In my previous post I began a summary of a presentation by Dr Soong-Chan Rah that I recently attended at the Northeastern Seminary. In this post I will describe his second session.
What is Cultural Captivity?
“When the church looks more like surrounding culture than the values of Scripture, it has been taken captive.”
Dr Rah suggested three ways that Western/White culture has captured the church in America.
- Materialism; and
Let’s look at these:
Most Western Christians fail to appreciate that the Bible was written to communities. In the case of many Old Testament books the targeted audience was the nation of Israel. In some cases the prophets also wrote to the nations surrounding Israel. Likewise, the New Testament was predominantly written to entire churches. Even the pastoral books were included in the Bible because Timothy and Titus obviously shared them with the congregations they served.
Yet when we read Scripture we predominantly seek personal applications. We ask, “How does this passage speak to my circumstances, or improve my life?” rather than asking “How can this church better represent God to our immediate community and the world?”
Our individualistic mindset is demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 3:16: Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (NASB) Both the context and the plural Greek word make clear that this statement refers to the church, not the individual. This hasn’t prevented us from using this verse to support everything from prohibiting smoking to supporting dieting, etc. while completely missing the point that Christ dwells within his church.
Without going into details here, other cultures with a more communal worldview will more naturally value the spiritual health of the body, the church, rather than focusing upon individuals.
This point extends beyond simply the pursuit of material goods. Rah proposes that our vocabulary often betrays how we have reduced life and relationships to an exchange of goods. Commerce becomes the lens through which we view and describe life. Consider this list of terms:
- We invest in people.
- We spend time.
- We value or treasure those we love.
- We waste time.
- We shop for churches.
You could probably come up with your own list.
Many churches also reflect a materialistic attitude. We commonly assess the health of a church using the ABC measuring stick: Attendance, Building, and Cash flow. Matthew 25 and Acts 2 both teach that spiritual health has nothing to do with these measures. Rather, Jesus seeks justice and compassion, love for the poor, dedication to God, and commitment to other believers.
If we accept these attitudes as symptoms of Cultural Captivity, then we need to open ourselves up to the possibility that we can learn from Christians and churches in other cultures. This realisation challenges any sense of spiritual superiority we might have because of large ABC’s.
Although “race” is really a social construct to explain visual differences between groups of people, it has proved a major point of conflict throughout the history of the church. In the NT the divide between Jew and Gentile was at once cultural, racial, and spiritual. While it is too simplistic to view the Jew-Gentile conflict as purely racial, surely ethnic heritage played a significant part in creating that divide.
Acts 15 describes a major council within the first church to address significant questions about Jews, Gentiles and Jesus. Sadly, the church failed to embrace that lesson and has throughout history sought to exclude various racial groups from full membership in the body of Christ.
The rest of the book of Acts describes the power of the church to grow when we concentrate on the Spirit that binds us together rather than various aspects that differentiate us from one another.
American churches have allowed cultural values to validate the establishment and preservation of separate black and white churches throughout the country. Rather than embodying a lesson the first church learned 2000 year ago, we have lagged behind culture as we have resisted and devalued the racial integration of churches. We have maintained our racial islands while watching institutions throughout society integrate. In this instance churches are captive not just to culture, but to a culture of 30 years ago. In the meantime, society’s values in relation to race relations now often do a better job of reflecting Godly values than the church does.
Is there Hope?
A major empowering feature of Cultural Captivity is that it’s difficult to detect from the inside. With no other reference point we read Scripture through our cultural lens and it feels normal and logical.
My previous post demonstrated the “browning of America”. As a result of this demographic shift our cultural assumptions are challenged. We find ourselves exposed to alternative ways of reading and applying Scripture. Exposure to different cultural values should prompt us to reexamine our beliefs and practices for areas where western culture has skewed our reading of God’s Word. As we study the Bible, we need to listen to others who speak from a different cultural perspective. Not everything that is “obvious” to us is obvious to everyone. And sometimes what’s “obvious” may even be wrong.
Multiethnic churches have an opportunity to lead the US church in this process of self-examination. However, it still requires a commitment to raise, discuss and study topics that may lead us individually and as a church to uncomfortable places. Racial integration will lead to healthier churches, but it requires each of us to be willing to live with a degree of discomfort as we encourage each other on our journey toward Christ.
Several years ago I was fascinated by the Native American culture and really studied their tribal dances to the point that suddenly one day I realized that their dancing was a form of prayer. It must have been so difficult for a European culture of people who prayed by kneeling and bowing, to understand this leaping half naked around a campfire. So I wonder how we are making the same kind of judgments today. Thanks for shining a light on this important topic brother!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jennifer. As an outsider, I often feel self-conscious speaking on issues of race with the US church. However, I am also aware how difficult it is to describe a culture from within the culture because we have no other point of reference. Your example is a good one. When we talk about the common act of worship we generally have a specific action in mind yet it’s not to say one can’t pray in a wide variety of forms.