Cultural Contamination and Scripture's Emphases

Cultural Contamination and Scripture's Emphases

Any return to a more biblical missiology must be shaped primarily by the Bible’s emphases

A.W. Workman

Among the many forces that shape contemporary missions, fear of cultural contamination looms large. Missionaries, and Western missionaries in particular, often feel and express a deep aversion to passing on aspects of their own culture to those that they reach through their ministry. Suppose Western missionaries of the past falsely equated Western culture with Christianity. In that case, the pendulum has now swung to the far extreme, where cultural transmission, “contamination,” is now felt to be one of the worst things a missionary could ever do.


This fear is not without warrant. Some churches around the world, planted in previous eras of missions, have failed to take root as truly indigenous because of their Western trappings. The country of Japan comes to mind as one example where the indigenous population has not accepted Christianity as genuinely belonging to the Japanese – at least not in the modern era. In societies like this, Christianity is held at arms’ length, viewed as belonging to the foreigner, and not truly an option for those who identify with their own people group.


Yet an overcorrection to this danger in modern missions has led to an even worse situation. Missionaries are refusing to obey clear commands and examples in scripture out of a professed desire not to export Western culture. Following popular methodologies -themselves driven partly by this fear of cultural contamination - they shrink back from biblical ministry, necessary roles, and spiritual authority. These missionaries convince themselves that by not preaching, not baptizing, not modeling, and not leading church plants, western culture will not influence the locals, the locals will take ownership of the faith, and the Church will be set free to reproduce. All kinds of concerning methods emerge out of this sort of posture. One egregious example would be a mission leader recently for bidding his team members from reading the Bible in indigenous homes due to a commitment to orality and a fear of “Western” literate methods making inroads. 


Yes, a desire to keep the Gospel – and not culture – as the only stumbling block is biblically warranted(1 Cor 9:22). The Jew/Gentile divide among the Romans was rife with issues of conscience and culture, such as which days were to be considered holy, and what foods should or should not be eaten (Rom 15). Church history also shows us that these concerns can have real historical validity. In an era where China was repeatedly humiliated by foreign powers, Hudson Taylor rightly understood that many of his Chinese hearers were stumbling not only over his message, but also over his explicitly foreign appearance. However, in the centuries since Taylor became the first missionary to wear the Chinese hair queue, the pendulum has swung far indeed - into territory that Taylor, a committed cross-cultural preacher, would hardly recognize. 


What is to be done to course-correct? Our obsession with avoiding cultural transmission must be corrected by the clear commands and warnings of scripture. A survey of scripture’s commands regarding the missionary task shows that the overwhelming emphasis of these passages is not on the need for the minister to check himself in order to protect his cross-cultural disciples from adopting his culture (Matt 28:18-20, Matt 24:14, Rom 10:14-17, Rom 15:20, 2 Tim4:11-16). Rather, the emphasis falls on the importance of direct gospel ministry – the kind of ministry that can be seen, caught, and followed. In other words, the Bible emphasizes ministry by direct example. Consider the weight that Paul – a self-professed Hebrew of Hebrews - gives to emulating his own manner of life when writing to the Gentile Macedonians in Philippi. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Phil 3:17 ESV).” Apparently, Paul did not seem to think that if Macedonian believers imitated the life of a Jewish Cilician, they would no longer be able to reach their pagan neighbors effectively. 


What of scripture’s warnings? Far from emphasizing the evils of cultural contamination, scripture instead highlights the dangers of false-gospel contamination (Gal1:6-8, 2 Cor 11:4, 1 Tim 1:3). This danger comes through things like false teaching, wolves in sheep’s clothing, a lack of holy living, or even a loss of love (Rev 2). Once again, the weight of biblical emphasis indicates that these dangers are far more of a threat to the spread of the Church than missionary cultural transmission. 


In future posts, we will consider how a good dose of cross-cultural common sense, personal humility, and a deep trust in God’s sovereignty all help to guard the Church and its missionaries from falling into this pitfall of modern missions. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that any missionary who finds himself frozen by the fear of contaminating the indigenous Church first wrestle with the Word of God and its dominant emphases: Do direct ministry by example and watch out for false-gospels. With these emphases in place, the guard rails are set, and the missionary is now free and ready to keep a wise eye out for where cultural preference might indeed be causing barriers to the gospel. 


Any return to a more biblical missiology must be shaped primarily by the Bible’s emphases, and not dominated by our modern fear of cultural contamination.

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