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Are NT “Behavior”-related Terms Equivalent to “Culture”?

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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So far I have argued that neither “race”-related terms and “world”-related terms in the NT approximate the anthropological idea of “culture.” A third category of NT terms that could parallel the contemporary concept of culture is terms related to behavior. Such terms include terms most often translated as “behavior, “conduct,” or “way of life.”

Among these terms, NT authors most often use ἀναστροφή (anastrophē) in this manner. Bullinger defines the term as “life, as made up of actions; mode of life, conduct, deportment.”1 The Apostle Paul uses the term to describe his behavior in his former life of Judaism: “For you have heard of my former life [ποτε ἀναστροφήν] in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). Boice says of Paul’s use of the term here,

The word Paul used for his former “way of life” (anastrophē) is singularly appropriate to the Jewish faith. Judaism was not a mask to be donned or doffed at will, as was the case with so many of the pagan religions. Judaism was a way of life, involving all of life, and Paul is correct in describing it as his exclusive sphere of existence before his conversion.2

Paul understood his way of life as flowing directly and necessarily from his religious convictions and values. Because of this perspective, Paul insisted that one’s conduct must change with conversion:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles [ἔθνη] do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life [προτέραν ἀναστροφὴν] and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24).

Here Paul distinguishes between behavior of the ἔθνη and the behavior of Christ-followers. He notes that their values (“futility of their minds,” “darkened understanding,” “alienation from the life of God,” “ignorance,” and “hardness of heart”) lead to sinful behavior (“sensuality,” “greed,” and “impurity”). He describes this once again as their “former manner of life,” using the term ἀναστροφή. In contrast, the new values of Christians (“renewed in the spirit of your minds”) produce a new way of life (“put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”). Paul communicates a similar sentiment to Timothy when he says, “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct [ἀναστροφῇ], in love, in faith, in purity” (1Ti 4:12). Paul clearly uses ἀναστροφή, therefore, to describe a particular way of life, whether good or evil, that flows from religious beliefs and values. Boice summarizes:

Paul now gives the content of the teaching his readers received, though the verb is not actually repeated. Their previous life style was to be discarded completely. They must forsake their old behavioral haunts (anastrophēn; NIV, “your former way of life”) and indeed lay aside the costume of their unregenerate selves.3

The most prolific use of ἀναστροφή is found in Peter’s writings. Forms of the term appear three times in 1 Peter 1:13-19:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [ἀναστροφῇ], since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds [ἔργον], conduct yourselves [ἀναστράφητε] with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways [ματαίας ἀναστροφῆς] inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Like Paul, Peter contrasts a former way of life with a new behavior. Howe says of Peter’s use of ἀναστροφή, “The word “behavior,” which translates ἀναστροφῆ, corresponds to the word “lifestyle” and covers all actions, thoughts, words, and relationships.”4 Peter characterizes the former behavior as flowing from ignorance, leading to “futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” The new way is to be characterized by holiness and fear. Here Peter uses the verb form of ἀναστροφή, ἀναστρέφω (anastrephō), to command his readers to live a certain way since they have been ransomed from the former way. Peter also uses a nearly synonymous “behavior”-related term, ἔργον (ergon; “deeds”), to describe their lifestyle.

Later in 1 Peter 2:12 Peter admonishes his readers, “Keep your conduct [ἀναστροφὴν] among the Gentiles [ἔθνεσιν] honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds [καλῶν ἔργων] and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Notably, this command is in the context of Peter using race-related terms to call believers in Christ a “chosen race [γένος],” “a holy nation [ἔθνος],” and “a people [λαὸς] for his own possession.” This, then, reveals a connection between the race-related terms and the “behavior”-related terms. Γένος, ἔθνος, and λαός identify groups of people who unite around common ἀναστροφή. This common behavior stems from shared values and beliefs. Christians, according to Peter, are a new race that shares common values and beliefs, which result in a new way of life. This way of life is distinct from their former behavior, the conduct of unbelievers. Indeed, the metaphorical use of ἔθνος in several passages, including 1 Peter 2:9, indicates that the Christian community forms a new “nation” distinct from earthly nations. David Wright explains the significance of the race-related terms in 1 Peter 2:

Each of these four designations is pregnant with suggestiveness of its own, but they all express the important early Christian conviction that Christians in any one place or region belonged to a people, the people of God, which constituted a new corporate presence. This self-consciousness became a significant feature of the remarkable confidence of the Christians in the first three centuries.5

Wright argues that the early church saw itself as a “third race,” distinct from other earthly races, and thus they rejected the behavior of those races.

1 Peter 2:12 also reveals another important aspect of a believer’s conduct—it has potential evangelistic impact upon unbelievers: “They may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Peter reiterates this emphasis in 1 Peter 3:1-2: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct [ἀναστροφῆς] of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct [ἀναστροφὴν].” Also important to note is that Peter describes this “pure conduct” in terms of particular ways of adorning themselves in jewelry and dress (vv 3-6). Finally, Peter further describes the importance of a believer’s way of life for its evangelistic impact in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior [ἀναστροφήν] in Christ may be put to shame.

From this study of NT terms, it is apparent that the group of terms most closely resembling both cultural anthropologists’ and missional authors’ definitions of “culture” is the “behavior”-related terms. While both the “race”-related and “world”-related terms demonstrate relationship to the contemporary notion of culture, they do not identify culture itself. Ethnic groups unite around common culture, and the sinful world-system affects unbelieving culture, but these terms are not the same as culture. Rather, “behavior”-related terms like ἀναστροφή—which describe complete ways of life, conduct, and behavior—most closely identify “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor)6 or “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another” (Newbigin).7

Next time we’ll look at implications of this argument.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, 186. []
  2. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Romans Through Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 433. []
  3. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Ephesians Through Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 62. []
  4. Frederic R. Howe, “The Christian Life in Peter’s Theology,” Bibliotheca Sacra 157, no. 627 (July 2000): 306–07. []
  5. David F. Wright, “A Race Apart? Jews, Gentiles, Christians,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 368 (April 2003): 128. []
  6. Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1. []
  7. Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984, 5. []