The Gospel is so powerful that it significantly impacts culture whenever there is an encounter between the two. This does not imply that culture is rendered obsolete in that interaction. The Gospel mingles with culture and accommodates it, then leaves a mark on it. However, before that impact occurs, the Gospel must find space in culture. Culture enables an appreciation of Jesus not as a stranger out of touch with life in a particular social setting but as a contemporary acquainted with day-to-day happenings. He becomes a man of the people, embracing them as they are rather than altering their social identity. Andrew Walls captures it as follows, “The fact, then, that “if any man is in Christ he is a new creation” does not mean that he starts or continues his life in a vacuum, or that his mind is a blank table. It has been formed by his own culture and history, and since God has accepted him as he is, his Christian mind will continue to be influenced by what was in it before.”[i] The Judaizers in Antioch failed to grasp this idea and ended up causing problems to the young Church in Antioch.[ii]
Before the Jerusalem Council was convened, there were preconditions for being Christian that were placed before the Gentile community by the legalistic Jewish believers. Simply put, they were required to stop being Gentiles. However, the leaders ruled otherwise. From the resolution made then, we learn that God accepts people in whatever condition they are. However, following the decision to be Christ’s, the believer is set on a journey. There is a transformation that God does in people when they come to him. As Andrew Walls puts it, “not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be.”[iii] A person, therefore, leaves something behind upon becoming a believer and experiences change and reorientation. There must be an appropriation of the Gospel in the lives of its recipients, for as Irvin puts it, mission is not just about extension, but “application of the doctrine and practices.”[iv]
The same thing applies to culture. While God is at home in every culture, when he comes in, he does not sit down; he takes its members on a journey.[v] The Apostles emphasised this point in their consistent call for a departure from old ways to new life. They recognised that accommodating unchristian practices would relegate Christianity to the same level as other cults within the Roman Empire. At the same time, quarantining Christianity from society would jeopardise its impact.[vi] For instance, Paul told the Athenians that God is everywhere calling people to repentance.[vii] The two errors Paul avoids in the conversation with the Athenian audience are flattery and condemnation. He does not assure them that all is well, nor does he attack them.
A believer could get around persistent tension between the old and new cultural habits by appreciating his or her belonging to the family of God.[viii] He or she must make certain decisions, which could include adopting a worldview that differs from the position held by the society.[ix] A believer must go beyond the particularism associated with culture to take his or her place in the universal Church of God. This could involve interrogating cultures to determine whether it conforms to the Scripture. Failure to conform to the divine standard, God’s will, means that a particular practice is not an excellent cultural element and should be rejected.[x] During cultural evaluation, one realises that every culture including his or hers has positive and negative aspects. No culture is more perfect than the rest, for all of them suffer from the effects of sin.[xi] Therefore, as God accepts human culture, he also judges it.[xii] The Gospel interacts with culture not to play second fiddle but to impact it.
While contextualisation of the Biblical message is permissible, the Scripture’s supremacy over cultural stipulations must be upheld. The Scripture presents some absolutes that form the standard for Christian believers and help safeguard Christianity from confusion and error. Reader-centred interpretations of the Scripture could erode its authority as the infallible word of an immutable God. The Bible presents a universal truth that the community of faith ought to appreciate and settle on while at the same time not demonising anything cultural, including its positive aspects. Adventists could still engage with culture while remaining faithful to the Bible and spirit of prophecy.
Dr Hezron Otieno Adingo is the Ministerial Association Secretary for the South England Conference