“Cultural Christianity” is a phrase that is often used to describe someone who claims to be a Christ-follower, but whose lifestyle does not truly match what they profess. These are people who for a variety of reasons want people to think they are Christians, but in reality, they have not truly put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
According to one source, over two-thirds of the entire population of the United States claims to be Christians, but less than half of the inhabitants of this country actually participate in any kind of organized Christian church.
For decades it was popular to claim to be a Christian, and seemingly the statistics suggest that is largely still the case. When asked by a random researcher about their spiritual beliefs, many listed Christianity as their religion of choice. The United States was founded as a “Christian” nation, and the DNA of this country apparently still leans that way, at least in what most people say.
There is a multitude of reasons why people would claim to be a “Christian,” but not actually be a true believer in Jesus Christ. The reasons include being born into a “Christian family,” having a religious experience during childhood, or even just the selection of religious affiliation, like on the U.S. Census form. Some probably declare themselves to be “Christian” because it has been historically acceptable to do just that.
There is a big difference, however, in claiming to be a Christian to somehow fit into a culture than actually having faith in Christ and living faithfully, consistently for Him.
What Is Cultural Christianity in the Bible?
The term “Christian” is only mentioned three times in the Bible.
The first reference is found in Acts 11:16, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
This is the account of how the citizens of the city of Antioch apparently coined this word as a derogatory descriptor of the followers of Jesus who were gathering there to worship the Lord and to fulfill His “Great Commission” from Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8.
The new church in Antioch featured some amazing and influential leaders. This ministry team included Barnabas, the ultimate encourager and mentor; and the newly saved Saul, soon to have his name changed to Paul and who became the main spokesman of the early church.
There’s no doubt that both men had strong personalities and that both had outstanding ministries in the lives of the people in Antioch.
But the insult that was used by the unsaved people of that city to describe the new Christ-followers there was “Christians,” or “little Christ’s.” The people did not accuse these new believers of being “little Barnabas’” or “Little Paul’s.” Barnabas and Paul led the believers in Antioch to follow Christ. These people were actively following Him, and the surrounding society noticed.
It is mentioned again in Acts 26:28, “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian.’” Here the Apostle Paul is giving a defense of His own personal Christianity before King Agrippa.
It’s important to understand that Paul had not come close to persuading the King to become a true follower of Jesus Christ, but rather that Agrippa was asking almost sarcastically, “Do you really think that you would talk me into becoming a believer in Christ?” Or “Do you think that I would be close to becoming a Christ-follower?”
What Is the Difference between Biblical Christianity and Cultural Christianity?
Agrippa did not “almost” come to Christ. Instead, he knew that Paul was an avid and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Being a follower of Christ was Paul’s choice and this biblical narrative provides insight into Agrippa’s attitude about that belief. Acts 26:31 makes this conclusion, “This man is doing nothing deserving of death or chains.”
In fact, the authorities would have released Paul following this trial had he not “appealed to Caesar.” The evidence was there. Paul’s appeal to Caesar ultimately led to His death as a martyr for Christ, but it also gave him the opportunity to spread the message of Christianity to what was then the capital of the known world — Rome.
Finally, the term “Christian” can be found in 1 Peter 4:16, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.”
In this passage, the Apostle Peter is explaining that most likely, true Christ-followers will suffer persecution for their faith. Paul reiterates that truth in 2 Timothy 3:12, “…all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
In 1 Peter 4:12-16, Peter tells believers to assume that they will experience persecution for their beliefs. He also teaches them to “rejoice” while going through those times of suffering because that will give them the opportunity to glorify God in front of others who may not know Him.
The Myth of ‘Cultural Christianity’
One’s personal faith in Christ must be sincere and life-changing. In the familiar passage about young Timothy’s mother and grandmother in 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul writes, “When I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also.”
In that one verse, he mentions twice that Timothy’s faith was “genuine” — real, authentic, or unfaked. It’s obvious from that text that belief in Christ was much more than just verbally claiming to be a Christian.
These three passages in Scripture that use the English word “Christian” provide concrete biblical proof that there is no such thing as “cultural” Christianity.
1. A genuine Christian will live their faith in public. Acts 11:16 says that the followers of Christ were called “Christians,” probably as an insult by unsaved citizens in the city of Antioch.
Obviously, those early believers had a faith that was actively demonstrated in their lives. Their faith was so real that their lifestyle became a very vivid visual aid of true Christianity to those around them.
That characteristic is true of genuine Christ-followers today as well. Those who have put their faith in Christ will live for Him publicly.
Those civil authorities did not respond positively to Paul’s message on that occasion, but there is no doubt that the apostle took every opportunity that God gave him to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.
That distinctive must also be present in the lives of true believers today. Genuine Christ-followers will share their faith. That’s what Christ expects.
3. A genuine Christian will stand for Christ during times of suffering. 1 Peter 4:16 tells believers not to be afraid of seasons of suffering and persecution because those will be God-given opportunities to live for Christ, to tell others about Christ, and to glorify Him through those difficult times.
The first-century believers understood that suffering for their faith in Christ would undoubtedly happen. In fact, they knew that Christ Himself had suffered at the hands of His enemies, and that true Christ-followers would suffer persecution for living for Him too.
It’s no exaggeration to say that “cultural” Christians, those who only claim to be Christians, would never be willing to suffer persecution. Their faith isn’t real.
The Bible teaches that “cultural” Christianity is a myth. God never intended for people to claim to be Christian, but not to live out their faith. Claiming faith in Christ is not enough. Genuine, unfaked Christianity must be matched by living faithfully and consistently for Him.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is currently in the process of raising financial support to serve with VFY on a full-time basis. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 45 years. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with churches. Mel has written 13 books on various subjects relating to youth ministry. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.YouthMinistryQuestions.com. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.