Culture and Tradition
The word “culture” is not found in our Scriptures. But we are all familiar with the term and how it is applied. Culture shapes the way we think and how we react to the world around us. It guides how we discern what is right or wrong, normal or abnormal. It provides a blueprint for processing of information.
We’ve all grown up with a geographic worldview, based on a version of the Mercator map of 1569. It is on our atlases and school walls. Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), a Flemish cartographer, created a map which was primarily designed to enable the proliferation of ship navigation.
He straightened the lines of longitude and latitude, but as he did so, he made conscious distortions of the size of land masses near the poles. The further from the equator, which he moved further south than it is, the more stretched the landmass was on his map.
Greenland, which appears much larger on his map than South America, is eight times smaller. Alaska, which appears much larger than Mexico, is smaller. Europe and North America, through Mercator’s projections, appear larger and more prominent than they really are.
Several more accurate maps have been released in modern times. Arno Peters (1916-2002), a German historian, released a map in 1974 that he believed reflected a more correct view of the relative size of landmasses. As a historian, his motivation was to create a map that had a greater accuracy of the proportion of size, which he believed was important for creating a more precise worldview.
He believed that land size was the first criteria people often use to determine the relative importance of a country. Having an accurate size, he believed, was connected to fairness and equality for all people. The Mercator map, as Peters saw it, was not only inaccurate in its dimensions, but it had aided the perceived superiority of Europe and North America at the expense of other continents and nations.
When you first see the Peter’s Projection (similar to the James Gall Projection of 1885), it is a bit shocking. With an open mind, it begins to modify the way you see the geography of the world. However, this new map was threatening at that time to some who were personally invested in the world of cartography.
One influential cartographer attacked Peters as being on a “crusade.” He described Peters’ work as being “cleverly contrived, cunningly deceptive.”1 Some attacked Peters and his motives, not the actual projections and work that he had done.
It is not hard to see from this story that men can become easily attached to what had been a longstanding tradition.
All these cartographers would agree that the Mercator map was not intended to be used as an accurate representation of the continents, but rather to assist ship navigation. Yet, it had become the traditional way of looking at the world. When Peters introduced a new perspective, the dialog turned personal, and he was labeled and attacked as a deceiver.
As believers, we too have formed images, constructs and traditions in our spiritual worldview. Some of these images may have been created for specific purposes years before to address a pressing issue at that time (e.g., Mercator’s map) but may not be relevant any longer. Some may have been inaccurate all along. Others are as true today as they were 150 years ago. What we see as truth has always been subject to constant review.
The Scriptures, not long-standing tradition, is the only authority to discern what is right and wrong. The word “culture” is not found in our Scriptures. But we are all familiar with the term and how it is applied. For better or worse, we are all born into a culture. Culture shapes the way we think and how we react to the world around us. It guides how we discern what is right or wrong, normal or abnormal. It provides a blueprint for processing of information.
Culture is determined by several factors, to include national boundaries, our race or sex, the neighborhood we live in and our immediate family. As a Christadelphian community, we share a culture, with a unique set of expectations and distinctive vocabulary that may have developed over many decades.
We acknowledge that understanding culture is also a critical Bible study tool. For instance, being able to understand the culture of the pagan world during Paul’s travels greatly enhances our understanding of the issues he faced and why he often emphasized certain doctrines and practices.
Culture can be our friend when it embraces spiritual thinking. Our culture can provide important boundaries which allow for us to discern and avoid sin, as well as to promote righteousness.
For example, if your cultural norm is to assign trust, even without evidence, to new acquaintances, this may nurture the welcoming of new members to the ecclesia and help them to feel accepted and valued.
But if the prevailing cultural norm is to distrust others until sufficient evidence has been gathered over time to justify trust, welcoming new members into the ecclesia may be strained.
We can become captive to our culture if we allow our thinking and consideration of the Scriptures to be arrested by what feels normal, or what we have always been taught. When culture dominates our thinking, it can limit the power of the Scriptures in our life.
THE GOSPEL WINS OVER CULTURE AND TRADITION
The Apostle Paul wrote,
Paul understood, as he moved through the multiculturalism of Roman society, that all are initially conformed to the thinking of the world we find ourselves in. But we are called to transform, and this is done by the renewing of our thinking.
In Greek, “renewing” is anakainosis or “renovation.” It represents a complete change for the better. This really is instructive about the process we need to embrace if we desire to transform our minds. For instance, when we create a plan to renovate a kitchen, we remove cabinets and walls that are unhelpful, but keep things that are functional. It is all part of making the new kitchen more functional and according to the master plan. The renovated kitchen is “like new” and it serves our purposes better than the old.
But we are called to transform, and this is done by the renewing of our thinking.
The Bible itself is our primary and authoritative source for interpretation. But we have also historically relied on non-Christadelphian scholarly works to expand our understanding and appreciation of many doctrines and expositional topics. Some scholars outside of Christadelphia have credentials in linguistics, languages and history, which can provide us with more insight into passages being studied. However, they must always be used with great caution.
Unless the scholar’s remarks are found to be fully consistent with the Scriptures, these works should never be positioned as authoritative. At best they are supplements to good Bible study. For instance, if a scholar were to claim that a certain passage is to be understood in a certain historical or cultural context, this must then be tested across the entirety of the Bible to ensure that it is consistent with the principles seen in other settings and applications.
Scholarly works can open our appreciation of certain passages, to be sure. But we must test them against the backdrop of the consistent teaching of all Scripture. To truly learn and understand, we must have minds that are flexible. Calcified minds prevent the advancement of truth.
When Jesus was confronted by the disciples of John and the Pharisees over the practice of fasting, Jesus was clear that what was needed from believers was a new way of thinking. They were not to patch a new, unshrunk garment with old material or to put new wine into old bottles (Matt 9:14-17).
Old wineskins would become brittle and burst. The teachings of the Lord required elastic minds which could expand to accept the concepts of the gospel. The Apostle Peter was a man who needed to change his mind. Though he had seen evidence of the calling of the Gentiles, he remained confused about just how they were to be accepted. He would have known that the gospel message was that through Abraham and his Seed, “shall all nations be blessed.” (Gal 3:8).
But Gentiles weren’t circumcised. They had backgrounds steeped in idolatry and paganism. They ate food that no law-abiding Jew would ever consume. Just how was it that they were to be accepted into the family of God?
Through a vision, the Lord revealed to Peter, who was experiencing great physical hunger at the time, that unclean animals being presented to him in the vision were acceptable to eat. His default was to recall that he had never eaten creatures which were common or unclean. This was to Peter an expectation of any follower of God. His mind could not flex to accept that such dietary compromise could ever be acceptable.
It was more than a commandment. For Peter, it was part of his religious culture as a Jew. This surely couldn’t be right! But the lesson was, “What God hath cleansed, that call thou not common.” (Acts 10:15). This vision is reinforced later by his interaction with Cornelius.
Surely, Peter was a righteous man, and he accepted this teaching from the Lord, and his mind began to be transformed on this important issue. We would expect that he would no longer see his Gentile brethren as unclean. But, in Galatians 2, we read of how Peter once sat and ate with Gentile believers. Paul and Barnabas must have seen this as a positive reinforcement for their work and the new understanding of the acceptance of Gentile converts. Yet, when “certain came from James,” “he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.” (Gal 2:12).
Even though he had embraced the new thinking from his vision, he lacked the necessary courage to stand up for this new understanding, under the perceived pressure of those who were not so enlightened. Paul rebuked Peter for this, and to his credit, Peter did not reject the correction.
Sometimes, even when we come to new and improved understanding of Scripture, we too can waver when others we respect may reject what we believe to be right. It demands courage.
Today we don’t get descending sheet visions or Road-to-Damascus experiences, so we have to rely on careful scrutiny of the Scriptures as our only revelation. That is the challenge.
We all have developed certain ways of thinking about life in the Truth and what things we feel are normal and right. Maybe it is the manner of worship services, the music we use for our hymns, how we dress for memorial service, or how we view a particular doctrine or prophecy. These may become extremely comfortable to us and can be armor-plated with well-intentioned traditions.
However, traditions can be remnants of unenlightened interpretations from prior generations, or they may have once served a certain purpose, but are unhelpful now. Let me give a simple and administrative example. Many ecclesias have a constitutional requirement that the nomination and election results for ecclesial offices must be read in their entirety for multiple weeks during the announcements at Memorial Service. The recording brother often speedily reads through this lengthy list and the audience struggles to remember what was said.
Now, that made a lot of sense 50 years ago. But today, that same information can be easily reproduced and distributed, or even emailed to members. It is more efficient and likely more effective than reading the results out loud. It is unhelpful to place tradition, stability and conformity as stronger pursuits than a commitment to openly pursue truth.
Spiritual minds are never stagnant. Like the Bereans of Macedonia, we desire to “receive the word with all readiness (prothumia— eagerness or willingness) of mind” and to search “the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11). This has been a vital part of our culture as Christadelphians for over 150 years. We do not choose to veer away from a sound discussion about the Word of God. Instead, we choose to listen to one other and use the Scriptures to discern what is right.
Can we have a discussion with someone about a spiritual topic, when our past tells us that this perspective doesn’t feel right? Can we effectively listen with the intent to understand and hear our brother out? Can we share a godly fellowship by examining what Scripture says? Will we be willing to accept that there may be issues that allow for a difference of opinion, without any compromise of the Truth?
Our community continues to change exponentially. Our fellowship is much larger than 20 years ago, far more global, and increasingly diverse. We must have an open-mindedness to differences of opinion and new ways to look at long-standing traditions. What knits us together (Col 2:2) isn’t culture or tradition, but our LORD and His righteous principles.
With great gaps in the culture of our brothers and sisters around the globe, we are certain to have differences in what we see as being normal. We have a great opportunity before us for growth and the sharpening of our comprehension of Scripture.
Today, insisting that what is right is how things have been viewed or done in the past is not an acceptable way to resolve differences of opinion. It never really was. We need to seek an answer from Scripture and welcome debate and discussion about these principles. Doing this will only serve to make us stronger and more dependent on the timeless words of the Bible, versus our own cultural influences.
Here are a few points we might all consider when we feel a collision between our current thinking and the thinking of a brother or sister who differs from us:
- First accept that you are still on a journey for truth—one that is unending. Our own knowledge of the Bible is incomplete and could benefit from a different perspective, even if in the end you don’t agree.
- Recognize that some of what seems right or wrong to you may be culturally biased and not based on Scripture. This is a warning for all of us. The gospel of Jesus Christ did not promise comfort, but rather a fundamental challenge to the thinking of all men.
- Acknowledge our increasingly diverse community and accept that cultural diversity will naturally challenge traditions.
- Test everything and everyone by the Scriptures. While we are all doing the best we can to understand God’s Word, we all make mistakes or have gaps in our understanding. Seek to understand your brother or sister and have an open and flexible mind.
- When brothers or sisters have a point of view that we do not agree with, it is important to not label or pigeonhole them. Accept those who question traditions or teachings as sincere students. Even if a Scriptural examination proves that their perspective was not consistent with Scripture, we are not called on to judge their hearts. How we behave toward those we disagree with is an accurate litmus test about how we love and honor each other and our Lord.
- There will be some topics debated, that when fully examined by Scripture, may be determined to have a clear answer. We must embrace what is right, even if it is uncomfortable or unpopular in society.
- There will be some topics debated where there is no apparent clear answer. In such cases, having different perspectives may be appropriate. Typically, these are not first principle issues, but interpretations of prophecy, uncertain details or traditions. We need to accept that there is great liberty within our community on such matters.
- Finally, it can take significant time to adopt a new idea or perspective. Even Peter, who learned the acceptance of the Gentiles through the vision and his interaction with Cornelius, back-stepped when facing the judgment of those who had come from James in Jerusalem (Gal 2:11-12) and was rebuked by Paul. We need to have patience with those who we share our perspective with, understanding that it may have taken us significant time and testing to come to our own understanding.
Let’s uphold what is doctrinally right and not faint in rejecting error (Rev 2:2-3). But, let the process be done by sincerely striving to understand the other person’s point of view.
Whether it is to be accepted, or rejected, let us not lose what defines us as believers— our “first love.” (v. 4). We are all striving to understand the pure teachings and principles of our God. We confess that we are imperfect reservoirs of His truth. Let us labor and show patience by trying all teachings by the Scriptures.
1 Arthur H. Robinson, The American Cartographer, vol. 12, no. 2 (1985) pp. 103-111.