ReThinking Church, Part 9 – Christianity is NOT a Culture

Continuing our look at ReThinking Church, we find another difference between the modern church from the New Testament norm. It is in the area of culture. Today, especially in the West, there is little room between the Church and culture. In fact, the lines are so blurred that when we send out missionaries, they carry the baggage of the American culture and incorporate them into other cultures. (e.g. buildings with steeples, church furniture, meeting times, religious garments, etc..)

What was the position of the Church in the Scriptures? How did they view culture? What can we deduce from looking at their example of handling the various cultures as they were involved in the exponential expansion of the Faith? What did they understand that we miss?

Let’s answer these questions by stating some observances from Scriptures while ReThinking Church and culture.

    • The Faith is a Message – In the NT the Gospel proclamation is never seen in terms of having its own culture or subculture. Christianity is a message we are to proclaim to and among all cultures… to all nations. (Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8)
    • Culture Not Transferable - Paul and the Apostles did not take their native Jewish culture and attempt to impose it on the Gentiles. In fact, this is part of what the Jerusalem council was all about. (Act 15) 
    • No Culture Superior to Another – The book of Romans and Galatians makes it very clear that Christianity does not promote one culture above another. Instead, the Gospel invades every culture. In Corinthians, Paul gives his monumental position of being “all things to all men.” (1Cor. 9:19-23; 10:31-33) God is calling men to Himself for salvation, not to embrace a preferred culture.
    • Christianity Does Not Focus on Social Issues – For years liberals have condemned the Scriptures for condoning social ills, such as slavery, and have distanced themselves from embracing the Bible as God’s infallible Word. They fail to understand that the spread of the Gospel focussed upon the conversion of souls and not the reformation of society through civil action. [1]

Most church planters are familiar with the techniques and success of Hudson Taylor as he and his missionaries dressed and blended into the culture of China to reach Chinese people with the Gospel. Also, for the reason we are discussing, indigenous church planters have been successful, as they are already part of the culture they reach out to. Therefore, there is no baggage from an outside or distant culture.

In the New Testament, the spread of the Gospel took place rapidly because the Apostles did not an attempt to impose or transfer culture when reaching a new province. They stepped into the culture of each province and, without compromising their moral or spiritual convictions, embraced the culture as their own. Reading through the book of Acts we see they were persecuted by the Jews for accepting Greeks and not forcing them to observe the law of Moses and the culture of Judaism.

The writings we have from the early second century also bear this out. In a letter to Diognetus, who was purported to be the tutor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Mathetes (130 A.D.) describes the manners of the Christians in his apologetic. He writes…

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children… They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, Chapter V, emphasis mine)

Let us rescue evangelism and church planting from the destructive obstacle of transferring our native culture to the people group we are called to reach. Let us live among them as fellow natives, transcending all cultures and living out the Gospel as ambassadors to every creature.

In the mind of God, there are not American Christians, Asian Christians, African Christians or English Christians. Instead, there are simply Christians “from every tribe  and languages and people and nation…” (Rev. 5:9-10) The Lord doesn’t raise one culture above another…He just sees the ransomed multitudes from each culture transformed into a kingdom and company of priests. There are only two classes of men and they are not determined or recognized by their native culture. They are simply recognized by either being dead in sin (Eph. 2:1) or dead to sin. (Rom. 6:2,11)

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[1] The silence of Scriptures on the ills of first century society should not be seen as an approval of those ills. Instead, the mission of the Church is redemption of individuals. The argument some use that the Old Testament prophets addressed their culture is misplaced. The OT prophets ministered within a theocracy, which was the government of the nation of Israel under the old covenant. This placed their ministry within a culture whose social and religious aspects were indivisible. For New Testament believers, Paul said we are to fellowship with those in the world, even those living a morally objectionable lifestyle. (1Cor. 5:9-10) Our job is not judging culture, that is outside our scope. (1Cor. 5:12-13) This doesn’t silence us from speaking on social issues or fulfilling our duties in the right to vote, it just keeps us from getting off track and demoting the Gospel to social reformation. Social ills exists because humanity needs a redeemer. When we make social reformation the focus, we abandon our call. Finally, once a culture has experienced a large number of conversions, then their practice of righteousness will automatically change the social ills. 

Related posts:
ReThinking Church Series

About Terry Ivy

Husband, Father, Church Planter, Pastor, Founder of PROJECT INDIA. Supporting and encouraging Pastors, training leaders and planting churches...
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2 Responses to ReThinking Church, Part 9 – Christianity is NOT a Culture

  1. Great post! Timely in that these are issues I have been thinking about a lot lately. I am wondering about the last paragraph, though. Been reading a lot of Andrew Walls lately and he (in my understanding) would perhaps prefer to say that “In the mind of God, there ARE American Christians, Asian Christians, African Christians or English Christians but none of these groups of Christians is complete without the other.”

    Here is what he says in his article “The Ephesian Moment.”

    “The whole company of faith between are bound together as a part of a single story, a single act of salvation.”

    and

    “… the church has to be viewed across time. No one single segment of time encapsulates it; the segments belong togther. The work of salvation is cross-generational.”

    So what Walls appears to be saying is that Christianity is made up of its various cultural forms because it exists in all cultures but that each of these forms needs all the other forms to be complete.

    • Terry Ivy says:

      Michael, thanks for the comment. I would agree their are “Asian Christians, American Christians, etc…” However, my thrust was not the ‘nationality’ of believers, but their culture, and that no one culture has precedence over the other in representing an absolute cultural expression! It can be a matter of language semantics, but I read your comments from Walls, and though I’m not familiar with him, he seems to be saying precisely what I wrote when his comments are taken as a whole.

      The message of the Cross permeates and transcends all cultural forms. And this is why I like to say that Christianity is not a culture, but a message. Again, great to hear from you…

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