How to Determine Which Parts of Culture are OK to Engage

I mentioned in my last post that I would cover what to do when you’re trying to determine if a Christian can participate in a particular aspect of culture.

If a particular form of cultural engagement causes you to disobey one of God’s commands, you shouldn’t participate in it. Simple. Sometimes it’s obvious what we shouldn’t participate in.

Pornography is an easy example. It’s an industry built on sin, and it’s impossible to participate in it without sinning. So there’s simply no way our Christian conscience should let us participate in it.

But it’s not always so black and white, is it? What about watching popular shows like Game of Thrones or viewing classic works of art that depict nude figures? Can a Christian participate in these kinds of culture?

Let’s build a biblical framework for thinking through how to determine if a particular aspect of culture is something you can engage in.

No Worthless Things

The first text that comes to mind here is Psalm 101:3, which says, “I will not let anything worthless guide me,” or more literally, “I will not put a worthless thing in front of my eyes.”

When it comes to evaluating a particular aspect of culture, such as a movie, show, book, or product, we should ask ourselves, Is this worthless? Does it contribute anything of value? Is it redeeming in any way?

If the object in question falls under that “worthless” category, then we shouldn’t engage it. No further analysis needed.

But Paul takes this one step further. He says that even if something is acceptable to engage in, that doesn’t mean it’s best.

Just Because You Can, it Doesn’t Mean You Should

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”

If you look at this verse, you’ll notice that there within Paul’s quotation are two phrases set in quotation marks, which means that Paul is quoting someone or something else. It’s the phrase, “Everything is permissible for me.” Commentators believe Paul is referring to a popular Corinthian slogan.

Regarding this verse, the notes in my ESV Study Bible say,

The Corinthians have adopted from the culture around them the idea that the body is permitted to have everything that it craves.

Notice two things. First, Paul gives us a “yes, but” scenario. He says, yes, everything may be permissible for me because I am free in Christ, but that doesn’t mean everything is beneficial, or helpful, for me. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

The second thing to note about this verse is why Paul says we shouldn’t do some things. I like how my ESV Study Bible puts this:

Paul knows that human desires are tainted with sin, which uses these desires to master the person for its own evil purposes.

We all desire to participate in the worldly parts of culture. But our desires are not pure. They are tainted with sin. And sin will pounce on our ungodly desires and master us if we’re not careful.

So yes, we can participate in many aspects of our culture. But just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should. 

More on Cultural Engagement

If you want to read more about cultural engagement, I’ve written about why Christians should engage culture, and postures we can take for cultural engagement.

As I said in one of those posts, when Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first engage with Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him. Then and only then will we be prepared to engage the culture.