Cultural conditioning

The goal of an ambassador is to communicate between nations and cultures. As a Biblical ambassador, I seek to understand what the Bible said in its culture in order to speak to our culture, recognizing we are multicultural. God likes variety. He created variety, and I believe he takes delight in our cultural variety. Although the Babel story is judgment on evil, it leads to the good of cultural diversity with humans going throughout the whole earth.

Cultural arrogance
We suffer from cultural arrogance. Racism, sexism, classism, nationalism and colonialism are all variations on cultural arrogance. Wars come from cultural arrogance.

I learned Western Civilization in history, philosophy and theology. Then I taught in Zambia and Lithuania and encountered my ignorance of other cultural and Christian traditions. Now, ironically, in Iowa I am finding how little I know of Chinese culture.

Cultural communication
Culture keeps changing. Some changes may be due to human sin, but some are cultural development or just difference. Either way we need to address it.

Some deny the cultural conditioning of their own thought and of their understanding of the Gospel. Some ignore the cultural context of Scripture in its origins and in its on-going reception. This has led to many internal conflicts within the church. Some believe that “the truth once for all delivered to the saints” is ahistorical. But God does not work that way. God works in history with real culturally conditioned and varied people.

We need to look at our own cultural conditioning and seek to understand that of others. This requires hard work to pay attention to the water in which we swim. This requires love, respect and listening to those who are different from us and who may disagree with us. We need to be culturally humble.

Contextualization
Mission theory speaks about “contextualization without syncretism.” Contextualization is understanding how to speak the Gospel truth in a way that makes sense to the audience. Wise Christians do this throughout their life. Syncretism is to borrow uncritically things from another culture and add them to the Christian message or method. This damages the gospel. Contextualization can say, “Yes, and . . . ,” but also must at times say, “No, but . . . .” This can come from either side of the conversation, and it does need to be a conversation.

Points of contact
In Acts 14 when the people of Lystra tried to understand Barnabas and Paul in terms of Zeus and Hermes, Barnabas and Paul said, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (v. 15 NIV). In Acts 17 Paul addresses the Athenians, quoting one of their poets as a “point of contact” to bring the gospel.

In Acts 15 the Jewish Christian leaders had to listen to the Gentile Christians about not imposing their culture and traditions on everyone. Gentile Christians still had to respect some Jewish cultural aspects. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29a NIV). In I Corinthians 8 Paul then shows cultural flexibility on food sacrificed to idols.

Cultural humility
When speaking with those of other cultures without and within the church, we must humbly admit our own cultural conditioning and seek to understand others, especially when we address very difficult topics like women in church office and attitudes toward homosexuality. Cultural arrogance will destroy us.

“Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4 NIV). 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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