African believers rejected a missionary worship leader because of his guitar’s association with ‘satanic rock music’. Meanwhile, the missionaries rejected a local African drummer because of his instrument’s association with ‘demonic tribal rituals’. This true story demonstrates a dilemma of the gospel and culture.
Are the many extra-biblical Jewish traditions a hindrance to evangelism, or a ‘hook’ on which to explain the gospel?
When a culture requires drunkenness, is it better to avoid it, engage but abstain as a testimony, or identify by taking one drink? Should young believers identify with ‘druggy’ hip hop culture, or remain separate? When does a gift become a bribe in your business culture?
How should we witness to Moslems concerning Isa (Yeshua) in the Quran? The Quran on the one hand regards Isa as the “sinless prophet” who “heals the sick and raises the dead,” yet Moslems reject Him because for them “God has no sons.”
Today, the battle of the gospel and culture is the same: neither to compromise Scripture, nor to by-pass culture. This is complicated. “Culture” is hard to define and not a term found in the Bible, although the concept is there. The Scripture does give us some key principles:
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is the very heart of the gospel. Yeshua left heaven and entered the realities of Middle Eastern Jewish culture two thousand years ago, with the specific mission “to seek and save the lost” Luke 19:10. He grew up in Galilee, working as a carpenter and observing the Law as a religious Jew, in order to identify with those around him. We too are called not to be distant and super-spiritual, but to engage with the surrounding (flawed) culture. “The saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1) lived in an idolatrous city, yet had their home in heaven.
A few years later, the apostle Paul brought the gospel message to Gentile peoples of the Near East and Southern Europe (as well as to Jews there). Paul similarly adapted his lifestyle and message to the local culture, living amongst diverse peoples, becoming “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22) in order to reach the lost. In today’s complex and multi-cultural societies, we are presented with this same challenge.
Culture and Redemption
As high-ranking slaves transported to ancient Babylon, Daniel and his friends had a selective approach to the new culture. They accepted their new names, even though those names were connected with pagan deities, and so challenged their allegiance to the one true God. Meanwhile, they refused to eat meat associated with pagan worship.
There are elements of culture around us which we should not be too picky about and which may even be used for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Joseph married Asenath, meaning ‘gift of the sun god’, daughter of Potipherah, a pagan priest. Yet, their sons are included in the twelve tribes of Israel. On the other hand, in general the Scripture teaches us not to marry non-believers.
Some elements of culture are ‘redeemable’ – like a laptop computer which has fallen in the dirt, but can be recovered and cleaned up. Other elements are demonic – clearly and consistently contradicting Scripture and conscience – rather like a computer virus conceived purely for harm.
Engaging Culture, Uncompromising on Scripture
Neither Yeshua nor Paul compromised the Bible in their identification with, or adaptation to other cultures. In Athens, Paul quoted local poets and used one particular altar there as a ‘platform’ for his explanation of the “unknown God” Acts 17:23. In doing so, he built bridges based on local culture, without placing the living God on the same level as Athenian idols.
The challenge is for us to apply these same principles to the diverse cultures around us, for the sake of the gospel message and the Kingdom of God.
This article originally appeared on Revive Israel, June 15, 2020, and reposted with permission.