THE BIBLE IS MULTI-CULTURAL
The Bible is a cross-cultural (cc) training document. It has the only absolutes that we possess. A member of any culture can use it safely to relate both to God and to fellow humans.
Ted Ward, a missiologist, has said that commonalties outweigh differences among people. We are more alike than dissimilar. The image of God rests on all people (Gen. 1:27). All people have a longing for eternity in some form, for instance (Eccles. 3:11). God has given people consciences, which reflect another attribute shared with God, morality (Rom. 2:14-15). Humans also love, which reflects God (1 John 4:8). People also have an aesthetic sense--we appreciate sunsets and art. We enjoy beauty because God made that beauty. He himself is beautiful (Ps. 27:4). He is extravagant with that beauty, creating flowers that none will ever see but Himself. We have highly developed symbolic language. Animals communicate, but not through symbols.
The principles of Scripture are intended by God to be used by persons of any culture in relation to other persons of any other culture or subculture. Otherwise, it would be good for only Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures.
THE BIBLE IS ABOVE CULTURE
The Bible is above culture, since it stands to judge any culture. There are elements of "common grace" insights that even pagans enjoy. The Greek poet Aratus wrote, accurately, "We are his [God's] offspring." (Acts 17:28). He referred to Zeus, but the statement is true of Deity (F.F. Bruce, 1954, The Book of the Acts, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Mich., p.360). Non-believers may discover truth and employ correct principles, reaping their benefits. Many Chinese model principles for generating income in Proverbs and are financially successful. God reveals much about Himself, such as His "eternal power and divine nature" (Rom. 1:20), but even this is "suppressed", or consciously denied by godless people (Rom. 1:18 NIV).
A culture may reflect God's principles of hospitality to strangers (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:10; Heb. 13:2), for instance. It may have strong taboos against embarrassing anyone ("face" saving, 1 Cor. 13:4), but may allow parents to invade and control the marriage of a son or daughter (Eph. 5:31).
Scripture stands in judgment of culture, not culture over the Bible. Jesus declared that the cultural assertions of Samaritans regarding the place to worship to be absolutely wrong (John 4:19-22). Paul wrote, "Even one of their own prophets has said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith." (Tit. 1:12-13). However, in the same chapter, Paul gave behavioral guidelines for the selection of elders, which were in complete harmony with those given to Timothy for other cultures, illustrating absolute moral criteria (Tit. 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Whenever culture and Scripture conflict, culture must be judged. Democratic societies operate on majority consensus, or majority morality (sociological "truth"). Perhaps the greatest hermaneutical challenge today is at this point: What in the Bible was the result of cultural conditioning and what is enduring to all generations and peoples? Not a few, for example, believe that a woman should teach men in the church today, despite 1 Tim. 2:12, since, we are told, women were domineering a local church and it was simply a local problem, confined to one time and culture. However, Paul's reasoning in his prohibition goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, to the origin of gender relationships, which suggests a larger application of his words (1 Tim. 2:13-14).
The issue of polygamy is similar. Those opposing it go to Gen. 2:24, where one man and one woman become "one flesh" (cf. Matt. 19:5), which is the clearest and most authoritative teaching. Some believe that polygamy is valid in the church today, as for instance Father William Knipe, an American Maryknoll missionary in East Africa ("'Africanizing' the Church", Newsweek 126(14): 56, Oct. 2, 1995). God did seem to sanction polygamy in the Old Covenant (2 Sam. 12:8).
As Marvin K. Mayers has pointed out, missionaries are change agents (Christianity Confronts Culture, Zondervan, 1987, p. xiv). They have stopped widow burning in India, the killing of twins in Africa, and prostitution in Hawaii. They have introduced hospitals and education and dignity for women. In thousands of ways Christians have been salt and light in culture, exposing darkness and preserving the good.
God is both able and willing to reveal errors in our understanding (Phi. 3:15). The Word of God, "is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Heb. 4:12). However, understanding God's mind involves nonconformity to the prevailing unchristian worldview (Rom. 12:2). A culture will be as Christian as its people have been permeated with biblical truth.
I. The Bible is Multi-Cultural and Above Culture
© Copyright Jim Sutherland, 1/2/1998; Used with permission.
You can send questions and responses to the author at Jim@reconciliationNetwork.org.
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