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Is culture the same as race?

The issue of culture is always of interest to those involved with worship for one obvious reason–the “cultural” aspects of worship, primarily music, poetry, and rhetoric, are what often cause the most controversy. Questions rising out of this include:

  • Is musical style neutral?
  • Are there some musical styles that are more fitting for worship than others?
  • Are the cultural forms in Scripture merely arbitrary contextualizations?
  • Is it acceptable (or even desirable) for Christian worship to mimic the art forms of the surrounding culture?
  • Should churches adapt the cultural forms of their target audience in order to reach them?
  • In order to be authentic, must worship use cultural forms that are familiar to the worshipers?

Each of these questions (and certainly many more) find their answers only when we have an adequate grasp of the nature of culture and, following that, a proper understanding of how Scripture deals with culture. It is amazing to me, then, how many authors and speakers on worship either neglect to define culture at all (and, therefore, give no consideration to what the Bible says about culture) or simply assume without adequate basis the ideas about culture prevalent in secular society.


If a Christian author attempts to define culture biblically, the term most frequently identified in the New Testament as an equivalent to our idea of culture is ethnos, most often translated as “nation” or “race.” For example, in commenting on Matthew 28:16–20, Christian cultural anthropologists Paris and Howell explain that “the word translated ‘nations’ here (ethnos) refers to the culture of a people, an ethnic group.”1 Likewise, evangelical author and missiologist Ed Stetzer likewise defines ethnos in terms of “people groups, population segments, and cultural environments.”2 If it is true that “culture” is the same thing as ethnos in Scripture, then the following are assumed to be true:

  • God created all cultures.
  • God approves of all cultures.
  • All cultures will be in heaven some day (Rev. 5).
  • Cultures are neutral, or even good.
  • Religious beliefs are but one element of a culture.
  • To judge a culture is racist.

In other words, if a “culture” is the same thing as a “race,” then there is no such thing as sinful culture. What would this mean for worship?

  • All cultural forms are legitimate for use in worship.
  • We should desire multi-cultural worship since this best reflects heavenly worship.
  • In order to reach unbelieving people, we should adopt their culture.
  • In order to worship authentically, we ought to be able to worship with the cultural forms most comfortable for us.

This kind of thinking certainly represents most evangelicals today (as seen in the prevalent cries for “contextualized” worship and “ethnodoxology”), and this understanding of the nature of culture reflects the predominant thought of unbelievers as well (as seen in the emphasis upon cultural tolerance and multiculturalism). If “culture” is the same as “race,” then all of the above makes sense. But is it?

I mentioned that most people usually assume this equivalence without actually supporting the assertion. Well let’s first consider what people are referring to when they talk about “culture.” They are talking about things people do–their habits, their customs, their arts, and their traditions. In the terms of one of the earliest cultural anthropologists, culture is “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.”3 Or, in the words of one of the leading evangelical authors on culture, culture is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”4 Culture is the common behavior of a group of people.

So what, then, is ethnos (“race,” “nation”) in the New Testament, and is it is the same thing as behavior? What is clear from both the lexical definitions of ethnos and its use various contexts is that the terms does not refer to the behavior of a group of people but rather the people themselves. In other words, ethnos designates a group of people, usually with common ancestry, and does not specifically describe how they act or how they live. Ethnos is not the same thing as “culture.”

What idea in Scripture, then, informs our understanding of culture? Very simply, “behavior.” It’s really that simple. Whatever the Bible commands regarding the behavior of people should impact our understanding of culture. Here are some examples of passages that we should apply to our understanding of culture:

  • “For you have heard of my former life [“behavior”]5 in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13).
  • “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. . . . 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 [“behavior”] 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).
  • “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct [“behavior”], in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
  • “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 [“behavior”], 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 [“behavior”], conduct [“behave”] yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways [“behavior”] 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” (1 Pet 1:13-19).

  • “Keep your conduct [“behavior”] among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds [“behavior”] and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12).
  • “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 [“behavior”] of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct [“behavior”]” (1 Pet 3:1-2).
  • “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 in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16).

In each of these cases, I am suggesting that terms related to “behavior” directly impact our modern concept of “culture.”

So, here are a few implications of this equivalence:

  • New Testament authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value that have nothing to do with “race.” They highlight differences of belief and religion that produce the behavior and conduct of a people. This is important because it contradicts the idea of cultural neutrality. Since values and beliefs are not neutral (i.e., they are either good or evil), the culture produced from values and beliefs is likewise not neutral. Furthermore, this also contradicts the notion that religion is a component of culture. Rather, culture is a component of religion. So while “behavior”-related terms resemble evangelical definitions of culture, the use of such terms in the New Testament should reorient the evangelical understanding of culture such that it is seen as flowing from religious values and worldview. Thus every culture and particular cultural expression must be evaluated based upon what religious values it embodies.
  • 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.
  • The New Testament demands that the culture of Christians be holy, pure, and distinct from the culture of unbelievers. Rather than understanding culture to be neutral, New Testament authors judge unbelieving culture as worthy of condemnation. They expect Christians, therefore, to reject the culture shaped by the world’s systems and to form a new way of life impacted by biblical values. The culture produced from unbelief is not neutral; it is depraved.
  • New Testament authors proclaim Christianity as a new and distinct people group that shares new values and thus new culture. Peter in particular identifies Christians as a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” and a “people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9) distinct from other races, nations, and peoples.
  • New Testament authors insist that a clear distinction between the culture of believers and unbelievers will have evangelistic impact. Evangelical authors, however, argue that in order to reach the culture, believers must be incarnate in the culture, that is, they must resemble the culture around them. Unbelievers will be evangelized only as they recognize the presentation of the gospel in their own cultural language. The advocacy of contextualization by these authors flows directly from their understanding of culture as something entirely involuntary and neutral. Evangelism cannot occur, they argue, without cultural contextualization. While this is certainly true with regard to language intelligibility, these authors extend “intelligibility” to all aspects of behavior. In contrast, New Testament authors insist that only when the culture of believers changes as a result of transformed values will unbelievers “glorify God on the day of visitation.”
  • Where similarities do exist between the behavior of unbelievers and the conduct of believers, such behavior by unbelievers is due to the fact that on that particular issue they are working with what Greg Bahnsen calls “borrowed capital”6 —unbelievers borrowing biblical values in certain areas of their lives. This reality explains why the culture of Christians may at times resemble the culture of unbelievers in some respects. However, this understanding also sets the believer’s initial response toward an unbelieving culture as one of suspicion until he can determine which aspects reveal a borrowing from biblical values. Furthermore, when certain aspects of an unbelieving culture and a biblical culture resemble one another, it is because the unbelievers look like Christians in those instances, not the other way around.

So much of the evangelical contextualization posture finds its starting point in analyzing and appropriating whatever cultural expressions dominate the surrounding society. Yet this framework sets the culture as the authority in church practice. Instead, churches should begin with the authoritative Word of God, seeking to develop a unique and holy culture that flows from biblical values. A certain amount of translation may be necessary to communicate those values and behavior to people who do not share the same constructs, but even the translation must accurately reflect Scripture. In some cases, the target audience may be so foreign to a biblical system of values that nothing about their indigenous culture is usable; in those cases church leaders will find it necessary to explain to them the meaning of holy cultural forms and teach them to learn to appreciate those kinds of forms.

For this reason, church leaders, and indeed all Christians, must have a skilled knowledge of the cultural forms used in the Bible to express its truth. A certain amount of study of biblical literary forms, including how they shape their content, will help a church leader better discern which forms in his culture best communicate truth. Likewise, church leaders should study the kinds of sentiments and affections the Bible prescribes for worship and choose worship forms that accurately express those affections.

This will also require that church leaders know how to parse the meanings and values of the cultural expressions within their own culture to determine whether or not they are compatible with Christian sentiments. This may be one area where the missional church emphasis is helpful—churches must know how the people in their community think and the worldviews that influence their thinking as well as how this thinking and worldview is embodied in their cultural expressions. Christians do not necessarily need to immerse themselves in the culture of their community in order for this to take place—in fact, that might sometimes be dangerous for one’s spiritual well-being.

Christians in the twenty-first century will not be able to escape wrestling through matters of culture and contextualization as they seek to accomplish the mission God has for them. Yet rather than adopting the understanding of culture developed by secular anthropologists, Christians should be willing to reorient that viewpoint to fit within the biblical categories of behavior and conduct, applying all that the Scripture has to offer about those categories to cultural matters. Only then will they be equipped to appropriate a truly biblical perspective on culture and contextualization for world evangelism, worship, and the entirety of church ministry.

For Discussion:

  1. How does this essay impact the study of the cultural forms used in Old Testament Hebrew worship?
  2. What kinds of criteria should inform a biblical evaluation of cultural forms used in worship today?
  3. Is critique of culture racist?
  4. What differences are there between cultural “translation” and cultural “contextualization”?
  5. What differences exist between the relationship of culture to worship for ancient Israel and the relationship of culture to worship today?

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. Paris and Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 23. []
  2. Stetzer and Putman, Breaking the Missional Code, 37–38. Emphasis added. []
  3. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), 1. []
  4. Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984, 5. []
  5. I am designating as “behavior” in this list Greek terms like ἀναστροφή (anastrophē) and ἔργον (ergon), which I am arguing are nearly equivalent to our modern notion of culture. []
  6. “The unbeliever lives on borrowed capital; that is, he knows the truth deep down and even secretly assumes it, but he has no right to believe it on his own presuppositions—he must borrow from the Christian worldview” (Greg L. Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen [Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007], 103). []