The Gospel in Culture

“Biblical culture supersedes societal culture. Culture cannot be used as an excuse to disregard scriptural passages.”

– Stephen Allard

What is Culture?

Culture is complex. It is no wonder for such a topic there have been a myriad of definitions and explanations. Dutch anthropologist Dr. Geert Hofstede explains culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category from another.”[1]

Dr. Tom Verghese summarizes culture simply as “the lens through which you look at the world.”[2] He states, “Culture is important because it shapes your psychological makeup.” [3]

Andrew Kirk rightly argues, “If we ignore the influence of culture we run the risk of seriously misreading situations.” [4]

We can and should compare cultural elements to essential, unalterable principles of Scripture, and come to conclusions about what to accept and what not to accept from a given culture. Culture does not dictate biblical interpretation or application, but rather the gospel enters a culture and judges the culture, inviting individuals to an even higher culture created by transmission of God’s word into our lives.

Stephen Allard, who has spent much of his life in the mission fields of West Africa states, “Biblical culture supersedes societal culture. Culture cannot be used as an excuse to disregard scriptural passages.” [5]

Cultural Intelligence

Robert Priest, author of Effective Engagement in Short-term Missions: Doing it Right, asks the question, “How can one communicate the Gospel effectively when he or she is unaware of the broader context in which people are living their lives?” [6] To inculcate the gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives of people we want to reach, we must convey the message with what Verghese calls “cultural intelligence.” [7] Cultural intelligence covers a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience regarding a particular culture. It implies that we must have more than good intentions to effectively share the gospel cross-culturally. There must be knowledge of the history, politics, economics, national tragedies, cultural norms and customs of the people we are trying to reach. The medium through which the gospel is communicated is language and culture. We are instructed to “Go into all the world” and “Preach the gospel to every creature.” There is no way around language and culture when we do ministry. Our responsibility is to take the message—along with cultural intelligence—and allow the gospel to speak into people’s lives through their own cultural context.

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Contrary to the claims of some Christians, the gospel is not trans-cultural; it must always apply in and through culture. The gospel first came to a particular cultural context in 1st century Jewish, Roman and Greek cultures. Much of it is complex. Much of daily life is a mixture of diverse languages and cultures, but we notice the gospel is not an abstract phenomenon that exists beyond the daily lives of the people—it inserts directly into human circumstance; it speaks to every nuance of any given culture. That is why it has power in every cultural context. Since the Church’s first missionary efforts until today, we observe how the gospel has been interpreted in unique ways in particular cultures, often emphasizing certain points above others. Kirk observes this in “the way that [we] personally chose to emphasize certain features [of the gospel], showing how [our] own cultural background has influenced [us] to draw them out as the most critical points.” [8] While we certainly gravitate to points of the gospel which speak “more loudly” than others, an honest contextualization of the gospel will speak to any culture context while remaining faithful and balanced to the biblical message.

Contextualizing the gospel means we take the culture seriously, yet still trust the Bible message to enter the culture and be applicable to every aspect of life.

Cultural Boundaries

Acts 10:1-11:18 describes the cultural exchange that takes place between Peter, a Jew converted to the way of Jesus Christ, and Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-fearing Gentile. These two individuals, and the circle of family and friends, that accompany them, come from very different ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds. Cultural norms demanded that Peter maintain separation and isolation for the sake of spiritual purity and acceptance within “his own people” the Jews. Nevertheless, the gospel empowers Peter to bend and even break his own cultural norms to introduce the message of Christ to lost souls. The gospel bridges cultures together. The gospel unites people of all cultures into one dynamic new paradigm called the Church.

Peter “courageously crossed over into uncharted territory,” says Nguyen, “and dismantled all sorts of cultural barriers—namely, language, ethnicity and traditions—to include the Gentiles into the mission of the church.” [9] Nguyen points out that Jesus and his disciples “draw new maps of a reformed purity system that is radically inclusive.”[10] Therefore, contrary to societal rhetoric about the Christian Church being exclusive, it is in fact the most inclusive group on the face of the earth. The gospel is the most liberating, most benevolent, most uniting force known to man.

Peter’s decision to enter into the house of Gentiles, eat with Gentiles, and finally acknowledge them as equal heirs of salvation (a salvation thought to belong solely to Israel) was revolutionary—both culturally, politically, and theologically. Cultural boundaries exist in every culture. In Cuba there is very strong nationalism, which is often antagonistic towards American (or “imperial”) influence. As American missionaries we enter a culture that is already opposed to foreign influence, especially the “empire” from the north. Nevertheless, we enter Cuban homes, share meals together, discuss culture, the church, and Christian doctrine. We are able to “connect” with Cuban people because we are willing to contextualize the gospel. We do not present an “American-brand” gospel to the Cuban mind and heart. We present the gospel, the faith “once delivered to the saints,” and allow the Cuban people to inculcate this message into their present circumstances.

There is no culture on earth that is immune to the powerful effects of the love of Christ and anointed, apostolic gospel preaching.

The “lostness” and the effects of sin in the world are universal, including sickness, corruption, pain, frustration and death; but the message of Salvation is also universal. Because of the bonds of peace, mercy, faith, hospitality, and open friendship, we can supersede cultural boundaries, and have tremendous camaraderie and trust among our brethren who look, speak, and act differently than ourselves. Lines of separation between political rivals can be washed away in the blood. Racial barriers can be eliminated because of divine love and understanding. The Spirit of Christ has the power to surpass all cultural indoctrination and learned behaviors that have left humanity fragmented and divided. New dimensions of unity and fellowship are possible because of willing hearts and the unifying nature of the gospel.

What is left to do but take the gospel into all the world? Just as Jesus said.

 

References

[1] Geert Hofstede, 1984, 3 April 2016, Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAcHUIRwQUo&feature=youtu.be&t=23s

[2] Tom Verghese, 1999, 3 April 2016, Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAcHUIRwQUo&feature=youtu.be&t=23s

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission: Theological Explorations (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1999), 75.

[5] Stephen Allard, Lecture: “Culture in Biblical Context,” AST Short-term Missions Week 2.

[6] Robert Priest, Effective Engagement in Short-term Missions: Doing it Right (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008), 108.

[7] Verghese, 1999, 3 April 2016, Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAcHUIRwQUo&feature=youtu.be&t=23s

[8] Kirk, What is Mission, 75.

[9] Vanthanh Nguyen, “Dismantling Cultural Boundaries: Missiological Implications of Acts 10:1-11:18,” Missiology: An International Review, 40.4 (2012), 462.

[10]Ibid., 460.

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