As our world becomes increasingly globalized and polarized, most of us feel the tension between cultures, our own and those foreign to us. Do we believe our own nation is the best in the world? Do we work to understand cultures other than our own?
As Christians, we face questions with an even greater impact. Is our nation a “Christian nation”? If not, should we be living contrary to our own culture? If so, should we be spreading our culture beyond our borders, as a way of improving others? If our nation is the best, then we should share it with others, right?
As Christians, we understand these questions have a deeper impact than just relationships between people because they apply to how the Gospel is treated across cultural borders. Do we render the Gospel offensive by adding our own cultural biases to the message?
Jesus shared the Gospel in a way that broke barriers and crossed borders. And His gospel did this not by enforcing one culture, but by transcending culture completely.
For example, He gave a parable that painted Samaritans in a better light than the Jewish religious leaders (Luke 10:25-37).
He intentionally traveled through Samaria, a country those in His culture avoided because they considered it inferior to their own (John 4). While there, He ministered to a Samaritan woman who asked Him specifically about cultural differences. He waved these differences aside for what was more important, the Gospel (John 4:19-24). Jesus did not come to correct her culture, but to correct her heart.
On Mars Hill, Paul used the Athenians’ religious culture as a starting point for the Gospel (Acts 17:22-28). He did not shame the Greeks for their ignorance; instead, he told them what they were missing.
And as Gentile believers were added to the Jewish believers, Paul was adamant that they not be required to move into a different culture to follow Christ. When the Jewish congregation attempted to separate from the uncircumcised Gentiles, Paul reminded them that God works beyond the constraints of culture (1 Cor. 7:18-20).
In fact, Paul wrote, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19). The cultural connotations of circumcision were not as important as the work of God and the unity of the body of Christ.
Modern Christians face this problem just as the early church did. A Christian from the U.S. might face this for the first time when travelling to visit other Christians.
Perhaps the music from her church is played only on a piano, but a church she visits in another country uses traditional drums in its worship. Perhaps her church stands with hands lifted in reverence to pray or sing, but those in the foreign church move to the music and lift loud voices in unison during public prayer.
Modern missionaries deal with cultural differences on a daily basis. For example, a missionary from the U.S. must decide whether to bring his piano or modify his hymnbook to include the traditional drums.
Christians are a “peculiar people” because we follow a culture that is in this world, but not of it (Deut. 14:2, John 17:14-16). This culture, whether it be in schools, churches or other communities, offers us the privilege of showing how God is glorified through unity in diversity. There is no better place to see diversity than in the body of Christ when following God’s commands.
We have the opportunity and responsibility to continue the ministry that transcends cultures by sharing the Gospel that breaks down barriers. And in so doing, we will be like our Savior, who draws all people to Himself (John 12:32).