by Dave O’Brien
Almost all missionaries have been told to respect culture at one time or another. A veteran missionary introduced me to the idea in an anthropology course in 1965.
Almost all missionaries have been told to respect culture at one time or another. A veteran missionary introduced me to the idea in an anthropology course in 1965. As I understood it, missionaries should value culture because culture is valued by the people they are trying to reach. Knowing their culture would lead to the keys which would open that culture to the gospel. At a personal level, learning culture opens the door for cross cultural friendships and a sense of having a place in a world different than our own.
I still believe that, but I’m afraid that not everyone in missions shares that understanding. Many missionaries seem to have learned reverence for culture rather than respect. This reverance can impair missionary vision and effectiveness. I have seen missionaries who have lost the certainty of their calling after an uncritical acceptance of cultural relativism, a paradigm potentially as destructive as colonialism.
For some, avoiding cultural mistakes has become a stronger value than clearly proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Since they have learned reverence for culture, they live in fear of making a blunder that may become a horrible example in the next book of what I call “missionary attack literature.”
If reverence for culture was rooted in biblical thought, I would accept it gladly. The Bible, however, does not support it. Reverence of culture is constructed almost without reference to the Bible. Some may cite a few verses, an incident in the life of Paul or an isolated saying of Jesus to support their argument, but real biblical theology is almost totally absent from their thought process. This is unfortunate, as the Bible often speaks of the concept of what we now call “culture.”
The biblical view of culture should begin with a relatively unfamiliar New Testament theological motif: the doctrine of the two ages. Its unfamiliarity is in no way a reflection on its importance. In fact, George Ladd called it, “the framework of Paul’s entire theological thought… (and) the basic structure of Jesus’ teachings (Ladd 1974, 550). This doctrine is at the heart of the New Testament worldview.
It originates in Daniel, where the prophet sees a vision of carnage and violence in the conflicts that kingdoms of this present evil age cannot avoid. As Daniel observes the warring beasts, he is transported to the heavenly realms where “thrones are set up” and the Ancient of Days is seated in majesty at the center of a worshiping multitude.
This vision tells us that the beasts think they hold power, but real authority resides in a higher place. During the intertestamental period, this Danielic vision gave rise to a theology of two ages which teaches that earthly history will be one of inescapable decline in a fallen world over which the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) rules.
The power of the age to come will invade history and, as the thrones are set up in heaven, earthly history will give way to the heavenly.
The doctrine had become so firmly fixed in Jewish thought by the first century A.D. that Jesus’ numerous references to the two ages come without explanation, regardless of his audience.
The Great Commission is couched in the language of the doctrine of two ages. Jesus promised his presence to his followers as they went forth making disciples “until the end of the age.” The promise of his presence would continue until this present evil age is complete.
Then, at the coming of the age to come, God will rule directly and believers would spend eternity in his unmediated presence.
Paul approached the topic with a pastoral concern for Gentile churches that required him to explain things Jesus could simply state without elaboration. This age stands in sharp contrast to the age to come in the way it causes people to think, reason and understand.
Even the philosophers of this age have been confused by the wisdom of God. The Christ of the gospel does not fit the paradigms of Jews or Gentiles. Thus, the gospel is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:17-30). Jewish leaders crucified Jesus not knowing that his death accomplished victory over the powers of this age (1 Cor. 2:6-8).
The standards of this age are seen clearly in Paul’s denunciation of factionalism, a partisan spirit that tore the Corinthian church into cliques gathered around favorite leaders. This kind of destructive confusion is the result of “the god of this age” who has blinded his subjects to the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3-4). For Paul, this age is a state or condition from which Christ rescues us (Gal. 1:3-5). The power of Christ is extended in both ages, but the seat of his power is in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:18-21), or in the age to come.
Just like modern missionaries, Paul had to reject his own culture and culturally conditioned achievements as worthless to become the apostle to the Gentiles. If the culture of Paul, Jesus, Isaiah, Elijah, Moses and the patriarchs had to be abandoned, we too must share the conviction that the only thing in which we can boast is the gospel.
Missionaries do their host cultures a disservice when they fail to stress a biblical perspective of all cultures. For the missionary, knowledge of culture is a key element in reaching the lost, but in trying to understand a culture we dare not sanctify it.
The doctrine of the two ages overlaps significantly with the New Testament’s use of another, much more familiar concept: the world. Most often, when the New Testament uses this word it can convey a cluster of closely related meanings, all of which could be implied by our contemporary word “culture.”
“World” may be neutral or even positive. It often refers to the totality of human life, as in John 3:16 where Jesus says he was sent to benefit the world. In Acts 2, the entire world population was represented by the pious Jews gathered for Pentecost. In this sense, the world is the object of God’s love and the subject of his redemptive plan.
It would be a mistake to confuse this neutral sense of the word “world” with its more common meaning. In most of the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of John, “world” denotes the essential fallenness of the entire sphere of human activity. According to one definition, the world is “a virtual spiritual force, the antithesis, as it were, of the kingdom of God. …the very embodiment of evil” (Erickson 1998, 644). It can also refer to the people who are estranged from God (1 Cor. 6:2) and the values they hold (2 Cor. 10:2-4). If culture includes learned behavior passed on from generation to generation, then culture, biblically understood, is an attempt of fallen human beings to adapt to and make sense of a fallen creation. In its fallenness, culture cannot be neutral to the things of God.
This world’s cultures reflect the values of the present age. Cultures, like people, are marred by the fall. They may reflect something of God’s original plan, but only in such a way that it pleases the “prince of this world.” As a fallen system, culture begins with a worldview that replaces the revealed God with a multiplicity of substitutes, whether, for instance, the secular anthropocentrism of the West or the immanent spiritualism of traditional Africa.
Yet Jesus also makes it clear that the salvation of the world is the reason God sent him (John 3:17) and he sent his followers into the world to act redemptively within it. We are at odds with the world, but share God’s love for those who remain blind and lost. That love and God’s glory come together as the motivation for missions. Jesus’ clear statements of opposition to the world must be seen in the context of his even clearer statements of his intent to save it.
While it would be possible to devote additional pages to unpacking my argument from Scripture, let me draw some conclusions from what has already been said.
1. When we read the pejorative uses of the word “world” in the New Testament, we should equate it with culture, the total sphere of human activity. The New Testament treats the world as an enemy because of the coercive power it has to shape human thought. Every culture teaches people to think in ways that are hostile to God’s ways as revealed in Scripture, and enforces conformity to its own way of thinking.
2. The New Testament never prescribes reverence for culture.< To revere culture is to revere the efforts of “the evil one” to mislead and enslave people. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and those who are citizens of his kingdom need to be wary of all cultures, most especially their own.
Because culture is both pervasive and invasive, it is hard to know what is biblical, and what is cultural. The study of culture alone will not tell us. It is sometimes suggested that Jesus and Paul both worked within their cultures. This is true, insofar as we recognize them as real people at a real historical-cultural moment. When working within their culture—first-century Judaism—both Christ and Paul rejected and condemned those aspects of Jewish culture that kept its people from faith in Christ. Paul may have quoted non-Jewish writers, but he nowhere suggests he embraced or sanctioned their culture at a fundamental level. We can all to some extent adopt the customs and take part in the institutions of any given culture and, simultaneously, remain true to biblical precepts. The true threat of culture is at the level of values and worldview.
3. This doesn’t mean we are free to run roughshod over cultures. Like Paul we need to love and respect people. Christ called Paul and set in motion the great mission to bring the good news to people in every culture. A commitment to the Great Commission carries with it a responsibility to treat people of all cultures with the respect they deserve as the objects of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s love.
4. It has become axiomatic that missionaries are prophetic, but unwarranted reverence for culture undercuts that prophetic function. Every prophet in the Bible loved his or her nation and his or her people but deplored certain aspects of its culture. If missionaries are to retain their prophetic voice, they must bring a message of hope into cultures that can offer only the illusion of hope. Unredeemed culture is the gospel’s greatest earthly enemy.
5. Culture is a fallen product of a fallen humanity. Yet in God’s original act of creation all was good. In the midst of fallenness, we should expect elements that reflect something of that primal goodness. But these elements are only faint reflections in a cloudy mirror. These may be used, however, to open the way for revealed truth through critical contextualization that recognizes culture’s fallenness and proclaims an inherently culture-transforming gospel.
6. Culture cannot inform the gospel. The more we accept the orthodoxy of cultural relativism, the less Christian orthodoxy we have left. The missionary may be informed by the culture, in the limited sense of understanding and appropriating its better elements in the cause of Christ. Study of culture can reveal the keys that will unlock the door for the gospel. Cultural norms and expectations may rightly inform our strategy. But the gospel itself cannot change from culture to culture and remain the gospel.
7. Because it is fallen, culture needs to be redeemed. When Christians live authentically Christian lives, the most egregious sins of their culture will be exposed. This exposure will not eradicate sin, but it will make it harder to practice. National believers will bring about the redemption of their own culture, as they proclaim the message of new life in Christ.
8. Missionaries need to develop greater biblical and theological literacy in order to apply Scripture to their own cultures. A biblical critique of our home culture diminishes the likelihood of exporting it under the guise of evangelism. Unawareness of the cultural blind spots of our home countries lies at the root of the worst cultural imperialism.
9. We learn a worldview at such early ages that it forms the unconscious foundation for all other thought. It is at this deep, presuppositional level that “world” and “culture” are most closely aligned. Worldview produces the values and attitudes that are so often in conflict with the gospel.
Worldviews are built on cosmology. The classic Christian worldview emerges from an encounter with God in Genesis 1 and 2. The two complementary creation stories reveal essential attributes of God: his transcendence and his immanence. Chapter one establishes his sovereignty over creation, as well as his independence from it. Chapter two introduces us to the immanence of God; his involvement with creation is intimate and loving. The Christian worldview develops out of God’s relationship with creation. He is all-powerful, and yet he is also all-loving.
The majority worldview in the West today is quite different, even for many Christians. Informed by the chance/evolution cosmology of Darwinism, many Christians have adopted its offspring: relativism. When prevailing cultural assumptions go unchallenged, we unconsciously intermingle them with our faith. And if missionaries accept their birth culture uncritically, they will amalgamate the unexamined assumptions of both their home and host cultures. Jesus warned of the danger of putting new wine into old wineskins. In his day, the unexamined culture of Judaism, an amalgam of biblical revelation and a sub-biblical, ancient near-eastern worldview, had become too brittle to contain the weight of the gospel.
10. The gospel is, and must remain, essentially countercultural. The servant song in Isaiah 42 introduces a countercultural savior who would come without fanfare and rule without breaking a bent reed or blowing out a flickering oil lamp. Jesus described a countercultural Christianity with lines like these (paraphrased): “Turn the other cheek,” or “Go the extra mile,” or “The last will be first,” or “Whoever saves his life will lose it.”
This essential foreignness of the gospel can heighten the misperception that Christianity is a Western religion. Born in Asia and nurtured in Africa, Christianity is not Western, but is inherently foreign to all places, including the United States and Europe.
The essential foreignness of Christianity will be the ultimate stumbling block for the world, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. A non-Western church should express the faith differently from a Western church, but the lifestyles, worldview and values of non-Western and Western Christians should manifest the core of countercultural Christianity.
11. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that cultural sensitivity will be a safeguard against persecution. Where the gospel takes root in true conversion, it will cause offense because it challenges the world system that hates it. Occasionally missionaries may create misunderstanding through a hard, uncaring presentation of a non-contextualized gospel, but the essential foreignness of Christianity will always set people of other religions against it. We should do nothing to offend in the name of the gospel, but we must realize that the gospel message itself is an offense to those who do not believe.
A FINAL NOTE
The gospel says that we are all sinners, dead in our sins and that there is only one way to God: Christ Jesus. One day, God will separate his people from those who refuse to be his people. Some will reject Christianity as a scandalous religion founded by a child born out of wedlock who died a convicted criminal. Others will see it as superstitious nonsense.
But the gospel is also the hope of those who once were enemies of God. Through grace, anyone can become joint heirs with Israel, citizens of God’s kingdom. In spite of continued rejection, the gospel will continue to offer the only truly inclusive message of hope to a lost world. In its fullness, it will create a people, exclusively God’s, who are alien in this world.
It is not just the missionary who is foreign. All Christians must recognize themselves as resident aliens anywhere on earth. We, who should be truly at home only in the age to come, live as ambassadors in this present evil age. Our burden is to deeply understand any culture in which we live in order to present the reality of the future age in terms this age can understand.
Erickson, Millard J. 1998. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Ladd, George E. 1974. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Dave O’Brien is director of selection and training, SIM USA. He served in Liberia and Nigeria in international church pastorate, theological education and administration.
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