augustine’s famous prayer at the top of this paper. Luther affirmed the same reality when he began On the Freedom of a Christian with the words ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all’, Martin Luther, Three Treatises, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1970, p.277.

[27] For a number of excellent treatments of this theme, see Timothy S. Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (eds.), Christianity and Freedom, 2 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[28] Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values, London: SPCK, 2016, p.9.

[29] Greg Sheridan, God is Good for You: A defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, New York: Allen & Unwin, 2018.

[30] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, p.52.

[31] Bob Dylan, Lyrics:1962–2012, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013, p.401.

About the author

Christopher Watkin