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Culture and ethnicity

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series

"A New Testament Understanding of Culture"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

14_culture-seeded-72-400I am writing a series on implications of the idea that culture is essentially the behavior of a people. Last time I asserted that New Testament authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value.

The second implication is that New Testament authors identify people groups (ethnicities, tribes, nations, etc.) as those of common ancestral heritage who share common culture flowing from common values. They do not think about “culture” as such; rather, they think about behavior, and they believe that the gospel changes behavior—it changes a person’s culture. Since culture is a component of religion, where religion changes, so changes culture. This creates a reorientation of race for Christians; since a race is a group that shares common values and practices, Christians will find themselves increasingly alienated from the race into which they were born and drawn into a new race united around biblical values.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children.

12 Responses to Culture and ethnicity

  1. “Since culture is a component of religion, where religion changes, so changes culture. This creates a reorientation of race for Christians; since a race is a group that shares common values and practices, Christians will find themselves increasingly alienated from the race into which they were born and drawn into a new race united around biblical values.”
    ——-

    At the same time, this is not something that is instantaneous nor ever completely recognized in this life. The early church had a conflict because the Hellenist and Jewish widows were perceived to be treated differently– and the solution offered by the apostles was not to declare that there were no Jewish widows or Hellenist widows, only Christian ones. Acts records that Paul continued to observe some Jewish religious practices long after his conversion. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15, while not requiring Gentile converts to adopt practices specific the Judaism, did not require Jewish converts to cease those practices, either.

    There are many cultural matters that Christianity does not necessarily reorient after one’s conversion. If an Asian person, for example, becomes a Christian, that does not necessarily mean they should eat less rice and more potatoes like their new Christian brothers, and start eating large pieces of meat with their meals instead of smaller portions interspersed with their vegetables. While Christians should dress modestly and appropriately, there is no cultural principle that says a follower of Jesus Christ needs to surrender his tribal wool poncho for a polyester jacket with a zipper or snaps.

  2. I agree with much of what you say, of course; not much of it contradicts what I’ve said above, and I will address in later posts the fact that many behaviors (culture) are perfectly consistent with biblical Christianity and therefore would not change when one is converted. So that’s coming.

    My point here, drawn from passages like 1 Peter 2:9 and its implications leading from the fact that biblically an ethnicity is a group of people who unite around common behavior, is that as Christians, we must not identify primarily with our birth ethnicity but rather with the ethnicity of our new birth. Our primary identity (and culture) should center around Christ and his church rather than the culture “inherited from our fathers” (1 Peter 1:18).

    What is ironic to me is that many evangelicals would likely be quick to insist that Americans not make patriotism or any other American cultural identification their primary identity, and yet somehow that’s bad for Americans but not bad for other ethnicities? Other ethnicities should be encouraged to maintain their ethnic identity while American Christians are expected to forsake their American identity in favor of being distinctly Christian?

    No. Christians should find their culture gradually melting into the historic culture of the church rather than insisting that they maintain some sort of ethnic identify from their heritage.

  3. “Christians should find their culture gradually melting into the historic culture of the church rather than insisting that they maintain some sort of ethnic identify from their heritage.”
    ——-

    It depends, again, on how you apply that. Does “the historic culture of the church” mean that one must surrender worship in one’s native tongue and sing in Latin? I don’t think you would say that (last I knew, anyway! :) ). Yet, there is a stream of Christendom that has more or less as operated that way.

    Does the “historic culture of the church” mean absolute conformity with no flexibility for the background culture from which a congregation is being converted from? I know that you are thinking in areas of musical choices, primarily. But thinking in other areas… in many Asian churches, it is common to see the congregation divided along gender lines- men on one side, women on the other. That happens in other contexts, too. Does conformity to the “historic culture of the church” mean that there is one right way to arrange the congregation? When we think about things like frequency and scheduling of meetings, church building architecture, the manner in which communion elements are composed (common loaf? pre-packaged pieces? matzo crackers? will any unleavened bread do? let’s not even start the cup-related questions…). To say there is a “historic culture of the church” is to at the same time acknowledge that “historic culture” is diverse in practices and conclusions reached. Furthermore, localities and ethnic considerations often factor into specific conclusions drawn.

    On another note- regarding Americans, yes there is inconsistency there from some. At the same time, I think that some of that inconsistency stems from the fact that “American” is much more an ideology than say, being Swedish is. The United States is centred around a blending of cultures, ethnicities, and so on- it is a “melting pot.” Similar things could be said about other New World countries like Canada or Brazil to one degree or another. But when you decry that “other ethnicities should be encouraged to maintain their ethnic identity” while Americans forsake theirs… well again, what application do you have in mind? First generation immigrants have a learning curve when it comes to things like language, cuisine, mannerisms and idioms… Does a good host accommodate and defer to guests as much as possible, or demand that guests strictly conform to house rules? It’s not really one or the other… elements of both approaches factor into proper conduct. I don’t think it’s much different when it comes to how American churches accommodate new ethnicities. We are essentially the hosts, and we need to be patient and accommodating, even as “they” will gradually learn and be incorporated into “our” way of doing things.

  4. Greg, you’re swinging at ghosts, here. You’re making assumptions of what you *think* I think, yet I have said little of what you imply.

    As I said, I will be addressing the fact in this series that Christians certainly need not change every aspect of their behavior after conversion if their behavior, due to common grace, already fits within a Christian worldview.

    What I am speaking of in this post is primarily identity–Christians will increasingly find themselves identifying behaviorally (culturally) with the Christian race rather than the ethnicity of their birth. We should expect a Christian Asian’s behavior to identify more with a German Christian than with and Asian unbeliever, etc etc.

    And, secondarily, I am insisting that since culture is behavior, there will always be some aspects of one’s natural culture that *must* change once he is converted. Just because something is “cultural” does not give it a pass.

    I’m afraid many evangelicals have bought into the Darwinistic philosophies of cultural anthropology that praise “indigenous” (non-American, mind you) culture as pristine and any implication that another culture might be superior as racist. This is blatantly unbiblical thinking. They also argue that one’s birth culture is the only culture that will every really be his. This is also unbilbical thinking.

    As I said in the post, New Testament authors don’t even think in terms of culture; it wouldn’t make sense to them. No one thought in these terms until the rise of anthropology in the 18th century.

    Rather, NT authors and everyone after them thought in terms of religion and behavior. You believed certain things, and you lived accordingly. One’s behavior reflected his religious commitments. Period. There’s no conception of “cultures.”

    Some ways of behavior *are* simply better than others. Some differences between cultures are just *different*. The Christian must be willing to discern which is the case with any given cultural behavior, and will willingly due so since his allegiance is not to the ethnicity of his birth, but rather to his new Christian race.

  5. “You’re making assumptions of what you *think* I think, yet I have said little of what you imply.”

    ——–

    Really? What assumptions would those be, exactly? In reviewing my last comment, I don’t really see any assumptions… rather, I asked several questions, trying to draw out your reasoning and specific applications implied (or not).

  6. Greg,

    “In reviewing my last comment, I don’t really see any assumptions…”

    You could have at least said that you assumed a response in English text would be easier understood by your interlocutor than one in Celtic runes.

  7. Hard to guess, but you seem to snap like a mouse trap every time anyone mentions the word “culture” in a way that has any potential to confront something that you cherish. You seem to want to be out front of Scott’s conclusion that Christianity is a culture unto itself. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I suspect that Burmese refugees would come up in the discussion. Certainly you have a lot more to think about in your church than most of us do concerning these matters, and I think your situation is an incredible opportunity. But let the man form his perspective before you start chewing at his perceived conclusion.

    Yes, to preempt your rebuttal: I am making many assumptions as I write this; not all of them uncharitable.

    You are too.

    We all do.

    We’re using language after all.

  8. Scott, there are some good thoughts here and I look forward to reading this series. I have a few questions. Are behaviors that vary from region to region solely based on differing beliefs? Is there any place for different geographical situations that affect varying regional behaviors? One example would be a community that is primarily agrarian as opposed to one that is seafaring in nature.These geographic elements would affect behavior and even values to some extent. Do you see a place for these differences in your thinking?

  9. Hi, Chris. Good question. The problem with a series like this is that the argument/explanation slowly builds, and things I will address later come up earlier!

    I will be addressing this later, but I’ll summarize for now. To say that all behavior (culture) flows from believes and values is not to say that there is only one right way to behave. Two people (or civilizations) with the same set of values and beliefs can behave in different ways that are still legitimate expressions of the same values. There are multiple varieties of behaviors that naturally flow from a biblical worldview impacted by numerous other factors such as, as you note, geographical situations.

    So one group may be characterized as agrarian and another seafaring, both being legitimate expressions of biblical values such as hard work, desire to provide for one’s family, caring for others, etc.

    Then, at the same time, there may be two groups, both of which are seafaring, but one of which makes its living by fishing and the other by pillaging unsuspecting ships. Here we have two “cultures,” only one of which is a legitimate expression of biblical values.

    Again, the only statement I’m making at this points is that there’s no such thing as neutral culture. All behavior reflects values and beliefs, and therefore all culture must be evaluated for what values it embodies. Just because something is “cultural” does not give it an automatic pass.

    Accepting that presupposition, I believe there is a huge variety of acceptable cultural behaviors.

  10. “All behavior reflects values and beliefs, and therefore all culture must be evaluated for what values it embodies. Just because something is “cultural” does not give it an automatic pass.”

    Agreed. Thank you for the reply.

    “Then, at the same time, there may be two groups, both of which are seafaring, but one of which makes its living by fishing and the other by pillaging unsuspecting ships. Here we have two “cultures,” only one of which is a legitimate expression of biblical values.”

    So you would not see piracy of as a “legitimate expression of biblical values?” I suppose you would not build a children’s ministry based on that theme? :)

  11. Hadn’t checked this in a few days. Chris, I am not sure why you say I am snapping like a mouse trap. Yes, Scott has begun to express a view that Christianity is a culture to itself. I am asking questions and raising points like in my first comment (using the example of the two parties of widows in Acts 6) to observe that from the earliest days, Christianity as never been perfectly streamlined that way. If my understanding is wrong, I would like to be corrected. But Scott has used vague, ambiguous appeals to “the historic culture of the church” that really offer us little value when it comes to specific conclusions and applications- because the history of Christianity is so varied in its expressions, and not all of them are good ones.

    You’re right to observe that I have a different perspective than many- and not just because of my current ministry context. I have parents who come from different ethnic and national backgrounds (some might say “interracial”). I have lived and served in different regions of the country. I am not so foolish as to discard the value of traditions and history- but I don’t believe that those things present an unscalable wall, either- I am, after all, a Baptist and a Dispensationalist. :)

    So, I do agree with the general idea that Christianity is a culture unto itself, in the sense that we are a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). At the same time, I know from my own experiences that nation is not united enough to have its own streamlined culture- it is a process, and one complicated by numerous factors, including geography, language, varieties of cultures and experiences one is leaving to follow Christ… .

    For example: this congregation I pastor is the first church I have ever been in that elects deaconesses. For us, it is basically a service committee- they take care of communion elements, make visits, arrange for formal hospitality matters… that kind of thing. While other churches I have been in definitely had women who serve, no other US Baptist church I had been a part of had that specific practice.

    I raise that point to ask this: what would the “historic culture of the church” be as to the formal involvement of women in the congregation? We have some specifics in Scripture, yes. But the way that Scripture is applied varies greatly, even from church to church, to say nothing of the influences of geography, ethnic traditions, and so forth. Our Karen refugees have told me of regular “women’s services” they had in their churches back home, where once a month or so women would lead the music, share testimonies, and generally plan and lead a service in the afternoon. That did not replace the worship service, and no women were ordained as pastors.

    I’m not here to defend or criticize their practice, BTW. I’m just observing that Christians can establish practices and traditions- whether or not you want to call that “culture.” Things develop as people leave behind their formative influences and ideas to follow Christ- but not all of those things are as they should be.

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