John C. Nugent / Time for a New Typology of the Church-World Relation

[The following essay is excerpted from John C. Nugent’s The Fourfold Office of Christ: A New Typology for Relating Church and World (Cascade, 2024).]

Time of Great Upheaval

The tide has turned in America, and the church desperately needs to face it. The separation of church and state is nearly complete. Not too long ago, the culture-making powers decided it was no longer expedient to appease conservative Christian sensitivities. They’ve moved forward quite aggressively to expand sexual liberties, increase media profanity, glamorize drug use, and promote public gambling.

Politically speaking, progressive Christians blend in with much of the social and economic agenda of the left. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, stick out like a sore thumb, having been branded “white Evangelicals”—a derogatory term implying they are white supremacists beholden to the political Right, enemies of human progress, and devoid of compassion beyond their own pet causes.

Whatever victories or atrocities one sees committed or perpetuated by those occupying the White House and high courts, a series of contested and tumultuous political tenures threatens to quash what little civility remains in political discourse. Factor in our heightened awareness of ongoing racism and sexism and our utter failure to band together against a common foe as neutral as a viral pandemic, and the church has found itself in a perpetual state of turmoil.

All around me, friends and colleagues are abandoning Christian institutions, the authority of Scripture, and confidence in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior. Progressive Christians do what Christian liberals typically do: try to maintain some shred of dignity for the cause of Christ by identifying it with the most noble and respected causes of the wider culture. Conservative Christians do what they have historically done: strive to save the church and world by doubling down and pushing hard in the opposite direction of liberals.

Despite the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the progressive camp is winning the cultural war. Christian conservatives occasionally win a high-profile battle, but the war is all but over. They remain, at most, lame-duck chaplains for the political Right, soon to be benched once a tipping point of young, upwardly mobile conservatives agree that the “white Evangelical church” is no longer a good look on them. Then, they’ll likely appeal to the common longing in most people: financial well-being. Fiscal conservativism will inevitably eclipse moral conservativism, and the Christian Right will have lost its largest corporate sponsor. Neither end of the Christian spectrum appears to love or respect the other. They continue waging ideological warfare against one another at the polls, behind the pulpit, around the dinner table, and all over social media.

Meanwhile, once thriving congregations on the left and right slowly bleed out—their youth wandering off in disillusionment, assuaging their doubts and anxieties with antidepressants and vape pens. The carnage is too painful to behold. It calls to mind the sorry state the prophet Nahum once envisioned for the great city, Nineveh, before its demise:

Ah! City of bloodshed,

utterly deceitful, full of booty—

no end to the plunder!

The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,

galloping horse and bounding chariot!

Horsemen charging,

flashing sword and glittering spear,

piles of dead,

heaps of corpses,

dead bodies without end

they stumble over the bodies!

In America today, the city on a hill looks more like Nahum’s “city of bloodshed.” Only, it’s not so much physical lives being slain, but spiritual lives destroyed and faith families torn apart—not by pagan rulers, but by estranged brothers and sisters of faith.

But why? And how? What would incite God-fearing believers to turn on each other like this? And we mustn’t imagine for one second that true believers sit mostly on one side of the aisle and not the other. That lie is a poisonous seed, sown by the enemy, destroying all soil upon which it falls. Imagine, instead, that we’ve all been duped—the whole lot of us—thinking we could befriend this world without being stained. We assumed we could be different from our forefathers and foremothers of the faith who were unwittingly co-opted by the powers when sincerely trying to help. So we engaged “responsibly” in the public square and did our best to fight for what’s right, accomplish some good, transform our culture, and make this world a better place.

O bride of Christ

in blood-spattered gown,

who cuts her own body,

scarring left arm and right,

How long will you favor

Fifteen-minute fame,

pleasing your oppressor

for a bunk in servant quarters?

How long will you crave for

fleeting bits of change,

pawning your gold ring

for thirty copper coins?

O domesticated goddess

in the Whitewashed House

who scorns her own groom,

weeping in his palace.

Time for Greater Clarity

It’s difficult to imagine a peaceful path forward for the church. And yet we must. Christ’s prayer for unity (John 17) demands it. The church needs bold visionaries who can see beyond the sociopolitical turmoil without giving up on the church’s distinct social calling. It needs faithful teachers who will cling to the word of God and bring clarity to all the confusion. God’s people look to their leaders for direction. They rightly believe that the gospel is socially significant; they just don’t know how to express it without parroting the world. They are asking complicated questions that require carefully thought-out answers:

– How involved should Christians get in political discourse?

– Can a Christian even enter politics?

– Should churches lobby for legislation or legislators?

– Is the separation of church and state still a good idea?

– Should our church post a statement on the latest war, atrocity, or burning social issue?

– Should believers participate in protests?

– Should churches do something about homelessness in our city or just stick to preaching the gospel?

– Should Christians take their faith to work with them in risky visible ways?

– Do Christians have any business converting people from other religions?

– Can someone be a Christian without going to church, and is online church enough?

Questions like these should be analyzed on a case-by-case, context-by-context basis, but they must all be answered in light of a biblically sound understanding of the church’s nature and mission. It makes a big difference whether you think the church has been called to

– Lead the world in the direction God wants it to go (in kingly fashion)

– Speak truth to public figures whenever they step out of line (in prophetic fashion)

– Serve the world continually at its most urgent point of need (in servant fashion)

– Focus on mediating God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ (in priestly fashion)

The Bible has been wielded to support all such callings. While each one reveals important truths about the church’s relationship to the world, each one also threatens to distort something fundamental about the church’s identity and calling. Combining them is one way to address certain weaknesses, but doing so also compounds the confusion by multiplying the baggage.

This book seeks to renew conversations about how the church ought to engage the world. Since socially conscious Christians have grown accustomed to attacking each other or talking past one another, we need a fresh framework that clarifies today’s most common approaches and allows us to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each one. This, in turn, positions us to make an informed choice as to which one, if any, best suits our kingdom calling.

Time for a New Typology

A typology is a simple way of classifying a wide variety of phenomena into a small number of general categories in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each. For over seventy years, H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has supplied the go-to typology for assessing different ways the church might relate to the world. It maps out five conceptual possibilities:

– Christ Against Culture

– Christ of Culture

– Christ Above Culture

– Christ and Culture in Paradox

– Christ Transforming Culture

Niebuhr unpacks the meaning of each posture, demonstrates how each draws support from Scripture, and shows how each correlates with different church traditions. As with most typologies one could quibble with his categories. To ask how the church relates to “culture” in general no longer seems like the right way to pose the question. We are too deeply embedded in culture to relate to it as if from the outside. We cannot even speak about culture without culture-laden linguistic conventions. Plus, culture itself is so multifaceted that case-by-case discernment seems more useful. How Christians interact with internet pornography should differ considerably from how they relate to clothing trends, political parties, public schools, and vaccinations. Also—and perhaps more importantly—in the decades since Niebuhr, Christians from a variety of backgrounds seem to have taken quite similar stances toward his five categories.

– Few churches wish to oppose culture wholesale in “Christ against Culture” fashion. Though strict Amish communities still exist in relative isolation, their basic approach has never gained widespread appeal. Even so, these communities don’t reject cultural engagement and creativity outright. They are much more selective and strategic than Niebuhr lets on.

– Most churches strive to present Christ in a form that the wider culture finds agreeable, although within limits. In so doing, they have adopted at least a soft version of the “Christ of Culture” posture. Consider how quickly Christians have embraced wider cultural views on marriage, divorce, money, entertainment, guns, drugs, and politics—whether in the forms championed by the Left or the Right. Indeed, there appears to be strikingly little difference, ideologically speaking, between the religious Right and the political Right, nor between the religious Left and the political Left. The fact that liberals and conservatives express their affinity for civil religion in competing ways should not obscure that both are, in fact, deeply enmeshed in civil religion, which is arguably the prevailing form of the “Christ of Culture” position today.

– Most churches renounce top-down coercive leadership over governing institutions and the wider populace in “Christ above Culture” fashion.

– Many churches adhere to a soft “Christ and Culture in Paradox” framework insofar as they allow members to operate with fundamentally different ethical codes in different spheres of their life. How believers speak and act in church often differs greatly from how they speak and act at work, home, or on social media.

– Finally, all churches seem to be on board with finding creative ways of “transforming culture” for the better. This appeared to be Niebuhr’s preferred approach, as he framed it in a way that’s hard not to like.

My point is this: the growing consensus regarding Niebuhr’s classic positions renders his typology practically obsolete. It gives the false impression that all Christians basically agree on how church and world relate. This is simply not the case. Real and important differences persist in the twenty-first century, and Niebuhr’s familiar categories no longer capture them. Nor should we expect them to, since some of these differences have gained influence only recently. If we hope to move beyond rehashing hypothetical possibilities of the past to engaging actual options in the present, we need a fundamentally new typology.

The Limits and Benefits of Typologies

Good typologies help us analyze a single topic from multiple angles. Yet grouping a wide variety of approaches into a handful of general types often means that the types themselves will not correspond exactly to one’s own particular position or that of leading thinkers. People commonly straddle or even merge different categories. Still, we all tend to fit more closely into one than the others. As such, some of the promises or perils associated with one’s primary type may apply, but not necessarily all.

Given these limitations, why propose a typology at all? The most obvious reason is that a typology is easy to remember. A well-constructed typology offers simple caricatures that are named in memorable ways. That is partly why I have chosen prophet, priest, king, and servant. These titles echo the threefold office of Christ—prophet, priest, and king—which is already familiar to many readers. Yet, ease of memory is not an end in itself. It serves conversation by enabling people from diverse backgrounds and schools of thought to speak a common language.

Second, and precisely because Christians come from diverse backgrounds, a well-constructed typology exposes us to conceptual possibilities that we may not have considered previously. Each position should therefore be presented as sympathetically as possible. Portraying a position so poorly that no one would identify with it makes it functionally useless.

Third, and most importantly, simple typologies have power to get complex conversations going. Perennial questions, like how the church should relate to the world, have long histories with complicated webs of intersecting factors. We must reckon with diverse church traditions, diverse approaches to Scripture, and diverse personal experiences, to name just a few. As a result, almost as many different positions exist on this topic as people who engage it thoughtfully. Aspiring to foster genuine dialogue about complex issues without getting bogged down in minutiae requires focusing our collective attention on a short list of shared images or models. From there who knows where the conversation will go, but at least we’ve gotten it off the ground.

Niebuhr’s typology accomplished this task remarkably well for a time. It was memorable, simple, and relevant. Yet times have clearly changed, and Niebuhr’s typology no longer captures a range of positions that enjoys widespread support. The twenty-first century needs a fresh typology that fulfills this purpose equally well.

The Fourfold Office of Christ

This book sets forth a new typology for assessing recent approaches to church-world relations. It centers upon what I call the fourfold office of Christ—prophet, priest, king, and servant. Each of these offices captures a specific way the church might focus its social vision and frame its responsibility to the world. Each one has potential and promise, but also perils and pitfalls. Not all of them are equally biblical or useful. In fact, I argue that none of them, as commonly conceived, should serve as a governing model for the church’s posture going forward.

For this reason, in the final chapter, I sketch a revised priestly model that possesses considerable untapped potential. Five aspects of this model make it the most promising posture in terms of biblical support and contemporary relevance. The priestly aspects that I focus on include residence, hospitality, stewardship, witness, and praise. Together they offer a surprisingly compelling vision for how the church might relate to the world amid the great upheaval of our time.

John C. Nugent serves as VPAA and professor of Bible and theology at Great Lakes Christian College. He has cohosted the Bible-focused After Class Podcast every week since 2018. He is the author of Politics of Yahweh (2011), Endangered Gospel (2016), Genesis 1–11 (2019), and Priestly Presence (2024).


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