Missionaries and mission scholars do a lot of thinking about culture. This is especially because so much mission work is cross-cultural. Much of the work of a missionary is trying to find the most effective way to communicate in a different cultural context. As a missionary does this, he is also faced with the reality that cultures are stained by sin. Many Brazilians apparently love their Carnival, many natives apparently enjoy gambling, and so forth.
One temptation is to look at this situation and regard other cultures with disdain. At the end of the day, a Babine person can no longer be Babine if he wants to be a Christian. He has to give up almost everything that distinctively made him Babine, except perhaps for his language. Likewise, a Brazilian has to stop being a Brazilian if he wants to be a Christian. This is a real temptation and the sad truth is that many have historically gone this route. In that old way of thinking, becoming a Christian means giving up the old culture.
Reformed missionaries of the last fifty years have often taken a different tack on this issue. Taking their cue especially from the Dutch missiologist Johan Bavinck, Reformed missionaries have recognized that all cultures need to come under the Lordship of Christ Jesus. Bavinck used a Latin word to describe what he had in mind: possessio. As the gospel permeates a people and a culture, Jesus Christ takes possession of that culture. Babine Christians can maintain their Babine identity, as can Papuan, Brazilian and whatever other ethnic group’s Christians. But their culture will be changed or transformed by the power of the gospel. By the power of the Spirit and Word, the Lord Jesus will slowly but surely bring changes to a people’s culture.
In that last sentence, I would ask that you take note of the word “slowly.” I ask that because it is very important as we consider how the Lord Jesus is bringing changes to our own culture. In the Canadian Reformed churches, the vast majority of us are of Dutch immigrant ancestry. This is our culture. Though we are Canadians, we do have a distinct sub-culture within our churches. Being of Dutch immigrant ancestry, most of us can claim ties to the Christian faith going back over centuries. We would all like to believe that our ancestors protested the martyrdom of Boniface, a pioneering missionary to the Frisians in the Middle Ages. The gospel came to Netherlandish pagans and transformed their culture in many ways. When the light of the Reformation burned strong and bright along the dykes and canals, that transformation was continuing. It continued through further Reformations in 1834, 1886, and 1944. Eventually, the process was handed down to us as immigrants to Canada or the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants.
However, again, I would emphasize that a key word in all this is “slowly.” Oftentimes, we expect to see quick results on the mission fields. We want to see newly Reformed believers immediately doing what took our own ancestors many generations to do. Our own impatience betrays a lack of understanding about the process of the gospel transforming a culture. Furthermore, it also may indicate a sense we sometimes have that the gospel has already done its work in our midst – that the transformation of our own sub-culture in the church is an accomplished fact.
I would like to point out three facets of our sub-culture that seem to indicate a need for further transformation. I do this with a hope that we will be able to accept this as constructive criticism offered by one who comes at the matter both from someone who has lived in and outside of the culture. Hopefully, the acceptance of such criticism will enable us to be more patient and understanding with those cultures which are only just recently coming into contact with the power of the Word and Spirit.
Partly as a result of the immigration experience and partly because of our Dutch cultural heritage, we highly value hard work. In fact, we would be happy to hear others describe us as hard-working. Hard work is not a bad thing in itself. After all, the Scriptures also place a lot of value on hard work and emphatically proscribe laziness. However, some take all of these things in an unhealthy direction. For instance, the fourth commandment regarding a day of rest has sometimes been interpreted as meaning: you shall work six days and no less. With this kind of interpretation, holidays come with a load of guilt. If you’re not working and you’re not busy, you must be lazy. As Jesus Christ transforms our own sub-culture, we increasingly recognize that God’s people in the Old Testament were given abundant time for recreation outside of the Sabbath. Why would God require something more burdensome for his people in the new covenant era?
Another aspect of our being exceptionally task-oriented is that we often place work before relationships. For many of us, at the end of the day, success is a matter of how many things we managed to get done rather than how much we were able to invest in relationships with others, especially with family. This may partly account for the relatively high number of people who have been abused as children in Reformed circles. We were so absorbed with our work that we neglected to shepherd and protect our children. The Lord Jesus will continue to work among us so that we recognize that relationships are far more important than the list of things to do that we make for ourselves each day.
Stoic Suppression of Feelings
The Bible tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that believers are not to “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” However, because of our cultural norms, some of us have understood this to mean that when a loved one passes away, we are not allowed to cry at all. We may not express our feelings of sadness and loss – to do so would be to grieve like the rest of men. But if we travel around the world, we quickly find fellow believers in other cultures who very easily express their emotions of sadness with tears and vocal, open grieving. The problem is that we have looked in the Scriptures for a justification for our cultural norm. We found it in one Bible passage, meanwhile we have ignored the numerous other passages which speak about grieving openly. We have even forgotten the shortest and most easily memorized text of the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). In so doing, we have stood in the way of the most natural way God has given to deal with a loss.
In a similar manner, we have also stood in the way of believers speaking openly about their faith and their joy in the Lord Jesus. Our stoic attitude justifies this with thinking, “They’ll know we are Christians by the way we live our life. We don’t have to speak about what God has done for us and the joy we have as a result.” The same people who think this can be found singing Psalm 96:3, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” And verse 10, “Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns…” We are called to speak and declare, but our cultural norms tell us to keep quiet and keep it to ourselves. As Jesus Christ takes hold of our culture more and more, we will recognize that we are robbing God of glory with this old way of thinking.
Finally, many voices in our sub-culture say that we may not or cannot express our feelings of love. Fathers need not say “I love you” to their children. Even husbands and wives may have difficulty expressing their feelings about one another in a verbal way. “They know how I think, so why do I have to say it? I show it to them.” However, as Jesus Christ works with the Spirit and Word in our circles, we must increasingly see that our heavenly Father is vocal and expressive about his love for his people. John 3:16 is the most obvious example and many others could be found. Now, if God our Father expresses his love for us in explicit verbal ways, why would we not do the same with those we love deeply in our lives? The power of the spoken word should never be underestimated.
Pride is Good For Me – Bad for You
The last facet of our culture that needs transformation is pride – a subject about which I’ve written before. We are still much more accustomed to the language of pride than to the language of thankfulness. We are proud of our accomplishments. We are proud of our churches. We are proud of our nation. But where is it a scriptural notion for believers to be proud? As Calvinists, we should know better. Our whole life, everything about us, is to be directed for the glory of God. We have no right to be proud of anything. Rather, thankfulness should be the theme of our lives.
Strangely enough, we recognize that pride is usually bad for other people. Many of us will not praise our children, because we don’t want them to get fat heads. We will not give credit and praise to others, because we don’t want to see them become proud. This is strange because the Lord Jesus gives praise to his people. Almost all of the churches in the first three chapters of Revelation receive praise from the Lord. If the Lord gives praise to his people when they are doing something right and good, why should we have a different standard for our relationships? People were created with a need for affirmation, and for children it can be especially damaging when they don’t receive that from their parents. It is damaging also in the bigger sense of keeping these children from living out their full potential for the glory of God.
I know there has been some generalization in what I’ve written above. Nevertheless, it comes from observations that I’ve made in Canadian and American Reformed churches across the continent. There are surely brothers and sisters who have already recognized these shortcomings in our sub-culture and are working on addressing them in their own lives and those of others. But for the remainder, all I ask is your humble consideration of whether or not these things are so. If they are, can we agree that Christ’s transformation and possession of our sub-culture is, as yet, incomplete?