Many Christians are talking about culture these days, but unfortunately, few have given any serious thought to what culture is, especially in biblical terms.
The term “culture” is a concept that has developed in the last few hundred years as a way to explain different behaviors between groups of people. “Culture” originally meant something more along the lines of what we would call “high culture,” but now it has come to take on a broader meaning. British anthropologist Edward Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” This understanding has come to be the standard definition, and evangelicals have adopted the concept as well, as evidenced in Lesslie Newbigin’s definition: “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”
Very simply, culture is the shared behavior of a particular group of people. The question for Christians, then, should be this: what in Scripture best parallels this concept of “culture”?
Most Evangelicals automatically assume that when the Bible talks about a “nation” or “ethnicity,” it is the same thing as “culture.” This is clear because when most Evangelicals defend cultural neutrality or stress the need for multicultural churches, they appeal to passages that talk about ethnicity, such as Matthew 28:19 or Revelation 5:9. This is also evident by the way Evangelicals insist that it is racist to criticize certain cultural expressions.
However, what should be evident after careful biblical reflection is that “nation” or “ethnicity” is not the same thing as “culture.”
Ethnicity (I deliberately use the term “ethnicity” instead of “race” because biblically speaking, there is only one human race) refers to people united by common ancestry. The Bible is clear that God desires to save people (and, indeed, will save people) from every ethnicity, and consequently, we Christians have the responsibility to spread the gospel to people from every ethnicity. God ordains ethnicities. They are all equally good and valuable. People from every ethnicity are all united into one body in the church of Jesus Christ. One day, redeemed people from every ethnicity will surround the throne of God in the worship of him.
On the other hand, culture does not refer to people per se but rather to how people behave. Culture describes the collected behavior of a group of people that flows from their collective beliefs and values. Over time, a particular civilization develops a common way of thinking, valuing, and believing that affects how they live. This pattern of behavior then develops over time and becomes what we describe as “culture.” But, since culture is behavior, and since all cultural behavior flows from values and beliefs, not all culture is equally good. Some cultural behaviors are reflections of values consistent with God’s will and Word, and other cultural behaviors flow from values hostile to God and his will.
Indeed, behavior in Scripture is far from neutral; it is always either moral or immoral. Thus while it would be horrendous racism to criticize a person for their physical features or ancestry, it is well within biblical practice—indeed, it is a biblical mandate—to criticize particular behavior that contradicts Scripture, whether or not that a group of people shares behavior.
The New Testament often speaks of behavior with these kinds of cultural overtones. For example, in Galatians 1:13, Paul describes a kind of behavior that formerly characterized him as a Pharisee; persecuting Christians was part of his “culture,” but that behavior changed on the road to Damascus. Likewise, Peter refers to certain behavior that his readers “inherited from [their] forefathers,” but from which the blood of Christ nevertheless redeemed them. In other words, part of their inherited culture must be rejected in favor of behavior that is holy (1 Peter 1:13-19).
Culture understood biblically as behavior must be evaluated as moral or immoral because behavior reflects religious values and beliefs. Or, to put it in the words of Henry Van Til, culture is “religion externalized.”
It is important to distinguish between ethnicity and culture because if we don’t, we only fuel volatile hostility between groups like white supremacists and multiculturalists.
Instead, we should insist on two complementary ideas:
- All people are equally valuable and have equal capacity for good or for evil.
- We must judge some behaviors as good and others as evil, seeking to sustain and nourish systems of behavior (that is, “cultures”) that are inherently good.
Only when we make these kinds of careful distinctions can we hope to combat the sin of racism and encourage ways of living that best sustain human flourishing.
For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, see my book, By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture.