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I first met Daniel and Fatima in a long jungle clearing that serves as an airstrip for a Missionary Aviation Fellowship plane flying me, a couple of my friends and our eldest sons into the depths of the Amazon on the Piranha River. At that point they had been living with the Banawá, a small and endangered tribe for seven years. Thanks to some remarkable persistence by this urban couple, the population of the Banawá had risen from just over fifty to nearly eighty people. They were there patiently learning the language and customs and trying to fit in. To do so, they had to become almost like little children in the eyes of the tribe as they learned how to hunt, gather, prepare food and eke out an existence as nomads in the Amazonian jungle.
As they did so, their ultimate aim was to live out the life of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in the hope that the tribe would one day come to worship their Creator and be freed from the terrible fears that drove their animist faith and so directly contributed to their dwindling numbers.
After ten years had passed, Daniel and Fatima were encouraged to see a few people who seemed to have a change in their hearts, but they were still surprised and overjoyed when one day the tribal elders returned from an elder’s council with a message for the young couple. They called the tribe together and in a time honoured tradition announced the important news to the entire tribe and in particular to Daniel and Fatima. They explained that they had watched them over the years and had decided that their God was a God of true power and love. Through an appropriate process within their tribe, the entire tribe decided that they would follow Christ. So they had composed a worship song to the God of heaven and the Son, Jesus Christ, in their own tongue. As they worshiped they demonstrated that which has been done thousands of times before–that God in Christ Jesus set out to redeem all cultures, not to impose one culture.
The early Church faced this issue throughout the entire period in which the Gospels and Epistles were written. We see that thread running through the narrative of every Epistle and popping up now and again in the Gospels. It can be seen as a major theme in the book of Acts.
In Acts 15, the elders and apostles of Jerusalem got together and made a momentous decision. On the face of it, it looks as though they simply got together and decided that the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. But the issue was much bigger than that. They settled a question which got to the heart of the life and death of Jesus.
Jesus came to redeem all cultures not to spread one culture.
For the new Christians who were from the party of the Pharisees the gospel was simply the culmination of Jewish culture. Now that it was complete, they were ready to spread it to the world. But for the apostle Paul and the others, the gospel was God breaking out of Jewish culture in order that He might redeem all.
The Church still tends to lose sight of this essential aspect of the Gospel. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that we will lose sight of this truth, unless we have deep humility and, wherever possible, fellowship with believers from very different cultural backgrounds than ourselves.
During the 19th century and first half of the 20th century most missionaries became known for exporting their cultures and lifestyle. So African Christians, Chinese Christians, Indonesian Christians, indeed believers from hundreds and hundreds of cultural backgrounds all sang the same tunes, built the same kinds of buildings, and wanted to dress in the same way as the western missionaries.
One of the biggest battles Daniel and Fatima and other missionaries like them have faced is that the stereotype continues. In many cases, anthropologists, journalists and government agencies have failed to see how mission activities have changed. Therefore, missionary activity means the destruction of important cultural heritages. This couple and hundreds more like them went into the Amazonian jungle to seek out dwindling and sometimes lost tribes and did not carry with them plans for how the “natives” should dress, eat, build their houses, worship, etc. They went with the simple message of Jesus Christ and let the Holy Spirit lead to the redemption of their host culture. By that, we mean turning their back on those things that were destroying them, but embracing all that was positive, admirable, helpful, and beautiful about their way of life.
You might be thinking, well, that is an interesting story, but it is well separated from me and has no application in my life. I would suggest that it is a crucial issue for every Christian. With God’s help and often with the help of believers from completely different backgrounds, we need to stand back and look at our own lifestyle through the lens of others and try to see how much of what we do is really Christian and how much of it is the Christianised aspects of our own culture.
The point is we must be very flexible and teachable about those things that are not essential to the gospel. We must be prepared to yield on them and to engage with people with other points of view–whether that’s about eating and drinking habits, political persuasions, fashion and dress-sense, social habits and manners. And when we interact with people from other backgrounds, (and with the cultural variations that happen between generations) we must hold all the none-essentials very lightly. That is the true nature of Christianity. Jesus broke out of one culture, the Jewish culture, that he might draw the people of all tribes, nations and languages to himself.
Unlike Christianity, Islam and Judaism have incorporated common laws and customs into the very fabric of their faith. From a Christian perspective we think it must be possible for them, when they choose to live amongst Christians, to believe in their God and yet adapt to all the laws and social environment our nations provide. But for a truly devout Muslim or Jew this is not really possible, their scriptures are law and customs-centred. It’s not right for us to say that they are not religions of the heart, because they are. But the strands of law, government, culture and even military are completely interwoven with their religion of the heart.
We often call those Muslims who do adapt well to western culture “moderate”. But for Islamists, those same people are apostates because they have abandoned the commandments of their God when it comes to many matters of law and customs.
Over the centuries, Judaism has learnt to adapt and has reinterpreted their scriptures, so Jews have managed to survive in global exile. For the hundreds of thousands of fundamental Orthodox Jews re-gathering in Jerusalem the strands of government law, military and religion are all being woven together once again. It is notable that, as this significant movement in Judaism has grown, its people tend to resemble Muslim fundamentalist more and more, at least in their habit of dress and the way they relate to “outsiders”. In both cases there is very little sympathy or even social interaction with those who are not part of their movement. Of course, we in the west do not feel directly threaten by that particular fundamentalist movement, so we don’t hear much about it. But I find it helps to understand the deep similarities between those who seek to return to the letter of the Old Testament law and those who seek to return to Sharia.
So what is the point? Simply that we must humbly ask God for wisdom and keep a critical eye on our own perception of our faith when it comes to its cultural expressions. Let us not package our nation, our patriotism, and our political convictions with the gospel. And as we seek to be free from some of those things, let us also not go to the other extreme and embrace another culture with its laws and customs.
All Christians should have a deep desire to see the Jewish people come to faith in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us that when Jews are grafted back into the original vine alongside, we who are grafted into the original stump of Israel then it would be as “life from the dead” to the world. That term is interpreted in many different ways by Bible scholars and I can’t tell you with certainty in detail what it means, but I do know it means a huge blessing. However, it does not mean that Christ is reversing the decision of Acts 15 and drawing all believers back into Jewish culture or Israeli politics and military might. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about acquiring land in one small corner of God’s great globe. It’s about the redemption of all people, so the great body of Christ maybe complete. And it will only be complete as we see in Revelation 9:7 when people of every tribe, nation, kindred and tongue standing before the throne and worshiping the great God of heaven, to the grace poured out upon us through Christ Jesus.