- What is a ‘Christian Culture’?
- What’s in and what’s out?
- Cultural Imperialism
- Have we learned anything?
- Cultural Relativism
- What is the “Naked Gospel”?
- The necessity of Cultural Relativism
What is a ‘Christian Culture’?
No matter how we define a Christian culture, it must begin with Christ himself, in who’s name it stands. By definition, everything that we find in “Christian culture” must be found in him, otherwise we are badly mistaken. That’s just common sense, right?
So why is it that almost everything that is popularly held to be “Christian culture” is actually foreign to Jesus’ life experience?
What’s in and what’s out?
Some of the matters that are popularly associated with a “Christian Culture” include:
When people suggest that democracy is part of a Christian culture, they are mistaken. Jesus talked ceaselessly of a theocracy called, “the Kingdom of God”, but he (and Paul after him), talked about the Roman (non-democratic) government, having been granted authority by God, to be in power (John 19:11, Romans 13:1).
When people talk about sexual relationships as part of Christianity they are on thin ice because as far as we can tell, Jesus was celibate! He also taught very little about sexual relations, and then only when asked specific, narrow questions for the purpose of “testing” him (Matthew 19:11, Mark 10:2).
Jesus recognised the tradition of the wife, who had not yet borne children, being given upon her husband’s death to her late husband’s younger brother for a chance to bear children as heirs (Matthew 22:23-30). Where is that tradition in the modern “Christian” context?
Jesus attended Temple on a Friday evening and/or on Saturday morning, like all the other Jews. The early church met “on the first day of the week” (Which could actually have been a Saturday night, but could also have been a Sunday morning), because that was the day on which Jesus rose.
I don’t actually know what music Jesus listened to, but Charles Wesley hadn’t written any hymns yet, and Joel Houston hadn’t put pen to paper either.
The list goes on. Suffice to say that Jesus, conditioned as he was in the culture of his day, would find just about everything about the modern “Christian culture” unrecognisable.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Does that bother you?
Perhaps the Gospel doesn’t have as much to do with culture as we think…
Ends and Means
What the Europeans were actually doing in the era of Imperial expansion was extending their cultural influence around the globe, and Christianity was part of the job lot. What they thought they were doing was spreading the Gospel, and that the Gospel included all of their “civilised” cultural mores. So, whereas they thought the Gospel was the “means” of achieving the “end” of making a “savage” into a “civilised” man, what generally happened is that the cultural framework was the means of immersing people groups in a European way of life, which included Christianity by default, and therefore achieved the end of making new Christian communities.
Have we learned anything?
Well we haven’t learned much, if this view is anything to judge by (If that site is down, I have a PDF snapshot of it here). A published author, Steve Clark is a (self?) proclaimed: “father of the charismatic renewal” on his web site, www.swordofthespirit.net.
It looks fairly typical of modern Evangelical thinking. To paraphrase Clark:
Christianity is not a culture, it transforms cultures into Christianised versions of the previous culture.
In fact, I could agree with that, except that the way Clark develops his logic is badly flawed.
What he is saying is that, whereas “bowing to someone” might be part of one culture and not another, and that this can be accommodated for in the global church, there are non-negotiable, and therefore normative mores across all Christian communities, specifically including:
“the institutions of family and government”
“courtship customs and artistic impressions”
He says this despite the fact that the actual institutions represented by this list in the modern world are different to those Jesus knew and advocated, and the customs and artistic expressions would equally be foreign to Jesus. In fact, these simply define Steve Clark’s way of life, which he sees as being “good”, merely because that’s what he grew up with.
Disagrees with the Bible
Clark also fails to grapple with the problem of the Biblical record of patriarchal life, which was not condemned by Jesus, Paul, nor the Jewish community in general, but which had different institutions even from Jesus’ own culture (polygyny, and nomadic tribes under a patriarchal rule, for instance), and likewise different “courtship customs” (see Gen 16:1-2, Gen 29:16ff, Gen 34:1-4). Similarly in earlier national Israel, the “courtship customs” were very different to those in Jesus’ contemporary culture (1 Sam 25:40, Ruth 4:7-10).
What Jesus (and Paul) found around them in the First Century was a Hellenised version of a Babylonian-influenced, Hebrew national culture, which itself had adapted from a nomadic tribal culture, through 400 years of captivity as a subjugated people in Egypt, and then through a 40-year sojourn in the desert led by a charismatic prophet, and then through several hundred years as a tribal confederation, before the nation actually federated in a monarchy. Jesus, Paul, and their contemporaries never kidded themselves that it had always been the same, but what was considered “decent” in the culture around them was a more relevant question than what had been considered “decent” 600 years earlier, or 1300 years earlier, or 2000 years earlier. The truth is, all of what Clark describes as “core” about the kingdom of God is demonstrably fluid, even specifically in the Biblical record.
Cultural Relativism = Bad?
Clark goes on to decry the evils of “cultural relativism” because the “core parts” of Christianity can then be dismissed as “culturally conditioned”, and therefore not be considered normative. As outlined above, he distinguishes between bowing, which he sees as culturally conditioned, and parental roles, which he calls a “core part” of Christianity.
What he doesn’t discuss is beards, head dresses, capital punishment, and dozens of other matters, which are explicitly specified in the Bible, but absent from his own “Christian Culture”.
Cultural Relativism in the Bible
What Clark is not recognising is that Jesus specifically and carefully taught cultural relativism.
Without being exhaustive about it, this can be seen in the Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matthew 5:21-48). In this passage, Jesus starts from the Laws of Moses, which were written for a specific situation some 1300 years earlier in a radically different social setting, and shows how the core spiritual principles need to be reapplied differently in the current day. That’s what Cultural Relativism is.
The result is that, in this short passage, such things as adultery and divorce, which relate to sex and marriage (hence Clark calls these “core”), are radically re-imagined, as are “the principles by which conflicts ought to be resolved” (Clark), also considered “core” by Clark (See Jesus’ commentary beginning with “an eye for an eye”, for example, at verses 38-48).
Cultural Relativism = Jesus
In fact, Jesus’ ministry could be characterised, with reasonable fairness, as being a ministry of Cultural Relativism writ large. He was continually recasting the core truths of God’s revelation in ways that contradicted the traditions which had become part of the religious culture. That’s why they hated him so much!
The baby and the bathwater?
Contrary to the fears of Clark (and many others), Cultural Relativism does not cause us to “lose perspective on the core parts of Christianity which should not be adapted or changed“. To the contrary, it allows us to see past those parts which could be adapted or changed, and thereby discern the core message as being apart from such things.
What is the “Naked Gospel”?
The kingdom of God is not a matter of marriage laws, governmental institutions, courtship, and manners, as Clark insists. It is a matter of God’s covenant provision being made available to all humanity by invitation, mediated through his son, the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. In other words, as Paul puts it:
the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and approved by men.
– Romans 14:17-18
This “covenant provision” can extend into a variety of cultures and remain authentic. Indeed, if we believe that we have any kind of handle on the kingdom of God, then we must agree… because we ourselves live in a culture foreign to that of Jesus.
It logically follows then, that the customs of a people are not directly related to the Gospel! Only if those customs explicitly deny that Jesus is the Christ, can they be said to be opposed to the Gospel (1 John 2:22). In other words, only if they actively contradict the message of “God’s covenant provision being made available to all humanity…”
What does spreading the Gospel look like?
Let’s look at some of the great evangelistic statements of the Bible:
all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you
– Gen 12:3
Wait… it doesn’t say that everyone had to become one single nation in order to be blessed…?
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
– Isaiah 2:3-4
Hang on, there are still going to be “many nations” (This term means “people groups”. Read here: “Cultures”!), even when God’s will (universal peace) is accomplished…? What culture will they have?
“Therefore go and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:19-20
The key here is “everything I have commanded you“. And what was that? Governmental institutions? Marriage laws? Courtship customs…? Of course not. Jesus didn’t set out to teach any of those things, and barely mentioned them. In fact, to get technical, Jesus explicitly did teach us to put oil in our hair, and to fast (Matthew 6:17), and to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14-15). Why don’t we do those things as part of our “Christian Culture”? Because we assume that they are culturally conditioned! [I acknowledge that some Christians do deliberately obey these instructions in order to be as literalistic as possible. Unfortunately that means that they miss the point: Cultural Relativism is actually what Jesus taught.]
Jesus’ central discipleship message was essentially “love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12; 15:17; 1 John 3:23; 2 John 1:15), and “believe in me” (as the Messiah of God – John 14:1; 17:21). A foreign culture’s family and governmental institutions, courting customs and artistic expressions, do not necessarily stand in the way of those commandments being fulfilled.
Cultural Absolutism = Bad
Contrary to Clark’s fear, in fact it is his Cultural Absolutism that obscures the Gospel message! Many people, when asked about Christianity, can only identify the cultural baggage around it and not the central message. Only by seeing past all of the cultural irrelevancies can we see what is truly “core” to the message, and then we can apply it in any culture.
Because that is what the Boss actually asked us to do.
That involves understanding many of the things that we tend to hold very dear as merely cultural preferences. Things like Clark’s “institutions of family and government”, and “courtship customs and artistic impressions”, for instance. Not to say that we need necessarily to change those customs, it just means that they are not universally normative, and do not constitute the Gospel.
The necessity of Cultural Relativism
The fellowship of Saints
Equipped properly with an understanding of Cultural Relativism, we would comfortably be able to fellowship with people of such radically different cultural practices as, say, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs of our faith! Without it, we would found ourselves at odds with them on the so-called “core” matters of the faith, and that shows up how important this is.
Comprehending the New Testament
Not only so, but we (non-Jewish believers), could also fellowship with 1st Century Jewish believers! That was a profoundly important concern of Paul as he wrote his Epistles to the churches, arguably as important as the concept of Salvation itself (Stop: think about that…). In fact, it was what brought out Paul’s Cultural Relativism in such bold terms as Romans Ch14. This whole chapter will be dramatically misunderstood unless Paul’s Cultural Relativism is observed as its key theme.
Relationship with Christ
Indeed, only with a proper understanding of Cultural Relativism could we fellowship with Jesus himself! He didn’t eat, sleep, talk, vote, worship or trade the way we do. He was living according to a different culture to ours.
Instead of searching the Bible for what we think might be normative instructions on how to live, we now can focus directly on the Character of God and the Revelation of his kingdom, and think about how that intersects with our own culture, deriving fresh instructions on how to live. That’s roughly equivalent to being “led by the Spirit” (See my article on that subject), and relates also to:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
– John 5:39-40
The result of that “intersection” should be a community of God which demonstrates God’s superlative goodness and decency to the surrounding culture. In order to do so, Christians need to exemplify decency in terms that are comprehensible to the surrounding culture.
That’s what the New Testament is, with respect to 1st Century Judaism. We need to do it again, constantly. But that’s a big enough topic to dedicate a whole blog post to it… another day.
And of course, we could also fellowship with traditional Indigenous peoples, without forcing them to adopt a whole bunch of irrelevant lifestyle changes. But that’s also a topic for another blog post…