“They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.”
—The Epistle to Diognetus, “The Distinctiveness of Christians,” circa second century
It has been said that we do not have a ladder with which to climb out of our history, and it is true. We all are products of our respective cultures. This is reflected in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the holidays we celebrate, the music we listen to, the economic and political positions we hold, and countless customs we observe throughout each day.
The way we process information, ideas about liberty, assumptions about free will and human rights, access to knowledge, technological advancement, modes of communication, and modes of transportation among other things have had a profound impact on who we are as North Americans.
History also shapes church groups. Modern Pentecostalism emerged within a particular social, political, and religious context that was heavily influenced by democracy, the Holiness Movement, Methodism, African-American spirituality, Calvinist revivalism, the emergence of both liberal Protestantism and Fundamentalism, and a general sense of millennialism that prevailed at the dawn of the twentieth century. Not only so, but the United States’ history as a “Christian nation” can make it difficult for us to separate patriotism from faith. For example, it is common to see the national flag inside Oneness churches in the United States, a phenomenon rarely seen around the world. All these things are part of our culture.
All of these things shape who we are as Oneness Pentecostals. If the Azusa Street revival had occurred in Moscow or Frankfurt or Delhi or Bangkok or Buenos Aires or Manilla or Lagos, we would be different. Two sobering questions demonstrate this point: If you had grown up as a Hindu in Asia, would you be a Oneness Pentecostal today? If so, how would your views differ on political matters, economic matters, the United States of America, public expressions of worship, and standards for modest and gender-oriented clothing? Culture does matter.
Christians and culture
Christians have been called to separation from the world. (See I Corinthians 6:17; I Peter 1:16; I John 2:15-17.) Some, like the ancient ascetics and the more recent Amish, opted to form alternative cultures by completely withdrawing from the larger culture. But this does not seem to reflect a biblical perspective of mission.
Christians have also been called to love and witness in the world. The early church lived in a world in which the secular culture often was much more immoral than our own. Even so, there was no effort by the early church to cloister themselves away. To do so would have made it impossible to fulfill their mission. And though the early church had a strong sense of Christian ethics, they still had the understanding that they were to function in society. (See I Corinthians 5:9-10; 9:19-22; Titus 2:12.) Balancing the call to holiness with the demands of Christian love and witness can be challenging, but this is precisely what we have been called to do.
Determining the standard for authenticity
In this regard, the challenge for Christians is in determining what authentic Christianity looks like within a given culture. Even within a single culture there are differences of opinion as to what is culturally appropriate and what is not. This is complicated by the existence of numerous subcultures and the preference by some for one subculture over others.
There are two common responses to culture. I will present them in their extreme forms to illustrate the point.
Option A: Some look backward to a time when culture was supposedly better. They identify some period in the past as their Golden Age, and this era becomes the cultural standard. Everything that is subsequent is seen as inferior to the Golden Age. Many times those who take this approach are simply identifying with a cultural context which prevailed when they were in their prime, were converted, or otherwise felt a connection with culture.
This is why adults often prefer clothes, hairstyles, and music that they enjoyed at a particular point in the past, and sometimes have little tolerance for deviations from these standards. Young people rarely appreciate these choices, and the generational debates about these preferences reoccur with every generation.
This is also true for many concerning church culture. Some prefer the cultural expressions that were in the church at the time they were converted or when their church was founded. And although the culture at that time was merely a snapshot in time, it was part of the environment in which they encountered God’s grace. Accordingly, it is easy to combine the entire experience of conversion, early discipleship, and culture into one inseparable package.
Option A could be summarized with the following points:
Heritage is the driving force.
Tends to be disconnected with the present.
It is easier to preserve a unique identity.
Innovation is a digression from the Golden Age.
Focuses on a particular point in the past.
More stability, less innovation.
Cultural preferences have theological value.
Technology is an intrusion.
Change is compromise.
Option B: Others try to keep up with the latest in culture (typically popular culture). Their Golden Age is always the present. Those who try to keep up with culture tend to abandon older, traditional things as outdated and irrelevant. Although they can appreciate the past for its contribution, they logically reason that if past cultural norms were so great, they would still be norms. They also recognized that even past cultural expressions were once new, and hence the cycle repeats.
Those who embrace this approach are eager to experience new things including new styles of dress, modes of communication, and music. They acknowledge very little as being classic or timeless with regard to culture. In a church setting these are the first to rearrange the platform to make room for the latest musical equipment and lights. They would think nothing of wearing blue jeans to Sunday worship.
Option B could be summarized with the following points:
Current culture is the driving force.
Tends to be disconnected with past.
A distinct identity is more difficult to preserve.
The past is irrelevant.
Focuses on the present, which is dynamic.
Less stability, more innovation.
Cultural preferences are artistic and have relative value.
Technology is a tool.
Change is progress.
Some guiding principles
Although most of us tend toward one of the two options cited above, there usually is no need to fully embrace one of these positions in its extreme form. Here are some guiding principles that may help to avoid the extremes.
1. Doctrine and biblical principles apply to all people in all places at all times. Concessions can never be made to culture at the expense of clear biblical teaching.
2. We must distinguish between cultural preferences and doctrinal imperatives. Unless they clearly violate biblical principles, cultural issues should not be confused with theological issues. We all have our preferences, but these are not always synonymous with biblical decrees.
3. Everything that is acceptable at a cultural level is not necessarily conducive for a worship environment. Certain types of clothing, technology, and music that might be appropriate for entertainment or daily life may not be conducive in a worship setting. There should be a sense of the sacred in the meetings of the church.
4. We must grant liberty to those with different cultural preferences than our own. We cannot impose our cultural preferences on people. Foreign missionaries frequently face this challenge. For example, although they must teach principles of modest dress, they cannot insist that foreigners wear the same styles of clothing as we Americans. With the fragmentation of North America and the increase of multiculturalism, this will become more important even at home. (See Romans 14:15-20; Galatians 5:13; I Corinthians 6:12; 8:9-13; 10:23.)
5. Strive for relevance. Although overused, I think relevant is a good term. We need to be relevant to both the old and the new. We also need to make sure that we do not embrace mere cultural stances at the expense of isolating those to whom we have been called to minster.
This article was originally printed in the March 2009 Pentecostal Herald.
© Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rodney Shaw and rodneyshaw.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.