The while issue of culture is a volatile one. In this age of tolerance one has to be careful what they say. Add to that the extreme sensitivity caused by years of ethnic oppression in South Africa and you have a place where few dare to tread, the perilous cliffs of culture.
To even begin thinking about the subject, one would have to define it. One author Marinov, said the following about culture, “A culture is, first, a system of religious loyalty to a god, or gods, or a system of ideas that is perceived as self-attesting and ultimate. There must be a faith, and that faith must result in a system of doctrines and knowledge. Second, a culture is the set of social structures and hierarchies that are the logical application of that religious loyalty or system of ideas. A society is a set of social institutions and relationships between individuals. Third, there must be an ethical standard that discriminates between good and evil actions and behavior, individually and collectively. A culture’s law is the most conspicuous and important part of its definition. Fourth, a culture must have a system for imputing value to people and their actions, and rewarding or punishing them on the basis of that value system. Some people will be valued higher than others, not ethically but economically, relationally, etc. While we are forbidden to give a well-dressed person the honor place in the church only for the reason of his clothes (imputing ethical value), the society will still reward people differently because of their economic value. Fifth, a culture will always have a way to transfer its wealth (or poverty) – material, intellectual, and spiritual – to the next generations.”
Culture has a start point and a manifestation point. It starts with some kind of belief, it always starts with faith, and this is an inescapable reality (even for the atheist). That part of culture which is most noticeable is when that belief which is so basic to it, eventually leads to certain ethical standards, how a culture decides what is the right or wrong, how the culture measures worth or value. What is now known as western culture is very different from how westerners like me behaved before the gospel came to the Germanic lands. The economic success of Europe and the growth and development of agriculture all were consequences of the culture being filtered through God’s Word. Before that time, there was a scarcity of food and clothing (which naturally lent itself to the barbarians wearing very little clothes).
Part of the current sensitivity to culture and Christianity meeting may be due to wrong view of missionary work typified by some British missions operations. The British saw how their culture was changed by the gospel, subsequently they thought that British Christian culture, was the highest expression of Christian culture universally, thus missionaries did not only take the gospel to pagan nations, but also British culture. This however was never the intention of Christianity in Scripture. Tea drinking, scone eating, English speaking, none clapping, are not Biblically demanded precepts of Scripture. In the New Testament many of the problems encountered by the Church were related to maintaining cultural respect within a diverse church. The Jews and the Greeks had very different cultures, both had to be sifted through the Gospel, and what was left was to be used for God’s glory. This is why in Revelation the picture is of people of every tribe, tongue and nation being saved by a gracious God (Rev 5:9). In fact it is not by resisting the Gospel influence that cultures are preserved, but by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, all our wonderful and colourful cultures can been seen long after this world has ended.
The only question is, will we stubbornly defend every aspect of our culture, without acknowledging that some of it is the result of fallen people, worshipping false gods, in a wicked world, or will we take what we have and setting it aside God’s Word, allow it to be redefined, reforming it and reconciling those unique parts of our cultures to Christ. The Church will never be homogeneous, but we will be unified in Christ.
Northern Europeans will greet with a warm handshake and a smile of joy in Christ; the far East Asians will bow with respect when they greet, regarding others with respect and honour (Romans 12:10); the Africans will come and shake hands rejoicing loudly at seeing a fellow relative in Christ, how can we be quiet when we have seen another brought with the same blood of Christ as we are; the Mediterraneans will greet with a holy kiss, one on each cheek. Here we see the diversity as well all obey the command to ‘greet one another’.
Some helpful questions as we seek to evaluate our cultures:
1) Is there any part of my culture that contradicts a command in Scripture, think of values and treatment of different people?
2) Is there any part of my culture (values/actions/omissions) that undermines a Biblical principle?
3) Is there a part of my culture that, though I am free to enjoy, would be a stumbling block to other believers (Romans 14:13)?
4) What aspects of my culture should I infuse a Biblical motivation into, rather than just doing it because its culture? (Like the greeting issue above)
5) What weaknesses or pitfalls does my culture make me more susceptible to?
6) Is there something that should be a normal part of a Christian life that my culture doesn’t really address?
7) What are things from other cultures that really grab at biblical principles that I would do well to adopt?
8) Is there a part of my culture that is ostentatious, and that may easily lead me to pride and to look down on my fellow brother and sister in Christ?