6. The Gospel and Culture
The influence of culture on evangelism, conversion
and church formation is increasingly recognized as a topic of
major missiological importance. The Willowbank Report Gospel and
Culture (1978) defines culture as "an integrated system of
beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), of values
(about what is true, good, beautiful and normative), of customs
(how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play,
trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these
beliefs, values and customs (government, law courts, temples or
churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions,
clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense
of identity, dignity, security and continuity."30
Viewed thus, culture pervades the whole of human life, and it
is essential for Christians to know how to evaluate it.
It is acknowledged that Evangelicals and
Roman Catholics start from a different background. Evangelicals
tend to stress the discontinuity, and Roman Catholics the continuity,
between man unredeemed and man redeemed. At the same time, both
emphases are qualified. Discontinuity is qualified by the Evangelical
recognition of the image of God in humankind and continuity by
the Roman Catholic recognition that human beings and societies
are contaminated by sin. The Lausanne Covenant summarized this
tension as follows: "Because man is God's creature, some
of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen,
all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic."31
We have particularly concentrated on the
place of culture in four areas, in the Bible, in cross-cultural
evangelism, in conversion and in church formation.
Culture and the Bible
We have already affirmed that the Bible is
the Word of God through the words of human beings. Realizing that
human language and human thought forms reflect human cultures,
we saw the need to explore two major questions: a) what was the
attitude of the biblical authors to their cultures? b) how should
we ourselves react to the cultural conditioning of Scripture?
In answer to the first question, we considered
the New Testament. Its message comes to us from the context of
the first century world, with its own images and vocabulary, and
is thus set in the context of that world's culture. The culture
has become the vehicle of the message.
Yet within that first century culture there
were elements which the Christian and the Church were required
to resist, out of loyalty to the Lord Jesus. Distinctions between
the new community and the surrounding culture were clearly drawn.
At the same time, the Christian and the Church enjoyed a new freedom
in Christ which enabled them to discern those elements in the
culture which must be rejected as hostile to their faith and those
which were compatible with it and could on that account be affirmed.
Blindness, which leads Christians to tolerate the evil and/or
overlook the good in their culture, is a permanent temptation.
Our other question was concerned with how
we ourselves should react to the cultural conditioning of Scripture.
It breaks down into two subsidiary questions which express the
options before us. First, are the biblical formulations (which
we have already affirmed to be normative) so intrinsically conditioned
by their mode of specific cultural expression that they cannot
be changed to suit different cultural settings? Put another way,
has biblical inspiration (which Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
both acknowledge) made the cultural forms themselves normative?
The alternative is to ask whether it is the revealed teaching
which is normative, so that this may be re-expressed in other
cultural forms. We believe the latter to be the case, and that
such re-expression or translation is a responsibility laid both
on cross-cultural missionaries and on local Christian leaders.32
Culture and Evangelism
Christian missionaries find themselves in
a challenging cross-cultural indeed tri-cultural, situation. They
come from a particular culture themselves, they travel to people
nurtured in another, and they take with them a biblical gospel
which was originally formulated in a third. How will this interplay
of cultures affect their evangelism? And how can they be simultaneously
faithful to Scripture and relevant to the local culture?
In the history of mission in this century
a progress is discernible. The successive approaches may be summarized
a) In the first period the missionary
brought along with the gospel message many of the cultural trappings
of his or her own situation. Then culture, instead of being (as
in the New Testament) a vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel,
became a barrier to it. Accidentals of teaching and practice were
taught as if they were essentials, and a culture-Christianity
was preached, as if it were the gospel.
b) In the second period the gospel
message was translated into terms (language and thought forms,
artistic symbols and music) appropriate to those to whom it was
brought, and the cultural trappings began to be left behind. Now
local cultures, instead of being neglected, were respected and
where possible used for the better communication of the gospel.
In a word, the gospel began to be "contextualized."
c) In the third period, in which we
are living, missionaries bring both the biblical gospel and an
experience of life in Christ. They also endeavor to take seriously
the people to whom they have come, with their world view and way
of life, so that they may find their own authentic way of experiencing
and expressing the salvation of Christ. This kind of evangelism
tries to be both faithful to the biblical revelation and relevant
to the people's culture. In fact it aims at bringing Scripture,
context and experience into a working relationship effective for
presenting the Gospel.
Culture and Conversion
We are clear that conversion includes repentance,
and that repentance is a turning away from the old life. But what
are the aspects of the old life from which a convent must turn
away? Conversion cannot be just turning away from "sin"
as this is viewed in any one particular culture. For different
cultures have different understandings of sin, and we have to
recognize this aspect of pluralism. So missionaries and church
leaders in each place need great wisdom, both at the time of a
person's conversion and during his or her maturing as a Christian,
to distinguish between the moral and the cultural, between what
is clearly approved or condemned by the gospel on the one hand
and by custom or convention on the other. The repentance of conversion
should be a turning away only from what the gospel condemns.
Culture and Church Formation
In the development of the Christian community
in each place, as in the other areas we have mentioned, missionaries
must avoid all cultural imperialism; that is, the imposition on
the Church of alien cultural forms. Just as the gospel has to
be inculturated, so must the Church be inculturated also.
We all agree that the aim of "indigenization"
or "inculturation" is to make local Christians congenial
members of the body of Christ. They must not imagine that to become
Christian is to become western and so to repudiate their own cultural
and national inheritance. The same principle applies in the west,
where too often to become Christian has also meant to become middle
There are a number of spheres in which each
Church should be allowed to develop its own identity. The first
is the question of certain forms of organization, especially as
they relate to Church leadership. Although Roman Catholics and
Evangelicals take a different approach to authority and its exercise,
we are agreed that in every Christian community (especially a
new one) authority must be exercised in a spirit of service. "I
am among you as one who serves," Jesus said (Luke 22:27).
Yet the expression given to leadership can vary according to different
The second sphere is that of artistic creativity
for example church architecture, painting, symbols, music
and drama. Local churches will want to express their Christian
identity in artistic forms which reflect their local culture.
A third area is theology. Every church should
encourage theological reflection on the aspirations of its culture,
and seek to develop a theology which gives expression to these.
Yet only in such a way as to apply, not compromise, the biblical
Two problems confront a church which is seeking
to "inculturate" itself, namely provincialism and syncretism.
"Provincialism" asserts the local culture of a particular
church to the extent that it cuts itself adrift from, and even
repudiates, other churches. We are agreed that new expressions
of local church life must in no way break fellowship with the
wider Christian community.
Syncretism is the attempt to fuse the biblical
gospel with elements of local culture which, being erroneous or
evil, are incompatible with it. But the gospel's true relation
to culture is discriminating, judging some elements and welcoming
others. The criteria it applies to different elements or forms
include the questions whether they are under the judgment of Christ's
lordship, and whether they manifest the fruit of the Spirit.
It has to be admitted that every expression
of Christian truth is inadequate and may be distorted. Hence the
need for mutually respectful dialogue about the relative merits
of old and new forms, in the light of both the biblical revelation
and the experience of the wider community of faith.
The Second Vatican Council addressed itself
to these important matters. It recognized that in every culture
there are some elements which may need to be "purged of evil
association" and to be restored "to Christ their source,
who overthrows the ride of the devil and limits the manifold malice
of evil." In this way "the good found in people's minds
and hearts, or in particular customs and cultures, in purified,
raised to a higher level and reaches its perfection... ."33
Hence it is not a question of adapting things
which come from the world usurped by Satan, but of re-possessing
them for Christ. To take them over as they are could be syncretism.
"Repossession ," on the other hand, entails four steps:
a) the selection of certain elements from one's culture; b) the
rejection of other elements which are incompatible with the essence
of the biblical faith; c) the purification from the elements selected
and adopted of everything unworthy; d) the integration of these
into the faith and life of the Church.
The age to come has broken into this present
age in such a way as to touch our lives with both grace and judgment.
It cuts through every culture. Vatican II referred to this discontinuity,
and also emphasized the need for "the spiritual qualities
and endowments of every age and nation" to be fortified,
completed and restored in Christ.34
For Jesus Christ is lord of all, and our
supreme desire vis-à-vis each culture is to "take
every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10:5).
Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture (Lausanne:
Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978), Lausanne
Occasional Paper no. 2, par. 2.
Covenant par. 10.
Catholics will want to make reference to the Encyclical of
Pope John Paul II, Slavorum apostoli, 2nd June 1985.
Decree on the
Church's Missionary Activity (Ad gentes), 9.
et spes, 58.