Understanding the Relationship between Christianity and Culture: Practical Applications

Manuscript 1998
Tags: Christianity and culture; Christian liberty; Ministry; Intercultural communication
Excerpted from A Christian Perspective on the Generation Gap


Geographic Application

Paul’s writings teach us that we ought not consider our own culture to be inherently superior to any foreign culture. Paul deals at length with the subject of cultural differences in 1 Corinthians 9.

Biblical Text

1 Corinthians 9.18-23
18
What is my reward then? [Verily] that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
19 For though I be free from all [men], yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all [men], that I might by all means save some.
23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with [you].

Context

This text belongs to a lengthy discussion of Christian liberty (1 Cor 8.1-11.1). Christian liberty denotes the balance of freedom and responsibility that the Christian must observe in the exercise of his or her faith. Chapter 8 deals with principles of Christian liberty, applied to the first-century controversy of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Chapter 9 consists of a discussion of the personal freedoms Paul denied himself so as to further the work of the churches. Chapter 10 concerns the misapplication of Christian liberty in the specific area of idolatry.

Exegesis

The primary focus of the text seems to be evangelism, and thus it includes numerous references to the communication of the gospel:

  • “preach the gospel” (9.18)
  • “the gospel of Christ” (9.18)
  • “my power in the gospel” (9.18)
  • “that I might by all means save some” (9.22)
  • “this I do for the gospel’s sake” (9.23)

In the interest of propagating the gospel freely, Paul exercised a high degree of personal discipline. He had determined that his dietary choices would not be a hindrance to anyone’s spiritual progress (8.13; 9.4). He had forfeited the right to marry (9.5). He had refused to take financial support for his ministry activities though it would have been perfectly appropriate for him to do otherwise (9.6-14). In sum, he was willing to forego many liberties in many situations (9.15).

Paul believed that Christian liberty had to be constrained by a motivation of service to others. Since he considered himself a slave to all people (9.19), he purposely sought to identify with various social groups—Jews, Gentiles, and the weak in conscience (9.20-22). His purpose was to evangelize the lost and to bring the saved to maturity in Christ. Personal liberties mattered little in the presence of these higher priorities.

Paul understood that he possessed great liberty in Christ (6.12). Yet he was committed to sacrificing his own right to choose for the sake of bringing glory to God (10.31). Thus Paul offers the following perspective on liberty in non-moral areas: While Christ has given us spiritual freedom from the bonds of legalism, the cultural circles in which we attempt to minister often impose certain restrictions on us. We should willingly accept such limitations. Paul summarizes this view of life quite aptly: “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: even as I please all [men] in all [things], not seeking mine own profit, but the [profit] of many, that they may be saved” (10.32-33).

Practical Notes

There are necessarily some limitations to the restriction of personal liberty. For example, it is impossible to submit to everyone’s cultural scruples at the same time. Lowery (1983) notes that “Paul’s condescension to the scruples and customs of all men . . . found application on a momentary case-by-case basis since it would be impossible to satisfy simultaneously the penchants of both Jews and Gentiles alike” (p. 525). He also observes:

Paul did not say that a knowledgeable Christian must abandon his freedom to the ignorant prejudice of a “spiritual” bigot. The “weak brother” . . . was one who followed the example of another Christian, not one who carped and coerced that knowledgeable Christian into a particular behavioral pattern. (p. 522)

Historical Application

Grunlan & Mayers (1988) describe the indissoluble bond between Christianity and culture:

Although we refer to Christianity as biblical Christianity, we must realize that it is never found apart from a culture; it is always a part of a culture. The Christianity of the New Testament was a part of the culture of the Greco-Roman world of the first century. Today we find American Christianity, Colombian Christianity, and Nigerian Christianity. There is no such thing as plain Christianity. Christianity always expresses itself through a culture. It is unique in that it can be expressed equally well in any culture. It is the one religion that can meet people’s needs in any society. (p. 230)

The fact that the outward appearance of Christianity differs from place to place is substantiated both by the New Testament as well as the history of missions. As Christianity’s external form varies from country to country (i.e., across geographic distances), so it does from generation to generation (i.e., across historical spaces). Thus we may expect that the presence of different generations in the church will engender some cultural differences. Many of these revolve around the issue of tradition, to which we now turn our attention.

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