Gospel, Culture, Discipleship – Part 2
In Part 1 we looked at the imperative to engage with and reach out to people of other cultures without compromising Scripture, and some principles for doing so: identification, adaptation and redemption. But how should culture impact the believers if at all?
Culture and Discipleship
As the early community of faith grew, believers of different backgrounds joined: rich/poor, religious/ secular, Jew/ Gentile, educated/uneducated. Different cultural values increasingly rubbed up against each other.
In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem had to make judgements on issues of morality, tradition and conscience, in order “not to burden” (v28) God’s people. Some practices and traditions were rejected, while others were upheld. It is important that our cultural preferences are not a burden to ourselves, or to others.
Types of Culture
According to some experts, the world today can be divided into three cultural types:
- statutory – observing external rules or truths as a key value (especially in the West);
- relational – harmony as a key value; and
- honour based – preserving honour and avoiding shame as a key value (especially in the East).
All three cultural types overlap and hold key truths; yet each is incomplete and even potentially misleading.
Preserving honour (‘honour-based’ culture) whilst ignoring God’s laws and ignoring local laws, is corrupt. Jezebel persuaded Ahab to steal a field and murder its owner because he felt dishonoured and disappointed at not being able to buy it.
Preserving moral laws (‘statutory’) while trampling on relationship is cold and cynical – Yeshua reached out to the woman caught in adultery and in so doing exposed the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees condemning her, although he never justified her actions.
Preserving relationships (‘relational’) without strong moral values (‘statutory’) is dishonest and harmful – Herod kept his publicly given promise to his wife to do whatever she wanted, even though beheading John the Baptist broke the 6th commandment.
Culture and sin
Because of travel and communication, much of our modern world is multi-cultural. Multi-culturalism presents the opportunity for bringing out the best of each constituent culture in any particular place. Diverse cultures functioning well together is a beautiful and powerful thing.
Cultural diversity can also have the opposite effect, the tendency to select the poorest expression of culture – ‘the lowest common denominator’. For example, we might follow laws and create or obey rules enough to appear legitimate and proper to the watching world, but as soon as those rules become inconvenient, preserving our own honour might become the over-riding priority. Or, we might honour others when we want something out of them, but as soon as that honouring impacts another relationship which is more useful to us, honouring can turn to shaming.
God wants to redeem each culture, strengthening and refining the good and rejecting the evil. He also wants to complete each culture by creatively adding elements consistent with the Bible.
Interestingly, modern multi-cultural Israel combines strong elements of each of the above cultural types, having the potential for both extreme conflict and also great good – with the Holy Spirit’s help. Israel is the nation that received the original apostolic call to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and so it is particularly important that we as a nation enter a place of national unity in the midst of cultural diversity, in order to continue that task – a unity which requires a great work of the Holy Spirit given the extremes of polarisation here.
There are things which God wants to do in our world today which are over and above culture. He wants to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh and to release miracles, signs and wonders. Unity in diversity is one of God’s key requirements as he prepares to unleash a much greater measure of these heavenly things on earth.