“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”– Acts 17:30-31
The Great Commission is about the propagation of God’s truth to “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”1 In other words, it is a global endeavor. It would be difficult enough if the Christian faith was nationalistic or confined to one people group or language. The fact that it seeks to embrace every person and culture on the planet carries with it a nearly infinite array of complexities and problems. These obstacles serve to prove once again that the Great Commission would be an absolute impossibility except for the faithfulness and power of God. We must never forget this truth!
Since the tower of Babel,2 humanity is no longer a homogeneous unit but exists of a variety of people groups that are extremely different in language, culture, and worldview. The missionary must understand that people not only speak differently, but they actually think differently, and interpret actions and events quite differently. This is not only true in the context of primitive tribes or third world people groups but is also a reality whenever we step outside our own culture to minister to those of another culture, no matter how apparently similar! For this reason, the useful missionary will be careful to study not only the language but also the culture of the people groups among which he or she desires to minister.
It is no exaggeration to say that Western Christianity3 has been a dominant force in missionary activity for several centuries. Most Western mission societies and missionaries have followed in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul who sought to become all things to all men4 and Hudson Tailor who abandoned his European garb for the clothing and lifestyle of the Chinese. However, there were also abuses, both intentional and unintentional.
Seeking to avoid the errors of the past, most missionaries today go to great extent to be sensitive to the cultures in which they live. This is biblical and commendable. However, we must also be careful of an overreaction or hypersensitivity. This occurs when we hold culture in such high esteem that we no longer call for its conformity to the Scriptures! We must be aware of the influence of Western culture in our lives and we must not arrogantly and selfishly impose our preferences upon others. On the other hand, we must not hold any culture or people group above the sovereign dictates of Scripture.
We must realize that we live in an age that is marked by several influences from which none of us can entirely escape. Two of these influences have great bearing upon us as missionaries: First, we live in an age marked by humanism in which man is the center of all things. Everything he does and creates must not only be tolerated, but also respected, no matter how contradictory or destructive. Secondly, we live in an age in which we are taught to despise Western culture, and especially its Judeo-Christian origins. We may openly deride Western culture to the tune of everyone’s applause. However, if we bring into question the beliefs or practices of any culture outside the West, we will quickly come under the strictest censure and be labeled an intolerant bigot. This influence is powerful and widespread, and we should not think that we are untainted by it. Even some missionaries, who are quick to vilify the West and lament the church’s conformity to its culture, are prone to treat non-Western cultures as near-sacred entities whose ideals and traditions must be honored and preserved. This is the most dangerous and deceptive form of syncretism that has often resulted in the reshaping of Christianity to fit the culture into which it is being introduced. It is an error that must be exposed and avoided at all costs.
When a missionary adapts biblical Christianity to fit a particular people group he is subjecting them to the same error that has eroded the purity and power of the church in the West—He is exalting culture over Scripture, interpreting the Scripture in light of culture, declaring a dangerous truce between the Word of God and a fallen worldview, and giving greater preference to man than God. In other words, he has chosen cultural sensitivity over biblical fidelity.
Current Western culture is wrong because it does not conform to the standards of the Scriptures. However, the cultures outside the West that do the same are just as wrong! As missionaries going into a strange land, we must know the culture and we must be careful not to impose our unbiblical views or personal preferences upon it. However, the Bible is no respecter of men or cultures. It demands that every tribe and tongue and people and nation conform to its rule. This bold truth is powerfully illustrated in the Apostle Paul’s famous sermon to the Gentiles on Mars Hill:
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”5
We must always keep in the forefront of our theology and our proclamation that Jesus is not merely Lord of the individual, but also of every culture. His commands are not limited to a specific geographic area or people group, but rather, all of His commands are to be taught to all of His disciples in all the nations.6
There are still among us “missionary brutes” that would unnecessarily put an end to the beautiful variations that God has woven into the myriads of cultures that He has made. Thankfully, these types are growing thin in our ranks. However, there is another equally dangerous kind of missionary that is taking their place—Those who are hypersensitive to culture and are willing to bend the very fundamentals of the Christian faith in order to make them fit a certain worldview. They are more concerned with offending culture than offending God. They will even change the Scriptures and the very face of Christianity in order to make it more relevant, less offensive, and more acceptable. In doing so, they demonstrate a dangerously low view of the Scriptures and of the God who inspired them!
On one extreme, we have the missionary who would labor to conform the people to his own unbiblical cultural preferences. On the other extreme, we have the missionary who would allow the people to continue in their own unbiblical cultural preferences. In the end, both missionaries are doing the very thing that each is accusing the other of doing. The great need of the day are missionaries who delight in the particular cultural beauties of the people to whom they have been sent, and who patiently lead them to greater and greater conformity to Christ. However, for such a balance to be achieved and maintained, the missionary must be literally saturated in the Scriptures, devoted to prayer, and clothed with Christ. He must also be a careful exegete of the Scriptures to ensure that it is the will of God and not his own personal preferences that he sets before the people. It is a terrible crime to add to or take away from the Scriptures7 because it distorts a people’s view of God and leads them into error.
- Revelation 5:9; 14:6
- Genesis 11:1-9
- I use this designation to denote the Christianity that is associated with western Europe and North America.
- I Corinthians 9:20-23
- Acts 17:30-31
- Matthew 28:18-20
- Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32
Paul is the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society and currently serves as its missions director. He also ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years. He has preached hundreds of sermons and has authored a dozen published works. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia, with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer