Is culture God-given?

Alan Black

20 Sep 2023


Is culture God-given?


London is a multi-cultural city filled with people who may dress, behave and think very differently from you. As we seek to interact with our multi-cultural neighbours, it’s vital that we understand God’s perspective on culture, too.

Culture is incredibly deep-rooted and complex. It is essentially ways of living (and thinking) developed by a group of human beings and handed down from generation to generation. In short, it’s what determines how we organise ourselves and behave.

It’s one of those things that we just can’t escape from. The word may trigger very specific images for you. Perhaps you’re thinking about different art, architecture, food, clothing or festivals you’ve experienced.

I particularly like the way that the Christian writer Andy Crouch refers to culture as something which “imposes order to create beauty.” Just think of horticulture or agriculture; both impose order on the natural environment to create beauty and produce.

None of us can extricate ourselves from culture. While we may talk about Christian cultures, the truth is they too vary widely. A South Korean church in New Malden will do things very differently from a church with Nigerian-majority congregation in Southwark.

Is culture God-given?

Reference to culture often seem intrinsically linked with the traditions of man – so where is God in this all? Well, if we go right back to Genesis, then we can see that God actually gives us a cultural mandate.

It’s right there in Genesis 1:26:28:Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” As such, all cultures, with their own unique way or organising and creating, are a religious response to God’s revelation.

Andy Crouch’s definition of culture helps us to make sense of this passage. It’s clear in Genesis that we have been responsibility to maintain and order the natural world and sustain the beauty that God created.

Is all culture good?

There is a problem, however: sin. The wonder and goodness of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is tainted by the introduction of sin in Genesis 3. Here we see mankind’s desire to take charge and order things in his own way at odds with the cultural mandate given by God.

The temptation of the serpent is only just the start. Following Adam’s rebellion against God’s and expulsion from the Garden we see Cain’s rebellion against God and his expulsion into the Land of Nod, following the murder of Abel.

The city Cain chooses to build is undoubtedly full of culture, but it’s a culture that celebrates the pre-eminence of man and not God. This is a city where Cain is looking to order life into beauty. In naming the city after his son, Enoch, Cain is looking to celebrate his own achievements not those of the Lord.

When it comes to culture, everything has dual potential. Tainted by sin, culture has the capacity to demonstrate both the beauty of God and the ugliness of sin; compassion and cruelty; grace and corruption.

What contributes to culture?

There are so many factors that contribute that influence culture and the way we order the world around us. Let’s be clear – there is only one race, the human race. But as the sons of Noah were scattered to the corners of the earth, so multiple cultures have developed.

Geography and the climate certainly influence culture and the way we order our lives and create culture. Heap on top millennia of history, the development of language, human experience, the development of trade and education and cultures continues to evolve ang gain levels of complexity.

We often associate culture with those elements we can see – food, language, clothing. But below the obvious distinguishing features, culture nurture shared assumptions and ways of doing life. All the while, these are invisibly shaping the values and morals which influence the way we view the world and each other.

Give the seeds, not the plant pot

This is where things start to get interesting. Whether we like it or not, we can’t escape from our culture. And, whether we like to admit it or not, where there is a dominant culture, the cultural practices of others get drowned out or side-lined.

This is as prevalent in our churches as anywhere. In Christian circles, there has been a tendency to associate Christian culture with a Western culture. This harks back to the old days when missionaries were sent to ‘civilise’ other people groups. In taking the gospel, they also imposed the culture. While we are given a cultural mandate, there is no single God-given culture. All cultures can express and glorify God.

One of the best explanations I’ve heard is from a missionary friend of mine. He was working with a people group who told him quite clearly, “don’t give us the plant pot, just give us the seeds.”

Everything is open to interpretation

I love that image. There is a clarity in it. But when it comes to culture – so much is open for interpretation. I was in Thailand a while ago; my daughter was injured by a motorcyclist. His reaction when he stopped his bike was to laugh.

To those of us from a Western culture – it seemed an outrageously disrespectful. My immediate reaction was outrage. How dare he! But in Thailand, laughter is an expression of embarrassment. The motorcyclist was in fact deeply ashamed about the incident. Understanding the cultural nuance helped me temper my behaviour and respond much more effectively.

In another example, another friend of mine was ministering at a church in Bulgaria. He was disappointed to see the congregation shaking their heads profusely throughout the sermon. Discouragement filled his heart and the first question when he finished was “what did I do wrong?”

It turns out he’d done nothing wrong. His words really struck a chord with the church. It was just that in Bulgaria, you shake your head when you agree strongly with someone. If only, he had he been aware of this little cultural insight before!

Paul faced these challenges too

Navigating cultural difference can feel like a minefield. Paul faced the challenges of cultural too. In Acts 14, we see him in Lystra healing a man who was unable to walk. What was the crowd’s response on witnessing the act? “They shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”

Paul and Barnabas were besides themselves. They’d failed to understand how the culture was intrinsically linked to Greek mythology and so their actions were misinterpreted.

I’ve seen missionaries experience the same challenges. I’ve heard of rallies in India where missionaries have spoken and seen hundreds respond with a profession of faith. These missionaries can’t understand why their indigenous brothers and sisters aren’t seeing the same results.

It’s only when you understand the culture, does it become clear that most of those who respond are simply adding Jesus to the pantheon of other Gods they believe in.

Know the culture

Paul was certainly not perfect with his cultural interpretation, but there are other examples where he has done his research and adapted his approach according. In Acts 17, we see Paul speaking to a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens.

When he speaks about Jesus’ resurrection, he’s intentional about the language that he uses. The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which is also a woman’s name. Using Jesus’s name and the word anastasis together, would open the door to misinterpretation.

This was a culture people believed the Greek gods used humans as their playthings. Were he to have used the name of Jesus alongside the word anastasis, some may have presumed Anatasis was Jesus’s mistress. And so, he chooses simply to say that he was “raised from the dead” to avoid confusion. It’s a subtle by vitally important detail.

It all starts with listening

The truth is, we can all be guilt of ethnocentricity – blithely believing that our way of ordering the world is better. It’s so important that as we share out faith, our focus is on Jesus – and not on the practices into which we try to package him.

Unlike other religions, Christianity is truly multi-cultural. Through the cultural mandate given by God in the Genesis we can see that diversity was always part of God’s plan for us. But we need to remember that in our diversity, we are all part of the one human race, created in the image of God to fulfil his purposes.

We can’t be reductive in our approach to cultural differences. Cultural difference matters and we need to be intentional in our quest to understand, appreciate and engage with them.

Written by: Alan Black

Alan Black is the Director of Studies at London City Mission. Serving in the training department equipping our missionaries to think Biblically and theologically about their ministry, so that they can engage with church leaders and help them to mobilise and equip their congregations.