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Scripturally, “Culture” is Simply the “Behavior” of a People

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series

"Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture"

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If there is any concept of the anthropological/missional idea of “culture” in the NT, it is the idea of “way of life.” A people’s culture is their behavior and their conduct. Several important implications may be drawn from this analysis. First, NT authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value. 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 can be 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 anthropological/missional definitions of culture, the use of such terms in the NT should reorient the missional 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.

Second, NT authors identify people groups (ethnicities, tribes, nations, etc.) as those who share common culture flowing from common values. They do not think about “culture” per se; 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 unites around 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.

Third, NT authors demand that the culture of Christians be holy, pure, and distinct from the culture of unbelievers. Rather than understanding culture to be neutral, NT 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: “The challenge to this assumption is that cultural neutrality is a myth and culture is hostile toward God; just as man is individually depraved in microcosm, so also culture is corporately depraved in macrocosm.”1

Fourth, NT authors proclaim Christianity as a new and distinct people group that shares new values and thus new culture. Peter in particular identifies Christianity as a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” and a “people for his own possession” distinct from other races, nations, and peoples. Howe summarizes the important relationship between “race”-related and “behavior”-related terms in Peter’s writing:

The word ἀναστροφῆς, “way of life,” is a key word in Petrine theology, for it occurs eight times in Peter’s epistles (1 Pet. 1:15; 18; 2:12; 3:1, 2, 16; 2 Pet. 2:7; 3:11). The contrast of lifestyles of believers before and after they trusted Christ as their Redeemer is vividly displayed by seeing how the same word is used to describe their former way of life (“your futile way of life [ἀναστροφῆς],” 1:18) and their new life in Christ (“be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” [ἀναστροφῇ],” 1:15).

This contrast serves as evidence that Peter sought to relate the theological significance of the death of Christ to the ethical dimension of the lives of those who trusted His finished work for their salvation.2

Fifth, NT authors insist that a clear distinction between the culture of believers and unbelievers will have evangelistic impact. Missional authors argue that in order to reach the culture, believers must be incarnate in the culture, e.g., they must resemble the culture around them. Unbelievers will be evangelized only as they recognize the cultural presentation of the gospel. Their posture of contextualization flows directly from their understanding of culture as something entirely involuntary and neutral. Evangelism cannot occur, they argue, without cultural contextualization. In contrast, NT authors insist that only when the culture of believers changes as a result of changed values will unbelievers “glorify God on the day of visitation.” Snoeberger explains this more biblical approach to evangelizing the culture: “The proper response of the Christian to culture is to expose its depravity, demonstrate that it has illicitly borrowed from the Christian worldview, and show that its adherents cannot live within the implications of their own worldview.”3

Snoeberger’s comments lead to one final conclusion that must be drawn as a result of synthesizing what the NT authors have to say about pagan and Christian culture: 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 borrowing from the Christian worldview. Snoeberger explains:

Some cultures borrow substantially from the Christian worldview (sometimes consciously and deliberately, but more often in subconscious response to the latent influence of common grace that envelopes all of God’s creation) and others do not, and this factor is singularly vital in determining how a Christian is to relate to culture.4

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 unbelieving culture as one of suspicion until he can determine which aspects reveal a borrowing from Christian values. Furthermore, when certain aspects of unbelieving culture and Christian culture resemble one another, it is because the unbelievers look like Christians in those instances, not the other way around.

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 must be willing to reorient that understanding to fit within the biblical categories of behavior and conduct, applying all that the Scripture has to say 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.

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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. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization,” 357. []
  2. Howe, “The Christian Life in Peter’s Theology,” 194. []
  3. Snoeberger, “Noetic Sin, Neutrality, and Contextualization,” 357. []
  4. Mark A. Snoeberger, “D. A. Caron’s Christ and Culture Revisited: A Reflection and a Response,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 13 (2008): 100. []