Beyond Christ & Culture’s Typology

H. Richard Neibuhr is (in)famous for his typology of the various ways that the church approaches the culture it is in. They are:

  1. Christ against Culture
  2. Christ of Culture
  3. Christ above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ Transforming Culture

The critiques of Niehbuhr’s typology are legion, and I won’t rehash them here. What I do find interesting, however, is the different typology that Hauerwas and Willimon draw from John Howard Yoder:

Yoder distinguishes between the activist church, the conversionist church, and the confessing church.

The activist church is more concerned with the building of a better society than with the reformation of the church. Through the humanization of social structures, the activist church glorifies God. It calls on its members to see God at work behind the movements for social change so that Christians will join in movements for justice wherever they find them. It hopes to be on the right side of history, believing it has the key for reading the direction of history or underwriting the progressive forces of history. The difficulty, as we noted earlier, is that the activist church appears to lack the theological insight to judge history for itself. Its politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism.

On the other hand we have the conversionist church. This church argues that no amount of tinkering with the structures of society will counter the effects ofhuman sin. The promises of secular optimism are therefore false because they attempt to bypass the biblical call to admit personal guilt and to experience reconciliation to God and neighbor. The sphere of political action is shifted by the conversionist church from without to within, from society to the individual soul. Because this church works only for inward change, it has no alternative social ethic or social structure of its own to offer the world. Alas, the political claims of Jesus are sacrificed for politics that inevitably seems to degenerate into a religiously glorified conservativism.

The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the indivudlaism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of indiviudal hearsts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.

Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 46-47.

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