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Culture, Not Race

This entry is part 30 of 63 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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Scripture does not define the word culture, but it certainly describes the phenomenon of culture-making. Humans are meaning-making creatures, who fashion their world after their values, religions, and world-views.

The Bible also describes the behavior or way of life that comes from a certain culture. The Greek word anastrophe is translated conduct, or way of life. In contrast to those who define culture as “everything people do” the biblical writers see one’s anastrophe as rooted in one’s religion. That is, idolatry and false systems produce one kind of anastrophe, whereas Christianity is supposed to produce another.

as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [anastrophe], because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct [anastrophe – verb form] yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [anastrophe] received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:14-19)

Peter contrasts one form of culture with another. One was received by tradition (which is simply a culture stretched over time), the other is shaped by the new life in Christ.

Here we see the tragic misstep of equating culture with race. For if culture and race are synonymous, no culture can be critiqued. One would then be judging the value of a people based upon skin color, which is racism proper.

Scripture does not critique people based upon their ethnos (race). It does, however, critique their anastrophe, which is to say, their culture. If the culture of a people has produced immorality, idolatry, perversions, Scripture condemns the culture. In condemning the culture, it is condemning the belief-system that created that behavior. 

One sees the sad result of equating race and culture in South Africa. Here, untaught believers will still refer to “my culture” as a contrast to another believer’s “culture”. You will routinely hear people say that missionaries brought “their culture” and imposed it upon Africa. Some dear black believers are desperately trying to discover some pristine form of “black Christian culture” untouched by Western hands. Believers speak of certain ways of worship as belonging to one culture (by which they mean ethnicity) as opposed to another. 

Now I, for one, rejoice in the diversity of our country, and of my local church. I love the many colors that look back at me on a Sunday morning. I enjoy being called “Mfundisi” (teacher) by some of the members. I enjoy tasting, hearing and seeing the mix of foods, languages and social customs that mingle in our local church. A multi-ethnic church is a joy. Racism is an evil, and I will, as the occasion suggests, write and preach against racism as a sin. 

But our church is not “multi-cultural”. That would be equivalent to saying, it is “multi-anastrophal”, or “multi-religious”. No, in the biblical sense, our church is uni-cultural. We love and honor Christ. With Scripture as our final authority, it shapes the loves, beliefs and behavior of those who call themselves part of our church. However much melatonin the skin of the various members contain, however many of our country’s eleven national languages (yes, eleven!) they speak, however different some of our social customs may be, we are actually bound and shaped by one culture: Christian culture. 

I recognize speaking of “Christian culture” raises several other questions. What place is there for differing expressions of music or art in this supposed Christian culture? Has Christian culture existed in the past, and what did it look like? What if one ethnic group has dominated in historic Christian culture? What element of missions was pure ethnic preference, and what was true Christian culture? Should modern missionaries attempt to leave the cultures they find in as pristine a state as possible? We will attempt to deal with these questions as we rehabilitate this mangled word. 

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

2 Responses to Culture, Not Race

  1. May I offer an augmenting comment with regard to 1 Peter 2:9 which states:

    9 but you are A CHOSEN RACE (γένος, genos), A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION (ἔθνος, ethnos), A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;

    While we do not use the words derived from the Greek identically,in English, we do so much closer than people understand and in this context, they both survive sufficiently to observe and support the principle that we are, as the church, a “new spiritual species” (2 Cor. 5:17).

    Our racial identity in the church is spiritual (chosen, in Christ, belonging to Christ, saved in Him), our ethnicity is holiness and out culture, one of a Biblical value system of putting off the old man and putting on the new who is renewed in knowledge and practice (Colossians, Ephesians).

    Luther rightly identified two kingdoms, the left (civil) and the right (spiritual, the church). Many of the injurious formulas which mix human racial, ethnic and cultural identities as important properties within the church, do so because they do not understand their appropriate Biblical context.

    The Bible never nullifies the value of human racial, ethnic or cultural properties but it does set a clear distinction between the left and right kingdoms and their value systems. And in the kingdom on the right, the spiritual kingdom – the church – we are given from God a completely heretofore never prescribed value system in both doctrine and practice, which includes a personal and corporate identification system, as believers, and these are quite specifically, spiritual ones, spiritually based.

    We are brothers and sisters because of our identity in Christ. We share fellowship, not via any human reconciliation such as racial, ethnic or cultural ones but because of the establishment, in Christ, of our new spiritual species with our new spiritual DNA (genos), our new ethnic identity which is that of holy ones and our new culture, people who are God’s possession doing a new work.

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