Bible Teaching About Culture
The Bible teaching about culture is something the church is utterly fascinating. Have you ever been in another country where things seem awkward and different from what you are used to? I have. It can get pretty confusing and frustrating at times.
My goal here is to provide information that will help travelers, missionaries, and business people – anyone who interacts with people of another ethnicity. I even include those whose spouse is from another land – like Esmie and I are.
From the church’s perspective, Jesus said to, “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). The word “nations” (Gr. Ethnos) means a nation or people. It is a group based on a unique socio-political-cultural community. It includes common core values and language.
Immediately, we see barriers begin to emerge that are based on critical parts of life: social structure, political structure, customs, language, and values, etc. The problem is this: how can we manage to live, minister, or do business with people who are different than us?
One place to start is to understand what culture is, why it exists, and how to relate to different groups. So, whether you are on a vacation to Mexico or Manila, a missionary to morocco or a trader in Moscow, this overview will help you appreciate and understand what other traditions are all about. It will help you to succeed and survive.
What is Culture?
A very short definition is this: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. Culture is largely hidden from and invisible to the people within the system. It is like air, we do not notice it until it is gone.
Yours and my way of life is constantly with us; yet, it operates largely outside of our conscious awareness. We automatically participate in it. It is like being born blind, and our parents give us prescription lens through which we view and interpret our social, spiritual and physical world.
Those lenses provide meaning to our world, and teach us how to respond to the events that swirl around us. It makes our life predictable, meaningful, and less confusing and helps us resolves the basic needs of our group.
Culture is a unique system that includes knowledge, beliefs, values, laws, weapons, tools, art, language, symbols and other forms of communication, customs, distinctive group patterns and relationships, and any capabilities or habits acquired by one as a member of a certain group.
It is shared by all or almost all members, and is passed on from one generation to the next. It shapes our behavior and structures our perception of the world.
Why Does it Exist?
Culture exists to assist a group of people to adapt to their environment and perpetuate themselves (Genesis 1:28). Every group must learn through trial and error how best to manage their community. For example, say you are looking at five different groups. They are located in a desert region, rain forest, artic, Pacific island, and a high barren mountainous area.
Each group would need to develop the best survival means suited to their resources and environment. They would need to develop common values, methods, tools, and carefully cooperate together to continue to exist.
The best methods to solve their unique problems are then made into rules, enforced, and handed down to the next generation. Deviance from following the rules is punished, because it is a threat to the survival of the whole community.
Here are some common problems every society must decide on how to handle in a way best suited to their situation. The different ways people resolve these issues is what makes societies different. Communities and civilizations need to learn…
•How to handle and regulate procreation.
•How to distribute goods and services.
•How to satisfy the aesthetic needs (i.e. beauty, taste, art.).
•How to train the young.
•How to enforce the rules of society.
•How to care for the sick.
•How to dispose of the dead.
•How to satisfy the god(s).
•How to defend themselves.
•What to do for recreation: soccer, spear throwing, poker, movies?
•How to transport things: boats, planes, trucks, water buffalo?
•What tools are best: plows, fish hooks, computers, pencils?
•What & how to communicate: language, symbols, etc.
•How to govern themselves: monarchy, tribal chieftain, democracy?
God created society, “and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
Early in the Bible we see the development of urbanization and government, agriculture, entertainment, and industry (Genesis 4:17-23). There is the dividing of nations in Genesis 10:1-32. At the tower of Babel you can observe the mechanism of language used by God to separate and scatter people throughout the world (Genesis 11:1-4).
The Good and the Bad
Because of our ethnocentric view of the world, you and I tend to view and judge other groups through the values and customs of our own people. We think all other ethnic groups should do things like we do. But, that is wrong. Other groups have taken centuries to learn what works best for them in their circumstances.
This is important: all the elements of society must work together in harmony. If you bump or change one part of culture, it will have a ripple effect throughout the entire system. For example, if a sawmill or mine shuts down in a town, it will impact the entire community: schools, stores, taxes, health services, recreation, roads, food services – everything.
Consequently, outsiders would be very wise before mocking and changing other customs. That said, every culture has good and bad in it. Some have devolved into some very malevolent practices. Romans 1:18-32 paints a vivid picture of societies that have rejected God, and descended into very vile and self-destructive customs.
Working Within Society
Whatever it is that you do, to be effective in another culture, you must learn how to operate within their norms and customs. Granted, it will take a while to learn there way of life, because it is largely hidden from what you see on the surface.
Paul practiced this principle. He wrote, “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law” (1 Corinthians 9:20; cf. chapters 8-10).
In making disciples or followers of Christ in all the ethnic groups in the world, we must learn about culture. From this study you have learned what culture is, why it exists, and a little bit on how to appreciate and relate within a foreign culture.
With this, Esmie wish you all the best in all your endeavors. God bless.
Dr. Willis and Esmie Newman
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. When you think of the customs of another group, what comes to your mind?
2. Study 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10. List at lest five principles of how to relate to another ethnic group.
3. What aspect of culture does Genesis 2:22-25 address? Explain.
4. What aspect does Genesis 4:17 address? Explain.
5. What aspect does Genesis 4:21 address? How is this expressed in your culture?
6. What aspect does Genesis 4:22 address? How does this relate to your culture?
7. How many elements of culture can you find in Genesis 10:20, 32?
8. Read Genesis 12:4-13:12. How many forms of social structure can you identify? Hint: Abraham, Pharaoh, and the cities in the valley of Jordan.
9. Can you identify cultural differences between your culture and another that you are familiar with? Explain.
10. What stands out to you the most in this Bible Study? Explain.