"When In Rome?"

“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Throughout the world people are basically the same. That is a truism, and accurate in terms of biology, and, to a great degree, psychology. All humans have the same basic needs, desires, and urges. However, their expressions and fulfillments of those desires and needs may vary greatly. So though “people are people, everywhere”, cultural and social differences abound, and they are extremely significant.
Missions education stresses the importance of cultural differences and seeks to equip workers to meet “culture shock” as well as to caution them against preaching “culture” rather than “gospel.” Simply put, our goal in other areas of the world is not to produce people like us, but rather people like Christ. This is commendable and necessary. However, sometimes we may go too far in the other direction. The operative question is “what is cultural in our message, and what is Gospel?” For example, some manuals (produced by ecumenical organizations within Christendom) advise to avoid, minimize, or delay baptism in certain cultures where the mode of immersion is offensive. To those serious about obeying New Testament commands, that is not an option.
I have recently been attempting to study American or Western culture from this perspective, and I am convinced that much of what we call “cultural” is in truth the application of Biblical teaching. Everyday courtesies, for instance, which are common in the West, and almost non-existent in much of the East, are practical ways of obeying the principal of the Golden Rule. Granted that saying “please” or “thank you,” holding the door for a lady or older person, and other common practices are not the only means of following that command. Yet to pass them off as purely culture is to diminish the influence of the teaching of Jesus for 2,000 years within our culture. The fact is that much of the world is not taught to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and therefore their culture does not reflect that attitude or its application. If the teaching is done and taken seriously, culture must inevitably change.
I am suggesting that we not be too quick to assume that we have no right to address culture in missions. Rather, we must be sure that any cultural changes are the inevitable and necessary results of preaching the message of Christ. We, and our societies, must be changed by such teaching.

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