Gospel & Culture: The Never Ending Question

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…  🙂


7 thoughts on “Gospel & Culture: The Never Ending Question”

  1. Hey Crystal!

    I’m very simplistic when it comes to this subject. We need to trust that God is able to change the hearts of men. Scripture transcends culture. Scripture confronts the culture it does not “conform” to culture. We need to be obedient to the command of our Lord to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Let Him deal with the heart…the culture is not and never has been a hinderance to God. Culture changes at the county line. Culture changes from rural areas to towns to cities, state to state, border to border, continent to continent, you get the point. The problem is not culture. The problem is the age old issue that the heart of man is desperately wicked…this is one commonality in every culture through every age. And the issue to which the Scriptures bring the remedy to sinners in every culture. Jesus Christ alone.

    As far as Christianity being “unattractive” to those in the world…this just confirms what we have been taught in the Word. “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We can be “relevant” til the cows come home yet it won’t even assist in converting one soul to the Kingdom of God… 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 where we see clearly that “…the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” No amount of “relevance” will open the eyes of the blind, it is a work of the Spirit of God.

    We also are assured that nothing will thwart God’s work. Matt. 16:18 Jesus makes the claim that He is the One on whom the church will be built and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. I’m assuming that means the various cultures throughout the ages will also not prevail against it. 🙂

    I’m so thankful I don’t have to be a “culture expert”. That would most certainly wear me OUT. I prefer to focus on the precious Word of God believing all the while that He is able to work in the hearts of His creation as I am faithful to proclaim the truth. 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and correctly handles the word of truth.” In all honesty I will pass on cultural expertise every time in favor of “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 No mention of culture or relevance…

    And last but not least just remember “Today’s relevance is tomorrow’s source of embarrassment”…..just look at my high school photos! Isaiah 40:8 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

    1. Judy –

      “the age old issue that the heart of man is desperately wicked”

      Very good point! You are right that this is ultimately the issue when people reject the gospel. Unfortunately, I also think this issue affects those of us bringing the message. Our own motives (good or bad) will be reflected in our presentation of the gospel and our ability to be an accurate representation of God to the world.

      Great thoughts and verses! Thanks for sharing.

      BTW, I’d love to see your high school photos! 🙂 …and you are anything but a faded flower!

  2. Hello Crystal,

    Thank you for writing yet another GREAT BLOG!!!

    I am reminded of what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 9:19-27
    “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

    Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

    Then chapter 10: 23-33 “The Believer’s Freedom”
    “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

    Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

    If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ saked— the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

    So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

    I’ll leave my opinions out, and let God speak =)

    Grace and peace to us all!

    1. Thanks Canice –

      I very much had 1 Cor 9 & 10 in mind as I wrote this. It is possible to have a scripturally informed opinion, though–and you’re allowed to share that here. 🙂

  3. One added comment…I’m not advocating mowing folks over. My point is that it is all too often when the culture becomes the focus we can easily compromise for the sake of pleasing men. In doing so the gospel can be diluted in order to not “put off” anyone. The danger is that no one is ever confronted with the truth of the gospel. Of course we don’t want our liberty in Christ to cause the weak to be turned away from hearing the truth. But in accomodating ourselves to the weak we also are in no way to dilute the truth of the word of God.

    Unfortunately, much compromise is going on in the church today in the name of “reaching the culture.” I guess my bottom line question is what are we reaching the culture with? What are they saved to? Entertainment? Ear tickling, man pleasing messages? Self-improvement? I have heard it said in a message (in church) “God’s heart is NOT salvation….Jesus came to make the world a better place.” This is deadly error. But this message is embraced by cultures worldwide. Bottom line, preach the truth in love and trust in the Lord that He will accomplish all of His purpose as we are obedient to His call. Isaiah 55:11 “So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth, it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

  4. I think it’s incredibly important to ask these questions, and equally important never to arrive at definitive answers. It has to remain a “complex space” between form and content, though I am persuaded that form always affects content. In particular, I think of John Howard Yoder, who articulated a view of Christian nonviolence but always did so in a way that was true to that message. Among other things this means that he took his critics’ opinions as seriously as his own, and ended up becoming a better spokesman for the just-war tradition than many adherents of the just-war tradition.

    I think the Christian gospel can be made adaptable to many cultural contexts, but there are some mediums (consumerist marketing, or secular liberalism for instance) that would undo the gospel in the act of translation.

    1. Hi Nick. Thanks for weighing in. I like this:

      “I think it’s incredibly important to ask these questions, and equally important never to arrive at definitive answers. It has to remain a “complex space” between form and content, though I am persuaded that form always affects content.”

      I would say much the same, only maybe not so succinctly. 🙂

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