It is my intention in this article, to show the relationship between theological formation in the church and its particular culture and contemporary movements. By culture we mean the language, arts, habits, values, currency, and aspirations of a people group, a community, city or nation.
As a new Christian I thought the church just preached by and large what was plainly taught in scripture. But in 1995 through my reading of church history, I was shocked to find out how theologians and Evangelical Christian leaders in America abandoned societal reformation and changed their eschatological views from more of a postmillennial to a hyper dispensational pre-millennial view that emphasized the imminent return of Christ and the rapture. (Although the pre, mid and post tribulation rapture theory was unknown in church history prior to 1823 when it was introduced by Edward Erving, who was a teacher with a dubious reputation and known for extreme views based on visions and revelations, who received his view on the pre-tribe rapture through a vision and revelation by a lady, Margaret McDonald, who was attending his meetings (read the Rapture Plot by Dave Macpherson, chapter one).
To simplify what happened, preachers like Charles Finney preached and worked for societal reform (abolition, temperance, women’s suffrage), so that the Kingdom of God would be manifest on the earth as it is in heaven (Luke 11:2). After the horrors of the civil war, when 600,000 men were killed, the church got discouraged by the state of affairs, lost hope in bringing the Kingdom of God on earth in America, which made them open to the hyper pre-millennial view which emphasized the immanent return of Christ and the rapture. Thus, the shift in theology seemed to coincide with the civil war, which means that it wasn’t primarily the study of the Bible but the state of society and culture that influenced the belief system of the church and paved the way for the present dispensational nature of much of Evangelicalism the past 135 years. (And of course this has been primarily responsible for the church abandoning culture which explains how we presently see church attendance in America at an all time high, but morality and culture at an all time low!
Furthermore, this dispensational thinking has separated the cross from culture, the creator from redeemer, resulting in a false dichotomy between the spiritual and material world in which the church only tries to win souls for heaven and leaves the stewardship of the earth to the secularists! This teaching is also responsible for peripheral movements and teachings like the one Harold Camping of family radio, who once said that the world will end and Christ will return on May 21st 2011. Of course, when this didn’t happen on May 22nd these false prophets were not held responsible for their erroneous theology. Many like him will merely say they made a mistake in their calculations and they will propose another date!
Of course, the church is called to flesh out the teachings of scripture by their participation in culture, so that biblical application is a combination of theological exegesis and cultural engagement, but the primary doctrines and truth of scripture are universal in nature and should not shift with a changing culture. For example, the Deity of Christ, salvation by the vicarious death, burial and resurrection of Christ, heaven for the believers, condemnation for the damned, and even the gender roles of family as shown in Ephesians 5:22-33, are grounded in the created order, not in culture. According to 1 Corinthians 10:8 the husband as the leader of the family is grounded in the created order, not culture. In spite of this, today more and more evangelical leaders are calling for an egalitarian view in the family and church as related to spiritual headship, but this is driven more by culture than the Bible.
Especially as it relates to charges that Paul’s epistles are not relevant today because he was a sexist speaking from the context of a patriarchal culture. A charge he refutes in 1 Corinthians 10:8 and 1 Timothy 2:12-14; egalitarian use of Galatians 3:28 in regards to there being no male or female has to do with their equal, legal standing in Christ, but exegetically does nothing to override these other passages regarding male leadership in the home and church. Although female leadership is absolutely biblical and necessary to reflect God’s image according to Genesis 1:27 for His Dominion according to Genesis 1:28.
Furthermore, process theology has invaded the church in many forms, with its inherent teaching that the gospel and biblical teaching are always evolving with the progress of culture, even as God is always learning with the unfolding of time. (Thus process theology is a form of cosmic evolution and is the kissing cousin of Open Theism which teaches that God doesn’t even know some aspects of the “unknowable” future.) Although we need to stick to the core message of scripture in spite of our cultural context, we also have to relate the gospel to our particular culture in order for the people to understand it and receive it. Much of the time people are not rejecting the core gospel but the cultural accoutrements we attach to the gospel.
For example, a historian I know once said that some of the reasons Christianity lost North Africa to Islam is because Western culture, language, values, and methods were forced upon the churches and when Islam came, it adopted its message and method to the African culture which made it more amenable for new converts. We even see much legalism attached to the gospel, especially among the ethic Pentecostal groups in which a woman is not allowed to wear pants, earrings or make up, and is not allowed to cut their hair, which has hindered these groups in passing down the faith to the next generation, because young people do not connect these rules and regulations with authentic Christianity as well as the fact that they do not want to be ostracized by their peers for their weird dress code and austere lifestyle!
We also have to distinguish between certain aspects of a culture that are not harmful to biblical belief and can assimilate into Christian faith. Cultural aspects like food, modest dress, language, monetary currency and mode of work can easily be assimilated with a gospel presentation without compromising the message, but other aspects of a culture may be a challenge to biblical norms and values. For example, tribal people in Papua New Guinea were shocked to find out that Christian missionaries taught against cannibalism because the indigenous people thought it much better for their family members to eat the bodies of their loved ones who died than to bury them, and allow worms to eat them! (Read the Gospel in a pluralistic society, pg 185 by Lesslie Newbigin.)
Also, people in India who practice the ancient ritual of Sati (when a wife is burned alive next to her dead husband’s body), think this practice demonstrates a woman’s devotion to her husband better than anything in other cultures!
Presently, the church in parts of Africa are grappling with the issue of polygamy with members of their congregation because, they say, what’s more ungodly, separating a woman and her children from their husband and father and leaving them on their own, or allowing the family to stay together? The woman got married in good faith and if they are sent away the woman will have no other way to make a living but to turn to prostitution! These Africans can also say to us in the West they have a more biblical culture because, at least they are honoring lifelong covenants and partnerships. But we in the west who believe in monogamy think nothing of breaking the marriage covenant through divorce and may even get remarried. Thus destroying families, even though it is only done one spouse at a time! (1 Timothy 3:2 says that the standard for an elder of a church should be that they are the husband of one wife, which shows that the biblical standard changed from the Old Testament in which the kings and patriarchs often had polygamous relationships, but is this a standard that should be enforced for everyone who attends the church or just those who aspire to eldership?)
It takes much biblical and cultural exegesis, as well as prayer, to know how to proceed in such situations! The easy thing to do would be for the church to allow a form of syncretism in which there is a combination of Christianity, tribal religions, and cultural traditions. Sort of like what has been reported the Catholic church has done in some places in Haiti, when some of the native peoples attend the Catholic Mass while continuing to practice voodoo, or as is done in some Latino cultures when they practice both Roman Catholicism and magic arts called Santeria. However, God is against any form of syncretism and will have no other gods besides Him! (Read 2 Kings 17; 32-45, 1 Corinthians 10:20-22.) We cannot worship the Lord and serve idols or demons!
We have also experienced a certain form of syncretism when the minority communities in America equated the Christian led, civil rights movement with the democratic party and those who are a part of the Christian right have married their faith to a nationalistic dedication to America and the republican party. During WW1 the churches in Europe were so caught up in nationalism, they all sided against one another based on who their nation was at war against! We also saw many German churches join the national socialistic party of Adolf Hitler even though he was advocating the genocide of non-Germans! In the last presidential election Barack Obama received almost 90 percent of the Black vote, even from among many Evangelical conservative leaders who knew Obama was a left leaning progressive who espoused values totally against the Bible. What’s the reason for this compromise? Not the Bible, but culture!
Truly, culture trumps vision, mission and even the anointing! Jesus even said that the traditions of men nullify the word of God (Mark 7:13).
In conclusion, if the church is going to be an effective witness for Christ, we have to exalt the universal truth of Scripture and exalt Christ as Lord of all even over our ethnic and national culture. While it is very difficult to take ourselves out of our culture to critique it (one person said it is like trying to push a bus while you are sitting in it!), because even our minds, values and language has been shaped by our culture and creates the lens by which we read and interpret scripture. We have to trust in the teaching of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds and give us God’s perspective on public policy and theology, so that we are not captivated and led by the sinful and selfish torrents of culture and humanity, instead of being led by the One who made us and saved us to be His witnesses to the world. We may not be able to separate religion from culture or culture from religion, but we can separate ourselves to God in holiness and be His mouthpiece to the nations of the world, even as He called the prophet Jeremiah to accurately deliver what He had seen from God (read Jeremiah 1).
Finally, we have to trust that the gates of hell will not overcome the church (the gates of hell are the pinnacle and power base of a culture, i.e. The White House), but we, following the Scriptures and the leading of Lord trust in Jesus who is the One True Light that gives light to every man coming into the world, a light that transcends culture, because He is the One who created the humanity that frame culture (John 1:9-10).
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