December 18, 2017

Culture: Conformity and Contextualization

Brian Collins

Pastors often warn their congregations about conformity to the culture. Missionaries are typically instructed to adapt to their new cultures. On the surface, the advice appears contradictory. The tension becomes greater because as American culture becomes more pluralistic, that is, as subcultures multiply, many are suggesting that churches must adapt to these subcultures to reach them. In other words, resolving this tension is necessary not only for a few specially trained Christians who minister far away; it is necessary for all Christians to gain wisdom in navigating these cultural waters.

In one sense resolving the seeming contradiction is easy. “Culture” is being used in two different ways in the two statements. In the first statement the pastor is using “culture” somewhat synonymously with the Biblical concept of the world. Like “world,” “culture” can have both broad and narrow meanings. “World” can mean all that God created or the created order in rebellion against God.[1] Likewise, a culture can refer to a group’s “shared understanding made manifest in act and artifact”[2] or to culture as it exists apart from or opposed to Christ.[3] The missionary is being told to adapt to culture in the former sense and the pastor is warning the congregation about conformity to culture in the latter sense.

This clarification raises a problem which is much more difficult. How can a person tell if he is adapting to the culture in the good first sense or in the problematic second sense? This is a question that cannot be answered in the abstract, but a theological basis can be laid which aids us in answering these sorts of questions.

First, Christians must recognize the danger of a kind of cultural relativism.[4] Not every culture is as good as every other culture. Every culture is a mixture of good and evil, and some are better or worse than others. And if every culture is mixed, any Christian’s own culture is also a mixture of good and bad. Christians must therefore be careful not to judge other cultures on the basis of their own. The Christian must first understand the other culture on its own terms— something that will take time and sympathetic understanding— and then he must evaluate it according to Scripture.

Next, Christians must understand why culture is a mixture of good and evil. Culture is infected with evil because cultures are simply manifestations of ways groups of humans have thought and acted. If sin has infected human affections, thoughts, and actions, then it will have infected human culture as well. But culture retains its goodness for theological reasons also. In the first place, culture is not just a human production. Culture results from humans doing things with the good creation that God made. We have music because God made the world to vibrate in certain ways. Farming techniques have developed the way they have because God designed soils and plants to develop in particular ways (cf. Isa. 28:23–29). Humans form governments because God designed humans to relate in ordered ways (as is demonstrated by His ordering of the family). All of culture is an instance of human interaction with a creation that God designed to work in certain ways. Thus the very creational structures that God planned are going to shape, in part, the development of cultures. Second, God graciously restrains sinners from being as bad as they might be and thus preserves much cultural good.[5] Third, in some societies the gospel has spread to such a degree that Biblical ways of thinking have influenced even unbelievers.

With these truths in mind, a Christian should therefore expect much to celebrate in the various cultures of the world. They are the creations of God’s image bearers as they interact with the creational structures that God has built into His world. Even parts of culture tainted with evil may still have a beauty that results from this (think of the architecture of pagan temples). But this very fact can make the evil that has infected God’s good creation even more seductive, so the Christian must continually guard himself against this seduction. A Christian must not naively assume that cultural practices are neutral and able to be filled with Christian significance or content if he chooses. A certain architecture or music or family structure or practice may in reality stand in contradiction to the Christian message.

As noted before, these issues cannot be decided in the abstract. Particular cultural practices must be understood and evaluated in light of Scripture. That is where the hard work begins. The goal of this article has been to provide some theological guidelines that will, hopefully, prevent an already difficult enterprise from beginning on the wrong foot.

Brian Collins has earned a PhD in theology from Bob Jones University Seminary and is a Bible integration assistant at BJU Press. He and his wife, Joy, are members of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2012. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 92. []
  2. Robert Redfield, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 132, cited in D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 2. []
  3. D. A. Carson believes this is implicit in H. Richard Niebuhr’s influential paradigm. Carson, 12. []
  4. For a discussion of different ways of using the terminology “cultural relativism,” see David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 122–23. []
  5. For Biblical support on this point, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 2: The Doctrines of Man, Sin, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 297–303. []

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