Culture and Biblical Truth

This entry is part 20 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

When a missionary goes to another culture with the Gospel, he or she must learn to distinguish between biblical truth, which has authority over every culture, and cultural practices, which should be changed to adapt the church to each culture. There have been many heated debates about which beliefs go into which category.

Truth and Culture

It’s impossible to even be a Christian without believing in some biblical absolutes, but the church around the world also has many customs and practices that are cultural in origin. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact it is necessary for the church to be “incarnated” into each culture in a unique way. We must be careful not to attempt to impose ideas and practices that come out of our own background on Christians in other cultures.

We often do not realize how much of our Christian practice is based on cultural traditions rather than biblical revelation. For instance, can you find any scriptural warrant for the following customs?

  • The pastor should wear a coat and tie when he preaches, and stand behind a pulpit.
  • We should have communion on the first Sunday each month (rather than at some other time).
  • Offerings should be taken by passing a bag or plate up and down the rows in the congregation.
  • We should have Sunday School classes for various age groups before or after the worship service.
  • Children should not sit with their parents in worship, but have their own separate meeting.
  • Prayer meetings should be held on Wednesday nights.
  • We should have weekly meetings especially for prayer instead of incorporating prayer into our other meetings.

Holy BibleDepending on your church tradition, some of these may be considered inviolable rules, but none of them are required by scripture. The functions of preaching, communion, offering, teaching and prayer are essential to any church, but the specific way in which we carry them out is not mandated by the Bible. In fact, the practice of the first century church on many of these points was considerably different from our practice today. That’s not to say that we are doing anything wrong to have these customs, but only that none of these things are required to be doing church the “right way.”

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any absolutes. The theological truths and ministry principles of scripture are authoritative in every culture. The ethical teaching of the Bible is binding on all. The challenge comes when we try to determine what is a biblical absolute and what is culturally relative. To answer this question we must carefully study the scriptures and let it speak into our lives and culture with God’s authority.

Truth and Culture in a Chinese Church

In a mono-cultural church issues of truth and culture are often not raised at all, but in a bilingual Chinese church we encounter cultural differences every day. Should the pastor appear as a paragon of virtue and never reveal any weaknesses, or should he be open about his failings? Should church members dress up for Sunday worship in order to honor God, or should they dress casually because they are not trying to impress other people, and want seekers to feel at home? Our cultural background tells us the “right” way to do things, but we must be careful about making cultural preferences into biblical absolutes.

One example of cultural difference came up when we were trying to determine the pricing structure for our church retreat. Some of the EM co-workers wanted to charge the full cost of the retreat and then offer scholarships for those who couldn’t afford it. But the CM co-workers said that OBCs wouldn’t want to ask for a scholarship because it would be too embarrassing. Instead, they simply wouldn’t attend the retreat. The CM preferred to charge a lower price and take special offerings during and after the retreat to raise the money to cover the difference. The EM co-workers felt that repeatedly taking offerings to pay for the retreat would be offensive because it would make it look like the church was pressuring people to give. Everyone agreed that we didn’t want anyone to miss the retreat because of a lack of funds, but we had different ideas about how to solve that problem. In the end we compromised by meeting in the middle, still offering some scholarships, and taking some offerings.

There is a danger of spiritualizing our cultural practices in order to win the debate. In the example above, the CM could have said that they have more faith because they trust God to provide part of the retreat cost through offerings. The EM could argue that they were being good stewards of God’s money by not risking having the church stuck with a large deficit as sometimes happened in the past. Happily, in this case neither group tried to spiritualize the discussion. It is better to explore the cultural factors behind each position and see how we can work out a compromise that respects both cultures. To do this successfully requires a healthy dose of humility on the part of all concerned.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • Have you ever experienced a church conflict that was really more about cultural differences than about biblical truth?
  • What are some of the cultural differences in a Chinese church that most often lead to tension?
  • What suggestions do you have to help Chinese churches learn to distinguish biblical truth from cultural preferences?
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"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." -- C. S. Lewis