Friday, January 12, 2007

Church and Culture, 6

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.


Michael A G Haykin said...


I just tried to e-mail you but it bounced back. Is there another e-mail you have? It is about the September confernce in Toronto.

By the way your new book looks excellent. Will look out for it.

Michael Haykin

Anonymous said...


I came across your website during the past year and have enjoyed and profited from it greatly!

Thanks for this series on church and culture. It has been excellent.

When you mentioned choosing one's faith over one's ethnicity it reminded me of something someone shared with me long ago, that "the noun is more important than the adjective" (i.e. Am should I live as a White/African-American/Asian Christian or am I a Christian White/African-American/Asian?).

My family and I have served as church planters over the past twelve years. We were first in Eastern Europe living among the Roma (Gypsies)who are from a folk Islamic background. We are currently working anong Buddhists in Thailand.

There have been many challenges in seeking to see churches planted among these peoples, whose lives were/are built around cultures and faiths directly opposed to Christianity (as is my own in many ways). It can be a long and difficult road at times letting go of all that one knows of life, especially when those around consider you to be abandoning your heritage and ethnicity to follow Christ. But the Lord continues to show himself to be faithful as he raises up his church among the unreached for his glory.

Thabiti,your words, "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" are right on the mark. When we have seen others begin to appropriate their identity and culture in Christ and not from their own (or from mine as the missionary)cultural background they have taken great strides forward, even in the midst of hostility and persecution.

One of the big issues today is contextualization, which can be helpful to consider and apply in some ways. But often times the cultural background of others seems to be given preference over some aspects of biblical truth. This is where your earlier posts can be quite helpful. You 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" and "that it's not the business of the church to preserve human culture." I agree with you wholeheartedly!

Keep up the good work and writing.

Always Giving Thanks said...

I've been following this discussion from the standpoint of the layman. It occurs to me that there is one issue which comes to mind that I would like to consider in the context of your definition of human culture. As such, I am attaching a link to an article that you may find interesting. The article titled "Migration, cultural bereavement and cultural identity" published in World Psychiatry: The Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (by Bhugra and Becker in Feb. 2005), speaks of the role of cultural identify and/or the loss thereof, and its impact on mental illness. The link is as follows: (hope it works...)

There are several other research studies that provide similar conclusions including one published in an article titled "US Poised to rank No. 1 for mental illness, study suggests" published in the Seattle Times on June 7, 2005. This article goes so far as to state:

"It's not clear why Americans have such high rates of mental illness, but cultural factors clearly play a role. People who move here from abroad quickly increase their risk of mental health problems, especially if they do not live in native ethnic communities. Minorities tend to have lower rates of mental health problems despite their lower economic status, suggesting that the social support they provide each other is protective."

In light of these findings, how do we effectively integrate an analysis of the mind, the self, and the human psyche into a definition of culture. You have touched on this issue in your discussion of alienation. Yet, is there a broader issue for consideration?

I do not believe that these findings contradict your earlier conclusions in any way. In fact, they likely strengthen them. All the same, they perhaps shed light on why it is so difficult for man to shed the yoke of human culture in the context of a fallen society, to embrace the culture of God above all else. In turn, these findings may help to identify the role of the church in ministering to different "cultures" and "ethnicities" by providing a perspective on how best to identify and minister to the needs of those at greatest risk--those who are 'human culturally and ethnically' alienated and by default alienated from God's culture.

From my personal standpoint, I believe that the greatest commandment "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is our greatest guiding beacon in our pursuit of God's culture, as it neutralizes cultural norms and represents the normative alpha and the omega of all human relationships.

Hope this adds further 'food for thought' to your analysis. I too look forward to the pending availability of your book to learn more...

Paa Kwesi said...

Very interesting post. However, I think there is no such thing as "neutral" culture. Your interpretation of the biblical command of what a marriage is is inextricably bound to the primary importance of the nuclear family idea in say, European culture. It is not the case that European culture coincides with the biblical view. Indeed, from the point of view of the person whose culture demands that his/her family is more important than the wife, that is the best way of "honoring his/her parents", another biblical view. It may have nothing to do with the being one-flesh requirement of the bible. For example, an alternative view is for the spouse who feels neglected to see the parental honoring as his/her responsibility too. How can you then feel neglected relative to the parents unless it equates to self-neglect (which may or may not be ok with your cultural understanding)?

Indeed, there's no "Thabiti" the Christian (Christ after all did not identify with anything other than being Jewish--cf the Samaritan woman encounter). There is Thabiti the cultural being who loves God. This love of God should be sufficient to negotiate any difficulty with any other person (just like the good Samaritan). Bridges must be built across different points of view (not mere accommodation). If genuine bridges are built, both sides benefit, their "culture" is mutually improved, and God is glorified. Indeed, I'm inclined to think God is likely to not like the idea of a "Christian" identity outside being a believer in Christ since that will introduce the same sort of group think that led to such arrogance as the Tower of Babel.

I'll follow your blog as I can. God bless you for writing it! (I wrote this in a hurry during a break).

FellowElder said...

paa Kwesi,
thanks for stopping by on your break and sharing your thoughts. Two quick responses:
(1) The command in Genesis 2:24 for a husband and wife to "leave and cleave" in marriage is a creation ordinance. It predates anything we would think of as "culture" in the modern sense. And notice that in that command, then, marriage is established as the center of family. Children are to leave their parents and become one flesh; the new bond of marriage supersedes the existing familial relationships with parents. There is no "honoring of parents" that can legitimately rupture or take priority over a biblical marriage. I don't think Gen. 2:24 has anything to do with European or Eastern or Asian ideas of family as you construe it, but with God's original ordering of society and family.

2) I think your reading of who Christ died for and what that entails for people from various cultures is incorrect. Christ died for the elect of every nation. Moreover, I'm not advocating accomodation to a particular cultural point of view other than God's cultural point of view. So, nothing I've said here should be construed as an endorsement for say African-American culture and then a call for wholesale migration of all peoples to that point of view. The accomodation I have in mind is an ever increasing accomodation to the ways of God in His church.

Hope this helps,

FellowElder said...

Always Giving Thanks,
Thanks for the link and the helpful question. All of my graduate work is in psychology, and my graduate research focused on racial identity development. So, in some ways, this took me back to that literature.

You wrote:
I do not believe that these findings contradict your earlier conclusions in any way. In fact, they likely strengthen them. All the same, they perhaps shed light on why it is so difficult for man to shed the yoke of human culture in the context of a fallen society, to embrace the culture of God above all else.

I agree on both points. I do think this strengthens the argument here, and I do think it sheds some light on the challenge at hand. This movement from "human culture" as we've been calling it to "God's culture" is tremendously difficult, even painful at times.

There may be broader issues to consider, but many of those identity issues will by definition be individual and too diverse to easily address on a blog. But thematically, at least, they will all involve harnessing the person to Christ and shaping their sense of self in Another, Jesus.

It is true that there is a psychologically protective aspect to like-group affiliation, especially in immigrant contexts. The research concerns "people at large." My concern is the church. So, I would argue that the protective factors associated with like-group affiliation should be multiplied among those whose affiliation is Christ. In other words, the kind of care and support that folks receive naturally in their ethnic communities really should be multiplied and categorically deeper inside the church. It should be visibly evident (Jn 13:34).