This week my pastor pointed us to 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul tells Christians that we are appointed as “ambassadors for Christ” (2Co 5.20) tasked with the responsibility to represent the King (Ps 2.6-9) by taking the gospel to the ends of the earth—as he commanded us just before he returned to his Father (Mt 28.19-20).
Most of us realize that we aren’t doing a very good job of that; we’re reticent to share the gospel, most often because of cultural pressure, and when we do, we often end up arguing rather than graciously and lovingly persuading. Sure, Jesus overturned tables in the Temple, but he didn’t treat everybody, or even most people, that way.
So representing the King is going to involve stewardship, careful thought about how we go about taking the good news to the whole planet. There’s been a lot written about evangelism, missiology, acculturation, and the other issues involved in a global outreach, and there have been plenty of examples, positive and negative, of attempts to carry it out.
I’d like to share a few thoughts on a biblical basis for proceeding, and point out a few questions that we all ought to consider as we do so.
To begin with, the globe displays a lot of cultural differences. Many Americans, isolated as we are by oceans on both sides, haven’t traveled at all internationally, and many more have cross-cultural experiences that are fairly limited—a quick foray from San Diego into Tijuana, perhaps, or from Detroit over the river into Windsor, or maybe even a cruise to the Bahamas. I realized years ago that one of the best ways to combat your cultural misconceptions is to travel—and when you do, ask questions, listen to the answers, and resist jumping to conclusions.
People are different, and thus cultures are as well.
Because we’re created by God, who is, well, creative. We see diversity and contrast all throughout Creation, from trees to birds to butterflies to rocks to weather patterns. And people. God doesn’t want us all to be alike.
And so we do things differently. I’ve noted before that in some cultures people are unapologetically late to church, because they stopped to talk to someone they passed along the road, and it’s just not polite to dismiss others with a wave of the hand and a verbal “Gotta get to church”—although that’s fine here in the good old US of A. And how in China, you can’t eat everything on your plate, because that makes the host think he didn’t give you enough.
And in many, maybe most, cases, these differences have no moral weight; they’re simply different ways of doing things.
But we also know that Creation is fallen, and humanity is broken, and we often choose to conduct ourselves badly. Sometimes entire cultures call good evil and evil good. The early Christians famously refused to participate in the civil religion by calling Caesar “Lord”; and they denounced the common practice of exposing unwanted babies and allowing them to die. In fact, they rescued these babies and raised them as Christians, thereby turning an evil practice into a source of both civil and religious good.
As ambassadors, then, we need to navigate the realities of cultural difference, speaking and living in a way that communicates clearly, winsomely, and effectively to people who are different from us, while being wise enough to reject cultural practices that are broken and thus evil.
That’s a tricky business; there are lots of things to consider, and the decisions aren’t always clear-cut.
I intend to take several posts to lay a foundation for making such decisions and to think through some of the issues involved.
See you next time.