Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 1, Number 2



Ed Matthews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

The book Christ and Culture (Niebuhr 1951) describes several positions regarding the relationship between the Lord and culture. The chapter titles are indicative of the theories championed by various persons throughout history: "Christ against Culture," "Christ above Culture," "Christ in Culture," and "Christ the transformer of Culture."

The proponents of these positions had struggled with the issues in light of their understanding of Scripture. The Christ-culture debate is neither new nor simple. No doubt, for this reason the introductory chapter in Christ and Culture was titled "the enduring problem." The discussion is likely to continue because the Gospel is interacting with more and more cultures and because more and more cultures are strongly reacting to the suggestion of adapting different life ways.


Missions have been thrust into this debate for three reasons. First, the Bible is being translated into the dialects of an increasing array of divergent people groups. This has surfaced a critical question: Should literalness or dynamic equivalence be used in rendering the word of God in another language?

Second, the intention of many missionaries is to plant indigenous churches. Should the younger church be related to the host culture in such a way that the people feel at home, that the members can participate fully in the local assembly?

A third reason for missions being thrust into the debate over the relationship between the Gospel and culture is the recent attention given to contextualization, namely, how to proclaim an eternally valid Gospel in a cross-culturally relevant manner (Inch 1986:12). Several complex issues are being raised: What within Scripture is the unchanging truth that must be proclaimed to every person in every culture? Who determines what is timeless truth--missionaries or nationals? How is the unchanging truth determined--on the basis of Scripture, tradition, or reason? Should sin be defined by culture or revelation? What is absolute and relative within the Bible? Are moral standards set by cultural anthropology or biblical theology or both? What is primary in contextualizing the church: form, function or meaning?

Few missiologists are wrestling in depth with the implications of these issues and fewer missionaries are prepared to struggle in a biblically appropriate manner with them. The lack of serious thinking in this area has resulted (and will continue to result) in dire consequences for the spread of the Gospel. Adequate guidelines are urgently needed.

The relationship between the Gospel and non-Christian cultures is not easily resolved. The West is not the East and the East is not the West. The western world thinks in terms of two realms: religion and science (Hesselgrave 1984:145-195). Therefore, in western culture, a person can make religious changes without experiencing serious difficulties. In non-western cultures, all of life is penetrated and held together by religion. It is the "glue" of non-western cultural relationships

(Hiebert 1982:36-38). Hence, religion in the non-west is a sensitive area. A change in religion--conversion to Christianity--in the non-western world has tremendous repercussions that ripple out to the totality of culture. It affects all of life.


In proclaiming the Gospel, missionaries should respond to the individual elements of other cultures in various ways.

  1. Condemnation of Culture. Missionaries must require the local people to separate from practices which are prohibited in Scripture--idolatry, widow burning, and so forth.

  2. Toleration of Culture. Missionaries will also teach against certain practices which violate Christian ideals, although temporarily tolerate them while waiting for the development of a more sensitive conscience on the part of the local people, such as slavery or scarification of the body (when done for ornamentation).

  3. Conversion of Culture. Missionaries may retain certain local patterns and practices while giving them a new content, meaning or purpose--introducing functional substitutes in order to avoid creating a cultural vacuum in the lives of the believers and churches--for example, using local songs and stories in worship.

  4. Adoption of Culture. Many cultural patterns and practices are neutral or inoffensive and, consequently, are not in conflict with the Gospel, namely, the way of selecting leaders. Missionaries then, should fully incorporate them into the lifestyle of the local church.

  5. Enrichment of Culture. This refers to helpful additions from the Gospel. The Good News possesses values which enhance a culture with new meanings, purposes, and ideals: husbands loving their wives, masters loving their slaves, etc.

All five of the above missionary responses to culture presuppose a comprehensive understanding of the host society. They also indicate that the Gospel cannot be completely indigenized. To remain the Good News, it must retain its "from above" quality. Hence, the Gospel should judge parts of every culture, should leave no culture undisturbed when it has been made known fully and faithfully.

This is as it has always been. The apostles "turned the world upside down," Acts 17:6. Paul was accused of troubling the city of Philippi, of "advocating customs which were not lawful for Romans to accept or practice," Acts 16:21. The Gospel "casts down everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God and seeks to bring every thought captive to Christ," II Corinthians 10:5. This is as it should be.


As one might expect then, Christian missions have been blamed for destroying some cultures and disrupting many others. These accusations have come mainly from secular anthropologists. Unfortunately, they are not altogether unfounded, though for the most part are based on faulty premises. As a rule, charging missions with cultural abuses springs from inadequate historical knowledge or blind prejudice.

Christian missions have assisted in ridding the world of many cruel beliefs and inhuman practices. It is largely due to the impact of missions that foot binding has been abolished, cannibalism has decreased, and trial by poison cup has been outlawed. Even though the proclamation of the Gospel has not eliminated all oppression and violence, many wholesome changes have taken place.


The Gospel has a many-sided relationship with culture. This relationship runs the gamut from condemnation to enrichment. It is the responsibility of the missionary to prayerfully discern where on the continuum the interaction between the Word and world should manifest itself: condemnation, toleration, conversion, adoption, or enrichment. Each aspect of a culture must be weighed in light of the Gospel so that timeless truth might be relevantly proclaimed in light of the host society.

The Good News should be proclaimed in such a way that it becomes the conscience of the local culture. The missionary has the sacred responsibility to speak out in the name of God against prevailing wickedness. Converts should confront the dehumanizing religious, economic, and political influences in their society. The church dare not be silent when the welfare of souls is imperiled. The word of God must be made known in history and for history without becoming a mere part of history. It must speak to the local people where they are; it must bring the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to them at the point of their lostness.

The missionary is also obligated to announce divine ideals which enrich a society, which elevate, free, and ennoble men and women by encouraging and supporting what is good in their culture. As salt of the earth and light in the world, the local saints must continuously and energetically pursue the well-being of those around them. The worth of every person should be emphasized in relation to this and the next life, in relation to both the body and soul. If they are to be of any value, salt and light must benefit as well as glorify God, Matthew 5:13-16. The church must not be a holy huddle, an exclusive club. As the Gospel, it is a witness in and to the world, a this-worldly phenomenon which points to an otherworldly reality.

When missionaries go into cross-cultural evangelism, they automatically find themselves thrust into the continuing debate over the relationship between the Gospel and culture. It is unavoidable. It is inherent in being sent into the world with the responsibility to speak to the world without overly identifying with the world. The hazards are many. But when the Gospel condemns, tolerates, converts, adopts, and enriches the appropriate elements of the host society, this missiological minefield will become a harvest field.


1984 Counseling Cross-Culturally. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

1982 "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle," Missiology: An International Review, 10 (January) 35-47.

INCH, Morris A.
1986 Making the Good News Relevant: Keeping the Gospel Distinctive in any Culture. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

NIEBUHR, H. Richard
1951 Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers.

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