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Theological Issues at Stake in Discussions of Culture and Contextualization

Discussion of culture is an essential ingredient in any intelligent philosophy of Christian music. Especially in today’s globalized, multicultural environment, understanding what culture is and how it relates to worship and music is critical.

The Standard Evangelical View

J. Nathan Corbitt, in his The Sound of the Harvest: Music’s Mission in Church and Culture,1 presents an excellent example of what I think is the default evangelical position on this matter. He begins by asking the important questions at hand:

Is there something different, unique, even holy about the music of people who call themselves Christian? Do Christians have a special song to sing? If so, how do we know what is the best of Christian music? (25)

In other words, is there a distinctly Christian culture? Is there a distinctly Christian music? Or, to put it another way, will the cultural expressions of Christians be different from those of unbelievers around them?

Corbiitt’s answer is no, and he bases his answer on several assumptions that reflect the standard evangelical view of culture. First, this answer is based on the assumption that culture is neutral. Cultural expression, specifically music, is a gift from God, and therefore cannot be evil since that which is created by God is always intrinsically good. He states as a “basic principle” of music that leads him to his understanding of Christianity and culture, “All music is a gift of God given freely to all people” (33).

This leads to a related assumption, namely, that the culture of unbelievers cannot be evil. Therefore, when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ, his culture need not change; only his beliefs change. This assumption is illustrated in a story Corbitt relates about an African woman named Esther Joshua:

Born in the 1930s to a traditional African village family, she had little use for the religion of the missionaries who built a stone church by the road. Their whole way of life was contrary to hers. These waungu (foreign people who travel in circles) seemed determined to change her way of life (29).

The assumption here is that these naïve Western missionaries had no right to expect the gospel to change her way of life—her culture. His narrative goes on to relate how this woman came to faith in Christ and then admirably led the way to use the indigenous musical forms of her culture in the expression of her faith.2

Not only does this view assume culture in general to be neutral, it also assumes music to be neutral. Meaning and morality are not contained in music, they are contained in people. Corbitt says, “[Music’s] meanings are bound to the people and cultures who make it. The meaning of music resides in people, not in sounds” (33). Music is therefore not a universal language but bound to the culture out of which it came. He goes on to say, “Singing is universal, music is not. As far as we know all cultures sing, but music is not a universal language. Because music is always bound to culture, it adheres to the rules of that culture. It thus becomes a cross-cultural problem when one music is played in another context or culture” (33).

This is the standard evangelical position on culture and Christian music: culture is neutral, music is culture-bound (and therefore also neutral), and therefore there need not be anything distinct about the music of Christians in any given cultural setting.

Theological Issues at Stake

I would like to challenge this standard evangelical position based on several theological issuese.


Corbitt is right to insist that music was created by God and comes to us as a gift from him. We read in Job 38:7 that “the morning stars sang together” when God created the earth.3 Music existed before man, and it is something that God created and gave to man as a gift.

But songs are not created by God; people write songs; people create culture. This can be illustrated by the first mention of music in Scripture. Genesis 4:17-22 lists Cain’s descendants, and specifically those who began the development of various cultural and social skills. Jabal was “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock,” Tubal-cain was “the forger of all instruments of bronze and silver,” and Jubal was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” There is an important truth in this revelation: man creates music; man nurtures cultural forms.

But here’s the problem: anything God creates is good, but anything man creates can be either good or evil since people are moral agents capable of either good or evil. Ever since the Fall of mankind, anything that people create is potentially an expression of sin. In fact, just after we read that Jubal was the father of music in Genesis 4, we find the first recorded song in Scripture. This song was not an expression of praise to God or even a wholesome folk song; it was a song of vengeance by Jubal’s father, Lamech.

This does not mean that everything people create is evil, but whenever considering productions of human creativity—especially cultural expressions—two biblical doctrines must always be remembered: common grace and human depravity.

Common Grace. The Bible teaches that God shows his grace to all people, even unbelievers. John Murray defines common grace as “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”4  The very ability to create music and other cultural expressions is a gracious gift of God’s common grace to all mankind.

This truth is expressed in passages such as Matthew 5:45 and Luke 6:35:

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

For he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

It is, therefore, quite possible for even unbelievers to create musical expressions that glorify and praise the Lord. To the extent that any culture embraces biblical values, it is good, and even unbelievers can nurture such cultures through God’s common grace.

Human Depravity. The Bible also teaches that every person is totally and completely depraved.

Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Ephesians 4:17-19 “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. 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.”

Both man’s will and understanding are corrupt.

Titus 1:15 “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.”

The natural man cannot do anything good, nor can he understand spiritual things.

John 8:34 “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

He does not and cannot seek God, nor does he desire to do so.

Romans 3:10-18 “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

Depravity consumes man’s body (Romans 8:10), mind (Titus 1:15; Ephesians 4:17-18), heart (Ephesians 4:18, Jeremiah 17:9), will (John 8:34, Ephesians 2:3), and emotions (Ephesians 4:17-19).

Thus man is totally and completely depraved. Total depravity does not mean that man is as depraved as he could be, but that all of man is completely depraved. No part of man escapes the reach of depravity. Not his will, not his actions, not his preferences, not his culture, and certainly not the way he communicates.

It may seem contradictory to believe both common grace and total depravity, but both doctrines are held in tension in Scripture. What this means is that people can create good things—even unbelievers. But what it also means is that not everything people create is necessarily good; therefore all products of human creation must be judged as to whether they are good or evil—especially cultural expressions.


This leads to the next important theological issue at stake in discussions of Christianity and culture—the biblical doctrine of antithesis. At its essence, antithesis is simply a way of describing the stark enmity that exists between God and the world, between belief and unbelief. There is no neutrality between God and the world. This disparity is articulated in passages such as James 4:4 and 1 John 2:25:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

This biblical concept of “the world” refers to the sinful value system of this present sinful age that is ruled by Satan. It is a value system that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God. And so worldliness is a matter of values and desires that are contrary to God’s desires. It is human environment left to itself.

The world around us is not neutral; it is ruled by “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) who is “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). This is a sober reality that must be taken into account in any discussions of human culture. Mankind can create good, moral cultural expressions, but this happens only through the common grace of God. When God withholds that grace, whatever mankind produces will manifest its depravity and captivity by Satan. As Mark Snoeberger explains, “There are two worldviews among humans, the Christian worldview (which produces Christian culture) and the non-Christian (pagan) worldview (which produces pagan culture).”5  All human cultures are mixtures of the Christian worldview and the pagan worldview.

What is Culture?

This all leads us to a more biblical understanding of culture. I actually think Corbitt’s definition is fairly good:

Culture is the way people organize themselves and go about life. It includes language, roles, rules of interaction, and relationships. Our worldview includes our behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Music is one way in which members of a culture express their affective or feeling nature. We sing about our life—a life that is lived within our culture. Like the tip of a giant iceberg, music is one of the cultural elements we can see and hear and thus identify (33).

I am amazed that Corbitt rightly identifies the worldview of a people as integral to their culture, while at the same time insisting that culture is neutral. If a people’s worldview includes their “behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values,” and if people are truly depraved, then we must assume that apart from the common grace of God, unbelievers’ “behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values” will manifest that depravity.

Culture, according to Roger Scruton, is “a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people”; it is “a demonstration of a belief system.”6  This follows closely T. S. Eliot’s classic argument that “no culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion.”7 Cultural forms are nurtured in value systems as ways of expressing those values, and since the values of this world are corrupt, the cultures of this world will, apart from grace, be corrupt.

This does not mean that all expressions within human cultures are debased—God’s common grace among mankind does allow people to produce good expressions. Yet we must acknowledge several important realities: (1) human cultural expressions may be manifestations of depravity; (2) whatever good there is in the culture of unbelievers is because of the influence of common grace; and (3) where more special grace is present—in the form of gospel proclamation, Christian witness, churches, etc.—it is more likely that unbelievers will be influenced to produce moral culture.

Judging Culture

Where this leaves us is that all expressions of human culture must be judged as to whether they are good or evil. The default evangelical position, as illustrated in Corbitt, seems to be that missionaries dare not change the indigenous culture of the people to whom they minister. The only thing that must change is the people’s intellectual beliefs, and even that is not always the case. For example, Phil Parshall notes that in some missions situations in countries dominated by Islam, Christian missionaries encourage new converts to continue to reciting the shahada (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”) in the shalat (row of bowing men) in Friday worship at a local mosque.8 This is part of their neutral culture, and they should not be forced to change their customs. Yet this is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable missions “contextualization” as these actions run contrary to the gospel they say they believe.

How, then, can cultures be judged? Through two means: First, consideration of the source of a particular custom, tradition, or art form can shed considerable light on what that cultural expression communicates. Association with a sinful source does not necessarily mean that the expression is wrong, but it should at least give us pause. For example, if a particular art form has been cultivated within a system of debased or even barbaric values, it is very likely that form was nurtured to communicate those values. On the other hand, if a cultural expression grew out of a religion—even a non-Christian religion—that honors values compatible with a Christian worldview, it is very likely that expression will manifest those kinds of values. Again, the association with the source does not ensure the quality of the culture, but it certainly does offer some clues.

The most significant means by which to judge culture, however, is to compare the way certain cultural forms communicate naturally within the culture of humanity. There is a culture that God created, and it is universal human culture. All humans share ways of feeling and expressing themselves physically that can be reproduced through culture—specifically music. By discerning relationships between cultural forms and natural human expressiveness, we can judge the values and meanings of those forms.


So the highest value in terms of Christianity and culture is not preserving the indigenous culture of every people group, whether American culture or Indonesian culture. The highest value is preserving, or in some cases introducing, cultural forms that best express biblical values. Sometimes those forms will reflect the surrounding culture; many times they will not.

Evangelicals today think about Scripture and culture entirely backwards. Most evangelicals assume the goodness, or at least neutrality, of all cultures, and then try to fit biblical truth into those cultures in the name of “contextualization.” Yet as Roger Scruton helpfully explains, we should instead begin with Scripture as the ultimate criterion—not culture—in determining what cultural expressions best fit God’s truth.

As politically incorrect as it may sound, I believe an examination of various human cultures reveals that some cultures may be closer than others in reflecting the fixed norm of Kingdom culture (how things will be when Jesus is King). That is why it is dangerous to reason from culture back to the Scriptures. Instead we should endeavor to build the best biblical model for worship and music that we can and then go to the culture in which we find ourselves and look to stimulate progress toward that model.9

We must look to the Word of God to determine the kinds of values and expressions that are appropriate for the communication of God’s truth and for his worship, and then seek to discover (or in some cases create) the kinds of cultural forms that best express those values.

This also means that when an unbeliever comes to Christ, his culture very well may need to change. His beliefs change, and if his culture expresses values incompatible with his new beliefs, his culture must change.

So is there a distinctly Christian culture? Is there a distinctly Christian music? Yes, there is—it is culture and music that expresses Christian values. Unbelievers—even pagan religions—can create this kind of culture; but whenever they do, they are simply borrowing from a Christian worldview to do so. Yet much of the time, pagan worldview cultivates pagan culture. Therefore, as Christians, we must learn to distinguish between those cultural forms that express Christian values and those that do not.

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. J. Nathan Corbitt, The Sound of the Harvest: Music’s Mission in Church and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998). []
  2. Corbitt does not describe the exact nature of the music that she used, so I am not passing judgment at this point as to whether those musical forms were worthy of Christian worship; I am simply pointing out the underlying assumption that missionaries must not expect new converts to change their way of living. []
  3. Whether “morning stars” refers to angels or actual stars does not change the fact that music existed before man. []
  4. John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 2: 96. []
  5. Mark A. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization: How Culture Receives the Gospel,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 9, (2004): 349. []
  6. Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, Continuum Compacts (London; New York: Continuum, 2005), 1, 286. []
  7. T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture: the Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 100. []
  8. Phil Parshall, “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization,” EMQ 34 (October 1998): 406. []
  9. Scruton, 287. []