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When to change and when to change the culture

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A gay rights flag with the United States blue field of white stars on it at a 2008 protest in San Francisco (Credit: Martin Eno via Flickr)

In 1996, 27 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriages.  Now, 42 percent favor them.  In 1968, 20 percent of Americans favored interracial marriage; by 2011, the number had risen to 86 percent.

Should churches change their moral positions as the culture changes?  In other words, should the church be a thermometer or a thermostat?  The first reflects its environment; the second changes it.

Paul quoted the Hebrew Bible to Hebrews and Greek philosophers to Greeks.  He said of his ministry, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  Then he explained why: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel” (v. 23).  His methods changed, but his message did not.

Churches sometimes take positions based on internal or external culture; prohibitions against dancing, moderate drinking, or interracial marriage come to mind.  They sometimes take positions based on unchanging biblical principles; murder, adultery, and theft come to mind.  The challenge is knowing which is which.

When Christians determine that Scripture requires a particular moral stand, they should not adapt that position to changing cultural whims.  For instance, after an intensive study of both the Old and New Testaments, I have concluded that homosexual activity is prohibited by the Bible.  I also believe that homosexuality is not the unpardonable sin and that gay people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  All three positions are based on the teachings of Scripture, not the latest polls.

Once we determine unchanging biblical truth, our job is not to defend truth from culture but to engage culture with truth.  By “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), our words and witness are used by the Spirit as spiritual salt and light in a fallen world desperate for both (Matthew 5:13-16).

One Galilean and eleven apostles sparked the mightiest movement in human history, with more than two billion followers today.  It doesn’t take much salt or light to change the environment, or the culture.  What could God do with your influence today?