Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The Gospel & Culture (Part 2): Assumptions and Absolutes

[Jailbreaker’s Note: This post builds on both Part 1 and the discussion on Ministry Models.]

The main question under consideration in this series on the Gospel & Culture is as follows:

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.

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.

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?


  1. As a missionary, I agree. The Bible says that each member of the Body of Christ is a priest and has a spiritual gift to be used to build up the Body. 1 Corinthians 14:1" "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.".... vs:12 Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. 1 Peter 4:10 "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms." 1 Peter 2:5 "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 4:16 "From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." When a denomination decides to reject such verses, for whatever reason, then thier doctrine on it is nullyfing the Word of God and allowing mens traditions to have higher authority. I've actually heard a pastor claim that the 1st century Church and the teachings of the Apostle Paul regarding it was the "primative" Church and we have learned a better way. Yikes, now that is dangerous assumptions and culture for sure. Mark 7:13 "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." 2 Timothy 4:3 "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." Blessings,

  2. One of the best nuggets already is your suggestion in the first discussion: "I would urge you to get together with a few other believers...with your Bibles open..."

    N.T. Wright addresses this also in his book "Surprised by Hope" - this is really important for us to practice seeing beyond our own ethos, regardless of how much it means to US, to the foundation of Scripture.

  3. Thank you for the tool to determine absolutes in the body of Christ. I had never taken the time to differentiate between which “doctrines” eluded to my form and which directed my functioning. While my teaching has been that doctrines should be taught and adhered to, I am beginning to see that there has to be a distinction in whose doctrine. As you mentioned, a Pastor could propagate his teaching under the guise of doctrine without revealing the origin and blindly the sheep follow. Woe unto him that divided the flock! I pray that we all receive a love and understanding of the Word of God and a spirit to discern those things set forth by Him that determines our eternity. If ALL leaders would consider that the distraction in adhering to those things that are mere form, the people of God could miss those things that make them functional, I wonder would things be different. As the saying goes, “So heavenly minded, we become no earthly good”. I am convinced my reception of His gift of salvation makes me a conduit to others and anything that hinders that cause MUST be eradicated, even if it’s a misguided leader. My dedication is first and foremost to God! Thanks again.

  4. Good articles, good points. For book-length treatments of the key issues involved, I recommend Dr. Charles Kraft's writings: Culture, Communication and Christianity, also Appropriate Christianity.

  5. Donna: Glad to hear that this is resonating with you. I can vouch for the fact that it’s tough for Christian leaders to admit that they may need to go back to the Scriptures to reexamine some of their deeply rooted assumptions. It was tough for me as well. However, the more I looked at the Scriptures through this particular lens, the more I wanted to change. I’m convinced that other Christian leaders would feel the same way if they just understood that this is not a threat.

    To me, it’s almost like marriage. If my wife and I take the time to reexamine our relationship, is that a threat to marriage? Is that pro-marriage or anti-marriage? I suppose it would be a threat to marriage if we were reexamining it for the sake of splitting up, but if we were reexamining it for the sake of aligning ourselves more with what God intended, that would be pro-marriage, wouldn’t it? In the same way, as Christian leaders see that this is very much pro-church, my hope is that they wouldn’t see this as a threat and would be eager themselves to engage in this process.

  6. You make some good points, but I want to focus on one in particular: the authority of Scripture as supreme.

    On the surface, who would argue with that? But as a Catholic who spent more than three decades in evangelical Protestant churches of several flavors, one might respond, "Ah, yes, but WHOSE interpretation of those scriptures?"

    And this might be a question for "tradition" to answer.

    I am familiar with the Lord's comment about tradition to the Pharisees, but what of St. Paul's comment to the Thessalonians: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (2 Thess 2:15); and, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us" (2 Thess 3:6), and to the Corinthians, "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor 11:2)?

    It seems to me, anyway, Church tradition does play a part in this question of culture and the gospel -- and if we are going to successfully bringing the message to all creatures, we might do well to pay closer attention to the overall teaching of the Church. After all, the Lord created the Church, set up its authority (as the apostles say in a number of texts with which I am sure you are familiar) and gave it its commission. We might be in danger of reinventing the proverbial wheel if we neglect its two thousand years of history.


  7. Hi Rich, it's great to hear from you! I'm glad that you're joining in on this conversation.

    I think I should mention to all the readers that Rich and I go back a number of years, are good friends, and have had a couple of great conversations about this in the past.

    Knowing Rich as I do, I know that he has really thought and prayed this stuff through, so the points he brings up are very much worth exploring further.

    If anyone has any thoughts for Rich and I, feel free to join in on the conversation. For now, I'm going to step back and wait until others have had a chance to comment.

  8. Rich -- glad to have your thoughts recorded here. Certainly the church has seen the best and worst of tradition throughout the years. At best, as you imply, tradition may represent the collective wisdom of godly people throughout ages past, and there may be much good to be drawn from it. A wholesale abrogation of its traditions may leave the church unnecessarily adrift.
    For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was not fully developed within the New Testament timeframe, though it is clearly drawn from New Testament Scriptures. But the work of the early saints, the Council of Nicea, etc. are important to this day in giving the church an expression of that Scriptural truth that has stood many tests throughout the centuries.
    At worst, however, the pitfalls of tradition are nothing short of catastrophic. The Pharisees are an example, as was the Roman Catholic church itself throughout the Middle Ages. The effective exaltation of Divine Tradition over Scripture, together with the unfortunate union of spiritual and temporal authority in Rome, brought about the horrible corruption that made the Reformation so very necessary.
    Okay, well to quote Mr. Potatohead from Toy Story II, "Oh, you had to bring THAT up!" So let's dwell on more present realities. I can agree and attest that the alphabet soup which is present-day Protestantism leaves much to be desired insofar as its squishy and polyglot doctrinal foundations, and this is, in part, due to its disdain for tradition as being of any value whatsoever. This is also tragic, and leaves much of the church unable to wrestle with a variety of false and silly teachings as they slosh through our pulpits and Christian book stores and media outlets.
    On the other hand, I would argue that Catholicism, though certainly in a better place now than in much of its history, continues to struggle with some basic theological problems that its tradition has frozen into place. I would especially list among these the problems of other mediators between God and man besides Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5)--or shall I say, other mediators between man and Christ--and ultimately the overlay of human tradition as supplemental to (and therefore displacing of) the authority of Scripture.
    Yes, Scripture does--and will always--suffer from various human interpretations. By necessity, some of those must be incorrect. Some of them are even irredeemably heretical. But I will take that authority over the exaltation of our very fallible human tradition.
    Yours respectfully in Christ,

  9. Jailer, it might surprise you that I agree with virtually everythig you said. My only disagreement might center on your comment about mediators. Let me explain.

    Yes, absolutely and positively, there is only one mediator between God and man . . . Christ Jesus. And it causes me a great deal of consternation when my fellow Catholics elevate, (de facto, if not de jure), others -- including the Blessed Virgin -- to a place reserved only for Messiah Jesus.

    However, the Catechism and other Catholic Church documents instruct the laity against doing so, quite clearly. Problem is, the laity either don't fully comprehend Church teaching, or they go beyond that teaching due to their own will.

    What the Church DOES teach (and of necessity I simplify here) is that because those who have died in Christ (for example, the Saints) . . . because they are not dead (for "all live unto God"), they are in that "great cloud of witnesses" and in a position to pray for us who are on this side of the grave, in much the same way as I might ask you for prayer. The Catholic (and Orthodox) Church teaches we all have the privilege to ask saints such as St. Monica, or St. Thomas, et. al. to pray for us.

    The OT (as well as the NT) is replete with examples of holy men who prayed (mediated) for others (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul . . .) So the term "mediator" as used in that sense is not at all extrabiblical.

    Unfortunately, there is often a distance between an official position of a Church and how the sheep interpret (or are taught) that position. Hence, the significant need for being "instant in season and out of season [to] reprove, rebuke, exhort" others in God's word (and, in my case, Church teaching).


  10. All -- if you have further thoughts on this topic of Catholicism, please be sure to read a more recent post, Evangelical Catholics (, and comment appropriately. PJ

  11. It's pretty difficult even to bring the Gospel to unchurched people in our own culture without entanglement. I think the words of James in Acts are pretty convicting. "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." Acts 15:19

  12. Surely we must do as Christ instructed and that is before we even consider taking up the cross we must first be true and deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ. For too long we have been allowing tradition and dogma to dictate to us as the body of Christ. Whereas , Christ told us to Follow him and then he would make us fisher's of men. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to take the lead and have complete control of our desires and decisions so that we can become immersed in the will of God from day to day. Jesus set such a beautiful example of how we are to communicate with the father and that is on a day by day basis, bathing ourselves in his presence and anointing. Truly those moments of solitude and introspection was very relevant to the way of the master. We are so quick to plan and pre-plan without first checking in with the master planner and finding out whether or not there are any adjustments to our original assignment.
    The Spirit of God transcends all class, race, religion, creed, and culture. So little nuances such as cultural differences should never be allowed to deter the far reaching effect of the gospel. Remember that English is not the language of the Spirit and Salvation originated in heaven's throne room. We must allow patience to have her perfect work, that we as ambassadors of heaven may be perfect and entire wanting nothing ,then we'll be able to reach the masses on behalf of the savior

    Let us not forget that this work is not the work of any man but of the Holy Spirit.

  13. Great question! I break it into 2 parts. 1) The message of the Gospel: Paul clearly presents the message of the Gospel in passages like I Cor 15:3,4 where he plainly states that "Christ died for our sins." This message is trans-cultural
    2) The illustration of the Gospel - Our testimonies are illustrations of the gospel and they are shaped significantly by cultural influences. In I Cor 5-10, Paul illustrates the impact of the gospel on him.
    Because we are living messengers, we have the privilege of delivering both components.

  14. I recently returned to Christianity after two decades away and was surprised to find that "form" had held so rigidly.

    You can see my notes when I first returned to a service in a church building at After all those years in technology I returned to find very little progress though technology has leaped forward with wireless devices, cell phones and iPods.

    One question I ask is this:

    Why is the service always in that order? Everywhere? Every time?


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