I found this summary from Ray Pennings (HT: Kevin Young) of Reformed theological positions on cultural/social engagement to be particularly helpful in identifying the predominant understandings churches tend to have of gospel and culture. Below is the core of the article:
Neocalvinism focuses on the comprehensiveness of the gospel claim. “Every square inch” belongs to Christ, and the full effects of the cross—as fully conquering sin, including its effects in the groaning creation—are emphasized. “Grace restores nature,” and although we will have to wait for the new heaven and the new earth for this to be fully realized, worshiping the Lord Jesus as King today means acknowledging and living out of that kingship. That means challenging the presuppositions of secular reasoning and working carefully with both the books of creation and revelation.
The “two kingdom perspective” that has become associated with Westminster Theological Seminary in California brings at least two valuable insights to the conversation. Negatively, it warns against the hubris that sometimes can accompany an attempt to define “the” Christian position on various contemporary issues. There is inevitable ambiguity that characterizes Christian life in a fallen world. Positively, it brings a very strong ecclesiology into the conversation, emphasizing the calling of believers to focus on their place in the church and the bride of Christ, and to emphasize the transcendence of the gospel.
Neopuritans (which I prefer as a term to describe that group which Time magazine described as New Calvinists) focus on the sovereignty of God and the glory of God. In so far as one can discern a coherent political philosophy uniting the diverse group of writers commonly associated with this group, Albert Mohler’s focus on love as a unifying principle comes as close as any: “Love of neighbor grounded in our love for God requires us to work for good in the City of Man, even as we set as our first priority the preaching of the gospel, [which is] the only means of bringing citizens of the City of Man into citizenship of the city of God.” In practice, this perspective results in an approach that is more individualistic than corporate, focuses more extensively on responding to the needs of our neighbours through the diaconal ministry of the church, and relies on being an example, resisting cultural trends and intentionally working towards a Christian counter-culture.
This survey of perspectives would not be complete without acknowledging a fourth approach which, for lack of better term, I will label as “Old Calvinism.” (The variants of this argument almost inevitably suggest that there is something about the “old paths” that is being lost in the process of cultural engagement.) One example of this approach is John MacArthur, who has essentially come to the conclusion that engaging the city inevitably leads the church to worldliness and that when the church attempts to engage the culture, the culture is usually more effective at influencing the church. MacArthur has argued that Christian political activism has four results: it (1) denigrates the sovereignty of God over human history and events, (2) uses fleshly and selfish means to promote biblical values, (3) creates a false sense of morality, and (4) risks alienating unbelievers by viewing them as political enemies rather than a mission field. Promoting godly living and the fruits of the Spirit is a mission “far more good and profitable to men than any amount of social and political activism . . . [Christians] are content very much to let the worldly people deal with the worldly things of this world.”
I have certainly been wrestling through these issues myself, and have had some exposure to each theological stream. The difficulty in understanding this particular issue is that the arguments for each position are predominantly born out of extensions of philosophical theology or from an extension of applied biblical theology.
If I were to peg what position I most closely align with, it would probably be the “neopuritanism” camp at this point, which is less of a well-informed biblical position, and moreso based upon observations of ministry around me and the actual practice of my life. While I would agree completely with the neo-Calvinist perspective theologically, I practically tend to view the transformation of culture as a derivative of transformation of the individual through the power of the gospel. This certainly gives me some things to chew on however…
Care to chime in? I’d love some thoughts in a comment!