Must I Reject My Non-Western Culture When Becoming a Christian?

Must I Reject My Non-Western Culture When Becoming a Christian?

Written on 04/08/2024
Justin Ariel Bailey

Although it has been so influential in the West, Christianity is not a Western religion. The gospel of Jesus was preached in Africa and Asia before Europe and North America. Nevertheless, non-Westerners are often asked to leave their cultures behind when they become Christians.

What does Scripture tell us about Christianity and culture? Let’s look at two passages from Acts.

The first passage is the account of the day of Pentecost. Luke, the presumed author, goes to great lengths to list all of the diverse people groups represented. “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs”—all marvel that they are hearing about the mighty works of God in their native tongues and wonder aloud, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:9-12). What it means, Peter responds, is that Christ has been enthroned as Lord, and his Spirit has been poured out on all who believe.

Notice that the Spirit does not homogenize all languages into one. Each pilgrim hears about the mighty works of God in their own language. At the beginning of the Christian story, the Spirit affirms the dignity of human language and culture by translating the message into new tongues rather than insisting that minority groups submit to the majority culture’s language and logic. The day of Pentecost declares that the Spirit has something to say to and through these people too in the languages their hearts can hear.

Tragically, Christians have not always followed the Spirit on this. But transmitting the gospel—the work of Christian mission—always entails translation, and at its best, this enables mutual submission and cultural edification. Translation is not domination but, as Willie Jennings has put it, “loving, caring, intimate joining,” a sharing of life in common surrender to Christ.

We can see this in the second passage, the Acts 15 account of the Council of Jerusalem. After the Holy Spirit has been poured out on Gentile believers, the leaders of the church meet to consider whether the Gentiles should be required to become culturally Jewish in order to be counted as Christians. The church speaks with one voice, concluding that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). Yet the council does give some instructions to the Gentiles: “Abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (15:29). Christian faith can be translated and adapted to every culture, but every culture will have aspects that are at odds with the gospel.

So the answer to whether new Christians must forsake their culture is a qualified no. Every culture can host the gospel, and we do not leave our cultural stories behind when we become Christian. At the same time, the gospel calls every culture to reformation, to repentance, and to “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5). But note well: this is a call to obey Christ, not to conform to Western culture, which the gospel also calls to repentance!

The idols of every culture and the injustices that inevitably come with them must be challenged, resisted, and rejected. But no culture needs to be replaced without remainder. Christ comes not to replace our cultural stories, but to fulfill them. Our cultures will not be left behind, but will be taken up and transfigured so that they can be carried, along with the “glory and honor of the nations,” into that city whose gates will never be shut (Rev. 21:24-26).