Today it is popular (politically correct) to consider all religious beliefs as self-evidently personal on the one hand and as falling under the general heading and protection of all things cultural on the other. Ethiopia in particular is based upon a system termed “ethnically based federalism.” This federal system is comprised of regions based primarily upon ethnic identification. Thus, Oromya, Afar, Amhara, Tigray, etc. are regions in which primarily one ethnic group finds its opportunity for expression of its ethnic identity. Of course there are about 80 linguistically identifiable groups in Ethiopia and only about 12 regions so many of the smaller groups are included in the larger ones. But, be that as it may, the larger question for Christian evangelism and missions becomes, is it somehow an imposition of one culture upon another to share Christ with those of another ethnic identifications? Or the broader issue would be that of the relationship between Christ and culture.
A few months ago it was reported that more than 1 million people came to a site near our college offices in Debre Zeit (Bishoftu) where there is a tree by Lake Hora around which a festival occurs annually in the conduct of a traditional religion called Iraacha (spelling varies). This is essentially a nature religion in which spirits are honored in various ways especially around bodies of water and sacred places such as the tree near Lake Hora. Such events are very much promoted by regional governments as a celebration of cultural heritage but also as a source of tourist dollars from visiting Ethiopians and other nationalities who may come to such a widely known celebration. Under the name of “culture” governmental bodies are promoting this kind of religious celebration on the one hand and discouraging evangelism by Christians on the other as an interference with local tradition.
So what is the position of the New Testament? Are Christians called to make disciples of all peoples (ethnos)? And if so, how does this mission relate to culture? Over the years Christian missionaries have been accused of promoting a culturally specific form of Christianity and Christian practice. Unfortunately this has too often been justified. All things identified with the many non-western cultures have been labeled demonic. Seminaries discuss and teach courses in Asian Theology, African Theology, Latin Theology, Liberation Theology, and many more “theologies.” In the end each of these is somehow compared to the normative “Western” theology which is understood to be value free and objective whereas the others are of course subjective and value (demonically) laden. The truth, of course is that Western cultures are not value free nor objective and are certainly every bit as influenced by demonic spirits as any other culture. However, missionaries have most often been sent by Western nations to the majority world rather than vice-versa. Today, many have recognized that missionaries are being sent by African, Asian and Latin American nations to one another as well as to Western societies that are increasingly “post-Christian.” But such recognitions are slow to be followed through in terms of their ramifications for the larger picture they affect.
The scripture is intended to be understood and applied in every culture, every nation and among every people. If there will truly be those of every tribe, language and nationality around the throne of God in heaven (Rev. 5:9), then evidently the gospel has taken root in each of these environments. And more so, if each of these different cultures and peoples is identifiable then they must be worshipping in their own language or in some culturally identifiable manner. Thus there has not been some sort of Christian homogenization of culture. And finally, there must be some aspect of culture that is not demonic from each of these people groups or it does not seem that such expressions would be allowed in worship around God’s throne.
So is it possible for Christians to affirm culture without denying Christ? Yes, there are many aspects of traditional cultures where religion is in some way mixed together with many aspects of life. Can each tribe and people be trusted to work through their own process of separation? Is Western culture called to some sort of parenting role to supervise this process as it is undertaken by the various cultures and nations around the world? Or does Christ trust each expression of Himself and His kingdom found in the church around the world to work through such issues under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? I believe so, and I believe this is an essential part of God’s working among the nations of the world for at least two reason. First, if as Romans 1:10ff tells us every people and nation is without excuse and can be righteously judged by God because He has provided a witness in creation that is available and understandable among every people, then there must be a culturally appropriate contextualization of the gospel possible for each and every culture of the global community. The contextualization process can only be accomplished by people of a nation or community, not by those from outside. Yes, we can help, we can do our best to communicate Christ in various languages and cultures other than out own. But in the end, the manifestation of the church in each nation must be defined by that nation or people itself. Secondly, the church of Jesus Christ in every nation and among every people is called to maturity, the which Ephesians calls the “fullness of the stature of Christ,” and to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-16). The Western church is not in a parenting role to the worldwide body of Christ, we are all brothers and sisters and there is only one head, Christ. Every Christian of every nation is called to grow into maturity as a child of God (Rom. 8:16-17) and maturity has to do with bearing responsibility for our own actions and character.
Thus my answer to the question, “Can we share Christ with other cultures without imposing our own cultural heritage upon them?” would be yes. We can make disciples in every nation as we understand they are the disciples of Jesus, our Lord, and not our own disciples. As we teach others the principles of scripture and encourage them to express and live out those principles within the context of their own uniqueness of culture and language, we can fulfill the great commission and affirm culture at the same time.