We've come to the point in this series of posts where we need to try and get a bit more concrete or practical. I want to try and quickly sketch what I think I've said and then raise an example.
In posts two and three, we proposed that there are actually only two cultures to speak of: the culture of man and the culture that God creates and gives His redeemed people. In post four, we tried to advance the idea that the spead of God's culture happens only by regeneration and at the hands of the regenerate. We argued that self-love more often than not is idolatrous and that it's not the business of the church to preserve human culture. The fifth post began to suggest some approaches for resisting the encroachment of human culture into the church in inappropriate ways.
In the comments to the fifth post, David asked for some important clarifications. Let me see if I can get away with quick brief responses, then pick up a short counseling example for how I think all this fits or works itself out in a local church.
I've probably been using ethnicity and culture a bit like synonyms. That's looseness, not intent. Certainly there is overlap but the two constructs are not identical. You could have a culture that includes multiple ethnicities (American culture and the diverse people in it) or an ethnicity that includes multiple cultures (Ibo, Hausa and Yoruba among the Nigerians). My point, and perhaps the reason for the confusion, is that essentially and biblically there is but one human culture in the sense that human culture is speculative, man-centered and in important ways anti-God.
Does this mean we're to "forsake our ethnicity"? I don't know that such a thing is completely possible. But I'm pretty sure almost no one is in danger of that. The danger, I'm suggesting, is in the other direction... clinging so desperately to our notion of ethnic identity that we lose sight of our identity in Christ. If there were to be a choice between Thabiti the African American and Thabiti the Christian... I pray desperately that I'd desire and know how to choose Thabiti the Christian every time. I'm not there, and I don't think we're there in the church world. Not enough heaven in us and too much world.
Must we forsake diversity for the cause of unity? Yes! Unity in the truth of the Gospel and in the reality of our union with and in Christ. It seems to me that that's part of what it means to be "new creatures" in Christ. To put a finer point on it: What possible biblical reason can we have to answer that question negatively?
I've counseled a number of inter-racial or inter-ethnic couples pursuing marriage. It's been a great joy to serve these couples as they've looked to establish a new life together as husband and wife, one flesh, reflecting the love and submission of Christ and the church. Each of these relationships also include a powerful testimony to the reconciliation and alienation-ending unity that comes from the power of the gospel. It isn't the gospel... but it certainly is an effect of the gospel in many of these relationships.
However, inevitably the question surfaces: "How do we put these two cultural backgrounds together?" Or, "how do we manage or negotiate this or that conflict that keeps coming up because of our differing backgrounds?" These questions have come up for Hispanic-White, White-Black, Asian-White, White-African, Asian-Asian, African-African, and Hispanic-Hispanic couples. In every case, the solution to the dilemma was not to become more or less Asian, African, White, Black or Hispanic. The solution was to leave behind the cultural distinctives and pursue more aggressively the biblical command, example or ideal.
Consider, for example, the couple that comes from a culture where parents are highly respected and children are expected to financially support their family back home. They were supporting their families back home to the neglect of their marriage. They wanted to negotiate to a happier medium without breaking from that cultural expectation. Nothing they proposed would work. The answer was to consider Gen. 2:24 and the mandate for marriage-centeredness in families found there. There was, of course, more to consider. But the point is that the way forward lay in a more radical appropriation of the Bible's teaching as it related to their identity (in this case, marital identity over ethnic identity). They needed to recognize that they were first of all Christians, secondly married with a Christian view of marriage and family, and subsequently supportive children of their parents.
They had to realize that their cultural assumptions were not neutral and needed to be suspended, that the source of their alienation came from human culture not the cross of Christ, and that appropriating their identity and culture in Christ enabled them to move forward. If we had entered the maze of cultural expectations (and just a note, honoring your parents is not a bad thing), they would never have emerged with a Christian identity more consistent with the culture of God and the Word of God.
Let me know what you think. In the next couple of posts, I'll try to apply this thinking to other areas of the local church's life and mission.
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