We live in a shrinking world. As methods of communication and transportation increase, we have continued to come in contact with more and more people, many from a culture different than ours. Christians, especially missionaries, have become culture conscious. They have learned the hard way some of the things that are cultural mistakes by committing them. A missions professor once told his class: "I built the church building because the Japanese didn't know what a church building was supposed to look like. I built it in typical American style with a red tile roof. The Japanese thought it was hideous."
As a result of mistakes like this, most missionaries have learned to adjust the way they do things to fit the culture of the people that they are trying to convert. The slogan has become, "We are going to Christianize them, not Americanize them." The basic message has not been changed, but the methods of implementing it have. Cultural incidentals, such as the language spoken, the types of clothing worn, the types of buildings (if buildings are even used), the way of greeting and shaking hands, the marriage customs, and the rules of etiquette, for example, have all been adapted from the culture to which the missionary is going. In most cases, people no longer have to learn English if they want to become Christians.
As people have learned that culture should not be an unnecessary hindrance to the gospel, however, some have lately tried to say that things that are central to the gospel message should be changed too to fit our changing culture. This is not a new problem. We see that it happened in the first century world as well. The Greeks at Corinth thought that following various competing leaders was the wise thing to do. They thought nothing of fornication as a sin, unless it were a matter of incest, and saw prostitutes as almost sacred officials. They freely sued one another and divorce was common. When people were healed, they often invited their family and friends to celebrate a sacrifice with them in honor of a patron god. Both men and women usually prayed bareheaded in Greek religion. Worshipers in the cult of Dionysus would often get drunk. Ecstatic language in worship was valued. The central Greek prophet was the priestess at Delphi. The Greeks made fun of the concept of a resurrection of the body. These cultural practices and beliefs form the basis for the issues which Paul addresses in I Corinthians. All of them Paul relates to Christ in some way and says that Christians must follow Christ, not culture, when the two come in conflict.
A major American denomination has recently released a position paper saying that pre-marital sexual relations, both heterosexual and homosexual, are acceptable. This is the message of the American culture as well. This same group has women preachers, another item which is culturally correct in America at the present day. But both of these items are addressed in I Corinthians as in conflict with Christianity (I Cor. 6:12-20; 14:33b-36). Here culture has come in conflict with Christ, and He is the One who must be followed.
Where cultural items are not in conflict with the gospel message, the trappings of Christianity should conform to the culture so that no unnecessary barrier be put in people's way of coming to Christ. But where the culture would pervert the message, it is Christ, not culture, which becomes central.
Copyright © 1993, Bruce Terry. All rights reserved. This article may be freely reprinted in bulletins and newsletters so long as no charge is made to the reader and this copyright notice is included.