Tue, 02/26/2008 – 21:39 — David Watson
One of the tragic errors of the modern church is the exporting of traditional Christian culture as if it were Biblical truth. Much of what has been taught in missions and church planting efforts over the past two hundred years has been about the culture of modern Christianity in addition to, and sometimes instead of, the Bible. It is startling how easily we pass on non-Biblical Christian/Church culture to new peoples, and do so in such a way that the force of our cultural teachings often exceeds the force of our Biblical teachings.
Following are some representative questions I have raised in my church planting seminars over the past 17 years for those from traditional church backgrounds.
Show me in the Bible where…
- it tells us to bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray.
- it tells us not to drink alcoholic beverages. (Before you blow a gasket, I am a teetotaler. But I use social, health, and economic reasons to support my stance, because I cannot in good faith use Biblical references to support it without taking them out of context.)
- it tells us not to dance. (Of course I know there is dancing that would not and/or could not bring glory and honor to God or the church, but does this mean all dancing is wrong? I know some of you would say “Yes” to this question, but the Bible teaches there is a time to dance. See Ecclesiastes 3:4; Jeremiah 31:4, 13.)
- it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to baptize a new believer.
- it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to serve the Lord’s Supper.
- it teaches that a person must be ordained in order to lead a church.
- it instructs us to perform ordinations.
- it instructs us to teach someone how to pray/speak in tongues.
- it tells us we have to dress in a special way to lead or attend the assembly of believers.
- it says that Church leaders or pastors have to be seminary or Bible school trained.
- it says that the pastor is the supreme leader of the church, or the only leader of the church.
- it says that one form of music is superior to any other form of music, or that some form of music is not acceptable for worship, or that a particular form of music is required for worship. (I teach no music when I am in a cross cultural setting as a church planter.)
- personal evangelism, as taught by most evangelical churches, is taught and/or outlined. (Just so you know, I make disciples through relationship and Bible study in family and/or affinity groups.)
- instructs us how to plan and perform a Christian wedding ceremony.
- instructs us how to plan and perform a Christian funeral.
- instructs us how to plan and perform how to do a baptism ceremony.
- it says the dead must be buried in the ground.
- it says one should have a bride price or should not have a bride price.
- it says that a man who has multiple wives before becoming a Believer should divorce all but one of his wives after becoming a Believer or in order to become a Believer. (The Bible does address church leadership roles for a man with more than one wife. The Bible contains numerous high profile cases of plural marriage. I believe the Bible teaches monogamy for life that is only dissolved when one partner dies.)
- it says a woman cannot be a leader of a church. (Yes, you can find one verse that says a woman should not teach a man. Since when do we base doctrine on one verse, in the face of many other verses that show women leaders and instruct women to pray and prophesy?)
This list can go on almost forever. When we take the time to analyze our practices in light of Scripture we begin to realize how much of what we do as Christians is in fact cultural, not Biblical.
Just because something is cultural does not make it wrong. What is wrong is to insist that others outside our culture must adopt our cultural aspects of Christianity in order to be Christian. Christian is defined by a faith and obedience relationship to Christ, not by adhering to Christian cultural practices.
We must not insist that new Believers, especially in cross-cultural situations, do things the way we do. The ONLY measure of faith and practice is the Word of God – not our traditions, not our theologies, not our doctrines, not our preferences, and certainly not our culture. If the Bible says to do it, we must do it. If the Bible says not to do it, we must not do it. All other cultural practices are acceptable. But what about the cultural practices that are in conflict with the Word of God?
All cultures have aspects that are very important to the culture, yet may be in conflict with or contrary to the Word of God. Culture is man-made, and therefore is highly subject to error, sin, and even evil. It is best that local Christians work to redeem their cultural practices that are in conflict with the Word of God. Some of these conflicts can be dealt with quickly. For example, if the culture practices plural marriages, then the practice must end for Believers who enter the church before having a pural marriage. We cannot change what has been done, but we must teach those who have not entered into pural marriages that this is not God’s plan for marriage.
But, what should be done about the marriage ceremony, or the funeral ceremony, or the naming of a newborn child ceremony, or rite of passage to adulthood that is steeped in local culture and may be contrary to the Word of God. In every culture these ceremonies are often directly related to cultural religious practices that are not Christian, and may be evil. Can we keep the form and change the content to bring it in line with Biblical Teachings? In this way the ceremony looks right to the local culture, but may feel a little awkward because of the content change. We redeem the cultural practices in order not to completely disconnect with the local culture and alienate the local population.
It is important that we teach these local Believers that what was redeemed in their culture must not be taught as a practice to other cultures. The “redeeming” part is taught, but not the practice that was redeemed. Passing on the redeemed practices to other cultures as if the practice is normative and Christian is what has gotten Christianity in the mess we are in today. This is how Christian Tradition was developed. And it is why our traditions are now hinder us from obeying the teachings of Christ.
I think that much of the Christian Cultural Practices that we use today were at one time of pagan origin. (George Barna and Frank Viola have just released a book on this topic titled Pagan Christianity, which I read after writing this post. I disagree, however, with their conclusion that we must abandon all practices of pagan origin. What we must do is not make these now Christian Traditional Cultural Practices a part of our teaching to new Believers in new cultures. This includes almost everyone who is currently outside the modern traditional church. But for those who were born and raised in the Christian Traditional Church, this is their culture and we should not insist they give it up, but they should recognize their culture for what it is.) The early Believers sought to keep their cultural practices and did a pretty good job of redeeming their local practices for the Glory of God. The problem came when these redeemed practices were taught as being essential Christian practices to the next generation of Believers and in the cross-cultural spread of the Christianity these redeemed practices were taught as necessary in order to be a Christian. This is why we have many practices in our religion that cannot be defended by the Word. They were redeemed practices of one culture that took on the force of being Christian and/or required in order to be Christian as Christianity moved to new cultures. Our early Christian forefathers took what they had redeemed in their own cultures and made them a matter for faith and practice for subsequent generations and cultures. They had not been taught that redeemed cultural practices stay at home, and only the Bible and its requirements are taken to others.
As cross-cultural workers it is our responsibility to redact our practices from our faith as taught by the Bible before we start new churches among other cultures. This is not easy. It must be done with prayer, insight, thought, and extreme commitment to the Word of God as our only measure for faith and practice.
From Beaumont, TX