Definition of Culture
Expressions of Sin
One Action, Three Definitions
A Christian Culture
Culture and Stumbling a Brother
The Mosaic Law
The first question that readers may be asking as they approach this subject is why I have chosen a subject matter that is never referred to in Scripture by the title chosen above? After all, there are so many truths in the Bible that we have yet to learn and discover, why waste time trying to define and understand a subject like ‘culture’?
Culture, today, has become synonymous with various civilisations and we can ask anyone which culture they belong to and expect a fairly accurate reply - even though, perhaps, we dare not ask the question on the grounds of the fear that we might be labelled ‘racist’!
A friend of mine very recently was told that she was demon possessed simply because she was from the American Indian culture - a Cherokee. If culture is able to define what a person will become, then it would be very easy to know exactly what to do with each and every individual who ever comes to want to follow Jesus. Simply find out the culture from which they come and follow steps one, two and three in the ‘Christian’s Guide to Saving People out of their Culture Handbook’.
Such methods would then rely more on legalistic and ritualistic rites rather than on a direct relationship with God from which methodology flows and varies.
There is such a variety of cultures, of cultures within cultures and even of individuals within cultures that such wide sweeping statements as the one that was levelled at my friend are meaningless and do not help the purposes of Christ or build up the believer who is labelled in such a way. In these situations what is needed is a definitive Word from God, not an all-encompassing rule that is applied regardless of the individual’s circumstances.
Culture, as we will see, is neutral - the same as sex is. But there are times and places for the latter, boundaries which have been put there to make sure that it is done within the original intentions of the One who created it. Culture, likewise, needs to have boundaries put round it so that, though there may be different cultures expressing the Gospel through their lives, some of the traits of those societies are necessarily removed in order for the growth of Christ in the individual not to be hindered.
While I have not examined any cultures in any great detail, it would probably be true to say that each and every one of them have some trait or other in them that is, of itself, sin. Others, which have common traits throughout the world, will find that, when coming to Christ, those traits are, in one location, removed because they are considered to be sin and, on the other hand, kept because they do no harm to the expression of God. In these situations, we are looking at actions that are not, in themselves, considered to be against the will of God, mere peripherals which we have, as christians, argued too long and too heatedly over.
But, before we can go on to consider the Gospel’s view of culture, we need first to define the concept of the word I shall be using throughout these notes.
Definition of Culture
The definition I shall be using is by no means the one that everyone uses - or, maybe, that anybody uses. But it will suffice that the reader understands it so that he may realise the bounds within which my words apply.
In one article I was reading (‘Civilisation’ in Compton’s Interactive Encyclopaedia), it stated that both the words ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ stood or fell together and, judging by the subsequent statements, the author seems to have used both words almost interchangeably to the extent that I wasn’t quite sure whether he had any intention of meaning something different when each of the words were employed.
Early on, it stated that
‘One of the basic and best-known features of civilisation and culture is the presence of tools’
partly there because of the previous statement that
‘Culture has grown out of creativity, a characteristic that seems to be unique to human beings’
Later on, it defines ‘Popular Culture’ as meaning
‘...a degree of refinement. They think of those who are cultured as having an appreciation for the arts - for good literature, painting, sculpture and music’
This definition would be more in keeping with the phrase ‘culture vulture’ which the Multipedia defines as
‘One preoccupied with things cultural’
and gives the example of meaning in a statement which runs
‘I don’t want to be a culture vulture like my mother. All she ever does is go to galleries, museums and concerts’
Though that may be a lifestyle attractive to a lot of people who find the daily chore of having to hold down a job so mind-boringly numb as to want to leave it all behind (except for the salary, that is!), I shall not be using this definition in my notes.
Neither shall I be following the former one mentioned which seems to equate creativity with the necessary outworkings and development of culture. Though there is a degree of this in my definition, it would be going too far to bring that to the fore and rely mainly on creativity to see how culture has developed and expanded.
Besides, creativity, to me, implies progress - and cultures throughout the world do not always progress from one level of attainment to another that can be summarised as the ‘culture’ of the people. Cultures do not inevitably progress but can degenerate from being disciplined and single-minded in their objectives to either better the world or conquer it (or both!) through to debauched and licentious societies that are soon wiped out or subjugated when a more disciplined and single-minded enemy comes against them - or they may simply self-destruct.
The definition I shall be using of the word ‘culture’, then, is one summarised well by the Multipedia previously quoted which runs that it is
‘the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group’
and by Microsoft’s Encarta 96 as
‘...the beliefs, behaviour, language and entire way of life of a particular time or group of people. Culture includes customs, ceremonies, works of art, inventions, technology and traditions’
Simply, then, culture, as defined below, is the way a group of people react to the world around them and the way they organise themselves to live out their existence together. Within any culture, there will be ‘unwritten laws’, things which, if transgressed by the unknowing, will alienate them away from the mainstream of society, perhaps even to start their own culture within the main one.
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with culture as it is simply the expression and reaction to everyday situations and there have been many ancient cultures in the past upon which modern civilisation has been built. Probably none have had an influence into Western Culture more than the Romans who, to give one example, gave us the majority of our alphabet - though, perhaps strangely, it was the Asian Indians and Arabs who gave us our numerical characters.
Our society could not exist today without the influence of ancient settlements and peoples and it would be wrong to think that our culture is in most ways unique. Sure, there may be things that are totally new to our society and to this age (such as cappuchino coffee - and you thought I was going to say ‘computers’?), but there is so much that we take for granted that we would do well to remind ourselves that we are, quite honestly, just a strange mix of a variety of both dead and living cultures which stretch back into the shadows of history.
This, then, is the definition of ‘culture’ which I shall be using and which I will be trying to interpret in the light of the Gospel and the work of Christ upon the cross. Today, the Church can fall into the trap on insisting that what God wants is defined by one culture over another when God is willing to express Himself through all believers in all cultures even though some of the traits of each culture which are opposed to His will must be removed.
God loves cultures but He doesn’t love the sin within them. He will use each and every culture to reach out to the world and to preach the message of the cross but, once saved, there will be customs within the culture in which the person is saved that remain a hindrance to the development of a correct relationship with Him and which need to be removed.
But, fundamentally, God is for all cultures.
I defined culture above as
‘...the way a group of people react to the world around them and the way they organise themselves to live out their existence together’
and I have already noted that the definition is somewhat limited in scope for me to be able to deal adequately with it. If culture, then, is a reaction to the influences that press in upon man from the natural world (or, for that matter, the supernatural one) and a word that expresses the way mankind organises himself together into class, tribal and racial structures, then it is impossible that we define any or all such ways of life as sinful or righteous.
While Yorkshire Puddings may be a cultural phenomena that, once restricted to the north and midlands have now spread to the entire British nation, we shouldn’t think of them as being either inherently sinful or inherently righteous. Neither should the great British Summer Holiday be considered a product and expression inevitably of sin.
In France, our nearest neighbours, we could point out that the eating of frogs’ legs and the consumption of vast quantities of wine are part of the French culture, but neither of these should be considered to be inherently sinful (even though many feel the former is against animal rights and teetotallers would oppose the latter!).
Neither are curries something that should cause us to rise up in arms and feel we have to vehemently condemn or justify their consumption because they have developed into the culture and expression of the Asian Indian. True, the chicken vindaloo at your local restaurant may be extremely volatile, but is it sinful? No, it is not.
More than this, though, we need to consider specific acts of society that become a trait of that group of people and which can be said to be representative of the whole. Slavery was once such a part of English society that it was accepted as the norm but is slavery inherently sinful? Frighteningly, the Bible doesn’t condemn it as so even though, to William Wilberforce and his colleagues, it had become an institution that was so abused as to be fit to be abolished and which it quite rightly was.
But both Old and New Testaments do not condemn the institution, only providing guidelines for its continued observance.
For instance, Ex 21:1-11 places restrictions upon slavery but does not seek to ban it outright. Indeed, laws such as this one almost justified its existence and perpetuated the ancient slave trade. Instead, it sought to point out the sin that could take place within the culture of the day and forbid it, insisting rather on acts of righteousness.
The New Testament believers were no different when they came to the subject of slavery. They never once condemned it, choosing rather to show how Christ expects slavery to be carried out and emphasising responsibilities both for the master and the slave in the relationship (for instance, Eph 6:5-9).
Slavery may be a trait of a nation’s culture but it was never considered to be a sin in and of itself. However, what took place within that framework of slavery could sometimes be considered to be sin and therefore needed to be legislated against - not because slavery is inherently sinful and needs abolishing, but because man is sinful and doesn’t use the structure for the promotion of righteousness and the knowledge of God when left to His own devices.
Expressions of Sin
Though the culture of a nation or society is not necessarily sinful, culture can be used as a label for sin within a society. It is a sad trait of the United Kingdom that material gain is often promoted over and above the welfare and health of the individual so that legislation gets passed which promotes the interests of people who care little except for their own rights over and above those of others. By the phraseology I’ve used here, you’re probably thinking I’m meaning monetary laws and regulations which bind the ‘fat cats’ into a life of prosperity and keep the poor poor, but it could equally well be applied to the laws on abortion which forbid life to exist when the will of the parent overrides the right to live.
Similarly, amongst large sections of society, sexual immorality has come to be accepted as the norm and a trait of British culture, holidays in the sun being no more than a time for sex romps and drunken experiences followed inevitably by acts of violence and, in greater numbers than seemingly ever before, involvement in anarchy and drug use.
The British football fan is noted abroad for his violence even though reports have, to my knowledge, been greatly exaggerated, and this trait of our culture can be rightly condemned as being ‘sinful’.
So, have we come full circle and ended up accepting that culture is sin or do we still accept the original statement that culture is not inherently sinful?
What we need to realise is that culture only becomes sinful when the actions deny and reject the character of God. When the lifestyle of a society becomes not a confession of the Person of Christ, but of actions that are opposed to His will, then we can rightly say that those characteristics have become sin within the culture.
Every culture will, to a greater or lesser extent, have expressions of sin within its boundaries but it is only man within the culture who cause that sin. Culture does not inherently contain sin and neither acts of righteousness - but when man reacts negatively to circumstances and forms traits within society that are opposed to the character of God, we observe sections of our entire societies which have to a greater or lesser degree rejected the purposes of God and are living opposed to His will, usually quite oblivious to there being anything wrong.
In such circumstances, a move of the Holy Spirit within society to convict great numbers of their sinful ways is necessary for there to be a large scale turning back to God.
One Action, Three Definitions
One trait within a society can, at the same time, be defined in all three ways - neutral, sinful and righteous - depending on the individual or group response and the attitude of heart which accompanies it. However, let us go on here to look at a few instances within our own culture where an action is not a sin in itself but where it can and has quite easily been developed into sin:
Part of the British culture is expressed in our attitude towards and treatment of alcohol. Many years ago, when a good and healthy water supply was not always available, beer was produced as a safe and potent alternative which blew the minds of many and pushed us into the development of our pub culture. We may find that we open a bottle of wine when friends come round - not just because we socialise over the wine but because now, as christians, we see it as part and parcel of sharing communion - we may cook with alcohol or even, as I have previously noted, walk down to our recognised local to have a few drinks with mates and colleagues.
None of these, however, are inherently sinful but they can lead people into sin. The drinker may find that they get drunk and lose control over their faculties, displaying aggressive or antagonistic traits towards those around them (Prov 20:1, 23:29-35), that they are led into a continued state of drunkenness which is unwise (Eph 5:18) or even that they find themselves becoming dependent upon alcohol rather than dependent upon God (I Tim 3:8).
Even though British culture contains attitudes towards alcohol that are inherently neutral, they can lead people into areas that become sinful and opposed to the will of God.
Another example - which will probably be accepted with as much controversy as my last point - is the celebration of Christmas, uncommanded by God to be observed by His people and which developed out of a society which had been christianised.
Unfortunately, the celebration is marred by over-indulgence (I Cor 5:11), over-spending and materialism (Mtw 6:24), idolatry (Deut 12:29-31 - by the use of cult objects and symbols in the worship of God) and, perhaps even worse, the obligation is laid upon communities to have to celebrate it (Col 2:16, Gal 4:10) where service to Christ is tied up with service to the festival.
And that’s just the christian church!
Amongst the culture of the West, Christmas is associated with excessive parties, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness. Indeed, to society in general, this is the sum total of what Christmas is all about. Though the initial invention of Christmas as a festival in which to remember Christ’s conception and birth seemed like a good idea, the sin inherent within its celebration has become so major as to pose the question as to whether christians would be better off making a clean break with it and celebrating one of the Jewish festivals in Leviticus chapter 23 in order to make more of a dynamic impression upon society - but, if christians did that, they may find themselves rejected by the culture which they are trying to reach because they have become just too different.
Certainly, though Christmas may be a part of the West’s culture, sin lies at the very root of it - even within the Church - because man is the sole participant of the festival.
One final and brief example.
Going to soccer matches is part of our culture even though the percentage population who regularly attend professional football is quite small. There is nothing wrong with doing this - the same as relaxing at a five day cricket match is not inherently sinful.
But, when the team or the sport becomes an object of our worship - that is, of our devotion in following and serving the organisation - or when we spend unnecessary amounts of time as a spectator and we conflict with the will of God for that time, then we have taken something neutral and turned it in to God’s enemy.
So, culture can become sin though it is not, in itself, inherently sinful.
A Christian Culture
Only if culture is developed by a people or nation out of a correct response to a dynamic relationship with Christ is it possible that it can be truly labelled ‘christian’. Even so, there will be enough variety of interpretation within its development that christian cultures will be seen to be dissimilar in many ways.
If ethnic minorities are regarded as distinct social groupings within nations and cultures are made provision for in the local council’s framework of help, then, if the christian Church has similarly grown away from the common culture, it too should be regarded as in need of specialist help.
Varying christian cultures have, in times passed, divided within different societies producing sects and denominations but they should, rather, reflect the diversity and complexity of the One true God.
The culture of christians will change as they grow in Christ and make themselves less acceptable to the world through their rejection of those traits of common culture that stand opposed to God. It is true, naturally speaking, that a new-born believer is more likely to be able to associate with the world and speak into their lives than a more mature one can who has grown in stature and maturity in Christ.
Indeed, an evangelist is more likely going to ‘look like’ one who is in the world so that he can reach them for Christ than a teacher. Therefore, the apostle Paul (I Cor 9:19-23) says
‘For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law - though not being myself under the law - that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law - not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ - that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings’
In other words, Paul chose to become like the society and culture in which he found himself and tried to be acceptable to the people he was trying to reach with the Gospel, in order that he might win some to Christ.
There has been much said and written about believers who seem to be so close to the world that they are indistinguishable from the christian culture that we have developed within our own denominational structures - but, so long as the believer is responding to the culture in which he finds himself and takes upon himself no traits of that society that are, indeed, sinful, then that believer needs the backing of the church that he might have a place to assimilate converts into rather than find that the Church has become so antagonistic to him that society is more loving than God’s family!
True, it can be a dangerous thing to go into the world to associate ourselves with society but, just as Paul found himself doing that to win some for Christ, so there is a necessity laid upon each of us to find areas in society where we can share on a common cultural level that is a gateway for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Jesus also lived as a Jew within the Jewish society of His day (for example, His attendance at the wedding feast in Cana - John 2:1-11) but He cut across the culture when it denied God’s purposes and sought to restrict the free expression of the Father’s will through Him (for example, His conversation with a Samaritan woman - John 4:9 - and His touching of the leper - Mtw 8:3).
The one proviso must be that we do not use culture as a pretence for doing wrong. In I Cor 10:23-33, Paul instructs the Church (v.25) that they should
‘Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience’
and that they should eat with all thankfulness in their hearts before God (v.31). But, when one is seated at a meal and an unbeliever instructs the christian that the food set before him has been sacrificed to false gods, then (v.28-29) he should
‘...out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience’ sake...not eat it’
because one man’s scruples is undermining the believer’s freedom to witness for Christ without condemnation (v.29). Therefore, Paul concludes (v.32-33) that they should endeavour to
‘...give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved’
Culture can be used by the believer to promote the Gospel and to remove unnecessary offence but, should cultural actions such as knowingly eating food offered to idols threaten the freedom of the proclamation of the Gospel, then those traits are to be shunned.
Culture and Stumbling a Brother
When our culture stumbles a brother, it is an instrument of sin whether that action is a sin in itself or not. Everything - and that includes the actions that are determined by our culture - must be done in order to ‘build up’ our brother (Rom 14:19, 15:2) and in order not to destroy him (Rom 14:13,15,20-21).
Further, we have no right to condemn a brother because of his lifestyle when that lifestyle is not in itself sin (14:1-12) but, be warned, culture can lead us into sin and it is our duty to bring back a brother from the path that is leading him into death (James 5:19-20).
A fuller discussion can be found on my web page which deals with Romans chapter 14 here.
The Mosaic Law
One of the Mosaic Law’s functions was to reform the culture of its day and it was not solely intended that each and every command and statute should be taken to be absolute statements that would make of no effect the coming of Christ and the New Covenant, the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham (Gal 3:14,18).
The Law placed restrictions and limitations upon the sin that had come about because of the abuse of man within the present Israelite culture.
By the time of Christ, the Jewish leaders had turned Deut 24:1-4 around so that it became regarded as God’s decree commanding divorce (Mtw 19:7) instead of it simply allowing it in certain circumstances (Mtw 19:8).
But the point of the law was to legislate that a divorced woman could not return to her former husband after she had been remarried. The Law restricted a sin that had arisen in the Israelite culture, though the need for divorce was only going to be fully removed in Jesus when the power and provision of the Holy Spirit would be made available to all believers.
Within Old and New Testament societies alike, God speaks within a person’s/nation’s culture in order that He might be plainly understood. For example, in Gen 15:7-11,17, God covenanted in a way that Abram could understand and which reflected standard ancient procedure used to seal a covenant - the cutting of the animals in two and the passing between them being the action.
What if God had ‘shaken on it’? It would have been meaningless!
True, God may choose to shake on an agreement in today’s culture because, to some, a handshake can be the seal of an agreement between two consenting parties but, in Abram’s day, the action would have been meaningless and He chose rather to give His servant something that He would understand and accept as being the standard way of sealing a covenant in his own culture.
And God will always use culture much to our own annoyance and confusion!
To the American Indian, He may become as an American Indian in order that He might win some. He will not do what is inherently sinful and neither will He expect a person from that culture to leave in their own lives the parts of that culture that are displeasing to Himself, but He will take on the cloak, so to speak, that the culture might understand Him through their own culture’s eyes.
And His servants too, in reaching out to societies and cultures, must accept that ‘to the American Indian they will become as American Indians’ in order that they might win some.
As a christian, a believer no longer has a choice of which culture he should follow. I was chatting with my American Indian friend who I mentioned at the beginning of this article and they expressed the feeling that they were torn between both that patriarchal society and the christian one in which they had now come in to, not knowing whether they should reject the one and accept the other, or what.
But coming to Christ does not mean the rejection of one culture for the acceptance of another. What it means is the rejection of all things sinful for all things righteous regardless of the culture in which a new believer may find himself.
In Christ, we don’t serve culture - or, at least, we are not supposed to - but culture becomes our tool and must be kept subservient to Christ. When Paul considered the plight of both the Jew and Gentile in the light of the cross (Eph 2:11-22), he concluded by saying that Christ
‘...has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility...that He might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end’
No longer can the christian make cultural distinctions based on race, sex or such like, because, in Christ, these distinctions have ceased to become of any relevance. Therefore we read (Col 3:11)
‘...there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all’
and (Gal 3:28)
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’
It is important to note that this is not because we have changed our mindset, but because God treats us no differently and salvation is based solely on the work of Christ (Rom 10:12, I Cor 12:13).
All cultures - even before the cross - should be under the sovereignty and will of God. But, in Christ, this should always be true, even though we have done our best to eradicate the unity which exists throughout the world!
Cultural religious laws are not enforceable upon other cultures and societies - just the same as people must not be forcibly be made to produce Yorkshire Puddings where flour and eggs are not readily available or Curries where spices cannot be easily obtained!
God’s Spirit will express Himself through each culture to show Christ and draw people closer to Himself and men and women will respond positively to that moving and find that their culture begins to change as they follow His leadings. But, how men and women react positively to God’s presence and subsequently express themselves is not enforceable upon other believers in other cultures and God may not even choose to move in such ways within those other cultures.
What we are always in danger of is thinking that methodology used in one area will ‘work’ in another when the method is only a structure that has been instituted as a reaction to the movings of God within that particular culture (see also my notes on ‘Sails’ and ‘New Battle, New Strategy’ linked to the Miscellaneous page of teaching here).
Women’s coverings may also be of relevance here even though many would take the instructions by Paul in I Cor 11:2-16 as being absolute statements because of their place in Scripture. If Paul’s instructions here were cultural instructions which were there to help the Church in the society of their day, then they are not binding upon the Church of today.
This, I know, is a controversial area - but if the passage is considered to be cultural then it is not legally binding upon a different culture. If it was a universal principle for all subsequent generations of believers then it must be observed.
Culture is here to stay.
Though some of us have used culture to make divisions within both society and the Church, Jesus sees no culture as being impossible to both reach and work through.
Others of us have so grown apart from the world that even the simple, unsinful traits of the culture in which we find ourselves have become imagined ‘instruments of satan’ that are demonised and used to hinder effective evangelisation of those around us.
We have grown apart from our culture instead of becoming a sinless part of each culture encountered that we might, indeed, win some.
As I said, culture is here to stay and God will continue to move both in and through each one. The only option we have is to ally ourselves with His movements or to stand opposed to what He seeks to do.
There can be no sitting on the fence.