Culturizing Christianity
Mike Oppenheimer

A new Missiology is being promoted in mission work and it is spreading quickly. It is called “redeeming the cultures,” ”Cultural identification, “ and a number of other terms. The new idea being presented is that- God has left certain elements in every culture that are redeemable qualities, pathways to Himself. Some take the position He revealed Himself to nearly all indigenous people groups prior to the Gospel brought to them. They believe in every culture-God has left treasures and worthy traditions within the indigenous cultures to be used. That we can bring to people Jesus Christ and then leave them to worship God in their own cultures ways.

I have a great concern on this matter and have seen enough trends to know what can be useful or harmful. In the long run I believe this is one of those trends that can do much damage to true evangelism.

Their intent is to present the gospel in a way that is relevant, and if necessary bring harmony with past beliefs in these cultures and religions. The problem is that the past beliefs are no better off then the new ones. There is an agenda, and many of the people involved do not care strongly about historical accuracy, they are more than willing to revise the past to reconcile Christianity with it to have an effective influence. The bottom line is that they are not coming from a Biblical perspective or model, but are being influenced by the current philosophical trends of the day.

What they are looking for are new approaches to build bridges to an indigenous/ religious people groups and cultures. What is taught is that God set forth His plan of salvation through all ancient cultures; that redemptive analogies can be found in most, if not all cultures. Certainly, there are elements in a few cultures that can be used as a bridge to better their understanding of the gospel. The mistake made is to use this concept as a methodology for all the cultures. By trying to be culturally relevant, we can focus more on the inreach to the culture and lose sight that the truth never changes and the world’s cultures and religions DO NOT have the truth. Contextualization can be done accurately as long as it is not done by revisioning a people’s history or having their past practices considered equal with Biblical truth. For example one can find the purest thing a culture holds and make Christ relatable to them in His holiness. We should be using Biblical examples as our basis, like the idea of sin that each of us experience each and everyday. Using basic witnessing ideas such as the law and mans conscience (what Paul pointed out in the book of Romans 1-2) is a more direct and efficient way. We need to be careful not to reinterpret the Bible which is God’s Word by legends, myths or the oral tradition of the nations. If you mix myths with sound doctrine, you will corrupt the truth.

Mankind’s expressions in their customs, rites and rituals of their cultures religion are mans own ways to connect with God, not God’s way given to man (John 14:6). If we do not apprehend this basic Biblical view, we will be lost in a plethora of opinions of new ways to evangelize.

They admit that cultures being “redeemed” is a controversial topic and that they are traversing in new territory. Cultures throughout mankind’s history are affiliated with the world system of which God says not to be conformed to. The word of God has nothing to say about redeeming cultures, society, or religions. Instead it is individual people who need to make a choice in following the truth when they hear the gospel. It must be presented to them clearly,  in an understandable way. I want to make sure I’m not misunderstood here, I’m for evangelizing all people no matter what race, tribe or religion they are, but I’m  concerned when I see a zeal to do this without the soberness of sound doctrine as the basis.

Our precedent for this is Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. It means to go out (or as you go) make learners of all the nations (Gr. ethnos) means the people of these nations. Teach all the different people of the world (especially the non Jews) about Jesus and what He taught them. We know this is the correct meaning because of the word nations used elsewhere: “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separates his sheep from the goats -individuals (Matt. 25:32). Jesus in his sermon “For all these things the nations of the world seek after these things (Luke 12:30), obviously he means a diversity of people. However, the idea of redeeming cultures or nations is interpreted very differently in these new missionary endeavors.

“Appreciating one's culture is appreciating the creation of God in a unique and beautiful manner.  As disciples of Jesus Christ we are also called to redeem our culture as we grow in God” (YWAM DTS, Island Breeze, http://www.islandbreeze.com.au/training.htm)

Did God form our culture? Where does the Bible teach to redeem a culture, a society? These are questions that need to be answered before one accepts and implements this new methodology.

“And yet all brings glory to God in its own special way, and that’s true of human beings and cultures as well.” ... God is now calling forth from among the indigenous communities of the world that good deposit which He has made in them of their cultures, their languages, their musical expressions and all that sort of thing ... as an expression of praise and worship unto Himself.” (Terry LeBlanc, Word to The World radio program #542)

How can God call forth something that He has not put there? The assumption is that God formed ALL the nations, cultures (specifically) and purposely put things in their culture that are equal to what He did with Israel. This simply is not so and there are enough Bible examples contrary to this to explain that God did not approve of these cultures in ancient Bible times. If you begin with a  wrong premise your practice will be affected, right doctrine- orthodoxy brings right orthopraxy -practice. God said to Israel Deut. 12:30-32: “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.”’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods. Deut 18:14: “you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations.”  God did not put anything in these nations, they were on their own, Paul writes in Acts 14:16: “who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways.” All means ALL.

Furthermore, redemption in the New Testament is always for the individual, not cultures. Again, we see a seeker sensitive type approach being implemented for evangelism, this can only result in softening the requirements of the gospel and I believe a compromise is seen on some major points. These points are elucidated throughout this article.

In 1996 in Rotorua, New Zealand, The World Christian Gathering on Indigenous People was held. They met together to seek God for the redemption of the unique identity of the culture of the indigenous people of the world. They stated they wanted to bring out the yet untapped and concealed forms of worship and praise to God in the way the culture expresses. I have seen this video, if you get a chance to see this video you will find there are some very disturbing actions that can in no way be construed as worship like the Hebrews were taught.

The indigenous people movement states that they want everyone to worship their Creator and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the spirit and truth of the way He made them. How were we made? Through our cultural distinctive? What do our cultures have anything to do with God making us in His image? There is an absence of mans fallen nature in this equation. Once it is brought in, we understand our cultures religious aspects are not from or of God but against him.

Eagles Wings website; “Both Native Americans, their mission is “to present the Great Spirit's Son, Jesus Christ and His Words, the Bible to Native Americans in culturally relevant ways.” (Link from Wiconi site). (note: Did the Indians great spirit have a son?)

This is what exactly Daniel Kikawa is teaching “ Christians should cease representing Jesus as the Son of the foreign God of a foreign people, especially if these foreigners had never shown concern for nor had any involvement in the lives or culture of the natives. We should instead introduce Jesus as the Son of their creator God. God lovingly created them in the beginning never left them without a witness and, in his great love for them, even sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to die for them!” (Perpetuated in Righteousness p.27)

You can’t just attach Jesus to any god or religious system and Christianize Him. They admit Syncretism distorts Christianity and that we should avoid blending religious elements of ancient Native Beliefs and practices with the Christian Faith. But what they fail to understand is that THEY ARE blending it when they say another God had a son and then name that son Jesus Christ, whom is specifically of the Hebrew lineage. Again, this is separating Jesus from the people and religion He came to earth by. They are making a Jesus for all nations out of those nations. Make no mistake about this becomes Another Jesus. This may seem like a harsh statement but it will be clear by the end of the article, it is unmistakable.

From the beginning Romans 1:18 tells us mankind “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” V.20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” The context of this whole portion of Scripture is “since the creation,” so no one has an excuse. Paul goes on to explain in v.21-22 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Since the creation of the world they knew of him but refused to worship him and because of their sinfulness suppressed the truth. They purposely ignored the true God and substituted him for various false ones. Those things that were created. The gods of the nations have no ONLY BEGOTTEN Son. He was revealed only a few times in the Old Testament Scripture by the Jewish prophets to Israel before He came to earth as a man (starting in Genesis 3:15 to Adam and Eve). Paul says even of Israel “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). If the Jews, who God delivered the ordinances to, did not practice the knowledge they were given, how could the Gentile nations have any accurate knowledge? No culture had any correct knowledge on God unless God revealed it to them. It is not in anyway accurate, or true, to say the god[s] of the nations had the same Son of God, Jesus Christ. For this would be to say they had the same God of the Hebrews. No other culture or religion had the truth, except one. One must recognize the God/man came through Judaism, He picked them among all the people. For one to have another view as a Christian is to go against the whole body of Scripture.

What culture has any belief that is agreeable with the New Testament except for the Judaism of Moses (not rabbinic Judaism)! Yet we have Christians offering a new, a better way to evangelize by saying all religions or cultures have something from God. By salvaging corrupted stories and cultural myths we make the religion and cultures worth significant and are more able to reach the people in it.

Terry LeBlanc:  “There’s a myth that we have labored under for centuries in indigenous communities and the myth is that we are a godless heathen people” (Terry LeBlanc, Word to The World program #542).

What Le Blanc is proposing is that the American Indians were not worshipping different gods or worshipping incorrectly before they meet Christ. I can agree that they had spiritual practices but to say they were the same as the Bible would obviously be wrong. This is an area of sensitivity to those whose generations that have lived before them. The word heathen or pagan are not politically correct terms to be used these days and can be inflammatory to some, but that still does not change the facts.

Cultures are man made not God given. They are diverse as the people’s tastes in the world. Every religion except Judaism is manmade, only the Hebrew culture was God given and overseen by God (starting with Abraham and developed through Moses and the prophets). It is in this context that the apostle Paul wants the Gentiles to relate to in their faith from their Jewish roots, he never sent them back into their own pagan culture to do as their customs dictate.

In the Old Testament if you wanted to be a worshipper of God you needed to convert to Judaism, this is not so in the New covenant. In the New Testament, a Gentile does not become a Jew but a spiritual gentile, having the faith of Abraham. They are grafted into the tree because the original natural branches were temporarily broken off (Romans 11:17-24). That Olive tree is the covenant made with Israel by God Himself.

The early church leadership met about the Gentiles being saved and the issues that were arising. Their decision for the Gentiles would be the most basic commands possible to keep the peace between them and Jews who were very knowledgeable in the Scriptures yet still learning about grace. Their instruction are found in Acts 15:29: “that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.” These were all the regular religious practices of their day but not done in Judaism. Of course the church did not have them wear a Jewish robe, a yamulka and go to Synagogue on the Sabbath, or learn Hebrew. They did not require any of the other customs they themselves were brought up in as Jews (neither were the converted Jews required this). But from these instructions of what not to do in Acts 15, they made them sever their lives from what they formerly practiced in their culture. The very fact that Paul repeats that they were saved from idols should give us insight into apostles view of their culture (Greek or Roman). “You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols” (1 Cor. 12:2). The word idol in Greek- eidolon; an image (i.e. for worship); by implication, a heathen god, or (plural) the worship of such: 1 John 5:21 John tells the Church to keep from idols (2 Cor. 6:16).Culture and Culturization

In the Dictionaries, the word culture is defined as: “The quality in a person, or society that rises from interest in arts, letters, scholarly pursuits, etc. 2. a particular form or stage of civilzation: Greek culture (The Random house Dictionary). 

“2. the development and refinement of mind, morals and tastse.4. Anthropol. The sum total of the attainments and learned behavior patterns of any specific period or people” (Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary).

 “tillage, cultivation 4 : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.)

Notice that it is developed by mans interests, that it is not just secular but religious. That is what we find in the majority of ancient cultures, they were mixed with religious practices. Most cultures were pagan, polytheistic and animistic. These ancient Cultures were made into a society, a community bound together by common interests, which often had religious significance.

The Bible does not contain the word culture or society but addresses it as nations and it is specifically a religious issue with how they worship their gods and the one true God (Romans1).The Gentiles in the Church

Peter said of Cornelius Acts 10:19-33 that a Jew was not to keep company of “another nation, a stranger, an uncircumcised Gentile.” Why, because of what God spoke in the Old Testament. The Lord had to convince Peter that He does not show favoritism to any people group, ethnicity or culture or nation because of the new covenant. Acts 10:21-22  Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?” And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” Cornelius relays his encounter with an angel. Peter tells him that God accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10:35). Many stop there and say that the Gentiles were now accepted by doing what is right, but we know this is not true. Notice it says those who fear him, obviously Cornelius prayed, fasted, and gave alms in search for salvation; he was doing works but he still needed the gospel of grace. Peter was sent to preach the gospel to them. The proof was when he watched the Holy Spirit manifest through them as He did with the Jews at Pentecost. It all happened when they believed in their heart; then Peter understood that God had cleansed all things. Acts 11:17-18 reflecting back on this - “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” What a marvelous event, the Lord had opened the door to those outside the Jewish nation.

What about Paul building a bridge to their culture in Acts 17: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). His reference is to the Tower of Babel when mankind was scattered. Deut. 32:7-9: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you: When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. For the LORD'S portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance.” It is in relation to Israel, her land which God made a covenant to (Gen.12:1-4).

This means the very opposite of how some contextualize the gospel to cultures today. This is no way validates that every culture is made of God and He approves of their customs. First- Paul was saying in his speech their worship was wrong, it was not to the true God, that he was unknown to them. If we go back a few verses we can put Paul’s statement in perspective. Acts 17:18 others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.” This why they brought him to the Areopagus, maybe the philosophers (intelligensia) would understand him. Paul preaches to them “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,” because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them” (Acts 17:30-33).

Paul didn’t say, wait, you don’t understand what I’m saying, one of your gods, the unknown one had a son and that son is Jesus, in fact this is the unknown god you have built such an exquisite statue of. Neither did he appeal to having much in common, saying “let’s not let our differences get in the way, I know, lets all pray together.” He couldn’t say this, he knew better.

We see Paul used one of their own poets in his speech to the philosophers in Acts 17, but it was not to commend them but to deride them about their idols. Any type of redemptive analogies that are found in cultures can only be a bridge to bring one to the absolute truth that is not contained in the nation’s history or worship but in Jesus Christ and the Bible. There are those who are telling us not to use the cross to preach to people but avoid using the cross, instead, go back to their cultures past to find a redemptive analogy or portion of their history to connect to. That may do well as a starting point to begin a conversation but we should not camp there. Any analogy cannot, nor should not be used as a means to the end-- nor as the end itself. 

In this methodology they believe cultures were created by God because God made man and cultures are made by man. This does not take into account the sinful condition of man after the fall. Mankind can only express sinful qualities of a damaged image of God. That Image of God first needs to be restored before man can reflect his creator correctly. We should consider the difference of the worlds view and God’s view.

Mans View: All cultures are equal in worth.

God’s View: All cultures are not equal.

Mans view: God loves all cultures and nations i.e. as they are.

God’s View: God loves people, not their cultures. He does not accept their various ways to worship.

Mans View: All religious practices and rituals are acceptable

God’s View: Only one way is given by God and acceptable, through His sent Son.

Mans view: We are all united as one humanity and should accept everyone as they are.

God’s View: Our humanity is united in sin (in Adam), resulting in our separation from God and we need to be united in Christ.

Mans view: All God’s of the nations are the same or have insignificant differences.

God’s View: YHVH alone is God and there is no other.

Called out ones

The church is the Ecclesia; it means to be called out from the world and its system. This includes cultures and nations.

Both Israel as a nation and the newly found apostolic church consisting mostly of Jews within the first 10 years had to live in a cultural dilemma of having other religions on all sides. New religious movements, world religions, the cults of our day are no different then the religions that Israel and the church in the first century were tested by. Whether its Islam, Buddhism, Bahaism or Hinduism. Our response needs to be the same. Otherwise, we will succumb to syncretism. There is the matter of separation that must be upheld for new converts, because cultures are not benign. You are not to align God with a former ancient culture that was pagan but leave the culture and be conformed to God. We find this principle throughout the Bible. God called Abraham out from UR that was a pagan culture, He did not leave him in it or send him back to reform it or fix it. Moses was brought up in the Egyptian culture and was first removed into the wilderness for 40 years. God then used Moses to call Israel out of Egypt; he did not leave them there to reform it (Heb.11:27). Ruth left and went with Naomi saying your people are now my people your God is now my God, she left her culture behind.  Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).

There is only one nation God has called to Himself and directly ruled over in history, there are no others (including America). To say God was working in all the nations with his truth from the beginning is far removed from what God himself says in the Bible. God called Israel out of Egypt and He constantly warns them not to take on the practices of the nations around them. The church is to be no different. There are no redeeming qualities that the Lord ever mentions for Israel to take with them. ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled” (Leviticus 18:24). This is the reason the Lord made the nation Israel from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After Moses died, Israel was still traveling to the Promised Land. According to the word of the LORD to Joshua (Josh 8:2) about Ai, “Only its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves” (Josh 8:27). Previously, under the instruction of God, Josh 6:24: “But they burned the city and all that was in it with fire. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD” Josh 7:11-12. Israel had sinned, by taking the accursed things they were instructed to destroy. What was this accursed thing? A beautiful Babylonian garment (possibly priestly)” (Joshua 7:21-22). The Lord did not even allow their costumes to be brought along lest they be used. We do not see any examples of Israel finding redeeming qualities in the nations around them, there was to be no mixture. In fact, when they adopted the other nation’s customs and ways, that is when they fell away from the Lord.Paul writes-“Now these things became our examples….”     1 Corinthians 10:6 

Israel was constantly instructed Deut. 12:30-32: “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? Deut 18:9: “When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. Josh 23:7-9: “and lest you go among these nations, these who remain among you. You shall not make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause anyone to swear by them; you shall not serve them nor bow down to them.” If you are not worshipping God correctly then you are not worshipping him at all, God does not accept strange fire.

 pt. 2 The Nations of the Earth- A History of Idolatry and false worship

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