Dave and I have lived for over 30 years in America. For 30 years we lived and breathed American culture. But 2 years ago we were launched out of our comfort zone and into first Europe and now Africa. We have found that in reality, we are somewhere in orbit outside of these cultures, not really belonging to any of them. Within a single week, we hear both the values of those from our home country and the swirling opinions of the people among whom we work. Their differing reactions to the same issues are astonishing:
Western Culture: “How is it even possible that in Cameroon a single homosexual act can get you 5 years in prison!?”
Cameroonian Culture: “Wow, can you believe that homosexuality is LEGAL in the US and that they even have gay pride parades?!”
Western Culture: “Did you know that in Cameroonian culture, disrespectful children are beaten, sometimes publically!?”
Cameroonian Culture: “Can you believe that in the United States children will openly disrespect their parents in public, without any reprocussions?!”
Western Culture: “Is it not great that those who live in the remote places in the world do not fill their bodies full of harmful chemicals and immunizations but can just eat organically and live off the land?”
Cameroonian Culture: “If only I had access to the polio vaccination when my daughter was younger, then she would not have to be bent over with her arms dragging on the ground for the rest of her life.”
Western Culture: “Can you believe that in Cameroon women do not have the right to an abortion unless it’s deemed medically necessary or unless they have been raped?!”
Cameroonian Culture: “Did you know that it is LEGAL in the United States to kill one’s unborn child for any reason and the government ensures that women can do it easily and comfortably?!”
Western Culture: “Can you believe that it is legal in Cameroon for one man to marry multiple women?!”
Cameroonian Culture: “Can you believe that one man can marry another man in the States?!”
- If we say that men should defer or submit to women, what would we say to a society that says that women are to defer to or submit to men?
- If we are adamant that women should have the right to terminate their pre-birth children, what then would we then say to the culture that allows mothers to beat or even “terminate” their post-birth homosexual sons?
- If we say that men should have the right to marry another man, what would we say to a society that says that men should have the right to marry as many women as he wants?
- If we say that women and children should be heard, what would we say to a society who says they should not?
But what if these issues are not relative? What if there is truth that transcends culture?
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 13:31
And the words of Jesus confront the sins found in every culture.
Acknowledge the Sins of our Own Culture
It is true that someone raised in a culture accustomed to violence may not immediately see beating one’s child with a machete as a sin. Or someone else may genuinely believe that men are superior to women. What both of these people need is the Bible to show them the error of their ways. According to the Bible, men and women were created by God as equals and it even refers to Christian men and women as co-heirs of God’s Kingdom. In regards to raising children, the Bible says that parents are to discipline their children out of love for them but not in a way that provokes them to anger. Here it is the Bible correcting erroneous thinking, not just me with my own cultural biases.
What is amazing is that being a Christian and recognizing that truth resides outside of culture ultimately frees us. When Paul said that he had “become all things to all people” he was communicating this truth. When he came as a missionary, he could leave his culture behind him. For the sake of the Gospel he could wear Corinthian clothes, eat Galatian food, and admire Ephesian architecture. He could look at Jewish culture and call out their sins, while doing the same of Greek culture. Why? Because he was not comparing the two. Instead he was holding them both to God’s standard. Thus, missionaries ought to be the most tolerant world travellers, completely unconcerned with how our host culture measures up to home. But instead examining every new culture in its relation to God’s Word.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2