Culture, Context, and Conscience

Missiological Reflections on Issues of Personal Sanctification

Pull QuoteMissiology has been described “as a gadfly in the house of theology, creating unrest and resisting complacency, opposing every ecclesiastical impulse to self-preservation, every desire to stay what we are, every inclination toward provincialism and parochialism” (Bosch 1991, 496). Just as New Testament theology was often developed in missionary encounters with an unbelieving world, so the challenges of ministry in other cultures should always force us to return to Scripture in order that we might see more clearly and speak with greater clarity to the world around us. We need to be reminded that “just as the church ceases to be church when it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character” (Bosch 1991, 494).

Scripture clearly enjoins us to pursue holy living and to live lives worthy of our high calling (Eph. 4:1; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; Heb. 12:24). Moral purity and spiritual integrity should characterize believers and be the goal they wish to attain. What is often less clear is how holy living is achieved and measured. Cross-cultural encounters lead us to ask if many contemporary signs of sanctification, often defined by externals, may be more cultural than biblical. We must exercise great care regarding what are often considered “signs” of sanctification.1 According to Peterson,

Holy living has to do with such practical matters as entertaining strangers, visiting prisoners, being faithful in marriage, trusting God to provide material needs, imitating the faith of Christian leaders, not being carried away by strange teachings, doing good and sharing what you have with others. (1995, 77)

Issues of dress, music, use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, worship styles, church service times and frequency, public invitations, Bible translations, etc., are appropriate subjects of discussion and concern. Although these and other signs might be considered implications of sanctification within the specificities of a cultural context, they may not necessarily be biblical universals. Let us not forget that many of these issues are not only time-bound for a particular era but also, at least at times, dependent on a particular cultural context for meaning. While our viewpoints may represent a reasonable position given our time and place in history, these viewpoints may not necessarily be exportable to another time and place as if we have arrived at the biblical position.

For example, how do we respond in discovering that many non-North American believers use wine in their observance of the Lord’s Supper (or where grapes are not indigenous to the soil, something else is substituted)? How do we explain to non-North American believers that most of our churches do not gather on Christmas Day because it is a family holiday? How do we explain that many of our churches have Valentine’s Day banquets? How do we respond when churches use drums or when pianos in some cultures are associated with honky-tonk bars? Or how about when it has been determined that certain commands are cultural and non-observable today, such as head coverings for women (1 Cor. 11:5) or the holy kiss (1 Pet. 5:14)?

Culture is in many respects a way in which people respond to their environment. This environment does have an important influence on how Christians learn and think and on what they value. We are reminded that “people in different cultures do not live in the same world with different labels attached to it, but in radically different worlds” (Hiebert 1999, 377). Although all cultures are fallen and give evidence of rebellion against divine authority, at the same time they are valid, or at least potentially so in some measure, in that they enable people to function within their unique environmental, social, and economic settings.

We might respond to elements within any culture in at least three ways: 1) Oppose and utterly and immediately reject beliefs or practices that are contrary to Christian and human values (e.g., infanticide, bride-burning). 2) Confront and eventually see diminished or vanished in time those beliefs or practices that are contrary to Scripture (e.g., polygamy, ancestor worship). 3) Retain or transform practices that are valid within a cultural setting and can be used in the service of Christ (e.g., marriage customs, family and holiday traditions).

Much that we promote, tolerate, or allow would be viewed differently in other cultures and vice versa. From ministry experience in post-communist Romania, we learned that many Eastern European Christian women would look aghast at American Christian women who wear makeup and jewelry. This Eastern European viewpoint was certainly influenced by history and tradition. Just as we would not allow their sensitivities to be imposed on us (although we may voluntarily live under them when ministering in their culture), we must be certain that our culturally influenced sensitivities are not elevated to the place of biblical mandate.

The place of conscience must be raised at this point. According to Scripture, conscience is a universal faculty (Rom. 2:1-15; 2 Cor. 4:2; 1 Cor. 10:25, 27) and in need of cleansing (Heb. 10:22). Conscience is an internal faculty of moral judgment that bears witness against ourselves, accusing or excusing (Rom. 2:15), and which we use to bear witness to the faults of others. Some debate may exist as to the relation to conscience as a God-given natural faculty through the created order and how the Holy Spirit works through it. However, it seems clear that unbelievers can be affected in their conscience without a necessary connection to the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. In addition, believers may be troubled in their conscience by behavior for which God does not necessarily condemn them (Priest 1994).

We understand that conscience is variable (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10:27-32). A clear conscience does not necessarily guarantee that one has acted correctly. As believers we do not let conscience be our guide because we understand the decisive role of Scripture in determining our beliefs and practices. What distinguishes conscience is the content, content that is at least in part dependent on cultural norms, ideals, and values. We do not enter the world fully programmed but learn what to do or not to do. This moral programming, a proper activity of society in general and from parents in particular, serves to condone or condemn behavior, to approve or disapprove actions and activities. It may be presumptuous for persons of one culture and tradition, in which they have been acculturated, to dictate the norms for another culture and context when Scripture is silent or unclear.

We often fail to realize is that there is often a difference between how we have been programmed through our cultural upbringing and what Scripture explicitly permits, forbids, or commands. Scripture was not given in order to provide a neat and tidy list of everything of every choice with which Christians might be confronted in every cultural setting. We also must apply principles of Scripture and discern its implications for godly living. Contact with other believers and ministry in diverse cultures has taught us that there is both significant overlap and marked continuity in understanding the implications of what constitutes the sanctified life. What we tend to notice, however, are those areas of discontinuity where our conscience speaks and where theirs does not or vice versa. It is at this point that we must be patient and ask for patience, understanding that our conscience has been trained both by the Word of God and by other factors in our spiritual and social environment.

As believers seeking to faithfully live out the Christian life in our social context, we must be aware that our formation and formulations are not acultural. This observation may help us in more clearly articulating the gospel both in our homes and in host cultures. It is also the recognition that not only do we have a lot to teach others, but we also have a lot to learn from them. As Priest points out,

Missionaries [and all Christians] need to understand the role that culture has played in the formation of their own conscience, and need help in distinguishing scruples grounded in transcendent biblical moral truth from scruples shaped, at least in part, by conventional meaning. (1994, 306)

The recognition of differences in the outworking of practical Christian living in diverse cultural contexts does not cause us to abandon all conviction, lacking a specific verse to address an issue. We are not allowed to recklessly and romantically affirm that all is good in other cultures. Yet we may pause before pronouncing a verdict on that which we see only superficially. We should refrain from substituting our signs of sanctification for biblical discipleship. We must depend more on the Holy Spirit to use the Word to guide fellow believers in their faith journey, even when their journey does not exactly mirror our own experience. God is concerned about how we live. God gives us the privilege of sharing in His holiness. And God has given us a message that this world needs to hear and a new life that the world needs to see.

References Cited

Anderson, Justice. 1998. “An Overview of Missiology.” In Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.

Bosch, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hiebert, G. Paul. 1999. “Cultural Differences and the Communication of the Gospel.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. 3rd ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Peterson, David. 1995. Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Priest, Robert J. 1994. Missionary Elenctics: Conscience and Culture. Missiology 22:3 (July): 291-315.

1. See Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, edited by Donald Alexander for a fuller treatment of sanctification.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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