Christ vs culture

When I first became a Christian and went to a Protestant church, I noticed two things: one was that the church buildings were very small compared to Catholic churches, and the other was that everyone was different to me: they were in the main Anglo-saxon. Over the last 15 years, I have spent time in six churches, and our church buildings are still too small, and most of the people inside them are still Anglo-saxon.

The question is rightly asked, “Why is it that cultures that are statistically represented in the community are absent from our congregations?” In spite of Australian immigration policy since the 1930s, which attracted hundreds of thousands to our shores, very few have been attracted to Christ. What is clear is that, with the exception of Chinese churches, most evangelical churches are from English or Northern European backgrounds. The popular assumption is reinforced: the gospel of Jesus Christ is a white Anglo-saxon construction. It’s for ‘wasps’ and not for ‘wogs’.

Why have we made no serious impression?

Why have Christians made no real inroads into the migrant communities? There are many possible reasons, but there is one in particular I want to address.

A lot of our immigration since the 1930s has come from southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Philippines and South America. When it comes to religion, these cultures are either Catholic or Orthodox.

On the whole, evangelicals have been overly concerned about offending cultures, and too willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. We have failed to ask of Catholicism and Orthodoxy the hard questions that we ask of each other. We would never assume that an Anglican or Baptist is saved merely by his denominational tag, nor by the fact that he agrees to a few select doctrines. We see among some groups a zeal for God, but do not ask if it is zeal with knowledge. In practice, we have behaved like the false prophets in Jeremiah, declaring “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 8:11).

What if we were to come clean and label Roman Catholicism and the various ethnic Orthodox churches as non-gospel and therefore non-Christian? Would we at last make it a priority to evangelize them? Or would we be guilty of arrogantly standing over another cultural expression of Christianity? Wouldn’t all this theological bravado smack of classic Anglo-saxon imperialism and deny some basic biblical issues of grace and unity?

We need to turn to Scripture to see that the gospel of Jesus Christ stands over every culture and subculture.

Paul in Athens

In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul finds himself in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy. As he walks around this city with its great cultural heritage, he is upset at the extent of idolatry. Before long, he is invited to speak at the Areopagus, the original ‘marketplace of ideas’—the centre of first-century infotainment, the ancient equivalent of a gathering of CNN news junkies.

Paul starts from where they are at. He acknowledges that they are a religious people, even if they ultimately worship what they do not know. He then tells them of the God they can know—his God.

In Athens, we see a Jew talking to men of other cultures. This is our world—a multicultural world. This passage is usually noted for Paul’s cultural sensitivity in preaching to non-Jews, and that is true. Unlike his speeches to Jews in the synagogue, Paul doesn’t begin with God’s covenant to Abraham or David; he starts his evangelism by remarking on their statue to an ‘unknown God’, and then talks about creation. He quotes their poets in the same way as I have been known to quote Dylan and Springsteen. He is culturally sensitive and relevant. His language is inclusive: “we ought not think”, instead of “you ought not think”. He finds points of agreement by which to present the resurrected Judge.

All this should not blind us to the fact that the passage is still a stirring call for repentance. It is a declaration that Jesus stands above every culture. The gospel revealed to Paul and passed on to us stands over every nation. Let’s look in some detail at how Paul argues.

Under one God

Firstly, Paul places everyone under the one God who created the heavens and the earth. He shows that every race of people has something in common: they are all equally dependent on him.

And he is not served by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (v. 25)

Paul’s comment is a critique of the spiritual bankruptcy of the Greek world, with its domesticated gods. Their gods needed to be served. Idolatry, however it is expressed, always places God at the mercy of men and not men at the mercy of God.

It is also a critique of nationalism and cultural arrogance. The Lebanese are no more dependent on God for their existence than the Assyrians. Not only are all peoples equally dependent on the one God, they all share the same origin:

From one man he made every nation often, that they should inhabit the whole earth. (v. 26)

Go back far enough and we are all related. Adam is as much the grand-dad of the Aborigine as he is of the Jew. Paul draws a circle around humanity and undermines any attempt to hide behind cultural diversity. The tendency today is to focus on cultural differences. But the emphasis here is that we all belong to the one human culture. That’s why when God spoke to Jews 2000 years ago in a pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment culture, he spoke to you and me. We share the same human condition. We share the same God who created all people. We share the sin of Adam. We share the fact that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. The language is inclusive.

God determines culture

Not only did God create different nations from one man, he is also in charge of the rise, spread and fall of every people:

God determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (v. 26)

It was God who determined when the Athenian culture would flourish. God determined why the Perizzites perished and why the Chinese now number a quarter of the world’s population. It was God who decided when the Russian Revolution would begin and when the Soviet Union would be dismantled. He decided how many migrants would come to this country, and which ones. He was behind you or your father or grandfather coming to Australia.

And why is God determining where, when and how long a culture exists?

God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. (v. 27)

I don’t know how this truth is worked out in detail—how God setting limits on nations causes them to seek after him. Perhaps it engenders cultural humility. Of one thing I am certain: many of the members of my congregation would not have heard of the free offer of forgiveness were it not for their parents coming to this country.

The national immigration policy of the last 60 years has brought the world into our backyards. In my street, I have an Italian, a Lebanese, four Maltese and two Polish Jews—all only one house away from me. The Menzies immigration policy might have been motivated by economic interest and the need for factory fodder, but God was superintending cabinet decisions and relocating cultures for the purpose that they may seek him and perhaps reach out and find him.

God has done what missionary societies could not do. The world is at our feet—a world filled with cultures tokenly Christian and blatantly non-Christian—both marked by false worship. We are surrounded by peoples that use religion to run from the living God—cultures that have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and that worship and serve the creation rather than the creator—individuals who may be marked by sincerity but whose zeal is without knowledge.

We have never been in a better position to share Christ with them in the hope that many might one day return as missionaries to their home countries.

A common judge

We share the gospel with them for one reason: we all have a common judge.

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. (v. 31)

Not only do we come from one man, but God has appointed one man to be judge over all nations. There is no cultural favouritism: the Jew comes to God through the narrow gate in exactly the same way as the Romanian.

What, then, gives us the right to evangelize people from all cultures?

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (v. 30).

No culture is exempt from God’s command, be it hardline Moslem or nominal Christian. The plea “I was brought up this way” will not do on the day of judgement. People are not victims of their culture. God commands all men everywhere to repent. People are not at the mercy of their upbringing. Culture must surrender to Jesus.

For all of this, sufficient proof has been furnished by God himself:

He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead (v. 31)

The resurrection of Jesus is enough proof for all people to repent, whether they be Nuigini highlanders, Italian grandmothers or Billy Graham’s son.

It’s on this basis and with this confidence that we evangelize every culture. This command requires us to call on people everywhere to repent. While we would never think of exempting the Anglo-saxon Anglican or Baptist from the call to repent, we treat Catholic and Orthodox people from ethnic backgrounds with disdain by not nosing around to discover what they mean by the words we have in common. In my experience, words like faith, salvation, grace and even the phrase “Christ died for sin”, are defined radically differently in the different denominations.

A friend of mine who teaches religious education in a Catholic school asked me to speak to her Year 10 class on the differences between Roman Catholicism and biblical Christianity. I opened with the two classic diagnostic questions. Firstly, I asked the students to put up their hand if they knew for certain that if they were to die tonight they would go to heaven.

Not one of the 20 students put up a hand. I pointed out that this was the first difference between us. I had assurance of going to heaven on the basis of trusting the promises of Christ. They were forbidden to have such assurance by the Catholic church.

I then asked the second question: “If you were to die tonight and stand before Jesus, and he were to say ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’, what would you say?”

One student replied, “I don’t deserve to go”; another said, “I am made in the image of God and part of the human race”; two said, “I don’t know”; the rest, in essence, claimed “I have been good” or “I’ve gone to church every week and I try to be the best Catholic”.

There was not one mention of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ among them.

25% of Australia is Roman Catholic. Let’s start to love our Roman Catholic friends and family by calling on them to repent as we would everybody else.

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