Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

keep culture in perspective

Follow-up: Keep Culture in Perspective

Culture is high on the list of mission topics. For example, many colleges and seminaries have renamed their “Mission” departments as “Inter-cultural” departments or something similar. Certainly, cultural studies are essential for anyone proclaiming the gospel to people from other people groups. But we must keep culture in perspective. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides a perspective that both confronts and adapts to culture. Culture does not form the content of the gospel yet it is the context in which the gospel is proclaimed, understood, and lived.

Culture is not the source of saving knowledge of God

First of all, Paul announces that the wisdom of the world, which is part of culture, does not bring us a saving knowledge of God (1 Cor. 1:18-21). Knowing God depends on God’s revelation (1 Cor. 2:10-13), not on human wisdom. However, the wisdom of this world clearly impressed the Corinthian believers. So Paul makes it clear that the message of the cross eliminates any human boasting in God’s presence (1 Cor. 26-31). God’s wisdom, the message of the cross, has been revealed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10). Ciampa and Rosner comment on the source of God’s wisdom:

In 2:8-12 Paul discusses the revelation of the wisdom that came to the apostles and prophets through the Holy Spirit. Negatively, it was not known (perceived or grasped) by the rulers of this age (2:8-9). Positively, it was revealed by God through the Spirit to the apostles and prophets who received the Spirit of God (2:10-12). 1Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 127.

In the New Testament, we have what the Holy Spirit revealed to the apostles. Culture does not provide the content of the gospel. Scripture does.

The Gospel is counter-cultural

The word of the cross is as counter-cultural now as it was then. As a result, people can only understand and believe it by the work of the Holy Spirit. D. A. Carson writes:

Truly to grasp that the eternal God, our Maker and Judge, has out of inexpressible grace sent his Son to die the odious death of an abominable criminal in order that we might be forgiven and reconciled to him; that this wise plan was effected by sinful leaders who thought they were controlling events and who were operating out of selfish expediency, while in fact God was bringing about his own good, redemptive purposes; that our only hope of life in the presence of this holy and loving God lies in casting ourselves without reserve on his mercy, receiving in faith the gift of forgiveness purchased at inestimable cost – none of this is possible apart from the work of the Spirit. 2D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, 66.

As I pointed out in the previous post, the message of the cross distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. This message of the cross is the true revelation by the Spirit of God. It does not come from human wisdom. In other words, the Christian message comes from Scripture, not from human reason. Churches can only be healthy by believing and living out the message of the Bible.

Culture had influenced the Corinthian church too much

After describing the cultural focus on status and patronage in Corinth, David Garland writes:

Most, if not all, of the problems that Paul addresses were hatched from the influence of this setting. Values that were antithetical to the message of the cross – particularly those related to honor and status so basic to the Greco-Roman social system, in which power manifesting itself in ruthlessness and self-advancement is thought to be the only sensible course – percolated into the church, destroying its fellowship and its Christian witness as some members sought to balance civic norms with Christian norms. . . . Corinthian society was riddled by competitive individualism, and this ethos spilled over into the church as wealthier members competed for followers.3David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, 6.

Paul confronts these cultural influences in the divisions in the church (chapter 3) and their view of leadership (chapter 4). Furthermore, the prevalence of immorality (chapters 5-7) and idolatry (chapters 8 and 10) in the church demonstrated how deeply cultural values were infiltrating the church. Paul confronts these vices head-on, challenging the believers to see these practices in the light of Gospel truth.

We also need to challenge the churches we plant to continue to examine the influences of culture in their understanding of the gospel and in their lifestyle. In the same way, we need to ask ourselves, “Does the message of the cross shape our lives and thinking, or has our culture reshaped the gospel?”

Culture is the context of gospel proclamation

Culture is the environment in which we proclaim and live the gospel. So in order to more effectively communicate the gospel to this culture, churches and individual believers ought to be as culturally flexible as possible.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul outlines his cultural flexibility as he proclaims the gospel. Throughout this chapter, Paul is explaining why he does not demand his rights. He does not want to put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12). Throughout this section, Paul emphasizes that his goal in being flexible is to win/save some. He does all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23).

Limits on cultural flexibility

But there are parameters to his flexibility, for his flexibility is subject to the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). He is flexible in his lifestyle not in his message. The message of the cross puts limits on his flexibility in lifestyle.

Throughout 1 Corinthians he confronts cultural issues that are incompatible with the message of the cross. David Garland comments:

He [Paul] does not think that fundamental and distinctive Christian demands are negotiable, depending on circumstances. He did not eat idol food in order to become “as one without the law to those without the law.” He did not tone down his assault on idolatry to avoid offending idolaters or to curry favor with them. His accommodation has nothing to do with watering down the gospel message, soft-pedaling its ethical demands, or compromising its absolute monotheism. Paul never modified the message of Christ crucified to make it less of a scandal to Jews or less foolish to Greeks. The preacher of the changeless gospel could adapt himself, however, to changing audiences in seeking their ultimate welfare, their salvation. 4David E. Garland, 435.

Students of culture

We must be students of Scripture and culture. In so doing, we will avoid the dangers that D. A. Carson notes:

. . . it is important to grow in your grasp of Scripture and in your exposure to other cultures, so that you do not tie your cultural preferences to the gospel and invest the former with the authority of the latter. . . .

Confronting culture

Carson goes on to argue that not only should we study the culture; sometimes we need to confront it.

in every culture it is important for the evangelist, church planter, and witnessing Christian to flex as far as possible, so that the gospel will not be made to appear unnecessarily alien at the merely cultural level. But it is also important to recognize evil elements in culture when they appear and to understand how biblical norms assess them. There will be times when it is necessary to confront culture. After all, simply to appeal to current cultural norms, all the while demanding more flexibility from the Christian, is simply a way of saying that the gospel does not have the right to stand in judgment over culture – and that will not do. 5D.A. Carson, 122.

So we remind ourselves and the churches we plant to keep culture in perspective. Yes, culture is the context in which we proclaim and live out the gospel. However, the Bible, as God’s revelation, controls our message and lifestyle as we seek to make it understood in this culture. Nevertheless, culture is a powerful influence in our lives. Therefore, we need the Holy Spirit to help us as we study the Scriptures and the cultures in which we serve. Only with his help can we wisely adapt to the culture in areas where we can flex, and confront the culture in areas where the Gospel demands cultural transformation.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike Matthews

    Excellent comments/summary, Gary. Well said. Gonna keep this post handy. And spread it around. Again, thank you.

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