The main question under consideration in this series on the Gospel & Culture is as follows:
Last month, the key point being presented was that our forms, practices, and mindset can have much more in common with man-made religion than with the unique and radical message that we hold so dear. In this post we’re going to develop that point a step further by taking a closer look at how tradition and the deeply rooted assumptions of the messenger can affect the message. The target audience of this series is not so much those who don’t care about the Gospel, but those who, in fact, care deeply. Furthermore, this is not primarily written for those who don’t view the Scriptures as their authority, but rather for those who do.
When crossing cultures with the Gospel just how difficult of a task is it to bring “the message” to a particular people without entangling that message in the “culture” of the messenger? Does it even matter? If by “culture” we mean eating with silverware instead of chopsticks or shaking hands instead of bowing it’s probably not very difficult to leave culture out of the message. However, if by culture we mean the forms, practices, and mindset of the western church system it’s another matter entirely.
With that said, I think it's safe to say that all of us who view the authority of Scripture as the supreme authority believe that its teachings must take precedence over all else. Whether it’s church history, family upbringing, the teaching of a particular denomination, theological system, or Christian organization, we all believe that the teaching of Scripture must, on each and every occasion, take precedence. That’s not to say, of course, that the other things have no value. In and of itself, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with living according to western church tradition, a particular denominational system, or even our own personal preferences. Many great men and women of God have gone before us and we have much to gain from their teaching and experiences.
There’s also nothing necessarily wrong with preferring one particular approach over another. That’s what culture is. By and large we live the way we do because we prefer it over any other approach to life. Life is most comfortable to us when approached in a manner that we've become accustomed to. It’s part of our “first birth,” and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The problem lies in the elevation of our preferred approach to a level that is equal or superior to the Scriptures. As Mark 7 warns:
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men ... Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.When the Scriptures are inadvertently placed in a secondary or subordinate role to a prevailing mindset we have a major problem indeed. I say "inadvertently" because, after all, no one would purposely set out to undermine the Scriptures unless they themselves were an enemy of the cross. The question that we’re compelled to ask, then, is: Does the warning in Mark 7 only apply to enemies of the cross? Can tradition, even good tradition, nullify the word of God? Could this warning be applied just as well to our Christian organizational and denominational structures, to our theological systems, and to our western church mindset? Assuming that Jesus is not just speaking in superlative language, how seriously should we take this passage?
Let me emphasize that the question here is not whether the above has value; the question is whether it’s possible for the above to nullify the word of God! If the answer to that question is a firm and absolute no–that there’s no way it’s even remotely possible–then there’s no point in reading on. If, on the other hand, the answer to that question is yes–that it may indeed be possible even for “good tradition” to nullify the word of God–then it begs the question, how? In what way?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 20 years of living and ministering in the "rocky soil" of Japan, it’s that all of us operate from a set of deeply rooted assumptions when it comes to life and ministry. Some of our assumptions are good and necessary; others are, well ... let’s just say, in need of reexamination, particularly when crossing cultures with the Gospel. The good and necessary, of course, would include things like core doctrine–the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, the authority of Scripture, etc. Since these are non-negotiable absolutes from Scripture, there’s no reason to reexamine them. The historical and foundational tenets of our faith are simply not open for debate. The same applies to sin and morality. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in “Jerusalem” or “the ends of the earth,” murder is still murder, adultery is still adultery, and sin is still sin.
However, it’s another matter entirely when dealing with deeply rooted assumptions that have been birthed by our western church tradition. These tend to be harder to pin down because what one person regards as a non-essential tradition is often viewed by another person as a non-negotiable absolute. Paul calls these “disputable matters,” but too often we regard them as core doctrine.
When a disputable matter is elevated to the status of non-negotiable absolute, I would submit to you that it is precisely at this point that we run the risk of subordinating the Word of God to the tradition of men. Our intentions might be good and our resolve to live with the Scriptures as our supreme authority might be sincere and unwavering, but we cannot so easily escape the influence of our deeply rooted assumptions.
Though we may not be keenly aware of it (or willing to admit it), every one of us approach the Scriptures with a particular mindset that is heavily influenced by religious & professional training, denominational & organizational norms, personal preferences, past experiences, culture, family values, gifting, personality, gender, age, and so forth. Generally speaking, we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive. Information that is consistent with the prevailing mindset is perceived and processed readily, while information that does not fit into the prevailing mindset is easily overlooked, ignored, discounted, misinterpreted, or rejected outright.
Take, for example, the prevailing mindset on "church". Though we all know that the Scriptures unequivocally teach that the church is people (a very special people but people nonetheless), the prevailing mindset cannot imagine church apart from buildings, programs, formal meetings, memberships, and elaborate organizational structures. The prevailing mindset thinks in terms of “going to church” even though the Scriptures clearly speak in terms of “being the church.”
To complicate matters even further, most of us sincerely believe that we’re not placing tradition or denominational norms above Scripture. We are quite capable of making the case, from Scripture, why our activity, program, or denominational norm is really not a tradition at all. In our thinking, these are good and necessary if the truth of the Gospel is to be preserved and the body of Christ is to function properly.
Furthermore, we all know what the Word of God teaches about “rules taught by men,” but all too often we assume that the Scriptures can’t possibly be talking about us. In our mind, it’s always the other guy’s tradition, the other guy’s denomination, or the other guy’s mindset that God is addressing in this passage. Essentially, it’s the other guy who is guilty of elevating a disputable matter to the status of non-negotiable absolute, not us. The way we view it, as long as our core doctrine is in order we don’t have to bother with the warning in Mark 7 because it really doesn’t apply to us.
Believe me, I’m as guilty as the next guy, but how would all that change if we took the warning in Mark 7 to heart? If the Holy Spirit began to open our eyes to the possibility that even good tradition can nullify the word of God, what affect might that have on us? How would we even know what effect our forms, practices, and western church mindset is having on the message if we’ve never even stopped to seriously consider the possibility?
I suppose that’s why missionaries tend to be so “weird” sometimes. We’ve been thrust into a new culture that approaches life in a manner different from our home church or country, and our eyes begin to see what has been previously unseen to us. Indeed, the challenge of taking the Gospel to the rocky soil nations of the world is forcing us, albeit kicking and screaming, to go back to the Scriptures with fresh eyes for insight, answers, and perspective. In the process, many of us come face-to-face with our own deeply rooted assumptions for the first time as the gentle prodding of the Holy Spirit brings about profound changes in the heart of the messenger. The foundational tenets of the message don’t change one iota, just the stuff that muddles the unique and radical message we hold so dear.
On a practical note, then, how do we determine whether something is truly a non-negotiable absolute or merely a disputable matter? First: I would suggest that we need to learn to distinguish between form and function. What I think you’ll find is that the function is the non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, and that the form is essentially free to adapt and change. You’ll save yourself and others a lot of grief if you can seek to agree on the necessary functions even if you can’t agree on the particular forms.
Second: I would suggest that we need to get together with a handful of other believers and, with Bibles open, discuss the following question: Is this a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture that applies to any believer (or group of believers), in any culture, of any nation, in any time period, since the time of Christ?
So, for example, body life is a function that is most definitely a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture, but can the same be said about our buildings, programs, formal meetings, and denominational structures (i.e. our forms)? Do the Scriptures speak to the possibility of engaging in meaningful body life apart from our existing organizational structures?
Furthermore, would we insist that every believer in Iran and North Korea be held to this particular standard? How about the believers in the 2nd or 3rd century? Do the Scriptures speak of one set of absolutes for believers living this century in a country with religious freedom, and a slightly different set of absolutes for believers living in another era or in a country without religious freedom? How might we approach things differently in America if we applied this kind of thinking toward those we’re trying to reach for Christ here?
I believe that we are going through yet another major paradigm shift in church history. It’s an uneasy time for sure, but it’s also an exciting time to be alive! None of this is about dismantling what exists; if anything this is about new pathways for the Gospel and new expressions of body life for those who, like the believers in Iran and North Korea, will never be a part of our Western church system. If there is even the slightest possibility that tradition, even good tradition, can muddle the unique and radical message we hold so dear, wouldn't it be only prudent to examine this matter further? For the sake of the Gospel can we do any less?