I have just finished volume 1 of Justo Gonzalez’ The story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. Now on to volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day!
Near the close of the first volume, Gonzalez discusses Portuguese and Italian missionary efforts in the east in the 16th century. Even in his brief overview it is apparent that discussions concerning the relationships between the gospel, culture, and social justice are nothing new to the 21st century.
In early missionary endeavors in India, nearly all the initial converts were of the lower castes—many of whom may have hoped to gain status from this affiliation with the powerful Europeans. For those in the higher castes, Christianity was unattractive, partly because it was a suspicious foreign influence, and partly because it was so strongly embraced by those they considered beneath themselves. Recognizing these tensions Roberto di Nobili, an Italian Jesuit priest, sought to de-Europeanize the gospel and make it palatable for those in the privileged classes.
Arguing that he was of noble birth in his own country, he dressed as a Brahman and took the title of “teacher.” He also took up the vegetarian diet of all good Hindus, and learned Sanskrit. By such methods, he gained the respect of many among the higher castes. When some of these were converted, he set them apart in a church of their own, and ordered that no members of the lower castes be allowed to worship with his privileged converts.
Nobili justified these actions claiming that the caste system, although evil, was a cultural matter, and not a religious one. It was necessary to respect the culture of the Hindus, and to preach the Gospel following the lines of caste. If this were done, he argued, the lower castes would follow the example of their betters, and all would be converted. Such arguments were refuted by others who pointed out that justice and love are part of the Gospel, and that to deny these is not to preach true Christianity. Gonzalez, pg. 406-407
Another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, adopted equally controversial policies in China.
In this case, the point at issue was not the caste system, but rather ancestor worship and Confucianism. The Jesuits argued that Confucianism was not a religion, and that there was much in the teachings of Confucius that could be used as a point of entry for the Gospel. As to ancestor worship, they claimed that this was not true worship, but rather a social custom whereby one showed respect for one’s ancestors. Their opponents, mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, argued that such worship was in fact idolatry. Gonzalez, pg. 408
Come to think of it, these kinds of tensions go much further back than the 16th century, don’t they?
In the earliest days of the church, systems had to be put in place to deal with problems of ethnic snobbery, elitism, and injustice in the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1).
The Jerusalem council was called to decide exactly what lifestyle expectations should be placed on Gentile converts (Acts 15:19-20).
Paul had to rebuke Peter for giving in to social and cultural pressures that were offensive to the gentiles and contrary to the gospel—and for causing others to do the same (Gal. 2:11-14).
Paul finds it necessary to answers questions concerning how believers in a pagan society ought to conduct themselves in relationships with their idolatrous neighbors and friends (1 Cor. 10:20-29)
When Paul was in Athens, he boldly linked the Christian God with the Athenians’ “altar to an unknown god,” using the tie as a platform to share the gospel (Acts 17:22-23)
So, considering the sheer numbers of cultures and sub-cultures in the world (including Western ones) and how rapidly they can change, how are we to ever know where the line is? At what point in our endeavors to be relevant are we compromising the message in order to be more attractive to culture? Conversely, how do we avoid placing unnecessary traditions and burdens on people as we seek to translate godly living into different cultures? Given that believers throughout the centuries have had such difficulty settling matters of culture and spirituality, can we have any confidence that it is even possible to do so satisfactorily? Why or why not?
I do have a bit of an opinion about this, but I’m looking for feedback… 🙂