Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of government. This field is also called "public theology" or a "theology of the public square." As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government.
God's intended purpose for government
Some pacifists argue that government was not present in Eden- only after the Fall. They see government as a necessary evil for this present time, rather than as something innate to God's nature. Others, such as Skillen, argue that government, like other aspects of culture (family, language, communication) is rooted in the image of God: God is orderly, authoritative, even coercive, and that even in a perfect kingdom on earth, as people "filled the earth and subdued it" they would have necessarily developed complex societies with creative and diverse forms of government-- all which led to flourishing.
"Citizenship in earthly political communities is thus as much a part of the revelation of God and of our identity as God’s image bearer as are marriage family, friendship, discipleship and shepherding.” (Skillen, p. 37)
The Fall, of course, has resulted in our continual corruption of all forms of government, as we turn power and freedom -even justice - into idols, and we use "order" as an ends that justifies the means.
The purpose of government is to do things that individuals cannot do on their own-- to organize, regulate, and distribute tremendous - even unthinkable - amounts of resources (like the 640 million acres of public land in the USA, equalling about 28% of the nation's surface area). In a fallen world, government also exists to carry out punishment and to ensure security against threats. For example, government - at an ideal size - when it is functioning properly - can help guarantee that a menace to society will be caught, tried fairly, and punished justly, so that he does not return to my home and kill my children. If he does, I may personally choose to forgive-- and I should. It is not my right or responsibility to hunt down menaces to society, to determine their guilt, and to punish them. Imagine what the world would be like if we all took on the government's role of such "coercive authority!" Yet even as I forgive the murderer or thief, the criminal has not only committed a crime against me personally, he has stolen something from the people-- from the state. He has stolen their sense of order and security. Therefore, the government must bring about justice and guarantee their safety. Some of the purposes we see for government in scripture:
What is God's intended structure for government?
In the Old Testament, God was heavily involved in government. God went ahead of Israel's armies to extend the nation into Canaan. God interrupted the unjust slavery in Egypt to establish Israel as nation-state. He insisted that Israel resist the temptation to create a monarchy. When Israel turned toward Monarchy, God told prophets which men should be anointed king.
But the scripture is not clear about which structure for government is "biblical." That is, as Filipino theologian Melba Maggay pointed out, the Bible answers the "why" for government, but not the "how." God knows that the appropriate government for a developing nation in the 20th century, for example, is different than the best governance for Western Europe in the 16th century, or Israel in the first century, and so on. There are so many economic, environmental, technological and other factors that impact what a flourishing government would look like at any given time and place, that scripture does not seem to have a clear blueprint.
What is the authority for government?
The penchant toward dualism in evangelicalism has caused us to believe, mistakenly, that Jesus' agenda was not political. For centuries, the church accepted a "two sword" mentality: God is the king of the church, and political rulers have their "earthly sword." After all, Jesus said "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). But most theologians recognize that Jesus didn't mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with this world-- if that were the case, He wouldn't have made so many enemies, and early Christians would not have been fed to the lions. Jesus meant that His kingdom does not derive power from this world. If his authority came "from this world" then his followers would have to defend him. Instead, his authority comes from Heaven (John 19:11).
Early on Christians had to balance their understanding of obedience to authorities (Romans 13) and Jesus' claim to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" (Mark 12:13-17) with the claim that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 4:19). In fact, as DA Carson pointed out (p 200), all religions rely on a "higher" authority, and are therefore somewhat subversive to governments. Php 3:20-21 describes us as citizens of heaven-- this has caused many evangelicals to think of their Christianity as non-political.
Most evangelical theologians today argue that government must be pluralistic. It cannot function properly when it endorses one religion or denomination. In fact, it can reflect biblical principles without endorsing a specific religion.
by Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be seen as a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. n this post, I introduce ideas that are central to a theology of education. As with other aspects of the "theology of culture," I am looking at God's intended purpose, structure and authority for government
The purpose of education as a cultural system
The cultures of the world have competing ideas about the purpose of education: in the USA education is increasingly about career advancement rather than to make people well-rounded thinkers or to encourage personal enrichment. The seeing in emphasis from liberal arts to STEM is a result of the trend to align higher education with career, rather than knowledge. Other cultures emphasize that education is about socialization, guaranteeing social welfare (a populace needs to be literate to ensure the growth of GDP), or simply about making good citizens. All of these are legitimate purposes of education, as long as none becomes an idol. In early missionary work around the world, education was primarily about teaching people to read so they could know scripture and discern Christian worldview but also focused on increasing the economic lives of those in poorer parts of the world.
Like all cultural systems, the ultimate purpose of education is for humankind to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Kuyper argued that education has been God’s plan along- building on the knowledge of previous ancestors. There was no way for one generation to fulfil the command to fill the earth and subdue it, so education is necessary for us to transmit the accumulation of knowledge as we make something great of the world God created.
Scripture balances the tendency to make education an idol, on the one hand, with ignorance or foolishness on the other:
•He who increases knowledge increases sorrow –Ecc1:18
•For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Cor3:19) quoting Job 5:13
The structure of education as a cultural system
Education is neither entirely the task of the parents, nor entirely the task of the state. Some may be reluctant to allow state involvement at all with the education of a Christian community. Yet an education that is wholly separate from the state will not be able to achieve all the purposes that God plans for education. A fully functioning educational system would lead to cures for cancer, mapping the human genome, designing better bridges, interpreting history in ways that dignify diverse peoples. Many of these advancements are possible because of state involvement.
Others might argue that the private enterprise should take on the task of education-- let the free market determine which majors are valuable enough to offer at the university. Let people pay for education what it is worth. But in reality, virtually no government wholly accepts this notion-- the state must get involved to ensure that those who do not have money can still become literate and even upwardly mobile.
The authority for education as a cultural system
The authority for education is firstly located within the family, as parents "train up their children" (Prov 22:6). But as I mentioned above, the authority for education must also be located within the state, which has resources for research-one institutions that can train up specialists like aerospace engineers and epidemiologists. Only the state - not the family- can ensure system-wide literacy and vocational training.
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I provide some direction for the theology of family, which begins (as with all other cases in the "theology of" culture) by asking about the purpose, structure and authority of family.
The purpose of family as a cultural system
The purpose of all aspects of culture, more generally, is for humans to flourish. Marriage, being one of the first institutions God instituted (in Eden), was explicitly for our flourishing. Somehow the "leaving and cleaving" (Gen 2:24) when a man and wife are committed to each other unto death guarantees flourishing. Primarily, this seems to relate to the fact that there is no other social relationship where we see distinct persons referred to as "one." In this sense, marriage reflects the Trinity better than any other relationship; and this reflection is for our own instruction. The Father Son and Holy Spirit are eternally creating, communicating and loving; and marriage is where this sort of intimacy is to be found primarily, among all relationships. Note that the term for wife, "helpmate", is not derogatory- in fact, God refers to Himself as a helpmate more than 15 times in the OT.
What about the purpose of other relationships in the family? Family, including extended family relationships, are God's way of ensuring elderly are taken care of when they cannot take care of themselves (1 Tim 5:8) - of ensuring small children are "trained up in the way they should go" (Prov 22:6) so they can be flourishing members of society - of ensuring that wealth is produced and inherited (Prov 13:22).
Ultimately, the chief end of marriage and family, like the chief end of all humankind, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The family is the locus of some of the greatest joy we can possibly experience, when we are experiencing the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Note that all the fruits of the spirit must be lived out in social relationships (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness all are social experiences). And when things go wrong in the family - from divorce to dysfunction to abuse at home, these are the basis for some of the saddest and most traumatic experiences we can face.
The structure for family as a cultural system
Family relationships are God's plan for us function "in the image of God" than any other relationship: The metaphor of the Father-son relationship reflects God's provision and protection of all people (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6). The metaphor of mothers protecting their children reflects God's care and compassion for all people (Matt 23:37, Isa 66:13). The relationship of man to wife reflects Christ's sacrificial love for his Church (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). The metaphor of being born to earthly parents represents our lostness without adoption into God's family (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:23); the metaphor of adoption represents moving from enemies with God to friends with God (John 1:12). And the relationship of brothers and sisters is a metaphor for our permanent commitment to Christians around the world, with whom we share one Heavenly Father (1 John 3:14; Mark 3:35).
A theology of marriage and family requires thinking through gender relationships. Many theologians have suggested that the New Testament advice about structures in family (1 Cor 7:14, 1 Tim 2:9-15) are meant to limit, not expand, a male's authority (Taber, in Stott and Coote, 1980, p. 126). Others suggest that the gender roles are not about capability, but references to the order of creation (1 Cor 11:8-11; 1 Tim 2:12-13).
Some have noted that God's intended structure for families is that they be full of children-- a theology somewhat pejoratively named "quiver theology" Because of psalm 127, 3 - 5
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate
This brings us to the issue of those who do not fit the prototype of "happily married with many children." If spouses and children are the sources of blessings, the way we function according to the image of God, then what about those who are unmarried or have no children? First of all, we are not designed to find our identity and ultimate worth in these relationships -our ultimate fulfillment and worth comes from being children of God. Paul's words in 1 Cor 7:27-29 show that spouses (or any other family relationship) should not become idols for us-- just as Paul learned to be content in all circumstances, the Holy Spirit enables believers to have the fruits of the Spirit in times of barrenness or childbearing, marriage and widowhood-- when marriage and singleness are easy and when they are hard.
The authority for family as a cultural system
The authority, then, for marriage, does not come from the state, but from God. That's why many church leaders are arguing that however the public sphere decides to define marriage (civil unions, or whatever), the state cannot define for the church what marriage is.
Variations of family as a cultural system
Families malfunction (that is, they fail to flourish) when they mar the image of God. For example, if the marriage union reflects the image of God as the two become one, then divorce mars that unity and intimacy (see Matthew 19:6). Many of the world's cultures espouse an ideal of lifetime monogamy; but some cultures, at least in practice, look the other way at divorce, infidelity, polygamy or polyandry. To recover the image-bearing aspect of a flourishing family ideal, cultures would need to emphasize marriage as a permanent, monogamous union.
What about arranged marriage? Note that scripture doesn't outright prescribe either arranged marriages or "love marriages." And both systems can be acceptable if they encourage flourishing rather than malfunctioning. For example, when arranged marriages make an idol out of wealth, alliances, or corporate honor, they can begin to malfunction. Remember that the ultimate purpose of marriage is not wealth, alliance or the accumulation of honor- it is to represent the intimate relationship of the Trinity, and to be the primary place we experience the fruits of the Spirit. "Love marriage" too can become an idol when it places individual happiness over these actual purposes for marriage.
What about endogamy? The list of taboo relationships is pretty short, and doesn't include cousins- in fact, the marriage of cross-cousins is common around the world, as it was in the Ancient Near east. Some Christians from cultures where the marriage of a parallel cousin is encouraged point out that Moses condoned such marriages in Numbers 27.
For an in depth look at 500 years of Christian scholarship on the theology of the family, see Brown, S. and Pollard, J (eds).(2014). Theology of the family. The National Center for Family Integrated Churches
Below is an excerpt from my book God's Image and Global Cultures:God's Image and Global Cultures
When systematic theologians ask about the nature of human beings, they are exploring, “What does it mean to be in God’s image?” Questions about the nature of humanity belong to a specific branch of systematic theology that is referred to as theological anthropology. Anthropologians (theologians of anthropology) focus primarily on what it means that humankind was created perfect, because God cannot create an imperfect creation. Jesus, the perfect God-man is the model for this inquiry. Anthropologians also look at the essence of humankind: the relationship between the human body, soul, spirit and heart (or inner person). In a broader sense, they are concerned with the role of humans in respect to creation at large, as well as questions of race, free will, sexuality, and economics. An evangelical theological anthropology recognizes that humans are tempted, but are morally accountable, and because of the Fall, currently exist in an abnormal state.
There are substantive, relational and functional aspects of being in the image (or shadow or reflection) (Hebrew: tzelem) and likeness (Hebrew: demus) of God. Theologians have described three possible explanations for what it means that we are in God’s likeness: 1) we share characteristics, like rationality; 2) we are relational, and in relationship with God, or 3) we function in ways that God does. I cannot develop each of these ideas here, but I will point out that my argument that bearing God’s image means cultural behavior emphasizes the functional image. We function in ways that God does, as we rule, create, express and relate to others, and even rest. Of course, functioning in God’s image does not mean that we mirror his image. The cultural ramifications of the Fall are that we function in cultural systems (economics, social structures, expression, etc.) but are immensely creative in the way we corrupt each of these systems.
If we employ any number of definitions of culture, it would be accurate to say that culture is rooted in the very nature of God. Culture is fundamentally about communicating, creativity, society, and norms. And the Trinity is eternally engaged in these activities we call culture. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit communicate—though the Trinity is not confined to any particular language. God has tremendous (unlimited) creative potential. The Trinity has recently been described as a society of three, eternally existing in communion. Jürgen Moltmann, who focused especially on the social aspect of the Trinity, understood that this view of God would have political and social implications—that is, it would have to do with culture. And God has norms of behavior we see reflected in His Law (Ps 119).
T. F. Torrance has masterfully tied the act of creation/culture, as well as its purpose and design, to the Trinity. “The very plurality of God serves as the basis for the unified and creative agency of God”. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit fellowship in creative activity. Humans, as image-bearers, are mediators or stewards of the order of creation, and that is really what culture is about: “ ‘The creative re-ordering of existence’…This is by its very nature a socio-cultural activity”.
Granted, the eternally existing culture in the Trinity is not perfectly analogous to culture on earth. Our cultures seem to be inextricably linked to the environment in which we live, and it would require linguistic gymnastics to say that God exists in an environment.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 22.
 Geisler, Systematic Theology, 50–53.
 Cortez, Theological Anthropology.
 Leech, The Social God.
 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God.
 Unfortunately, the metaphor of the Social Trinity can admittedly be hijacked by any social agenda. Specifically, socialists coopt the notion of a perfect heavenly society and mandate that the people of God, as representatives of the Trinity, must reconstruct this perfect society. See Chapman, “The Social Doctrine of the Trinity.”
 Flett, Persons, Powers and Pluralities, 18.
 Ibid., 114.
Below is taken from my book God's Image and Global Cultures:
Not everyone sees cultural diversity as a plus. Having taught on culture to numerous audiences around the world, I have encountered two objections to “diversity.” First, some people come from fairly mono-cultural backgrounds and are either afraid of other cultures or even presuppose an amount of cultural superiority. “They should just learn English,” or “We have more freedoms here in America” are typical statements from mono-cultural folks. A sub-culture in the US holds to “American exceptionalism” (see chapter 2), conceiving of the US as particularly and uniquely blessed above all other nations.
Some detractors of “diversity” are not against multiculturalism per se, but see diversity as an agenda which is hollow or self-defeating. They mainly point to research that indicates that cultural heterogeneity reuces interpersonal trust and causes people to isengage from society (Putman 2007). The more that civilizations meet each other, the more clashes there will be, as a result of differences in ideology and religion.
Part of the ambivalence evangelicals have about multiculturalism comes from our interpretation of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Because the confusing of languages and subsequent scattering of nations appears to be a punishment, Christians may tend to paint multi-culturalism in a negative light. Our argument may look like this:
Sometimes we build a theology of cultural diversity by arguing that diversity is extended to heaven. The argument is mostly based on the book of Revelation, in passages like Revelation 7:9–10, which say heaven includes “every nation, tribe, people and language” (NIV). We reason erroneously as follows:
However, as I showed in a previous section, it is asking too much of the passage to take “nation, tribe people and language” as proof of cultural diversity in heaven. The emphasis here is more on the fact that God’s grace is extended to all of humanity rather than on the eternal permanence and static identification of ethnic categories. The passage shows that God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations (Gen 15:5, 32:12) has been fulfilled.
So if we are to build a theology of diversity, it is more advisable to find evidence of cultural diversity through the Old and New Testament than to use Revelation 7:9–10 as a proof text. Even a cursory reading of the Psalms shows God’s interest in people from all backgrounds and languages (see Ps 2:8, 33:12, 67:1–7). In fact, numerous theologies of mission have shown God’s interest in all people groups throughout the Old Testament. Despite Jesus’ enigmatic argument that he was sent to the Jews, his ministry was notably multi-cultural. The plot of the book of Acts is that the church will expand from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The historical narrative moves along as God’s grace extends to the southernmost part of the known world, Ethiopia (Acts 8:26–30), and then to the Greeks, ethnic minorities in the Mediterranean, and on to Rome. Diversity is a major theme in Acts, including (and often blurring the lines between) linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity.
This multi-culturalism is in the DNA of the church; as Andrew Walls put it, the cross-cultural process has been the lifeblood of the church. Some theologians have even suggested that cultural diversity is rooted in the Trinity. A revised, exegetically-substantiated line of reasoning would look like this:
 B. Carson, America the Beautiful; Rauchway Blessed Among Nations.
 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order; Rundle and Steffen Great Commission Companies, 78.
 Trial, Exegetical Summary of Acts.
 Hughes, The Book of Revelation; Mounce, The Book of Revelation.
 Kostenberger and O'Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth; Richardson, Eternity in their Hearts; Verkuyl “The Biblical Foundation.”
 Barreto Ethnic Negotiations.
 Walls, The Cross–cultural Process in Christian History, 67.
 Campbell, A Multitude of Blessings.
 Parler, Things Hold Together, 218.
Below is the answer I give in my newest book God's Image and Global Cultures:
 See Scarborough Enough Is Enough; Starnes God Less America.
 See B. Carson America the Beautiful; Gingrich Rediscovering God in America.
 See Hedges American Fascists; Rudin The Baptizing of America; Whitten The Myth of Christian America.
 I asked five acquaintances who each had more than 2000 “friends” on Facebook to post the survey on their “wall.” Respondents answered a survey on SurveyMonkey.
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
 Gingrich and Gingrich. “A City upon a Hill.”
 Asmus and Grudem. The Poverty of Nations.
There's a lot of talk about changing the world- and that involves changing culture. But is that desirable, or even possible? I deal with this in my newest book God's Image and Global Cultures.
You'd think that it's easy for Christians to evaluate features of other cultures-- simply use the Bible, right? I deal with this question in my most recent book, God's Image and Global Cultures:
Jimmy Carter said that the most significant social justice issue facing us in the 21st century is income inequality. Research shows that (at least in wealthy nations) wealth inequality leads to social problems like demoralization, homicide, and depending on who runs the economy, racism (see Chua.). And as free markets take off, especially in this era of globalization 2.0, levels of inequality keep rising. In the past 200 years from 3:1 to 72:1, meaning the richest countries are now 72 times richer (and increasing) than the poorest (see World Centric). If this has happened since 1820, and industrial nations are among the most unequal, it seems to be correlated with the industrial revolution, and especially with capitalism (or free markets). But does that mean the free market is to blame? Some have suggested that if capitalism is correlated with inequality, capitalism is inherently flawed (or even evil). But let's consider the syllogism
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor