Cultural Discernment

January 12th, 2012 | | No Comments
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At one point in his letter to Titus, Paul goes on a “rant” that, were he to utter it in today’s culture, would surely have gotten him dismissed from his apostolic post. He says to his young charge, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (1:12-13). These are strong words, seemingly reeking of hate-filled prejudice—and yet they are inspired by a holy, perfect, loving God. What do we make of this?


We must tread very carefully here. Any discussion of culture merits caution, especially in light of the rampant and very real racism the world over. We must adopt the attitude of the cross—crucifying our pride, self-righteousness, hatred, prejudice—whenever we approach the issue. There is a fine, spiritually discerned line between judgmental hypocrisy and loving judgment. The former is despicable, roundly condemned in Scripture (cf. Matthew 7:1-2); the latter is commanded of Christ’s followers (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12).


With this latter attitude, undoubtedly the approach of the apostle Paul, we can and should seek to discern sins common to the (sub-)culture in which we minister. This is merely a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory; no one seeks God, not even one (3:23, 10-11). This means that there are no neutral cultures in the world—and certainly no holy cultures. All are depraved.


No wonder, then, that Paul feels free to state the particular sinful inclinations of the Cretan culture with such bluntness. The sins of the Cretan culture were well known to the whole world. In fact, in the Greek language, “to Cretanize” meant “to lie.”[1] Perhaps this expression was offensive, but it contained truth within it. In order for Titus to minister effectively among the Cretans, he had to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ. This was his charge as shepherd of a wayward flock.


Nothing has changed for us today. Cultures are more complicated because the world is getting smaller, but we can still discern common failings among large groups of people. Americans, for example, give in to pride and materialism—even within the church—with alarming regularity. I can say this without fear of reprisal because I am an American and recognize these same sinful tendencies within myself. But having lived in Colombia for more than six years, I could also list the sins of my host culture with ease. Would this be prejudice or racism? Certainly not. I would consider myself ill-equipped to minister here (or anywhere) if I were unable or unwilling to “judge” a culture as incisively as Paul had Crete.


Excursus on Prejudice

Because the issue is so sensitive, and because the potential for misunderstanding is so great, I want to spend a moment delimiting the differences between sinful prejudice and loving judgment when it comes to alien (sub-)cultures. I can think of at least four major differences between the two.


  1. Sinful prejudice reflects an attitude of pride, not of cross-centered humility. The prejudiced sit in gleeful judgment of cultures they see as below their own, proving they know little—if anything—of Calvary love. Rarely will they acknowledge sins endemic to their own culture.
  2. Sinful prejudice is driven by hate, not love. In other words, where loving judgment seeks to expose sinful tendencies in order to meet them with the gospel, sinful prejudice merely looks on with satanic disdain.
  3. Sinful prejudice assumes every individual within a culture is the same. The prejudiced treat individuals as members of the group, not as unique image-bearers who require individual attention and love, a proclamation of the gospel tailored to their own lives. For example, though I believe Americans generally struggle with materialism, the most generous family I have ever known—by far—is American. It would be wrong of me to assume them materialistic simply because they come from the United States.
  4. Sinful prejudice delights in irrelevant phenomenological distinctions. Culture has nothing to do with physical appearance; it has to do with the values, norms, beliefs, etc. of a given group of people—usually driven by geographical proximity only. The dark-skinned Colombians I know have far more in common with light-skinned Colombians than they do with dark-skinned Americans, for example.


As a final caveat, we should remember that Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gave God’s perspective on Crete in his letter to Titus. We cannot claim the same inspiration. Our judgment will frequently descend into jingoism and myopia, so whatever judgments we make must be made humbly, clung to tenuously. Love demands nothing less.


And our only purpose in discerning the sins of any culture must always be love.

[1] In similar fashion, “to Corinthianize” meant to be sexually promiscuous, and a “Corinthian girl” was a prostitute. Little wonder, then, that Paul addresses sexual purity so strongly in his first letter to Corinth. He was discerning enough to know he needed to deal with this tendency in the church.

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