Christianity And CULTURE

By Stephen Campbell

Multitudes gathered to hear John the Baptist when he began preaching at the Jordan River (Lk. 3:7-14). When the crowds desired to repent, he said they should prove the reality of their desire by sharing with the poor. To tax collectors who asked what they should do, he told them about honesty; and when soldiers asked, he spoke about gentleness and contentment. Each group of people lived within a set of experiences that not only defined who they were but also created unique challenges. In the same way, as Christians we do not merely exist in the world but we participate in a particular set of activities based on where we live and who we are. Since we are God’s people, we can bring His beauty into our surroundings; yet that same environment often resists our testimony for Him.

Understanding Culture
The atmosphere we live in is often called our “culture.” This term encompasses the values, preferences and behaviors that collectively characterize a country, region or society of people. Many details of our culture are simply an inescapable part of who we are. Things that are considered polite, proper, funny, rude, interesting or important are all impressed upon us as we live in our own societies. For example, some nationalities or ethnic groups are emotionally expressive while those from other regions tend to be more stoic or reserved; and there is a large number of such characteristics that vary from one culture to another.

Many cultural norms, or typical behaviors, simply reflect basic ideas about life and are well suited for expressing Christian beliefs. In a society that values hard work, Christians can work as unto the Lord. In a culture that appreciates creativity, Christians can write poetry or produce art that glorifies God. In our families, our school and work lives, and our personal attitudes, we Christians can display the beauty of Christ as we participate in our culture.

Culture can also influence the different ways Christians live out their faith. These differences can still be God-honoring even though they may seem unusual to other cultures. An enthusiastic style of Christian singing may seem improper to a believer who has grown up in a more reserved culture – just as the expressive believer might view classical-style hymns as cold and lifeless. Yet both individuals may well be singing to the Lord in a pure, selfless expression of worship. In some cultures, men and women sit separately in Christian meetings, while in others the entire family sits together. These cultural traditions are not detriments but merely facts about who we are and where we live.

Similar features of culture are illustrated by godly people in the Scriptures. When Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt, he lived according to Egyptian cultural norms. He accepted the honor that was appropriate to his position and worked to improve the prosperity of the country (Gen. 41:42-45, 47:20-26). His language and appearance were so thoroughly Egyptian that he was not at first recognizable to his family; and he also followed the conventional separation between Egyptians and Hebrews when it was fitting to do so (42:7-8,23, 43:32-34, 46:33-34).

Similarly, when Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon they excelled at learning its literature and knowledge, and they desired the good of the king (Dan. 1:20, 4:19). Later, under Persian rule, Mordecai followed cultural regulations against public mourning in the king’s courtyard (Est. 4:1-2). In the New Testament Paul circumcised Timothy in order to remove a potential cause of offense to others even though circumcision had been publicly declared unnecessary for Christians (Acts 15:5,10-11, 16:3).

In these situations, God’s people not only lived within their culture but beautified it. They conducted themselves honorably, not merely out of respect for local customs but out of reverence for their Lord. Paul said, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16 ESV). Godly people enrich their culture by their righteous integrity.

Yet the analysis of culture also contains a warning because culture often makes demands that go outside of the bounds of godliness. Daniel refused to eat the king’s food because that would dishonor God (Dan. 1:8). Mordecai refused to bow before the king’s nobleman, even though that was both rule and custom (Est. 3:2). In Paul’s time Gentile believers were to shun the rampant sexual immorality that was acceptable in their cultures (Acts 15:20; 1 Th. 4:3-4).

The Discerning Christian
These facts reveal that Christians must use careful discernment about culture. It would be wrong to disengage from our culture, both because it is not the scriptural way and because it is not really even possible to do so. Yet it would also be wrong to believe that every aspect of our culture can be “Christianized,” because many aspects are directly opposed to God’s ways.

This assessment reveals the challenge of the Lord’s instruction to be in the world but not of the world (Jn. 17:6-18). For centuries, Christian gatherings have wrestled with the application of this precept. Some respond with the error of isolationism, which leads to a set of moral codes that demand something which God’s grace does not. Others err by assimilation, adopting present-day cultural attitudes because they view the Word of God as a relic of its own culture that must therefore be reinterpreted when times change.*

The discerning Christian sees a more biblical response than both of these errors. That discernment requires dependence on God and His Word, and therefore this approach to life is challenging, not simplistic. By the Holy Spirit’s guidance, however, the relationship between culture and faith can be lived out in ways that honor God among believers and unbelievers alike.

Guiding Principles
It is true that we are all products of our culture, yet culture takes a back seat to Christianity. Peter wrote about the “brotherhood” of believers (1 Pet. 2:17, 5:9), using a unique word to portray the Christian union as a bond that surpasses aspects of culture like gender, ethnicity, nationality or custom. Christianity must be our foremost characteristic! The writer of this article is a white American man, and all those characteristics exert a cultural influence on daily life. But I should not primarily consider myself a white Christian or an American Christian, interpreting principles of Christianity through the lens of those cultural facts.

Therefore, a related point is that we cannot allow culture to dictate how to apply Christian principles. Culture must defer to historical Christianity, which Jude 3 describes as “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” In Jude’s time, unbelievers had infiltrated the Church and used the grace of God as an excuse for sins like greed and rebellion. Relying on the historical, God-given principles of Christianity will establish us in the truth, so even if greed and immorality become normal in a culture, we will still recognize those sins for what they are.

Another danger develops when culture becomes so entwined with faith that we consider our traditions to be actual Christian principles. For example, Peter had to be divinely instructed to share the gospel with Gentiles. He and others had thought they should not even keep company with non-Jews (Acts 10:28, 11:3). Such restrictions had been aspects of the Jewish oral tradition and are contained in writings of the Jewish rabbis – but they are not in the Old Testament Scriptures. Moreover, the Lord Jesus had already told His disciples that all nations would receive the gospel (Lk. 24:47). The separation which they thought God wanted was only a cultural tradition, one which exceeded God’s Word as well as Christ’s own verbal instructions.

The lessons of Acts 10:1-11:18 are weighty. Because culture is the atmosphere in which we live, it is easy to believe that the ways we practice Christianity are the correct ways, when in fact our culture has sometimes colored our perspective. In Peter’s case, culture went beyond Scripture. In other cases, culture and Scripture might coexist for us personally, but they might clash strongly elsewhere. Some Christians have certain views about alcohol, tobacco, coffee, clothing, music and so on; and these have become connected with scriptural reasons in the minds of believers in that culture. Yet Christians in other cultures may be far more tolerant or far more restrictive about the same issues, and they will also have scriptural explanations for their views.

Culture is not universal, and although the Word of God does not yield to culture, there is often more than one way to live out the same truth. The discerning Christian seeks to distinguish essentials from preferences. What roles should women take in the Church? What is the significance of the head covering? What kinds of jewelry are appropriate? What leisure activities are acceptable? Some of these matters are addressed very precisely in the Bible and are therefore not questions of culture. Other points are addressed indirectly, and still others are not mentioned at all; in those cases, we seek godly principles that satisfy scriptural standards and our own Christian consciences.

Sometimes believers in different areas reach different conclusions, yet we must always be careful when criticizing other believers since we naturally tend to agree with those most like our own cultures. This caused difficulties in the early Church among some who distributed funds for widows and among others who simply shared a meal together (Acts 6:1; Gal. 2:11-13). We will be prone to the same errors if we evaluate the non-essential preferences of others based on our own experiences. If a subject is not addressed explicitly in the Bible, we should try to appreciate the liberty that is in Christ, who taught us that defilement is not caused by external matters but by what arises in the heart (Mk. 7:14-23).

A further principle is that all cultures can come to God where they are. The council of apostles and elders in Acts 15 affirmed this truth. Whereas some insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised – that is, become like Jews – in order to be saved, the council was guided by the Holy Spirit to declare only that believing Gentiles should live pure lives, mentioning four essential points but nothing more (15:5,28-29). In both foreign missionary work and neighborhood evangelism, the temptation is to tell new believers, “This is the way you do it,” providing them with our own styles of music and other lifestyle choices. If we trust God, He will guide them into the most suitable expressions of the truth. He does not ask us to make people into proselytes who simply act like we do (Mt. 23:15).

Because all people can call on the name of the Lord where they are, it is important for Christians to be active participants in their culture. This does not mean we should adopt the ungodly aspects of the rest of the world. But if we are living like the salt of the earth and light of the world (Mt. 5:13-16), we should actively and intentionally bring the beauty of Christ into the school groups, community activities and neighborhood events around us.

Reviewing Implications
People in various regions are united by their culture; yet barriers of age, language, ethnic background, income and similar issues drive wedges between them. In the Church, we should act with purpose to show that these factors do not hinder our oneness or influence our understanding of God’s eternal Word. Instead, let us testify of the Lord faithfully, using culture as a vehicle for Christ-centered living while overcoming its influences – not conforming ourselves to the spirit of the times but proving God’s good and perfect will (Rom. 12:2).

Partiality and Acceptance “And a voice spoke to [Peter] again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This was done three times … Then he said to them, ‘You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean’ … Then Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him … And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission [forgiveness] of sins.’” —Acts 10:15-16,28,34-35,42-43 NKJV

* In the middle of the 20th century, a man named H. Richard Niebuhr described five ways Christians have historically viewed culture, including the opposing perspectives mentioned here. His book Christ And Culture, published in 1951, additionally identified some believers who separate faith and culture; some who consider it a paradox that Christians inhabit the realms of both faith and culture; and some who believe culture should be transformed by the Christian faith. The “paradox” view is most similar to the position taken in this article.

Author: Sebastien

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