Culture, Not Race

Scripture does not define the word culture, but it certainly describes the phenomenon of culture-making. Humans are meaning-making creatures, who fashion their world after their values, religions, and world-views.

The Bible also describes the behaviour or way of life that comes from a certain culture. The Greek word anastrophe is translated conduct, or way of life. In contrast to those who define culture as “everything people do” the biblical writers see one’s anastrophe as rooted in one’s religion. That is, idolatry and false systems produce one kind of anastrophe, whereas Christianity is supposed to produce another.

as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [anastrophe], because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct [anastrophe – verb form] yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [anastrophe] received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:14-19)

Peter contrasts one form of culture with another. One was received by tradition (which is simply a culture stretched over time), the other is shaped by the new life in Christ.

Here we see the tragic misstep of equating culture with race. For if culture and race are synonymous, no culture can be critiqued. One would then be judging the value of a people based upon skin colour, which is racism proper.

Scripture does not critique people based upon their ethnos (race). It does, however, critique their anastrophe, which is to say, their culture. If the culture of a people has produced immorality, idolatry, perversions, Scripture condemns the culture. In condemning the culture, it is condemning the belief-system that created that behaviour. 

One sees the sad result of equating race and culture in South Africa. Here, untaught believers will still refer to “my culture” as a contrast to another believer’s “culture”. You will routinely hear people say that missionaries brought “their culture” and imposed it upon Africa. Some dear black believers are desperately trying to discover some pristine form of “black Christian culture” untouched by Western hands. Believers speak of certain ways of worship as belonging to one culture (by which they mean ethnicity) as opposed to another. 

Now I, for one, rejoice in the diversity of our country, and of my local church. I love the many colours that look back at me on a Sunday morning. I enjoy being called “Mfundisi” (teacher) by some of the members. I enjoy tasting, hearing and seeing the mix of foods, languages and social customs that mingle in our local church. A multi-ethnic church is a joy. Racism is an evil, and I will, as the occasion suggests, write and preach against racism as a sin. 

But our church is not “multi-cultural”. That would be equivalent to saying, it is “multi-anastrophal”, or “multi-religious”. No, in the biblical sense, our church is uni-cultural. We love and honour Christ. With Scripture as our final authority, it shapes the loves, beliefs and behaviour of those who call themselves part of our church. However much melatonin the skin of the various members contain, however many of our country’s eleven national languages (yes, eleven!) they speak, however different some of our social customs may be, we are actually bound and shaped by one culture: Christian culture. 

I recognise speaking of “Christian culture” raises several other questions. What place is there for differing expressions of music or art in this supposed Christian culture? Has Christian culture existed in the past, and what did it look like? What if one ethnic group has dominated in historic Christian culture? What element of missions was pure ethnic preference, and what was true Christian culture? Should modern missionaries attempt to leave the cultures they find in as pristine a state as possible? We will attempt to deal with these questions as we rehabilitate this mangled word. 

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