From every ethnicity, clan, and tribe to the nations of the world the cultures of the globe and the languages used to express them are intrinsic aspects of each group’s identity. To westernize these societies so they resemble mainline Christianity is to ask them to leave the community in which they knew a sense of belonging and acceptance to become marginalized and an outcast for nothing more than some misunderstood privilege of learning how to act “civilized,” to act British or like an American! As Andrew Walls remarked in The Missionary Movement in Christian History,
“This question is alive for Africans just as it was for Greek converts in the ancient Hellenistic world. Do we have to reject our entire history and culture when we become Christians?”
We are reminded of Acts 15 and that first Council at Jerusalem.
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:…” [vs. 28].
And the Church leaders then expressed a concern about any former religious ritual which had a non-christian meaning and would confuse any believer who hungered for God’s Truth in its place. Philip Jenkins, however, reminds us in The Next Christendom,
“That is not to say that there is no such thing as an unchanging “historic Christian faith,” but we must be careful to distinguish the core idea from the incidentals.”
To experience a sense of accomplishment in winning souls—as well as a sense that the pagan element has been successfully purged—missionary effort once confused westernization with evangelization. Yet it is well understood that the gospel message must transcend culture. Wearing a military uniform does not make one a soldier nor wearing a doctor’s scrubs does it make one a surgeon. Likewise teaching a non-christian culture to practice the rituals of the Western church does not make them Christian.
But what if pagan social practices come in conflict with the Christian faith. Should the indigenous pastor, for instance, be concerned about polygamy or nudity or the circumcision of girls—to name a few—when they encounter these? In the western world or, the so-called “Global North” castration and mastectomies of children (early teens), are becoming normal practices along with the enculturation# of transgenderism. Should Christians in an effort to evangelize be concerned?
Is the purity of the Christian message being adulterated with ideas that “cut” its efficacy? Is the light of the Church’s witness flickering and might it go out? Is the new convert’s ability to live a pure faith in Christ being challenged by such cultural norms? The Western church once defined what a Christian culture looked like because in most cases Christianity became the “state religion.” But now Western religion has to join the Global South in addressing culturally defined practices which, at the very least, stand to shock the sensibilities of the believer unprepared to deal with them.
But Christianity is more about a Christ-like character first and the expression of those qualities that represent it. Christianity is more about the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount than culture.
The “Beauty” of the Beatitudes is that they are the “core ideas” which have nothing to do with cultural norms but the quality of a pure Christianity, the Christian character that represents Christ to the world.
Any custom that confronts these inner qualities is immediately challenged by the heart and the convictions of the Believer who lives them. No tradition, observation, fashion, ritual or ceremony, religious or codified in secular law, formal or informal—whatever—will be ultimately accepted by the believer who is becoming a new person in Christ and who is guided by the conviction of the Spirit of God.
We “old” folk tend to put too much importance in a hymn book or organ—and I really do! But there is no ritual defined in Scripture in the life of the early church. It is as if I can still hear Paul caution us, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” [1 Corinthians 11:16].
But we have the Sermon on the Mount and it is to be lived. The Beatitudes give us our Christian identity!
#Not to be confused with inculturation which is the adaptation of christian practices to a non-christian culture. Both enculturation and inculturation represent a confusion of practices between Christian and non-christian practices.