The Cultural Christian Life

January 02, 2017

by William Edgar

Any discussion of how the Christian faith relates to culture and the cultural mandate must take account of what the New Testament actually says about culture and custom.

At the outset, it is important to remember that in general Christians living in the New Testament times, or for that matter in most any times, were living under powerful pressures. The Christian faith only became religio licita (a legally permitted religion) in the fourth century. Even then, persecution was a reality for many Christians in many places around the world and in many eras. Today the Christian faith is the most persecuted religion in the world. Thus many of the questions about cultural comportment in the New Testament relate to dealing with hostility, mostly from the outside, but sometimes, sadly, from the inside.

So, for example, often, when the subject of government or the military is discussed, the New Testament directives guide Christians into how to behave culturally and ethically when facing opposition. The main text in the book of Romans on the civil magistrate, Romans 13, reassures the readers that all authority ultimately derives from God. This would include even the hostile governmental authorities, which at the time was likely to have been headed by the emperor Nero, one of the cruelest opponents of the Christians, at least according to Tacitus. Paul directs his readers to comply with governmental authority, even paying taxes, notwithstanding Roman corruption. This approach is supported by other writers (see 1 Pet 2:13–17). At the same time, compliance is not a blanket rule, as the many places in which the civil authority was resisted show (Acts 4:19; 5:29; Rev 18:4). As an example of how government could serve Christian purposes we might remember that Paul chose to appeal to Rome, based on his rights as a citizen, when facing unjust accusation (Acts 16:37–38; 22:25, 29).

Conversion and Culture 

Before we attempt to corner this off into a merely “ethical” sphere, I would suggest that much of “whatever you do” is cultural. We may observe this in Paul’s admonition about handling money: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28). It is, to be sure, an ethical enjoinder, since the morality of theft, honest work, and generosity are charged. But these very comportments are cultural. The thief finds out ways to deceive those with money or institutions with money; working with one’s hands can be a literal call to a craft or a figurative way of calling for skilled labor; sharing with others needs cultural scrutiny. Paul’s list of the virtues, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,”  and so on, is rife with cultural implications (Phil 4:8). So is his list of the marks of a Christian in Romans 12:9–13.

Conversion to the gospel means far more than having one’s way paved to the new heavens and new earth. It means a radical turnaround, altering one’s entire life.

Conversion to the gospel means far more than having one’s way paved to the new heavens and new earth, though it does mean that. It means a radical turnaround, altering one’s entire life. The cultural implications of this change are enormous. Consider just one, the issue of when to associate and when to break fellowship with other people. Paul tells the Corinthians to stay away from people who claim to be Christians and act immorally, but not to avoid any and all immoral people, “since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:10). Or consider the question of Jewish-Gentile relationships. The famous council recorded in Acts 15:1–21 resolves, at least temporarily, the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers over the practice of the ceremonial law after the gospel is embraced. A cultural compromise of sorts was arrived at, wherein Gentiles, in deference to Jews who followed Moses, should not be burdened by the law, except for abstaining from foods offered to idols (Acts 15:20–21). At the same time, Paul records his admonition of Peter, who slipped back into a misguided separation from Gentiles because of pressure from the radical “circumcision party.” This was the same Peter who, in spite of his upbringing, had learned and then convinced the Jerusalem assembly that Gentiles were fellow heirs of the gospel (Acts 15:7–11; Gal 2:11–14).

The idea of following custom is often mentioned in the New Testament. Conversion does not have to mean embracing uniform practices. Jesus often took opportunities to worship, pray, and teach regularly, as was his custom (Mk 10:1; Lk 4:16; 22:39). The Romans had developed various customs in their relations with the Jews. One of them was the release of a prisoner at the Passover (Jn 18:39). Of course in the one recorded case of this, Barabbas was chosen over Jesus. The Jews had particular burial customs (Jn 19:40). These references do not mean that cultural practices were entirely relative. Most of the time they came out of a reasoned habit, one that made sense strategically or in some other way.

The New Testament’s Concern for Culture

Among the numerous cultural concerns taken up in the New Testament, one would include marriage and celibacy, work, money matters, dietary practices, education, government, and even missions strategy. In many ways these are subsumed under the larger heading of calling (1 Cor 7:17). I have come to believe that calling, or vocation, is among the most pressing issues of our day, a day when meaninglessness, often answered only by fanaticism, is prevalent.

First, Marriage and family are creation ordinances. But they have cultural implications. Indeed, all gender relations have cultural repercussions. In most of the New Testament letters something is said about how to live out one’s marriage. Sometimes this will raise cultural issues. Paul labors to help believers navigate the waters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7. What of not touching a woman (1 Cor 7:1)? What of sexual desire (1 Cor 7:2, 9)? How does authority work out within the couple (1 Cor 7:3–5; see Eph 5:21–33)? What of celibacy (1 Cor 7:7, 27, 32–35)? Living with an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:12–16)? What of their children (1 Cor 7:14)? These are ethical issues with enormous cultural implications. Certain illustrations reinforce local historical and cultural norms. For example, Paul’s referring to the child and the slave being brought up equally until the time of majority (Gal 4:1–2). And then there is the thorny question of authority between the sexes. This is certainly not the place to explore those, but only to say that surely at least part of the issues involved are cultural.

Second, work is also a creation ordinance with cultural implications. A number of professions are identified in the New Testament. There are soldiers and centurions, rabbis, tax collectors, businesspeople, and many others. Certain trades are identified. Joseph and Jesus were carpenters (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:1). Simon was a tanner (Acts 9:43). Lydia dyed cloths (Acts 16:14). Alexander was a coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). The medical profession is identified in a few places. Throughout the Gospels Jesus says only the sick are in need of a physician (Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31). Jesus is called the physician who cannot heal himself (Lk 4:23). Doctors are named, many of whom are unable to heal certain diseases (Lk 8:43). More positively, Luke is called “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14). Just as the thief is ordered to stop stealing, the false doctors are roundly denounced as charlatans and swindlers. Magicians are exposed and repudiated (Acts 3:6–8; Gal 5:20).

Third, related to work, money matters loom large in the New Testament. It was appropriate, culturally, for the very first believers to live “radically,” but then, as the church grew, to live and work in more permanent ways, with  generosity and hospitality still important parts of their stewardship (Acts 2:44; 4:32; 1 Tim 5:8; 6:17–19; 1 Pet 4:9). Poverty relief is a concern of extraordinary significance in the New Testament. There are ethical absolutes here, of course, but also cultural factors, such as making preaching a priority, identifying the true poor, maintaining proper zeal for generosity, providing for true widows but encouraging younger ones to remarry, avoiding undue deference for the rich, giving sacrificially, and so forth (Acts 6:1–6; Gal 2:10; 6:9–10; 2 Thess 3:13; 1 Tim 5:11–16; Jas 2:1–7; 2 Cor 8:3).

Fourth, food consumption has obvious cultural implications. It is not without significance that food and drink are identified as candidates for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). We might remember, as I pointed out in chapter seven, that food, along with marriage, is singled out for consideration in refuting the ascetic heresy (1 Tim 4:1–4). The table has a far greater import than simply ingesting nourishment for survival. Some of its ceremonial meaning had become corrupted in New Testament times, requiring extensive direction on Christian liberty and the protection of the weaker conscience (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8–10). At the other extreme from exaggerated carefulness, sloth and gluttony are denounced (Rom 16:18; Phil 3:19; 2 Thess 3:10).

Taken from Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture by William Edgar. Copyright (c) 2017 by William Edgar. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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