Local Cultures and Christian Principles—Are They Compatible?
STEPHEN, a Witness from Northern Europe, was assigned as a missionary to an African country. While strolling through town with a local brother, he was startled when the brother took hold of his hand.
The thought of walking down a busy street holding hands with another man was shocking to Stephen. In his culture such a custom has homosexual connotations. (Romans 1:27) Nevertheless, to the African brother, holding hands was purely a gesture of friendship. The rejection of the hand would signify a rejection of the friendship.
Why should clashes of culture concern us? First of all because Jehovah’s people are keen to fulfill their divine commission to “make disciples of people of all the nations.” (Matthew 28:19) To accomplish this task, some have moved to serve where the need for ministers is greater. To succeed in their new environment, they must understand and adapt to the distinct cultures they encounter. Then they will be able to work in harmony with their fellow brothers and sisters, while also being more effective in the public ministry.
Furthermore, in this turbulent world, many people have fled from their troubled homelands for political or economic reasons and have settled in other countries. So we could well find that while preaching to these new neighbors, we are confronted with new customs. (Matthew 22:39) Our initial exposure to different ways may result in a sense of confusion about new customs.
Areas Clearly Defined
Culture is woven into the fabric of human society. What a fruitless exercise it would be, therefore, to become “righteous overmuch” and investigate every small custom to decide whether it is compatible with Bible principles!—Ecclesiastes 7:16.
On the other hand, there is a need to identify local customs that clearly violate divine principles. Generally, though, that is not difficult to do, since God’s Word is available “for setting things straight.” (2 Timothy 3:16) For example, having many wives is customary in some lands, but for true Christians the Scriptural standard is for a man to have just one living wife.—Genesis 2:24; 1 Timothy 3:2.
Likewise, certain funeral customs designed to keep away evil spirits, or based on a belief in an immortal soul, would be unacceptable for a true Christian. Some people offer incense or prayers to the departed in order to repel wicked spirits. Others have wakes or even a second burial with the objective of helping the deceased to prepare for life ‘in the next world.’ The Bible teaches, however, that when a person dies, he is “conscious of nothing at all,” and thus he cannot do good or harm to anyone.—Ecclesiastes 9:5; Psalm 146:4.
Of course, there are many customs that are compatible with God’s Word. How refreshing when we come into contact with cultures where the spirit of hospitality still thrives, where custom demands that even a stranger be given a warm greeting and that, when necessary, the home be opened up to him! When you experience such treatment firsthand, are you not moved to follow this example? If you are, it will certainly improve your Christian personality.—Hebrews 13:1, 2.
Who of us likes to be kept waiting? In some lands this rarely happens because punctuality is considered important. The Bible tells us that Jehovah is a God of order. (1 Corinthians 14:33) Consequently, he has set a “day and hour” to end wickedness, and he assures us that this event “will not be late.” (Matthew 24:36; Habakkuk 2:3) Cultures that promote reasonable punctuality help us to be orderly and to show proper respect for other people and their time, which is certainly in line with Scriptural principles.—1 Corinthians 14:40; Philippians 2:4.
What About Innocuous Customs?
While some customs are clearly compatible with the Christian way of living, others are not. But what about those customs that cannot be defined as good or bad? Many customs are innocuous, or harmless, and our attitude toward them can demonstrate our spiritual balance.
For example, there are many forms of greetings—a handshake, a bow, a kiss, or even an embrace. Likewise, there is a huge variety of customs governing table manners. In some lands people eat from a communal plate or dish. Burping is an acceptable—even desirable—expression of appreciation in certain countries, whereas in others it is unacceptable and would be classed as the height of bad manners.
Rather than deciding which of these neutral customs you personally like or dislike, concentrate on adopting the right attitude toward them. The timeless counsel from the Bible recommends that we do ‘nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism, but with lowliness of mind, we consider that others are superior to us.’ (Philippians 2:3) Similarly, Eleanor Boykin, in her book This Way, Please—A Book of Manners, says: “A kind heart is the first thing you need.”
This humble approach will prevent us from disparaging the customs of others. We will feel motivated to reach out and learn how other people live, share their customs and taste their foods rather than hold back or view with suspicion everything that seems different. By keeping an open mind and being willing to try new ways, we pay a compliment to our host or our foreign neighbors. We also benefit ourselves as we “widen out” our hearts and our horizons.—2 Corinthians 6:13.
If the Custom Hinders Spiritual Progress
What if we encounter customs that are not unscriptural in themselves, yet they are not conducive to spiritual progress? In some lands, for example, people may be very inclined to procrastinate. This easygoing approach to life can reduce stress, but it will likely make it more difficult for us to accomplish our ministry ‘fully.’—2 Timothy 4:5.
How can we encourage others to avoid putting important things off until “tomorrow”? Remember that “a kind heart is the first thing you need.” Motivated by love, we can set the example and then kindly explain the benefits of not leaving until tomorrow what should be done today. (Ecclesiastes 11:4) At the same time, we must be careful not to sacrifice mutual trust and confidence in the interest of productivity. If our suggestions are not immediately accepted by others, we should not lord it over them or take out our frustration on them. Love must always take precedence over efficiency.—1 Peter 4:8; 5:3.
Taking Into Account Local Taste
We need to be sure that any suggestion we make is a valid one and not just an effort to impose our own personal tastes. Styles of clothing, for example, vary greatly. In many regions it is proper for a man preaching the good news to wear a necktie, but in some tropical countries, it may be viewed as excessively formal. Taking into account local taste as to what is proper dress for a professional person who deals with the public will often be a helpful guide. “Soundness of mind” is vital when we deal with the sensitive issue of clothing.—1 Timothy 2:9, 10.
What if a custom does not please us? Should it automatically be rejected? Not necessarily. The custom of males holding hands, mentioned earlier, was perfectly acceptable in that particular African community. When the missionary noticed that other men were walking around holding hands, he felt more at ease.
The apostle Paul, during his extensive missionary journeys, visited congregations whose members came from diverse backgrounds. Doubtless, clashes of culture were frequent. Thus, Paul adapted to whatever customs he could while firmly adhering to Bible principles. “I have become all things to people of all sorts,” he said, “that I might by all means save some.”—1 Corinthians 9:22, 23; Acts 16:3.
A few pertinent questions may help us decide how we should react to new customs. By our adopting a certain custom—or refusing to do so—what impression are we giving observers? Will they be attracted to the Kingdom message because they can see that we are trying to integrate into their culture? On the other hand, if we do adopt a local custom, could ‘our ministry be found fault with?’—2 Corinthians 6:3.
If we desire to become “all things to people of all sorts,” we may have to alter some deeply ingrained views as to what is proper and what is not. Often the “right” and the “wrong” way to do something depends merely on where we are living. Thus, in one country hand-holding among men is a demonstration of friendship, while in many others it would surely detract from the Kingdom message.
There are other customs, however, that are acceptable in various regions and that may even be proper for Christians; yet we must exercise caution.
Beware of Crossing the Line!
Jesus Christ said that although his disciples could not be taken out of the world, they had to remain “no part of the world.” (John 17:15, 16) Sometimes, though, it is no easy task to identify the line between what is an integral part of Satan’s world and what is merely culture. Music and dancing, for example, permeate almost every culture, although in some lands they assume greater importance.
We may easily make a judgment—based more on our background than on sound Scriptural reasons. Alex, a German brother, received an assignment to Spain. In his former environment, dancing was not very popular, but in Spain it is part of the culture. When he first saw a brother and a sister performing a lively local dance, he was confused. Was this dancing wrong or perhaps worldly? Would he be lowering his standards if he went along with this custom? Alex learned that although the music and the dancing were different, there was no reason to assume that his Spanish brothers and sisters were lowering Christian standards. His confusion was due to a difference in cultures.
However, Emilio, a brother who enjoys traditional Spanish dancing, recognizes that there is a danger. “I notice that many forms of dancing require the couple to have very close contact,” he explains. “As a single person, I realize that this can affect the feelings of at least one of the partners. Sometimes, dancing can be used as an excuse to show affection for someone you feel attracted to. Making sure that the music is wholesome and that physical contact is kept to a minimum can serve as a protection. Nevertheless, I must admit that when a group of young single brothers and sisters go out dancing together, it is very difficult to maintain a theocratic atmosphere.”
Certainly, we would not want to use our culture as an excuse for indulging in worldly behavior. Singing and dancing had a place in Israelite culture, and when the Israelites were liberated from Egypt at the Red Sea, their celebration included both song and dance. (Exodus 15:1, 20) However, their particular form of music and dancing differed from that of the pagan world around them.
Sad to say, while waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai, the Israelites got impatient, made a golden calf, and after eating and drinking “got up to have a good time.” (Exodus 32:1-6) When Moses and Joshua heard the sound of their singing, it immediately disturbed them. (Exodus 32:17, 18) The Israelites had crossed that “line,” and their form of singing and dancing now reflected the pagan world around them.
Similarly today, music and dancing may be generally acceptable in our locality and may not offend the conscience of others. But if the lights are turned low, flashing lights are added, or music with a different rhythm is played, what was formerly acceptable may now reflect the spirit of the world. “It is just our culture,” we could argue. Aaron used a similar excuse when he acquiesced to pagan forms of entertainment and worship, erroneously describing them as “a festival to Jehovah.” This lame excuse was invalid. Why, their conduct was even viewed as “a disgrace among their opposers.”—Exodus 32:5, 25.
Culture Has Its Place
Exotic customs may at first shock us, but not all of them are necessarily unacceptable. With our “perceptive powers trained,” we can determine which customs are compatible with Christian principles and which are not. (Hebrews 5:14) When we manifest a kind heart full of love for our fellowman, we will react appropriately when faced with innocuous customs.
As we preach the Kingdom good news to people in our local area or further afield, a balanced approach to the kaleidoscope of cultures will enable us to become ‘all things to all men.’ And doubtless we will find that as we welcome the variety of cultures, it will contribute to our having a rich, colorful, and fascinating life.
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Christian greetings can be expressed properly in many ways
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A balanced view of diverse cultures can lead to a rich, colorful life