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"Christianity and Culture" (posted May 12, 2015)
I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.
- Acts 24:16
The atmosphere we live in is often called our culture. This term encompasses the values, preferences, and behaviors that collectively characterize a country, region, or society of people. Many details of our culture are simply an inescapable part of who we are. Things that are considered polite, proper, funny, rude, interesting, or important are all impressed upon us as we live in our own societies. Therefore, for example, some nationalities or ethnic groups are emotionally expressive while those from other regions tend to be more stoic or reserved; and there are many such characteristics that vary from one culture to another.
Many cultural norms, or typical behaviors, simply reflect basic ideas about life and are well suited for expressing Christian beliefs. In a society that values hard work, Christians can work as unto the Lord. In a culture that appreciates creativity, Christians can write poetry or produce art that glorifies God. In our families, our school and work lives, and our personal attitudes, Christians can display the beauty of Christ as we participate in our culture.
Culture can also influence the different ways Christians live out their faith. These differences can still be God-honoring even though they may seem unusual to other cultures. An enthusiastic style of Christian singing may seem improper to a believer who has grown up in a more reserved culture—just as the expressive believer might view classical-style hymns as cold and lifeless. Yet both individuals may well be singing to the Lord in a pure, selfless expression of worship. In some cultures, men and women sit separately in Christian meetings, while in others the entire family sits together. These cultural traditions are not detriments but merely facts about who we are and where we live.
Similar features of culture are illustrated by godly people in the Scriptures. When Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt, he lived according to Egyptian cultural norms. He accepted the honor that was appropriate to his position and worked to improve the prosperity of the country (Gen. 41:42-45; 47:20-26). His language and appearance were so thoroughly Egyptian that he was not at first recognizable to his family; and he also followed the conventional separation between Egyptians and Hebrews when it was fitting to do so (42:7-8, 23; 43:32-34; 46:33-34).
Similarly, when Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon, they excelled at learning its literature and knowledge, and they desired the good of the king (Dan. 1:20; 4:19). Later, under Persian rule, Mordecai followed cultural regulations against public mourning in the king’s courtyard (Est. 4:1-2). In the New Testament, Paul circumcised Timothy in order to remove a potential cause of offense to others, even though circumcision had been publicly declared unnecessary for Christians (Acts 15:5, 10-11; 16:3).
In these situations, God’s people not only lived within their culture but beautified it. They conducted themselves honorably, not merely out of respect for local customs but out of reverence for their Lord. Paul said, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). Godly people enrich their culture by their righteous integrity.
Yet the analysis of culture contains a warning as well, because culture often makes demands that exceed the bounds of godliness. Daniel refused to eat the king’s food because that would dishonor God (Dan. 1:8), and Mordecai refused to bow before the king’s nobleman, even though that was both rule and custom (Est. 3:2). In Paul’s time, Gentile believers were to shun the rampant sexual immorality that was acceptable in their cultures (Acts 15:20; 1 Thess. 4:3-4).
These facts reveal that Christians must use careful discernment about culture. It would be wrong to disengage from our culture, both because it is not the scriptural way and because it is not really even possible to do so. Yet it would also be wrong to believe that every aspect of our culture can be “Christianized,” because many aspects are directly opposed to God’s ways.
This assessment reveals the challenge of the Lord’s instruction to be in the world but not of the world (Jn. 17:6-18). For centuries, Christian gatherings have wrestled with the application of this precept. Some respond with the error of isolationism, which leads to a set of moral codes that demand something which God’s grace does not. Others err by assimilation, adopting present-day cultural attitudes because they view the Word of God as a relic of its own culture that must therefore be reinterpreted when times change.
The discerning Christian sees a more biblical response than both of these errors. Yet that discernment requires dependence on God and His Word, and therefore this approach to life is challenging, not simplistic. By the Holy Spirit’s guidance, however, the relationship between culture and faith can be lived out in ways that honor God among believers and unbelievers alike.