As a teacher, you have to be ready to deviate from your notes sometimes. I teach theology students at an Anglican Bible College in Kenya. With my class on mission and evangelism, we had a tangent that amounted to a four hour class discussion over two days, not counting the time spent discussing outside of class. What began as a simple discussion about whether God uses dreams or visions to call people to missions, culminated in a few students questioning whether Jesus is really necessary as a Savior, whether they should write a new Bible that doesn’t challenge their beliefs, and a couple students boldly declaring that we must obey our culture before obeying Christ if the two contradict. Let me tell you what happened. Have no fear, this story ends well, making it one of the most serious and disturbing class discussions I’ve ever had, yet one of the most delightful at the same time because God used my teaching.
The heart of the discussion was the relationship between culture and Christianity. I suggest that one of the greatest challenges facing Africa today is that Christians have not had a truly transformed worldview, based on the Bible. Instead there are many Africans who are still abiding by the beliefs and practices of traditional religion and culture, while at the same time attending church on Sundays. So there are very many Africans claiming to be Christian, but very few who have actually had a transformation of their mind, to believe and to act according to the truth of God’s revelation to us (Romans 12:2). Perhaps this is still a problem in America as well! Our class discussion is evidence of this reality in Africa. This is why I’m a missionary teaching in a country that is already reached with the Gospel.
I had already spent two hours discussing the relationship between Christianity and culture. Most my students are from the Kikuyu tribe, but there many tribes in Kenya, and our class had several other tribes represented as well. We talked about how every culture has things that fit with the Christian faith and can be enjoyed and celebrated, and every culture has things which are fallen. All people need to be transformed when coming to Christ. We talked about contextualization and the Christian faith finding a home in each culture. We talked about how Christianity is not about Western culture, and is not a white man’s religion. We talked about the ways that Christianity could look different in Africa versus the USA. We talked about the tension between how we remain a part of our culture even as a Christian but yet we are also somewhat of a stranger to our culture as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. We talked about the uniqueness of African Christianity and celebrated aspects of African culture. The students were tracking with me and understanding, and I thought we were all on the same page. But it must have been going over their head and not truly connecting to their lives and reality.
When we came to a later topic about dreams, I found out that in their culture, if they have a person (even a Christian) who has been having a lot of dreams, they offer a sacrifice to “cleanse” the person and purify them so they no longer have dreams. Yet the sacrifice is not being offered to God. In this post, it’s not necessary to get into a discussion about this particular ritual, or our later conversations about witchcraft and curses. I was not trying to teach them that their cultural beliefs and practices were wrong I was actually trying to learn more about these things from them. But I did challenge them to think about their beliefs and if they really fit with the Bible or not. I tried to make them think through why they believe in the power of witchcraft, or uttering curses. Where does the power come from? The discussion was not about whether their cultural beliefs and practices regarding these things are good or bad. That’s not the point. The point was rather what we should use to determine whether they are good or bad. I taught them that we should only continue in such traditional beliefs and practices if they fit with what the Bible teaches us. But a few students argued that it does not matter so much what the Bible says. They told me they have to continue in such beliefs and rituals for two reasons:
- They know from experience and stories people tell that the rituals work when prayer to God doesn’t work.
- They cannot go against their culture or there will be consequences, notably other people being unhappy with them.
So we talked long, vigorously, and intensely about the relationship between culture and Christianity. I pushed them really hard, challenging them and asking difficult questions. I made them deeply think through what they believed and why. I so very much appreciated how honest they were willing to be with me. They trusted me enough to be open, and I think this was one of the first times that they were honest with themselves about this. They understood that I did not want them to embrace Western culture, and that I was not against their African culture. But the crux of the issue was what to do if our culture requires something different from what God requires. Though they probably would never have dared utter such a thing before this class discussion, after forcing them to really examine their beliefs, at the end they were willing to be honest and say that culture comes first, and Christ comes second, and they will only take what Christ says in so far as it fits with their culture. It wasn’t all of the students who said this. Most of the students agreed with me, and some weren’t sure what to think.
At points in the long conversation:
- Some claimed that Christianity is a white man’s religion (even though they know from church history that Christianity was in Africa first). Some of the students were really considering that their tribe should write their own Bible, and not have this one from the Jews. So we had to review the biblical teaching of how God revealed himself first to the Jews but always had a plan and heart for all the nations.
- Some students, while wondering and trying to put their thoughts into words, tried to articulate that maybe Jesus is our savior and our help in some ways but in other ways we find salvation and help through the traditional culture.
- Some claimed that their culture, before the missionaries came to Africa, was already perfect. They already worshiped God, they were already saved. Basically they had no sin and didn’t need a Savior. I said, “You have freedom to believe this, and I will still love you, but then are you saying that Jesus is not really the Savior, and that those people did not need to hear about him?” It shook me to my core to hear some of these pastors-to-be wonder out loud, “No, they did not need Jesus, maybe he is not the savior for all people.” I trust that God continues to give grace in such experiences of learning and wrestling through such doubts and issues.
- One student suggested what amounts to modern day pluralism, that each religion finds its own way to God, its own path of salvation. And God will judge each person according to the beliefs and standards of their religion. So I had to teach about the logical problems with a pluralistic view.
- Many of the students said they would do whatever is practical to meet their needs. “If prayer to God doesn’t solve my problem, I will do the traditional rituals.” This is really common in African Christianity. People do what works, not what is right. If prayer doesn’t work, do a sacrifice. If the sacrifice doesn’t work, go to the witch doctor. Whatever works to get me healing and to get more money, that is what I will do.
- The main reason the students gave for not going against the culture was that there are consequences for not following the culture. I said, “But Jesus called us to do what is right, even if it means that we will suffer, to deny ourselves and follow him.” But they kept insisting that you have to follow the culture to avoid causing a problem and being criticized by others. So we discussed how the early Christians in the Roman Empire suffered for going against the culture, how American Christians have to go against parts of our culture today, how Indian Christians have to go against parts of their culture, etc. Some of the students were really getting it and were ready to suffer for Christ, but some still could not fathom suffering by going against the culture. I explained that that is the challenge of being a follower of Christ. “Jesus said to count the cost, and we cannot be one of his followers if we are not willing to suffer for him.”
- Some students tried to argue a middle approach, trying to reconcile what I was teaching and what some of the students were teaching. They said we need to accept both Christianity but also the culture, and that they go hand in hand, fitting together perfectly. They had trouble accepting that there are fallen aspects to every culture. It seems they only want to focus on the good aspects of their various cultures because when I tried to point out that corruption is a huge part of the culture in Kenya, they agreed that corruption is wrong, but didn’t want to say that it was part of the culture. (Only 1% of all the money spent by the government of Kenya is spent according to the law, according to how it was supposed to be spent.)
After the 4 hours of discussion, everyone could clearly see and understand all these issues, facing this dilemma honestly perhaps for the first time in their lives. But about 3 or 4 of the 13 students were stubbornly insisting that their first allegiance is to the culture, and secondly to Christ and the Bible. I challenged them seriously, but also in love, that to be true Christians we must put Christ above all other gods, including our own cultures. We must die to self, be born again, and find new life and identity in Christ. I said if they want be followers of the culture and only follow some of Christ’s teachings, that they should be honest and not call themselves Christians. And that I could not recommend anyone to be a pastor who is not willing to put Christ before their culture. It was tense, serious, and I spoke very slowly and carefully and in love. This might have seemed harsh to some of them, but it is the truth.
Outside of class, I checked on the students who disagreed with me. I was relieved that they had loved the discussion. They said it was the very best way to learn and appreciated me so much for allowing them to honestly discuss. They did not feel offended at all. It was one of the most helpful classes they have had.
Reflecting later, I know that part of the problem is that people are trying to value their tribal cultures that were so strongly put down by Westerners in the past. Some of these tribes went through awful things during the colonial period. Many of the tribes started to lose their identity and traditional practices and beliefs, many of which were good. Many of the colonials and missionaries of the past preached Western culture right alongside the Gospel. And some actively preached against traditional African culture, again, some of which was very good. So I understand that now these African Christians, my students, are trying to hold on to their cultural identity and celebrate what is good in their cultures. I’m not against that and told the students so. I had even told them I appreciate their cultures more than my own in many ways. But it’s ironic or at least interesting that the Kenyans today are emulating what they saw of Western missionaries in the past. If the Western missionaries could preach their culture along with the Gospel, why can’t Kenyans do so today as well? If the Western missionaries put their culture before Christ at times, why can’t Kenyans do so at times as well?
It’s hard for any of us not to put our cultures first. I’m thankful that I have been a part of so many different cultures and known so many people from around the world. It has helped me to better see (though not perfectly of course) what is really the core of the Gospel, what the Bible really teaches, and then the cultural periphery that changes from culture to culture.
I felt like the class discussion was a huge success, even though I couldn’t convince all the students to put Christ before their culture. Many Americans or Kenyans or Christians who do put their culture over Chris don’t realize they are doing it, or aren’t honest that they are doing it. At least these few students are able to recognize clearly what they were doing and articulate it.
But the best part came later! After we agreed to disagree, the students themselves continued the discussion, all of them together, outside of class. And the rest of the class was able to convince some more of the students that Christ comes before culture. One who had initially disagreed even came to tell me of his heart/mind change, that he is putting Christ first, and that he is now going to work on convincing the last of the hold-outs. I’m so grateful for this class of students, to wrestle through hard topics like this together, and support one another in figuring out the truth. And I’m thankful for God using me to help them think through these things.
How about you? Do you put culture before Christ? You might quickly say "no." But are you sure? Are you willing to suffer by putting the truth of God's Word first in forming your beliefs? Are you willing to be called a bigot for believing what God says even if it radically goes against the culture's ideas? Are you willing to go against your political party because you put Christ first? Do you get your identity first and foremost as a Christian, rather than as a conservative, or as a Baptist, or as a Dutch person, or as a Democrat? I'm proud of my students for admitting what they were really doing. Can we be courageous enough to also admit if we are forming our beliefs and opinions about controversial issues based on our culture's ideas first rather than God's Word?