Last year I traveled to Uganda to equip pastors from South Sudan for ministry and church planting. During one Q&A session they asked me to help them sort out a cultural issue pertaining to levirate marriage. In their culture, when an older brother dies without a male heir, the next brother is obligated to marry his brother’s widow. When she has a son, he is to be raised as the son of the older brother — meaning he receives the honor and inheritance due his father.
What was the proper Christian response? What if one of these pastors was a younger brother? If his older brother were to die, how would he respond to this cultural expectation?
My initial thought was, “That’s weird.”
My second thought was, “That’s easy.” I thought of all the verses about sexual purity and adultery. I recalled Paul’s charge that pastors should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Then I remembered a story in the Bible nestled in Genesis 38: God killed a man for refusing to fulfill similar obligations to his older brother. Maybe you don’t remember that story, or it has been a long time since you thought of Onan. The poor chap was killed because, in the language of the New American Standard Bible, “he wasted his seed on the ground” (Genesis 38:9).
In most protestant churches pastors conveniently ignore this. But I later looked up the passage in the African Bible Commentary — a commentary written by and for African believers. The opening line of the interpretation of this story read, “The principle here is very important for African families” (emphasis added).
One culture completely ignores this passage; another elevates it as very important. As I reflected on this question and passage, I was reminded of the importance of human culture. The questions, concerns and frustrations of culture shine light on the gospel and lead us to deeper walk with God. The culture provides the platform and pathway for the Church to communicate the gospel.
If we misunderstand the concept of culture, we can miss these powerful opportunities to shine light on the gospel and walk more closely with God.
What Is Culture?
We can think about culture in at least three different ways. Each of these will affect the way we think about Christian flourishing.
- Culture as a product of power.
In this view, we see culture through the lens of opposing authority. Christian living is understood as culture warfare, and we face it with fear. This is what Niebuhr referred to as a “Christ against Culture” attitude.
- Culture as product of leisure.
In this view, culture is what Roger Scruton referred to as “the quintessence of all the natural goods . . . lying beyond the immediate sphere of wants and need.” Culture reflects the dreams and values of those we live among.We see it through the lens of artifacts (music, art, literature, movies, etc.) We make personal judgments and evaluate culture based on our personal preferences. We are fans or foes. We judge the value of the culture according to our likes or dislikes.
- Culture as the product of people.
In this view, culture is what Charles Kraft calls “the nonbiological, nonenvironmental reality into which humans live.” Culture is our world: the way we organize, the way we communicate, our food and dress, our values, humor, fear, etc.We swim in it like a fish in water. But we often forget its purpose and fail to appreciate the opportunities it provides.
Perhaps the main reason we miss the opportunities culture provides is because we have a tendency to see the negative, or absolutely destructive. We assume all culture is beyond hope. It is created and maintained by broken sinners and therefore is beyond repair until the kingdom of God reigns.
While this attitude is natural, it fails to appreciate the true power of culture. It also misses the very real possibility of gospel flourishing.
Culture is not inherently sinful; it is the natural byproduct of God’s creation. He made us with a need to communicate and live in community. We need each other. We need to get on well with others and we communicate with them.
These God-ordained needs of communication and community create culture, and they also provide the platform and pathway for people to encounter the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Culture Is a Pathway for the Gospel
You may be wondering how culture creates a pathway for the Christian gospel. I have traveled the world and met people from many different cultures. I have seen how the gospel speaks to their deepest needs — it addresses their fears, hopes and desires.
So here are a couple of quick examples of how I share the same story differently in light of different cultural priorities.
Western Culture is known as a forensic culture. We prioritize law and justice. We say we are a country of laws not of men. When I tell the story of how I came to know Christ, I begin the story by saying:
Even though I grew up in a Christian family, I was not a Christian. I knew the way God expected me to live but I disobeyed. I assumed my good works could pay the penalty for my disobedience. One night, I realized that I was guilty and there was nothing I could do to eliminate the penalty. Jesus death paid the price for my sins and made a way for my debt to be erased.
Many Southern Cultures prioritize relationships. It is important to avoid offending some and to maintain harmony between others. When the culture prioritize relationships, my story sounds like this:
I grew up in a religious home. My parents taught me that God loved me. However, I did not love him back. One day I realized that my actions were offensive and that my relationship with my God had been destroyed. I didn’t not know how to repair this rift. Then I learned that, through Jesus, I could be adopted into God’s family. He would become my loving heavenly father.
Other cultures, including Eastern and many Urban cultures, value honor and shame the most. People are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations, and seek to restore their honor before the community. Individuals in such cultures prioritize keeping face and maintaining. When honor and shame is a cultural priority my story sounds like this:
I grew up in a religious home but my life was dishonoring to my family, my father, and more importantly my God. Once I recognized my shame, I tried to restore honor but I could not. Then I heard that Jesus removed my shame and restored the honor and relationship with my God.
In each situation, I tell the same story. But I take advantage of key cultural emphases and use them as pathways to the gospel.
In fact, when we ignore the culture, the power of the gospel is often veiled. When we listen to the cries and calls of culture, and we show how the gospel answers the culture’s deepest longings, we unleash God’s message.
My South Sudanese brothers’ question about levirate marriage was a bit surprising, but it reminded me of an important lesson. Culture matters.
Culture matters as we seek to understand the gospel. The crises and questions of a culture allow us to flesh out our faith. But culture also matters as we seek to communicate the gospel. Each culture has deep longings and ideals, and they find their answer in the gospel. Culture is not merely a product of power or of entertainment; it is the very soil wherein the gospel grows and produces fruit that glorifies our God.
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 Roger Scruton, Introduction to Josef Pieper, Leisure, the basis of Culture, xv.
 Charles Kraft, Christianity and Culture, 37.