Cults, Christianity, and Culture (Acts 15:1-31)
A number of years ago as I sat on the platform waiting to preach, my friend who was doing the morning introductions leaned over and with a sigh whispered in my ear, “I’ve just been in the high school class, and the whole hour they were playing guitars and singing.” After the final hymn, my friend stood to introduce me by saying, “At this church we always study through the Scriptures book by book, chapter by chapter.” These preliminary remarks unnerved me, since on this particular Sunday I had chosen to depart from my normal pattern of systematic exposition! My text was 2 Samuel 6, the account of David dancing before the ark of God, much to the dismay of his wife, Michal. I had purposed to say that in the matter of church music, we are all too often like Michal, too proud to let down our hair and worship with music which is enthusiastic. Perhaps you can understand how uneasy I felt as I began my sermon on that Sunday morning. The people in the audience had conflicting views about church music. Emotions ran high on all sides of the issue. Music is not taken lightly because it plays a significant role in our worship. More than one church has been split over a matter so insignificant as the presence or absence of a piano.
I must honestly confess that I am more uneasy about this particular message than I was about my message on 2 Samuel 6. Then, I spoke only about music and its role in worship, but today, I am addressing music as an example of a broader category—culture. At first glance the subject of culture may seem innocuous, but this is far from the truth. One treads on very thin ice when addressing the subject of the relationship of Christianity to culture. There are several reasons for my apprehension concerning this subject. First, culture is something in which we are immersed and consequently we are rarely conscious of it. It is something akin to asking a fish what it thinks about water, or a bird about the atmosphere. Culture is the atmosphere in which we live without consciously thinking about it. Did you think about why you drove on the right-hand side of the road on the way to church instead of on the left as people of other countries do? Did you think about sitting beside your wife as you entered the auditorium, instead of segregating men and women as practiced in some churches in India? These examples may help you to see that we don’t think a great deal about culture—our own culture at least. We are only aware of our cultural practices when we are confronted with opposing customs of other cultures. Culture is assimilated, almost by osmosis, not by instruction. Since cultural traditions are observed without consideration, we tend to accept them without thinking of them.
Second, culture is often intertwined with strong feelings of right and wrong which we have held as Christian convictions, rather than as personal or societal preferences. The use of alcohol and tobacco, the enjoyment of the theater or of television, and the issue of dancing are just a few issues often included in the list of Christian “don’ts.” A study of the history of the church reveals that these particular prohibitions have not characterized Christian values with any degree of consistency. The reformers, to whom we appeal in matters of soteriology, had no problem with smoking or drinking. It was only some years later that these were considered sins and added to the list of Christian taboos. At times, even coffee and tea were on the list of forbidden items for Christians.
Third, culture is not universal. We know that, of course, at least in principle. We expect people from foreign countries to think, to act and to dress differently. Yet we are not always willing to recognize different cultures, even within our church. One significant contributing factor to the so-called “generation gap” is the difference of culture which exists between these age groups. If you don’t believe me, listen to the music which “turns on” your children, as opposed to what you enjoy. Lawrence Welk is not the name of the game for any but the geriatric generation.
If I am correct in concluding that culture is often unconscious and yet a matter of strong conviction, you can see why I approach this subject with fear and trembling. When a matter is discussed about which people have very strong feelings and yet have not really seriously contemplated, there is bound to be some reaction. In light of this, I ask that you make a sincere effort to withhold judgment until you have considered what I am about to say, and until you have had the time to carefully search the Scriptures on these matters. If you cannot agree with my conclusions, I will not be offended, so long as you have been honest with the Scriptures and with yourself.
Christianity and Culture
On the surface, culture may hardly seem to be an issue in the debate between the apostles and the Judaizers in Acts 15. Indeed, culture is not the issue for the issue faced by the Jerusalem Council was the gospel.15 The implications of the decision of the Council, however, concern culture and its relationship to Christianity. There is a great deal of difference between an issue and its implications. For instance, the issue in the Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade was whether or not an unwed mother, pregnant due to rape, had the right to an abortion under the Constitution of the United States. The implications of that decision went much farther, however, giving any woman in the United States the right to have an abortion for virtually any reason.
In our first lesson on Acts 15 we dealt with the issue of the definition of the gospel. Renouncing the “gospel” of the Judaizers, the Jerusalem Council concluded that Gentiles were not subject to the Old Testament law as a condition for salvation. The Gentiles, like the Jews, were saved by faith alone. The law had never been able to save, but only to condemn. The principle of grace excluded law-keeping as a condition for salvation. The salvation of the Gentiles was regarded as consistent with the words of the Old Testament prophets (Acts 15:6-19).
While the Gentile converts were not required to keep the law and to adopt a Jewish lifestyle, Jewish Christians were not prohibited from living according to the law as long as they understood this did not contribute in any way to their salvation. Consequently, the Jewish Christians, including Paul, continued to observe the law, and in so doing, upheld their Jewish culture (cf. Acts 21:24). In no way was this contrary to the gospel or the decision of the Council.
The four prohibitions of verses 20 and 29 are considered a necessary obligation for the Gentiles,16 yet they fail to adequately summarize the mass of New Testament Scriptures pertaining to the godly lifestyle required of Gentile Christians. Such matters were not intended to be taught here and included in the letter sent by the Jerusalem Council, but were rather the subject of the epistles:
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, … But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph. 4:17, 20-24).
If the four prohibitions are not conditions for salvation, and they are not the totality of God’s standards for Gentile conduct, what was the purpose of the Council in including them here? The answer to this question is the key to our message. The gospel of Jesus Christ saved both Jews and Gentiles and brought them together in a new and unique way, removing the barriers which had once existed between them (Eph. 2:11-22). Neither Jews nor Gentiles were compelled to forsake their cultures to become Christians. Since both were to worship in harmony and unity, each must make concessions to the cultural sensitivities of the other. The four prohibitions specify the areas of Gentile conduct which would be most offensive to the scruples of their Jewish brethren.
While the cultural element is recognized by many Bible scholars, there is some disagreement as to what is specifically forbidden by these four prohibitions. The first prohibition is literally “the pollution’s of idols” (v. 20), which is called “things offered to idols” in verse 29. Partaking of “things offered to idols” was identified as a matter of Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 8. However in Acts 15, these foods were forbidden to the Gentile Christians because they were an abomination to the Jewish saint and therefore they should be avoided. In later times, after Jerusalem had been sacked by the Roman army, there was less need for concern for the scruples of the Jewish Christians.
The second practice, “fornication,” may refer to various forms of sexual immorality which would therefore be wrong for Gentiles and Jews (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-20). The expression “fornication” could also refer to the Gentile practice of marrying a close relative, which the Old Testament law forbade (cf. Lev. 18). Thirdly, the forbidden “blood” may have been the blood of animals, which the Gentiles sometimes drank, but it might also refer to cruelty, murder and violence (cf. Gen. 9:4-6). Finally, “things strangled” would most likely refer to the eating of animals which were killed by strangling, which was forbidden by the Old Testament law (cf. Lev. 17:10-14; Deut. 12:16, 23, 25).17
The changes required of Peter in order for him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10) were accepted by the Jerusalem church leaders in Acts 11. Now, in Acts 15, the Gentiles are told what they must forsake in order to have unity in fellowship and worship with Jewish believers. Given the scruples of the Jewish Christians, Gentile saints had to be sensitive to them, especially in the areas of worship, eating, and sexual morality. The Gentiles were instructed to be careful to avoid these practices since they were the areas of greatest sensitivity for the conscientious Jew.
The Council’s decision, therefore, established a biblical precedent concerning the relationship between culture and Christianity. The Jewish culture (as prescribed by the Old Testament law) was not essential for salvation. To be saved, one needed only to believe in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, could continue to practice their culture in any way that was not inconsistent with biblical morality. To have fellowship with those of other cultures, each Christian must be willing to refrain from his cultural liberties which prove to be either a cause of stumbling or a hindrance to fellowship.
There is another way in which the gospel is to govern the practice of our culture. Our culture should not become a hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel. Paul’s practice is a model for every Christian:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, though not being myself under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow-partaker of it (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
To Paul, as to all of the apostles, the gospel was primary, and culture was secondary. Gentiles did not have to adopt the Jewish culture to be saved for the gospel did not require it. Neither Jews nor Gentiles were compelled to forsake their culture, as long as the gospel was not compromised by it. Whenever the gospel could be promoted by adapting to the culture of another, the preaching of the gospel required such change. In addition to the implications of the gospel which govern culture, culture is also an important consideration because of its impact on the gospel.
The decision of the Jerusalem Council was the watershed of world evangelization in the Book of Acts. Once it was determined that the Jewish culture was not an essential part of the gospel, the gospel was freed from its cultural bonds and seen to be a universal message of salvation to all men. While this was a change that required a total reorientation on the part of Jewish Christians, it was not a change without considerable precedent, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament gospels.
When God created the nation Israel and brought them out of Egypt, He gave them the Mosaic Law in order to provide them with a standard of righteousness, with a promise of redemption, and with a prescription for a culture which would isolate them from the godless paganism of the heathen nations around them. When Israel was outside of the land, it was not possible to live completely under the law for they were not able to offer sacrifices in the prescribed places, nor were they able to isolate themselves from the cultures of their captors.
The first example of this is found in Joseph. When he realized that he would live out his life and die in Egypt, he chose to adopt much of the culture of the Egyptians. Before Joseph stood in Pharaoh’s presence, he shaved (Gen. 41:14), which was culturally very significant. A beard was highly regarded in Israel (cf. 2 Sam. 10:4-5), but in Egypt it was not. Joseph revealed wisdom by adapting to the culture of his day, yet in a way that did not violate any biblical principle. A beard was really a matter of culture, not of creed. By taking the Egyptian’s language, their dress, and even an Egyptian wife (cf. Gen. 41:45), Joseph identified himself with the Egyptians in a way that made his ministry more acceptable, yet without any sacrifice of biblical principle.
Perhaps Daniel is the most striking example of cultural concession in the Old Testament. In Daniel 1 we find the prophet and his three Hebrew friends taken captive to Babylon. We know these men best in terms of what they refused to do. All four refused to partake of the king’s choice food and wine (Dan. 1:8-16), which seemed to be associated with idolatrous worship. (In this case, it would be consistent with the prohibitions of Acts 15:20, 29.) Daniel refused to cease praying (Dan. 6), and his three friends would not bow down to the golden image (Dan. 3). In focusing our attention on what these four men refused to do we sometimes fail to take note of the cultural concession they were willing make. They were submissive to the king’s requirements by becoming educated in the schools of Babylon for three years, and of serving the king as advisors. These men, even in their youth, had the God-given wisdom to discern between what was culturally acceptable and what was not. They were able to faithfully serve God and to be witnesses to Him, even in a pagan land, because they could discern the elements of that culture which were an offense to God. Perhaps they were aware of the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).
In the Old Testament, adapting to the pagan cultures of Egypt and Babylon was the exception, not the rule. So long as there was a theocracy, the Old Testament law prescribed the culture of the people of God. Those Gentiles who desired to trust in the God of Israel placed themselves under His law, and thus became Jewish proselytes. With the coming of Christ as recorded in the Gospels, the dramatic changes recognized by the Jerusalem Council were hinted at but not fully comprehended. Our Lord’s teaching about being “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:13-16) could only apply as the gospel penetrated the various cultures of the Gentiles. When John recorded that our Lord “had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4), He intended for us to look back and to understand that the Lord Jesus was foreshadowing the evangelization of the Gentiles. Mark 7 centers around the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees over their traditions. These words of Jesus to His disciples were later understood in light of the events of the Book of Acts (Acts 10, 11) and the decision of the Jerusalem Council:
And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18-19).
More than any other book of the Bible, Acts enables us to see the gradual unveiling of the separation of culture from Christianity. Our Lord’s statements and actions with regard to the Gentiles never registered with the disciples. Consequently, when He had risen from the grave and was about to ascend into heaven, their primary interest was in the coming of His kingdom (Acts 1:6). Our Lord’s response not only put off the question about the coming of His kingdom, but it suggested the universal proclamation of the gospel (Acts 1:8). Undaunted, the disciples hastened to appoint a twelfth apostle, no doubt to fill the vacancy so that they would be able to sit on the twelve promised thrones (cf. Matt. 19:28).
With the filling of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost came the gift of tongues, which was a sign of the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all mankind (Acts 2:17, 21). It was not until the Jerusalem church came under intense persecution that the Christians engaged in missionary activity (Acts 8:1ff.). Peter’s vision and his commission to go to the house of Cornelius, with the resulting testimony of the Holy Spirit to the conversion of these Gentiles (Acts 10), resulted in an inquiry on the part of the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:1ff.). Even when all had been persuaded that God had chosen to save the Gentiles (11:18), only a few noble souls from Cyprus and Cyrene preached to the Gentiles, resulting in the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). From this church Barnabas and Paul were sent out as missionaries to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3), and upon their return, the debate over the necessity of circumcising the Gentiles arose (Acts 15:1-2). When the gospel was defined as distinct from any obligation upon Gentile converts to keep the law, and when the issue of culture was seen as subordinate to the gospel, the evangelization of the Gentile world became predominate as recorded in the remainder of the Book of Acts. The book, which begins with a Jewish church, thus ends with Paul’s explanation of the Jews’ rejection of the gospel and the salvation of the Gentiles (Acts 28:24-29).
Christianity and Culture Through the Centuries
The universality of the gospel necessitated a distinction between Christianity and culture. Christianity can exist in any culture, but each culture will have certain beliefs, values, or practices which contradict Christianity and therefore must be laid aside. The Jewish emphasis on external righteousness by outward conformity to rules had to be put aside, for salvation is obtained by faith alone, apart from works. The Gentile practices of idolatry and immorality also had to be rejected as contrary to one’s calling in Christ. Any conformity to culture which hinders the preaching of the gospel should also be forsaken. It all seems quite simple, doesn’t it? However history reveals the difficulty which the saints have had in consistently relating Christianity to culture.
Historically, the church has struggled to identify with contemporary culture without becoming either isolated from it or identical to it. The church has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to relate to contemporary culture without creating a counter-culture and without being consumed by secular culture. Needless to say, the church has not always succeeded in walking the tight rope between these two extremes.
In the early church at Jerusalem, the Jewish culture was strongly opposed to Christianity. The greatest danger was posed by the Judaistic Christians who sought to impose the Jewish culture on the Gentile believers. When Christianity was proclaimed among the Gentiles, we can see the struggle which the churches (like the one in Corinth) had in keeping the world out of the church. As greater opposition from Rome was focused against the Christians, this danger diminished for a time.
When the church pronounces contemporary culture corrupt, it seeks to eradicate that culture from Christianity by creating a counter-culture of its own. True Christians are instructed to adopt this counter-culture in place of their old lifestyles. When the church is powerful enough, it may seek to impose this “Christian culture” on society as a whole. Such was the case in the second century when Roman government was wedded to religion.
With the coming of Constantine, the church entered into a new era. The state which had once persecuted Christianity now professed it and even sought to promote it. The church thus had the opportunity to impose what it considered to be a “Christian culture” upon all Roman citizens. The church sought to return, once more, to a theocracy, like that to which ancient Israel had formerly been subject. This produced at best a feigned obedience to what was conceived to be the law of God. Richard Lovelace describes some of the legalism which ensued:
Hard-line fundamentalists like Tertullian ruled out many intellectual activities: the theater (because of its origins in pagan worship), the dance (because it might inflame ill-controlled sexual passions) and cosmetics (if God meant you to smell like a flower He would have given you a crop of them on your head!).18
The expansion of Roman rule and religion extended to other lands. This introduced the opposite error of the Christian faith. The church adopted the cultural corruptions of the subdued nations:
The missionary expansion of this modified theocracy was a genuine work of God’s grace, and yet it left the worst features of converted cultures intact or assimilated them into Catholicism while covering them over with a surface conformity to Roman ritual, theology and governmental hierarchy.19
The tension between resisting contemporary culture to the point of isolation and accepting it to the point of total identification (including its evils) can be seen throughout the remainder of the church’s history.20 The Reformers reacted to the legislated morality of the Catholic Church. They, along with the Puritans, gratefully imbibed in alcohol and enjoyed tobacco. The temperance movement came later, a reaction to abuses of alcohol related to the Industrial Revolution. The Revivalists of the 1820’s and 1830’s carried temperance even further—to total abstinence. With Revivalist Charles Finney came the addition of coffee and tea to the list of “forbidden fruits.”
The important thing to observe as we consider the way the church has historically sought to relate to culture is that its actions have been the result of its understanding of the gospel. Lovelace observes:
Apparently if the church has not fully appropriated the life and redemptive benefits of Jesus Christ, it will inevitably be subject to two forms of re-enculturation. Either it will suffer destructive enculturation, absorbing elements of its host cultures which it should discern and suppress as unholy, or it will try to re-create once again the Old Testament protective enculturation, fusing itself with certain aspects of Christianized culture until the gospel is thought to be indissolubly wedded to those cultural expressions.21
The decision of the Jerusalem Council should thus be seen in light of its cultural implications. The apostles’ understanding of the gospel compelled them to address the issue of culture. So too we must be very careful that our comprehension of the gospel is correct and that our response to culture is consistent with the gospel.
Christianity, Culture, and the Cults
I believe there is a definite relationship between the cult and the contemporary culture. Most often the cultist utterly rejects the culture of his day, reacting by creating a kind of counter-culture. The Jesus Movement, for example, was based upon a rejection of the culture of middle-class America. In its place this movement provided a religion which substituted a middle-class culture for a counter-culture which rejected materialism and middle-class values. If I am not mistaken you will find that virtually every cult has a very carefully defined culture which it seeks to promote as a cure for the contemporary culture of its day.
This was at least a part of the heresy of the Judaizers in Acts 15. They could not conceive of Christianity in any other cultural expression than that of Judaism. As a result of their fervent devotion to the preservation of this culture, they perverted the gospel.
So it is, I am convinced, with every cult. The cult is either born out of a reaction to a contemporary culture or out of a desire to transplant another culture into the current culture of that day. In order to do so, the gospel is distorted and the convert’s conformity to the new culture becomes the measure of his “faith.” To the extent that the Christian church loses sight of the power of the gospel to save and to sanctify a man or woman in any culture, it will pervert the gospel and will seek to establish another culture. Conformity to this lifestyle becomes the measure of one’s righteousness.
Christianity, Culture, and the Church
I have come to the conclusion that it is absolutely essential for us as Christians to understand the relationship between culture and Christianity. Let me suggest some of the ways culture affects Christianity.
(1) Culture plays a crucial role in foreign missions. Western missions (by this I mean the missionary endeavors of the churches in the United States) have often been greatly hindered by the cultural blunders of the missionaries and their sending agencies. Failing to distinguish between what is cultural and what is Christian, missionaries have often attempted to transplant American Christianity to foreign soil, rather than to take the gospel and allow it to develop within the indigenous culture of the people. Christianity has often been characterized as paternalistic and capitalistic. Churches are built in Western style, with Western monies. Those who are converted dress as Westerners. All too often, native leaders are sent to the United States to receive a Western education. Control of the missionaries and of the newly planted churches stays in Western hands.
The missionary activity of the Apostle Paul was quite different. He was seldom supported by funds from outside churches, but worked with his own hands, demonstrating the proper Christian lifestyle and values (cf. Acts 20:33-35; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). Paul seldom stayed in any one place too long. He encouraged the development of leadership among those converted, and he appointed those who were qualified to serve as elders and deacons (or had one like Timothy do so, cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). The newly planted churches were not dependent upon outside leadership or funds.
I do not wish to pose as an authority on foreign missions, for I am not. I have had opportunity to observe that Western missionary endeavors in India have been dominated by Western leadership and funds for decades and yet have often had little impact on the regions where they were located. In recent years the Indian government has greatly restricted foreign missionary activity, and the Indian church has become very effective in promoting the gospel in that country and elsewhere beyond its borders. A good part of the reason is because Christianity is being freed from the bondage of Western culture and is identifying with the culture (I should say cultures) of that great country. To the degree that we fail to comprehend the difference between our Christianity and our culture, we shackle the gospel.
(2) Culture plays a vital role in evangelism. Paul told the Corinthian saints that he carefully considered the impact of his culture on the preaching of the gospel, changing his culture in any way that was biblical to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). I am convinced that a good part of my failure as a witness is related to my cultural rigidity. Fundamental Christians have sought to protect themselves from the “world” by creating rigid rules which are often the basis for alienating our unsaved neighbors. We have come to think of spiritual purity in terms of physical separation, and so we avoid many of the places where the unsaved may be.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we frequent porno shops, X-rated movies, and massage parlors in the name of evangelism. I am saying that we have become so preoccupied with church activities that we have no time and no interest in those things which are of interest to our neighbors—things like the PTA, the city council, Boy Scouts, and so on. If we are going to win men and women to Christ, we must, like Paul, become much more sensitive to the negative or positive impact of culture on the preaching of the gospel. Those elements of our culture which are expendable, we should gladly give up in order to, by all means, save some. We have become so alienated from the world in which we live that we can hardly relate to the lost in a way which provides an occasion to share our faith in a winsome fashion.
(3) Culture plays a vital role in the worship of the church. Never before has the church in America seen such a dramatic shift in the cultures represented in the congregation. The 1960s brought about a new generation, one which reacted strongly to the values and the lifestyle (the culture) of their parents. The “hippies,” the “Jesus people,” and a host of other reactionary movements came into existence. While the revolutionary aspects have passed, many of the younger generation of Christians have come out of this tradition, or at least have come to adopt a part of this counter-culture. This is most evident in the area of music. Instead of the traditional hymns, accompanied by the traditional instruments, the piano and the organ, there is a new kind of music, often accompanied by guitars. The older generation (of which I am a part) tends to find the new music “irreverent,” while the younger generation finds the older musical forms uninspiring. The unity of the church, especially in its worship, has been endangered. Recognition of these “cultural” differences and responding to them in a biblical way has brought about growth for the church:
At Bear Valley one of our congregations is more of a melting pot than the others. It is made up of middle-class family units, many singles, street people and some antiestablishment thinkers. There are points of tension in this service. For example, the middle-class people like to sing from a hymnal accompanied by a piano. The street people prefer passages of Scripture set to music with guitars or maybe a banjo. … Through trial and error we have found an approach which seems to work. We simply split up. Half the time a middle-class person leads the music and half the time a street person leads. Each group, in time, learns to appreciate the other. It has been good for street people to establish friendships with middle-class people and vice versa. In fact, many in this congregation are attracted to it because of this very quality of diversity. We don’t believe we ought to force people to relate to others in different subcultures. But we feel it is a healthy thing for the whole church when the opportunity to do so exists.22
As discovered in the Book of Acts, it is possible for people of various cultures to be Christians. However, these differences in culture can also threaten the unity of the church. In order to guard against such a breech in fellowship, Christians of each culture must be sensitive to those things which are offensive to Christians of a different culture and must seek to set these things aside, making cultural concessions for the sake of unity and harmony. Our church, like the one described above, must learn to live and to worship together, respecting the cultural differences of others in the body of Christ.
(4) The church is often culture-bound, thus hindering its ministry. I have observed that the church most often seems to be on the lagging edge of culture, rather than on the leading edge. One of the reasons why the church fails to minister creatively, and the parachurch groups do so, is because the church is plagued with cultural paralysis. Tillapaugh in his book, The Church Unleashed, tells how the Baptist and Methodist denominations grew rapidly in the 19th century by responding to the changes in society. As the population moved west, there were not enough trained ministers to plant and pastor the churches which were required. The Baptists responded creatively by supplying “farmer-preachers” while the Methodists had their “circuit riders.”23 The result was the rapid growth of these churches, due to their responsiveness to the changes in their culture.
The church of today is so culture-bound it finds change difficult and agonizing if possible at all. The classic symptom of this cultural rigidity is the defense, “But we’ve always done it that way before.” The church needs to be able to detect changes in the culture about it and to respond creatively, yet biblically to them. Creativity in ministry is, in part, due to a proper understanding of culture and its relationship to the gospel.
(5) Satan’s most effective attacks upon the church may come through culture. Strangely, the Christian seems to look for Satan to attack the church in very direct and frontal ways, rather than through his more subtle (and effective) means. For example, the current “conspiracy” about which the church is being warned is that of “secular humanism.” Our attention has thus been focused on such issues as the teaching of evolution and prayer in schools. In the meantime, Satan is at work undermining our culture. Since our culture is something of which Christians are rarely conscious, Satan’s devices are not even detected.
Let me illustrate what I mean. For a long time the American culture was largely Christian in its values. For example, in the past society did not look favorably upon divorce or homosexuality, and so few practiced these evils, at least in a very open way. Unbelievers considered themselves Christians because they practiced Christian values. Christians prided themselves for practicing Christian values, too. In truth, many unbelievers and Christians were only conforming to the mores of their society—they conformed to a culture which was outwardly, at least, Christian. Satan used the moral culture as a means of deceiving many to consider themselves Christian, when they were only conformists.
Saturated by this atmosphere, Christians did not remain married or heterosexual because of any commitment to Christian principles, but out of conformity to culture’s values. Nonchristian values, however, have changed to conform more closely with their hearts. Divorces have become easy to obtain and society came to tolerates them—even encourage them. The values of non-believers have become evident, and so have the values of the Christians. While the divorce rate among the general population has slowed down, the rate of divorces among Christians is reportedly still climbing (Christians are on the lagging edge of culture again). In retrospect we can see that Christians were not acting out of conviction by staying married to their wives, but only out of cultural conformity. Satan thus can attack Christians in such a subtle way that they are unaware of what has happened. When we equate Christianity (or spirituality) to conformity with a certain prescribed culture (which is what the Judaizers did, and what legalists of every age do), Satan can attack Christians by undermining their culture, an area of which they are only slightly conscious.
I hope that you are beginning to see the vital importance of understanding culture and its need to be consistent with the gospel. It is nearly impossible to understand the Old or the New Testament without first coming to grips with the culture of those days and the way in which Christian faith related to it. It is imperative that we see the relationship between the gospel and culture today, and that we shed those aspects of our culture which are incompatible with the gospel or which hinder the proclamation and practice of the gospel. In order to resist the devil, we must understand how he works through culture. In order to have unity and harmony in the church, we must see how culture affects our worship.
I would encourage you to make the study of culture a priority. You can sharpen your cultural sensitivities by looking for cultural characteristics in the Bible. Try to distinguish, for example, the difference between the culture of the Israelites under the law and that of the Canaanites. Try to understand the life and ministry of our Lord in the gospels in light of the culture of that day. Consider the Gentile churches of the New Testament in light of the distinct culture of those cities.
Make every effort to learn about different lifestyles by seeking to know people from different cultures in our city. International Students Incorporated facilitates interaction between foreign students and church members. Try to get to know your fellow-Christians in this church who have a distinctly different culture. Find out how and why their culture affects their Christian life. If possible seek to travel to other countries, and if this is not possible, read missionary accounts of other cultures and ask visiting missionaries about the differences in the culture of those to whom they minister.
Finally, read books on the subject of culture. Be able to detect those aspects of your life which are influenced by your culture. One of the best books I am aware of is The Gravedigger File, by Os Guinness,24 which shows the way Satan works through culture to undermine Christian faith and witness.
Culture is important because of its relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray that you will take this matter seriously, for the sake of the gospel.
15 In Acts 15:2 the church at Antioch sent Barnabas, Paul, and some others to Jerusalem “concerning this issue.” The issue mentioned in verse 2 is that stated in verse 1: that the Gentiles must be circumcised (and thus oblige themselves to keep the Law of Moses as prescribed by the Pharisees) in order to be saved.
16 “On the other hand, part of the Law is defined as ‘quite necessary’ (a most emphatic word is used in verse 28).” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), p. 114. I disagree with the inference Blaiklock seems to make here; namely, that the Gentiles were freed from most of the law, but not all of it, as though this is the one part of the law to which they are still bound.