Is there a conflict between Christianity and culture

[notice] Part 1 of a 2-part series by Port Elizabeth pastor, Afrika Mhlophe
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Tallin, the capital city of Estonia is Europe’s capital of culture for the year 2011. A European city gets this honour for one calendar year from the European Union and in that period it has the responsibility to organise a series of cultural events with a strong European dimension.

“I believe it is God who created culture but, just like everything He has made, culture needs to be redeemed.”

I am in this city for the second time this year and I have already witnessed the pride the locals have in their culture and customs. They are a population of about 1,3 million but the pride they attach to their language, festivals, etc. will make larger nations envious. This country has had to endure over 700 years of colonial rule by different foreign governments and it is only in 1994 that they were freed from Russia, the last colonial ruler. This obviously is not dissimilar to South Africa’s own history.

This country also has the honor of being the most wired nation on earth. There are few places here where you cannot access the internet. Free wireless internet is available even in buses and boats. This is also the nation that gave the world the innovation called Skype, the application that enable us to make free and cheap voice and video calls over the internet. So you could say people here have a lot to be proud about. There is something else that some people here are proud about, of which they shouldn’t. They are proud that their country is one of the most irreligious nation on earth. Does culture, therefore, play a role in causing people to be closed to the gospel?

One morning while visiting one of the churches here we ran into a traffic jam caused by people attending something called a “Bread Festival.“ That’s right, a festival dedicated to showing different types of bread. The church we attended had no more than 40 people in attendance, far less than those who were at the Bread Festival. There are actually about 12 000 Christians in the entire country.

If you were to look at the broad definition of the word “culture“ then you would be hardpressed to apportion blame to it for people’s resistance to the gospel. Culture has to do with behaviors and beliefs that characterise a particular group. Changes to that group may also spell changes in their culture or at least how that culture is practiced.

I submit therefore that every group has a culture. There is a culture in business, youth, academia, politics, church, and of course within different ethnic groups. To make things even more interesting, within certain “cultures“ there are also “sub-cultures“. This is when a group within a specific “culture“ adopts certain behaviors that delineates it from the rest of the group.

I believe it is God who created culture but, just like everything He has made, culture needs to be redeemed. I do not believe that God wants us to forsake our unique and individual cultures and become part of a universal and uniform culture. God celebrates diversity but we need to be careful when that diversity is hijacked by those with nefarious motives.

The hijacking of culture may give birth to feelings of superiority in those who feel that they have a more “evolved“ culture in comparison to others. It may also give birth to cultural “pride“ wherein its adherents insist on practices that do not help to foster unity between the different races.Another by product of the hijacking of culture is the introduction of demonic practices that some African communities engage in.

Is it possible to be a Christian and still practise your culture? Yes it is if you practice parts of your culture that glorify God. There are people who are called Messianic Jews because they are Jews who believe in the Messiah. They don’t need to lose their Jewishness but are suppossed to elevate the Messiah above their Jewishness.

In the book of Acts when an argument arose about whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to attain salvation the apostles concluded that the Gentiles need not be circumcised but needed to lose practices that did not glorify God (Acts 15). People here can therefore have all the festivals that celebrate their culture so long as those festivals and cultural practices do not separate them from Christ.

Christ remains a rock of offence and there is no middle ground with Him. You are either for or against Him. A conflict therefore exists between Christianity and culture if culture seeks to exalt itself as being more important and legitimate than Christianity.

14 Comments

  1. Hi Afrika, thank you for this interesting article. I studied a BA degree in Media, Communications & Culture and have done a few of talks on ‘Culture’, ‘Kingdom Culture’ & the redemption of cultural traditions etc. And so I have enjoyed your insight on this topic. As Christmas draws near, perhaps I can ask you to share your thoughts on the anti-Christmas sentiments that some Christians express based on the seasons cultural traditions & possible roots? Do all of the ‘parts’ of Christmas bring glory to God? Does Christmas need redemption in our culture? My bias as a starting point- Col 2:16-17 (ESV) says; ‘Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’.
    How would you respond?

    I trust your travels are blessed and I look forward to visiting your church when you are back in town.
    In His Service
    Gareth Hogg

    • Hi Gareth,

      Thanks for taking the time to engage with this topic. Wow the issue of whether or not to celebrate Christmas, that is a very interesting one. I personally do not celebrate Christmas but I do not condemn who do. The reasons for my indifference is because I am not sure what exactly I should celebrate. I know it is about the birth of our Lord and everything but it is difficult for me to ignore the questions around its pagan origions. However I have been impressed with those who have that season to win souls to the Lord. Afterall there are people who only go to church in Easter and Christmas. Another reason I don’t celebrate is because I am careful of idolatry or meaningless symbolism. It is the presence of the risen Christ I want to celebrate and honour and not that of a baby whose date of birth is a matter of guess work. Another reason is because the Bible does not sanction this celebration. We don’t hear of the early church doing it. Feasts that God sanctioned for OT Israel (Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost)pointed to God’s dealing with them. In other words they had a real meaning. Parents could narrate to their children what happened and how. If we narrate the story of Jesus’ birth to our children we need to put a disclaimer that says (we cannot say for sure when he was born but His birth was as follows – as Matthew puts it 1:18). It is also difficult to ignore the commercialization of Christmas. Everyone gets a gift except the Person whose birthday it is. This is an anomaly. In December we loose more people in car accidents than any season. Does this not point to a demonic force at play? Another interesting point is why don’t we celebrate pentecost. This is when the Holy Spirit was poured into the earth. We could ask God for a fresh outpouring. The festive season is a good time to rest and reflect on the year that was but is there anyone who could claim to have had a new encounter or has met the Lord in a new way on Christmas Day. Most of our Christmas celebration include a lot of glutonous behavior that involve a lot of endless eating and indulgences. And of cause unnecessary debt. If we did not shop, did not eat as much but stretegised to introduce people to our Saviour then I would say we have redemeed Christmas. Again I would not condemn someone who celebrates Christmas. It is not a matter that should separate us but just a matter of choice. I look to forward to come back to SA and I will be back the first Sunday in December in the church. Looking forward to see you.

      Afrika

  2. I do not believe Christianity is against any Culture but I do know that some Spirituality elements of certain Cultures are contrary to the Word of God and thus are in conflict with Christianity. As an African who has gone through many traditional rituals such as Rites of passages etc. I know for a fact that those practises are in direct conflict with many scriptures in the Bible.There’s lots one can say in this regard but one thing I can say is that the Holy Spirit is the One who reveals all truth about ‘demonic’ cultures and I’ve chosen to believe Him.

    • Hi Kasta,

      Thanks for your input. You and I have often discussed the need to expose the demonic issues that have infiltated cultural practices. People should know that culture itself is not demonic but there is a presence of the demonic in all our cultures. Whatever is not of or for Christ is against Christ so if something contradicts the Word then it is wrong.
      Thanks

  3. i have been hardpressed to apportion blame to it but based on this, i am now convinced that culture is a choice of an activity that tends to please and make us feel good only if we use it to glorify GOD TO let others know and accept HIM as their god

    • Hi James,

      Everything is be done to the glory of the Lord. Everything we do will only find its truest meaning and fullest expression if it is aligned to the God who gave it us for our enjoyment. Solomon’s conclusion, after he allowed himself to taste and indulge in everything, is that man’s duty is to fear the Lord and to keep His commandments (Eccl 12:13).

      Thanks,

  4. I do agree with the notion that Christianity is opposed to any culture. It only opposes those element that are ungodly. This raises a question of belief system. Belief system are embedded in culture. These beliefs have been refined and certain practices have been developed and accepted over time. Hence when Christians encounter these practices and oppose them are seen to be opposing culture. Case and point, African cultural practices that have been mentioned above.

    We would short-sighted if we limit ourselves to cultural practice that honour or not, God. Hence redeeming of culture is important. In redeeming culture, Christians need to know how to deal with belief systems that underpins the culture. Let me take you to my culture as a Xhosa man for illustration. Our belief system is worship of ancestor, which is opposed by scripture. This belief is in everything do. From the birth of a child, into teenage hood, marriage and deal with death. There are practice we have developed that celebrate these stage and events of life which incorporate worship of the dead. So it will take forever to try and address every practice. Rather change the belief system and in turn the practices will be easier to change.

    History has given us an example. Paganism Europe have been reduce to almost non-existance because of arrival of Christianity. Of cause now there are movement that are reviving those beliefs. Christianity needs to recapture that aggressiveness, without repeating the mistake of crusader.

    The twenty-first century is bringing new challenges. The world is a global village. So these belief system are no longer limited to ethnicity or geographical location. Today people borrow from different ideologies and belief and make their unique blend. But the principle is same of deal with them.

    In one word, lets deal with belief system that underpin the culture. Hence the bible talks about the heart.

    Thank you Afrika for this thought provoking article. Blessing to you.

    • Hi Sabelo,

      Now the angle you took on this subject is a very important one. In fact I was planning to raise these similar issues in my subsequent posts on this same subject. You are right, before we get preoccupied with individual practices, let us focus on what underpins those beliefs and practices. How people celebrate and observe important milestones in their lives says a lot about their belief system.
      Thank you

  5. Yes, I agree that the gospel both affirms and contradicts every culture, including Western culture. Your culture is to you like water to a fish. It is therefore very difficult to “evaluate” your own culture in terms of the gospel. For you, your culture is just the way things are. You need to listen to Christians from other cultures and viewpoints to see what contradicts the gospel in your own culture. This is an ongoing process, because culture is bever static.

    • Hi Danie,

      It is true that culture is not static. I think the fact that it is difficult to “evaluate” your own culture means we should then be sensitive not to interprete the gospel through the goggles of our own cultures.

      Thanks,

  6. Thank you for writing on this very important issue.In our organisation we define culture as ” the way we do things here.”
    The outworking of culture is determined by our beliefs.
    Its very important for us to understand different cultures. The early missionaries in some parts of africa gave children hidings if they did not wear clothes. Afterall godly people wore clothes. That belief was culture biased and had nothing to do with true biblical understanding..
    People often judge different cultures from these and make judgement calls without understanding the culture. They then spiritualise the judgement they have made.
    You use the example of the bread feastival then make a comparison to the few people in church.We should ask the question why?I like the saying that says” Geared to the times BUT anchored to the rock.
    I look forward to your second article

    • Hi Ian,

      You are right about the issue of cultural biasness and that we can unfairly judge people because they do not act in a way that is consistent with our culture. The sad thing is when we accuse people of disobeying Scripture when they are actually contradicting our cultures. I remember how I almost I unfairly judged some of my friends in Europe when they would act in a way that is contrary to my expectations that are actually based on my culture. For instance when we as Africans have visitors we tend to fuss around them and do everything to make sure they are comfortable. We take them out, entertain them, and regularly check that they are alright. I did this when these collegues would visit. However when I would visit I wouldn’t experience the same. I realise that this is not about the issue of who loves or cares more than who but really a matter of culture. They book me accommodation and leave me to have independence and space which we can sometimes interpret as coldness. It is all culture and has nothing to do with lack of brotherliness, so I have ultimately learnt.
      Thank you.

  7. Wow i’ve also written an article like this,very profound mfundisi.

  8. I echo the same opinion that God is does not oppose culture but rather those aspects of culture that exalts themselves above and against the Knowledge of Christ (2 Cor 10:5) . Culture is said to be a consensus way of doing things, based on what? this is where it gets interesting. The basis of our agreement on how we do things and live our livesas a that particular group of people are governed by what or rather by who is the question at hand. I personally think that culture is a narrowed down and convinient way of living our lives in a particular setting as a particular group of people. Therefore my opinion is that we won’t be judged by our various cultures but by the supreme Word of God. Which in it’s nature holds a common culture for all mankind regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and all that diversify us. So ideally Gods suggested ways of living should be culture to us.