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.1 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.”2 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.”3
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 “race,” it is the same thing as “culture.” This is clear because when most Evangelicals defend cultural neutrality or stress the need for multicultural worship, they appeal to passages that talk about race 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 “race” is not the same thing as “culture.” The first terms describe a group of people with a shared ancestry, but the second describes their behavior. Thus, while it is true that God created all different kinds of people, and he will redeem people from every nation, these biblical statements do not describe their behavior.
In fact, 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 (which, by the way, is not even a biblical understanding of race anyway) or ancestry, it is well within biblical practice–indeed, it is a biblical mandate–to criticize a particular behavior, whether or not that behavior is shared by a group of people.
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 they were nevertheless redeemed by the blood of Christ. 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 is always a reflection of religious values and beliefs. Or, to put it in the words of Henry Van Til, culture is “religion externalized.”
It is extremely problematic, in my opinion, to blur this distinction between race and behavior. Instead, Christians need to celebrate ethnic diversity within churches while being carefully critical of culture. In his book that decries the horrors of racism, John Piper acknowledges this important distinction:
There are aspects of every culture, including our own (whoever “our” is), which are sinful and in need of transformation. So the definition of racism here leaves room for assessing cultures on the basis of a biblical standard.4
- “Culture” originally meant something more along the lines of what we would call “high culture,” but now it has come to take on this more broad meaning. [↩]
- Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), 1. [↩]
- Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984, 5. [↩]
- Bloodlines, 18. [↩]