Persons also belong to societies, and anthropologists have long noted and studied the social institutions found in every culture. These social institutions together enable a society to grow and thrive but also to dominate and control.
The first institution is that of association, which is the systems by which people connect to each other. We are born into families, we go to schools with other children, we join churches or other religious organizations, we join companies—all these are means of association. These associations also disconnect us—not everyone can be an alumni of the same institution, nor belong to the same club or church.
The second set of institutions I label as the system of exchange. It is focused on the fact that in every society there are goods, services, and statuses—all different types of wealth—that people exchange with each other. Some, like money, are obvious. Others, such as social status are easy to understand but can be complicated by many factors, including family relationships, educational level, personal connections, political positions, and age. Each of these represents a type of capital or wealth that can be used to the advantage of those with more capital than others. This system includes the types of capital and how that capital is used by members of the society in exchange with others. Types of capital include social, spiritual, economic, political, religious—and dare I say, unfortunately—even physical characteristics such as ethnicity.
If we want to understand the interplay of gospel and culture, understanding the exchange system in a society is critical.
The third social institution is learning—or perhaps you might name it education. You might first think of schools and you would be correct. But the cultural systems of learning go far beyond formal schooling. We learn from our parents and siblings how to behave, from peers in school how to cooperate (or not), from friends what gender means, from religious leaders how to live out our own faith (or not). Learning takes place in schools, in churches or other religious institutions, but also in the normal course of life such as engaging in sports, in work internships, in cultural visits, and much more.
The last social institution I include here is that of organization. This is how groups of people organize themselves—who leads and how they lead, who follows and how they follow, how their groups discipline offending members, how they train, build cohesiveness and unify their members. It includes both their ideals of organization as well as what each individual actually experiences in their jobs and in their relationships, in their churches, and their neighborhoods and their organizations.
How do people and their societies interact?
First, people shape societies by adhering to the societal values they cherish even as they agitate against things that they do not like. They join political particles, churches, mutual interest groups, and the like to make a difference—often hoping to influence change in their society and remold it in their own image of what a society should be.
At the same time, however, society shapes the people that comprise it. Like a mold, the institutions we are part of shape us to appreciate certain values and to live in certain ways. They effectively constrain us and do so without us even knowing it. Like a frog in a kettle of water which slowly heats, we might not even know our institutions are changing until it is too late.
All of this is helpful in understanding culture, but it is still missing a significant factor. That factor is the devastating reality of sin, which pervades us as individuals as well as pervading our social institutions. Sin affects everything we do, how we think, how we live.
But that’s not the full story. In addition to sin, the Scriptures portray a mortal foe who has a cadre of followers that intend to move us against the grain of God in any way they can. These evil spirits have intentions, and they seek to work both in hidden and overt ways, effectively trying to build a kingdom in direct opposition to the Kingdom of God. They want us and our cultures molded in demonic ways and are most successful when we remain unaware of how those ways show themselves in our lives in institutions.
Thankfully, that’s not the whole story! God is also at work, sending His Holy Spirit to intervene in our lives and societies. He woos, gifts, and convicts individuals, empowering them to break the mold of the world. He uses these individuals to speak against cultural institutions that debase the image of God we share. He renews or revives institutions, cities, and at times even entire nations, turning them to Christ and rooting out satanic schemes and influences.
To do that, let’s remember the gospel: Jesus Christ, the Lord.
How do we work that out in all situations and settings?
How do we live out the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord?
The COVID-19 pandemic will give us a new, unique chance to answer this question together.
Watch Scott share more about Gospel and Culture.