CULTURE & CONSCIENCE
Assume you are a missionary a few centuries ago, in a foreign, pagan land where their culture and customs arose over the centuries with virtually no contact with Judaism or Christianity. (Japan; Zambia; China; American Indians; etc.) You are confronted by an entirely new culture with many strange customs and practices. You don’t have the luxury of formulating the practices and customs for them. Those customs have been set in place for centuries before you ever landed there. You must now deal with those customs and practices as they are,not as you would like them to be. As a missionary representative for Christ, you are going to have to make lots of decisions as to which practices and customs with which you will partake and which you will avoid. Virtually every practice, custom, and tradition in that land had its roots in a godless society.
Your challenge as a missionary is to wade through all of these strange customs (all of which arose in a pagan environment) and determine which are harmless and innocuous and which are idolatrous and evil. In I Cor. 9:19-22, the apostle Paul reveals God’s mind on this matter: we are to become like the Gentiles in every way we can. You are a guest in their country. You will want to follow their customs and practices to better minister to them… as long as it does not violate Scripture or conscience. I Cor. 10:31-32 states that we are to give no offence to the gentiles or to the believers, and to do all to the glory of God. This can be a challenge, as every missionary will attest. At times it might be like walking a tight rope. You don’t want to misstep in either direction. The challenge this missionary has is determining at what point and over which issues do he will take a stand and say, “As a Christian, I cannot participate”, knowing that it will cause offence. Some issues will clearly be in conflict with Christianity and avoiding all offence is impossible. There IS an offence to the cross. But God’s Word states that we are not to offend them unnecessarily. The same Book also says, “Flee from idolatry.” This is a dilemma many missionaries face.
Since virtually all of their customs and celebrations have their roots in paganism, it is quite likely that Christian missionaries in that land may not always agree as to which customs they are to partake of and which they are to reject. There’s no way you are going to change the culture of the land. Besides, that’s not why you’re there. But you are going to have to decide on a personal level what is acceptable and pleasing to the Lord and what is not. The Bible gives us principles to live by – but does not address the multitude of possible issues faced by believers around the globe and throughout the centuries. The Bible is silent on:
- Whether a Christian should celebrate New Years in China
- Whether a Christian should take off his shoes in a Japanese home
- Or eat Hot Cross buns in England
- Or eat Italian wedding cookies…(which originally were wafers offered to Roman deities)
- Or drink tea in a Japanese peace garden
- Or order a hamburger in India
- Or bathe in the Ganges River
- Or take a puff on an American Indian peace pipe
- Or whether women should wear a burqa in Afghanistan
Eph. 5:10 says, “prove all things.” That believer is going to have to test each practice and custom according to the principles in the Word of God, realizing that not every believer will draw the same conclusion on every issue. We are strangers and pilgrims in the world (I Pet. 2:11). Even in our native country, here in America, spiritually, we are on foreign soil. When a person gets saved, God opens his eyes and he sees the world and all its ways in a whole different light. In a sense, even in our native land, we are foreigners. The customs and practices that we thoughtlessly participated in before now need to be examined and tested by God’s Word. Some will be found to be harmless and neutral. Others will be seen to out of sync with the principles of God’s Word. And just as missionaries have a hard time wading through all the layers of customs and practices, we too in our homeland have a hard time determining which customs and practices are acceptable and which are not… and we don’t always agree.
Christmas is one such practice. A Christian missionary should never go to a foreign land and attempt to establish the custom of Christmas in a culture where it does not exist. Why should he? A missionary is not there to import American or European culture and traditions, but to preach Christ. But that is not our situation in America in the twenty first century. We live in a land where Christmas IS practiced and the custom is now well entrenched. There is no escaping it anywhere in America.
As a Christian I am to participate in my culture until it runs contrary to either the Scriptures or my conscience. I am never to violate either one. (This is exactly the case for a missionary in a foreign land.) The Bible rightly divided is perfectly objective. We all agree on that. The human conscience is not objective. It is purely subjective – and believers’ consciences vary drastically, depending upon background, upbringing, knowledge, etc. Herein lies the problem as to WHY believers often differ over issues that are not doctrinal or moral in nature: differences in conscience. Our consciences prick us over different issues.
Why is there a difference in conscience among believers? Sometimes it is because one believer is sensitive to spiritual things and another believer is not so sensitive to spiritual things (carnality, spirituality, and maturity). Sometimes believers unnecessarily stir up their consciences over issues that need not be considered. Some believers are overly scrupulous on certain issues. Sometimes it is due to ignorance, a believer has not been taught on a particular subject. Sometimes it is because the conscience has been given the wrong information. (Paul persecuted the church, and did so in good conscience because he thought they were displeasing God. His conscience was wrong because it was fed the wrong information. Paul later corrected his thinking and his practice! Consciences and convictions can change with added light.) Sometimes believers refuse to think about an issue and thus their conscience is not pricked.
When it comes to the objective word of God, all believers should agree. However, when it comes to the subjective conscience, believers often disagree. It is OK to disagree, but it is NOT ok to violate your conscience… ever. If your conscience forbids you from participating in a custom or practice – then DON’T. Romans 14:22-23 says that he that doubts is damned if he eats, for he eats not of faith and whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
Consider what Paul says about observing days in Romans 14:6. Some believers can esteem a day and do so as unto the Lord. Another believer finds that he cannot esteem the day and he chooses not to esteem it. He also does so “as unto the Lord.” Do you see here how God clearly states that on certain non-doctrinal issues (days; meats; etc.) believers can have differing practices, and yet BOTH do so as unto the Lord. And God is pleased with both groups. What is God really looking for? A heart that desires to honor HIM! It is hard for us to understand how opposite views can actually both please the Lord, and that different practices can both honor God and be for His glory. It may be difficult for us to understand this truth, but we all have to acknowledge that in this verse God Himself says that it is so.
Consider Romans 14:7-8. Both believers (those who esteem the day and those who do not) approach the same subject with a desire to live “as unto the Lord.” And both are thus pleasing to the Lord, as long as SELF is not the motive for their choice, and as long as they are living unto the Lord and for His glory. Christ is Lord for both of those believers. It is possible for Christians to have differing practices and have the same motive, both doing so as unto the Lord and both living for the Lord. The particular issue that Paul uses as an illustration is that of esteeming or observing days. What matters most is the MOTIVE, not the practice. Whatever our practice, it is to be done “as unto the Lord” … “living not unto self but unto the Lord.”