Is it just me, or are the issues we most argue about today in the separation debates largely focused on cultural questions? Whether the argument is over music, motion pictures, dress, the use of alcohol, or any other issue you care to name, the argumentation is largely a matter of “culture” and the Christian’s relationship to it. Our arguments seem to have little to do with doctrine in a formal sense.
A cursory survey of the history of doctrine shows that at various stages in church history, different doctrines came to prominence at different points in time as unbelief constantly challenged the church. Early on, doctrines concerning God, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and so on faced challenge and resulted in consequent statements of doctrine by the orthodox believers of the time. Other doctrines were fleshed out later in response to other errors and challenges to orthodoxy.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the whole scope of Christian doctrine came under attack, culminating in what would be called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century. The challenge of the day was primarily theological.
In the middle of the twentieth century, a different challenge attacked orthodoxy. New evangelicalism was a more subtle challenge. It wasn’t theological but philosophical. Following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, Bible-believing Christians believed that when it came to theological error, erring men must be excluded, or, failing that, the believers would have to exclude themselves by separation and starting afresh in new institutions. The philosophy of new evangelicalism led men to include those in theological error for various motives: the opportunity to preach the gospel, a wider audience for an orthodox message, increased prestige for orthodox scholarship and so on. The challenge of that day was primarily philosophical.
The old battles are over, a new battle rages
The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy has ended. The lines of demarcation are well established. Orthodoxy is one thing, modernism and error quite another.
New evangelicalism launched a new battle. That battle, too, is largely over. Battles were fought, decisions made, and the fundamentalist position is clearly distinct from the broader evangelical position. The evangelicals are open to broader ‘inclusion’ or cooperation than fundamentalists are. This is true even of so-called “conservative evangelicals” who, while decrying some errors, remain in fellowship with many who are erring.
Some declare that both ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘evangelicalism’ are too difficult to define and that the lines are no longer distinct. Interestingly enough, evangelicals don’t have a great deal of difficulty with the definitions. They know what fundamentalism is and that they are not it. Some of them see problems in broader evangelicalism, but they still see themselves as evangelicals, especially as distinct from liberals, modernists, or neo-orthodox on the one hand and fundamentalists on the other.
The battles over theology and philosophy are largely over. Orthodoxy is no longer really challenged theologically, as in the confrontations of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The fundamentalists do not have any kind of “new modernism” arising from within its ranks at the current time. For the most part, fundamentalists are unwilling to cooperate with theological error for the purpose of gaining a wider audience or scholarly recognition (as was the case for some during the new evangelical controversy). This battle, too, is largely over.
There is, however, a current battle. The current battle is the battle over culture. Some younger fundamentalists (and the conservative evangelicals) seem to be articulating a position that only battles over theology are legitimate, no one can do battle over non-theological matters. As long as doctrine is orthodox, there is no remaining conflict. Culture, as a neutral object, or at least as an insignificant object, must not become the focus of division.
But is this challenge non-theological?
In thinking about this, I am reminded of many conversations I had with a friend, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a man who is what Americans would call a ‘Native American’. In Canada, the currently politically correct term is ‘First Nations’ (but my friend called himself a ‘trendy Indian’). I had the privilege of conducting his funeral a few years ago, preaching the gospel to his entire tribe, including the local shaman.
My friend wrestled with his traditional Native culture and its legitimacy for the Christian life. What to do about Native culture? Currently, there is something of a revival of Native practices going on in our area. Some of the ancient culture has long been lost – my friend couldn’t speak his ancestral language and no one on his reservation knows the language anymore, as far as I know. Yet there is a push to reinstate Native ways of doing things – Native courts, Native justice, and Native culture.
Part of culture is just the way things are done. Some parts I especially appreciate, like Native food. I particularly enjoy the Native bread, ‘bannock’, surely there is little, if anything, to criticize in elements of culture like this.
But there are other aspects of Native culture that are problematic for Christians. My friend had a painting that portrays Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep. At a first glance, the painting communicates the tender care our Lord has for his sheep. The artist is a Native. The painting includes many Native symbols. In the background, an Indian tipi (Plains Indian symbol) is included. Native symbols are painted on the tipi, on the robe Jesus is portrayed as wearing, and on other parts of the painting. The Holy Spirit is represented in a beam of light proceeding up from Jesus into heaven – it, too, is a native symbol. My friend explained that it is the symbolism that troubled him. On the painting is something called ‘a Peyote spot.’ This references some aspect of Native religion. The symbols on the robe and on the tipi likewise have some religious meaning, as does the symbol for the Holy Spirit.
My initial reaction toward the painting was positive. As further explanation came, I saw that there was more to the painting than first met the eye. I am not certain that a Christian should allow this kind of cultural expression in his home. After study and with discernment, what appeared at first to be an innocuous expression of culture (‘it’s just culture’) becomes perhaps something much more repugnant and perhaps dangerous to Christian doctrine and experience.
Some Christians would scoff at my secondary reaction. I know of some Christian groups who, in their ministry to Natives, allow prayer to ‘the Great Spirit’ in their Bible study sessions. ‘It’s just culture.’
Our need: a theology of culture
I once told my friend that all cultures contain expressions of evil, since the human heart is desperately evil and wicked. The problem for the Christian is discerning where and when to turn away from expressions of evil in any human culture, whether it be ‘Native’, ‘white’, ‘black’ or any other ethnic group. When it comes to the issues I mentioned at the beginning of this article, is it simply a matter of ‘just culture’ or is something more going on? Think about this list again: music; motion pictures; dress; the use of alcohol. We could add many things to this list. Is anyone prepared to say that all of these cultural matters are completely empty of theological meaning?
The Christian theology of culture is rooted in the holiness and purity of God. It involves loyalty to God and his standard of perfect holiness first of all. It is illustrated negatively in the syncretism of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament “behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (See 1 Ki 12.26-31). The Northern Kingdom could protest that they were still worshiping the One True God and justified their practices on the basis of pragmatism and politics. This was the first step to full blown idolatry, which became the downfall of the Northern Kingdom.
Judah, the Southern Kingdom, likewise plunged into syncretistic idolatry, mixing the worship of the One True God with all kinds of pagan practices. The men of Judah saw no inconsistency with their practices and their approach to the prophets of the One True God for God’s mind about their practices. See Ezekiel 14.1 for an example and other passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
In Ezra 4, we find the returning exiles preparing to rebuild their temple. The Samaritans approach the Jews and ask to join in the building of the temple of God. Here is their justification:
Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither. (Ezra 4.2)
These enemies of the true God claimed to be followers of the true God. They ‘sacrificed to him’ as did the Jews. They claimed to have been doing this ever since the King of Assyria brought them into the land. Do you realize that they were telling the truth, at least, in a certain sense?
These indeed sacrificed to the true God, at least ostensibly, for when these people were imported to the land by the Assyrians to colonize and intermarry with the few Israelites that were left, the Lord sent lions among them and slew some of them. The reaction?
Wherefore they spake to the king of Assyria, saying, The nations which thou hast removed, and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner of the God of the land: therefore he hath sent lions among them, and, behold, they slay them, because they know not the manner of the God of the land. (2 Kings 17:26)
Was this a revival of true religion? Did these colonists really worship the true God? Well…
Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt. (2 Kings 17:29)
No, this was syncretism, the mixing of religions. The colonists decided since the ‘god of the land’ was angry with them, they had better be sure to worship him, too, along with all their own gods. It is this syncretistic worship that they followed for hundreds of years. When the Jews returned to the land and prepared to rebuild their temple, it is this to which the Samaritans claimed their share in the worship of the true God. They had been sacrificing to Yahweh all these years. They wanted to join with the Jews in their new temple.
How did Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the leaders of the returned Jews respond? Was it this?
Sure, join the party. We realize that you are sacrificing to the true God. It is true that we have differences, but really, that is just culture. We want to impact your culture, but we won’t throw any rocks at it. In fact, let’s “rock on” and build the temple together.
Is that what they said? No, this is what they said:
Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel. (Ezra 4.3)
This is the battle we are being called to fight today.
There is a theological battle being fought today. It is far more subtle and difficult to discern than the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. We are not fighting over mere preferences, over morally neutral matters of taste. We are fighting against the overwhelming rush to syncretism, where the sounds, sights, and tastes of the god of this world are being added to the worship of the true God of heaven. We need to know when something is ‘just culture’ – a unique expression of regional or racial creativity – and when something is a mixing of the ways of the devil with the worship of God.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.