The Bible vs. Culture: What Shapes Our Christianity?
I almost got into an argument at a Christmas party. The party was an activity of a local Evangelical women’s Bible study. The group includes women from a number of different, mostly Asian, countries.
On this particular occasion we had a visiting woman speaker fresh from the United States. She had a good talk, but her Scripture application was from an American worldview. I was the only other American there.
In the discussion time, I said that different cultures emphasize the verses that best match their cultural values. As an example, I mentioned that, with regard to money, the Filipino Christians I worked with take seriously Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:42 to give to him who asks, because their culture places a high value on generosity. We Americans, however, are more likely to quote Paul that those who won’t work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). I finished by saying that both verses need to be considered.
The speaker was quick to inform me that Paul’s verse was the more important of the two and that anyone who took the other verse seriously was wrong. I doubt she realized how well she proved my point. Later, when we were nibbling snacks and chatting, a couple of the other Bible study women told me they agreed with me. Different cultures do emphasize the verses that best support their cultural values and tend to ignore the rest.
Is that what God wants us to do with his Word? Is the Bible nothing more than a smorgasbord of verses where we pick what suits our cultural tastes and leave the others?
I’ve had to face this question about myself in the years my husband and I have worked in Hong Kong, a place where people of many cultures interact. I must admit that I, like the American visitor at the Christmas party, lean more toward Paul’s advice when it comes to generosity. It’s part of my Protestant work ethic, capitalist background, and individualistic upbringing. At the same time, working with different cultures and seeing what Scriptures they emphasize has made me more aware of these other verses. In the process I’ve come to realize God has a lot more to say about these topics than I thought.
Take, for instance, the issue mentioned above. Numerous Bible passages support Paul’s admonition that we should work to provide for ourselves and our families. Capitalists like these verses. And there’s a lot of good in the capitalist system. After Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, we had an influx of mainland Chinese people. We soon learned they weren’t accustomed to working as hard as the locals. The reason? They had grown up under communism, where the amount of work they did made no difference in how much they received.
It’s true that communism’s failure to reward hard work results in minimal effort and even laziness. And capitalism encourages incentive because the harder we work, the more we can expect to get. But capitalism also encourages self-centeredness and greed. It says that what I have earned is mine, Mine, MINE! God says differently. He says that everything belongs to him (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 4:7).
As disconcerting as it is to capitalists, the Bible doesn’t tell us to work hard so we can have as much as possible for ourselves. We’re to work hard so we can have as much as possible to give away (Acts 20:34, 35; 2 Corinthians 9:11; 1 Timothy 6:18). Of course, if I treat the Bible as a smorgasbord, I’ll bypass all the verses that command generosity.
Another cultural difference between the U.S. and Asia has to do with one’s rights. In the West, the rights of the individual are paramount. “What I earn is mine to do with as I see fit.” In Asia the rights of the family are more important. “What I earn is for the benefit of my family and is to be used to improve all of our lives.”
I see this thinking in our church. Some of our unmarried members spend years working in Hong Kong for the good of their families. Rather than building a future for themselves as individuals, they spend their earnings to buy land and build homes for parents, put siblings and nieces and nephews through college, and pay for family emergencies. They’ll benefit from their earnings, but will do so as part of the family. Because their culture is family focused, they can do this much more willingly than I ever could, since I come from an individualistic culture.
Which does God put first, the rights of the individual or the rights of the group? I find very little in Scripture that deals with this question. For the most part, where we talk of our rights, God talks of our responsibilities.
Although we are saved individually (Acts 2:38) and will be judged individually, based on how we treat others (Ezekiel 18 and Matthew 25:31-46), everything else about our Christian life seems to say that, from the moment we are saved, God no longer views us just as individuals. We are now part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). And, as part of the body, we have responsibilities. From that point on everything we have is to be used not only for ourselves, but also to benefit the rest of the body and to advance God’s kingdom.
A hundred years ago people in our individualistic American culture seemed more willing to accept responsibility and to sacrifice for the good of others. But attitudes have changed. Today’s focus, supported by Hollywood and advertising, is on self-fulfillment. Whereas Christians in the past were challenged to “give of your best to the Master,” now the Master is to give the best to me. Current thinking says my rights come first and I’m not responsible for anything. Christians who are influenced by this mind-set will no doubt leave a great number of verses untouched on a Bible smorgasbord.
I have discovered one issue on which Christians of all cultures seem to agree: we all ignore Scriptures that instruct us to respect, obey, and pray for those in authority. Apparently no one likes the taste of that particular dish. We justify our disobedience in numerous ways, but it doesn’t make our behavior any less disobedient.
When the southern kingdom of Judah was carried into captivity, the people had an excellent excuse for not respecting or praying for their Babylonian conquerors. But God didn’t agree. He told them to pray for Babylon because what happened to it would happen to them (Jeremiah 29:7). In New Testament times Christians were told to obey the authorities over them and pray for them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3). At this time Rome was in control, an empire with corrupt tax collectors, emperors who claimed to be god, and that turned its defeated enemies into slaves whose forced labor undercut the ability of the free workers to earn a decent wage.
If the Jewish captives were to pray for their Babylonian captors and the first-century Christians were to pray for their Roman rulers, how much more should we pray for our elected officials? It doesn’t matter whether we like them, agree or disagree with their politics, or whether they are carrying out their duties as we want. What matters is whether we are willing to obey God who allowed those officials to be elected.
God is the one who sets up kings and presidents; he’s the one to depose them (Daniel 2:21). He is the real ruler of this world, and of the next. As such, we should not only obey him but give him our first loyalty.
Since that is the case, we need to hold our earthly citizenship, and the patriotism that accompanies it, with a loose hand. First Peter 2:11 says we are foreigners and exiles in this world. No earthly passport—even one from the U.S.—will get us into Heaven. The only one that will gain us access is marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13, 14).
All in all, I’ve learned a lot through having Christian friends from other cultures.
I’ve learned that, even while I’m teaching 2 Thessalonians 3:10, I need to be learning, and applying, the many verses about generosity.
I’ve learned that, if I’m to please God, I’d better stop worrying about claiming my rights and start fulfilling my responsibilities.
I’ve learned I don’t pray nearly enough for the authorities over me.
I’ve learned I shouldn’t hold my earthly citizenship in such high regard that I forget where my more important citizenship lies.
I’ve learned I want my Christianity to be shaped by the Bible—all of it—not by my culture.
What about you?
Karen Rees and her husband, Benjamin, have served in Hong Kong since 1975.