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Why equating culture with ethnicity is inherently racist

Despite my many protestations (including a whole book addressing the topic), it is still quite common within Evangelical circles to equate culture and ethnicity.

I was recently reminded of this when a popular evangelical leader argued in a well-publicized conference that in order to repair what he believes to be systemic racial divides within evangelicalism, we need to be willing to change our worship “styles.” In other words, this speaker apparently believes that there are certain cultural forms (the core of a so-called worship “style”) that are inherent to particular ethnicities, and thus in order to attract or be “welcoming” to these other ethnicities, we need to be willing to “crucify” our preferred cultural forms in favor of those inherent to the ethnicities with whom we are trying to reconcile.

On one level, this argument is another prime example of what I have called the “unproven second premise.” In other words, this speaker believes we need to be willing to “crucify” our preferences for certain cultural forms in order to make other ethnic groups feel welcome in our churches, and his unproven assumption is that cultural forms are essentially neutral and thus merely “preferences.” Yes, if we base our worship “style” on preference alone, then of course we should be willing to “crucify” that. But this speaker wrongly assumes that we have chosen to use specific cultural forms in our worship only because of preference, rather than deeper rationale based on theology of worship and what cultural expressions mean, among other factors.

However, the more dangerous implication of this speaker’s argument is that he apparently assumes that ethnicity and culture are inherently connected. Let me explain:

Unquestionably, it would be sinful to explicitly forbid or implicitly shun a particular ethnic group from participating in your church’s worship or joining your church. It would be wrong to make as a condition for worship or church membership a specific skin color, ancestral heritage, family background, national citizenship, or anything else inherently tied to a person’s ethnicity. This would be racist.

But by specifically calling out worship “style,” this speaker is also including things like musical style and other cultural expressions in the list of characteristics inherent to a person’s ethnicity. He apparently assumes that every person from a particular ethnicity will necessarily prefer the same kind of music, as if preference for certain music is genetically predetermined, like skin color or hair texture.

Now here is the problem with this assumption: If we are going to insist that culture is inherent to ethnicity, then we need to be consistent and apply this logic to all culture. If culture and ethnicity are inherently connected, then we must also include the following cultural behaviors as inherently tied to a person’s ethnicity:

These behaviors are no less part of “culture” than musical style. If preference for certain music is genetically or ethnically predetermined, then so is cannibalism.

The problem is, of course, that from a Christian perspective, these behaviors are wrong. They are cultural practices that are, biblically speaking, inferior to other cultural behaviors like monogamous marriage, refusal to eat human flesh, caring for one’s body, modesty, etc. Any consistent, Bible believing Christian would have to say that these cultural practices are inconsistent with not only what it means to be a Christian, but also what it means to be a human being created in God’s image. Other cultural practices, while certainly not necessarily explicitly sinful, are nevertheless at very least unwise, unhealthy, or otherwise inferior to alternative behaviors. For example, who would question the superiority of antibiotics to the cultural practice of blood letting?

However, there are certain ethnicities for whom these practices are part of their heritage, just like certain musical styles are part of their heritage, sometimes to the degree that the ethnicity and the cultural practice are almost inseparably linked. The apostle Paul acknowledged this reality when he asserted that “all Cretans are liars” (Titus 1:12). Apparently that particular ethnic group was known at the time to be characteristically liars; it was part of their culture.

Yet, if culture is inherent to ethnicity, as this speaker implied, and we recognize that certain cultural practices are sinful or at least inferior, then what we are saying is that some ethnicities are inherently sinful or inferior. This is racist.

This is why it is so important to recognize that culture and ethnicity are not they same thing.

Ethnicity refers to ancestry, family background, or nationality. Culture refers to behaviors.

People of all ethnicities are equally created in the image of God, equally good, and equally valuable. Cultural behaviors come from and reflect beliefs and values and thus may be either good or bad.

It is certainly true that some ethnicities have particular behaviors, including musical styles, as part of their heritage, but these behaviors, including musical styles, are behaviors, not natural traits, and thus may be good or bad. They are not genetically predetermined or otherwise inherent to the people themselves.

Yes, we must be welcoming in our churches to people from all ethnicities without distinction. But in order to do this, we must not adopt cultural forms that are ill-fitted to holy worship just because a particular ethnicity prefers those cultural forms. It matters not if certain cultural expressions are part of our heritage, what we grew up with, all we’ve ever known, or our so-called “heart language.” If those expressions are not fitting for reverent worship of the living God, then we should be willing to “crucify” those expressions since we were redeemed from the way of life inherited from our fathers (1 Peter 1:18). Instead, since culture is not inherent to ethnicity, we should conform our worship “style” to Scripture, not ethnic preference.

Here’s the bottom line: When people imply that certain musical styles (or any aspects of culture) are inherent to ethnicity, they fuel racial divide instead of solving it.

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.