Paul, Athens, and Navigating Culture

Ancient Athens

Have you ever felt like you live in a culture that you don’t recognize any longer? The values you are faced with every day are nothing like what you grew up with. The practices that people carry out in their lives each day are at times shocking to you. How do you respond as a follower of Christ when the culture seems to be so far removed from what you think God desires for you to flourish? Have you found yourself feeling out of touch with what is going on in the world and needing to figure out how to fit in?

Throughout history, followers of Christ have generally taken one of two routes when dealing with a culture that did not embrace biblical values. One route, taken by large numbers of historic denominations, is to embrace the cultural change and fill your sails with the prevailing cultural winds. That typically results in the loss of the Gospel and the loss of the power of what God does through the Gospel. The other route, one more common among conservative and evangelical churches, is to loudly denounce the sins of the culture and withdraw into a Christian ghetto in order to remain untainted by the culture all the while fighting the culture through political means or social media posts.

Here is the question. Is there a third way? Is there a way that avoids giving in and becoming like the culture AND avoids withdrawing while lobbing theological barbs and the culture? I think the answer is a resounding yes and we find the biblical example of this in Acts 17. In that chapter, Paul finds himself in Athens, a city of countless temples and altars to every imaginable God. It was a city rampant with all the sin a city could offer. When Paul visited there, he spent several days just walking around the city and getting a handle on its culture and values. Finally, only after digging into the research, does Paul begin to speak in the public square, the Areopagus.

What is striking about Paul’s response at this point is what he doesn’t do and say as much as what he does. One would reasonably expect that a man so deeply committed to Jesus and opposed to paganism and idolatry as Paul, one who comes out of the legalism of being a Pharisee, would have leveled both barrels at the Athenians. Like some contemporary, angry street preachers today who denounce the sin they see at every turn, it would not be surprising to hear Paul cry out, “You filthy, idol-worshipping pagans, you are all going to fry in Hell”. I have heard a few of those kinds of preachers in my day and have certainly seen more than enough of them posting on social media. Paul certainly has the kind of reputation that most people would probably expect just that from him. But it is a reputation that is not deserved.

Paul shocks the world when he begins, not with denunciations, but with compliments for the Athenians. That is shocking in itself. But it is the nature of his compliments that is really eye-opening. He compliments the Athenians for their idolatry. In Acts 17:22,23 we are told this, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship”. Instead of ripping into their false religious ideas, Paul actually makes a connection with them. He recognizes that the Athenians care deeply about spiritual things. They want to make sure they are honoring the gods. They want to cover all the spiritual bases to the point that they have altars and temples to every god they have ever heard of, and even an altar dedicated to The Unknown God. After all, what if some god shows up one day and asks to see their temple and the Athenians don’t have one? They ask the name of the god and declare, “So that is your name! We wanted to give you an altar but had no name to attach to it. Here it is right over here. We will have the stonemason add your name forthwith.” They are clearly a deeply spiritual people.

Paul is also deeply spiritual and he uses that commonality to his advantage. It is that altar to the Unknown God, that Paul uses as the jumping-off point to help the Athenians know who God really is. In doing so, he begins where they are and with what they can all agree on together. He quotes some of their own poets and philosophers that speak of a creator and uses that to point them in the direction of the God of the Bible who is the creator of all. From there he points them to Jesus, the resurrection, and the Gospel. Paul’s goal in all of this is not to denounce what the Athenians believe but rather to show the truth that can be found in what they already believe in order to lead them to a more complete truth that leads to faith in Jesus.

Paul could have easily denounced the Athenians, their ideas, and lives and withdrawn into his Christian bubble, or he could have acquiesced and gone along with them just to keep the peace. Paul chose the third way, the way of engagement and dialogue. He researched the culture. He found points of common understanding and used that connection to point ultimately to Jesus. That was his goal, point people to Jesus. He chose a more difficult way. It is easy to withdraw and denounce. It is easy to go with the cultural flow. It is harder to show a better way.

Paul wanted to show the Athenians that Jesus was the answer to all their hopes and dreams. His goal was always for people to find life in Jesus. In Acts 26, Paul is making his case before a Roman official named Festus. Paul is awaiting being sent to Rome to stand trial before Caesar and is telling Festus and a Jewish official named Agrippa, about Jesus. “And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”.

Paul’s deepest desire is for people to know Jesus. He didn’t let the idolatry of the culture force him into a cultural battle. He didn’t let the lifestyles of the Athenians turn him against them. He didn’t withdraw from difficult conversations and disagreements. What he did do was show them respect. It is what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 that when we make a case for our faith, we are to always do it “with gentleness and respect”. That doesn’t mean doing it weakly. Paul was strong and courageous as he stood in the heart of academic learning of his day. Athens was the Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard of the ancient world. It took courage and grace to stand there and make your case.

How do you navigate the ever-shifting cultural landscape around you? Paul shows us how.

  1. Make sure you know what it is you believe and why. Being a follower of Jesus means being a student of the things of God, a life-long student.
  2. Make sure you know what it is that others believe. Paul understood the belief systems of the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens. He didn’t argue against a caricature of those beliefs that would have been easily dismissed by the philosophers. They knew that he knew what they believed.
  3. Find common ground to work from that leads to Jesus. Far too often followers of Jesus only point out where the differences are with others and never show the key points of agreement that allow for a true dialogue.
  4. Don’t freak out over practices and beliefs that defy the Gospel. Paul was surrounded by stuff in Athens that was clearly wrong and in some cases vile. He didn’t let that turn him away. Rather, he confidently lived the life that he knew Jesus wanted him to live, in hopes that it would be a light to others.
  5. Always show respect no matter how disagreeable and argumentative people become. Yelling louder and having the more witty retort, is not what brings people to Jesus.