Understanding culture: In response to “US missionary killed by isolated island tribe”

Cultural understanding is an essential biblical principle and central to the instruction of sharing the word of God with people. In the Bible, we see plenty of examples of early Christians encountering new cultures and people groups. Context is very important and it’s clear that respecting cultures and understanding them goes hand in hand with telling people about Jesus.

Our western ideas about what people need don’t fit with other cultures. To respect and help a culture we must first understand people on their own terms, not just from our own ideas of what is right and wrong, or what they need.

The letter of Titus in the New Testament is a good example of cultural sensitivity. We see here that Paul (who was a big deal) gives different instructions to two early church leaders regarding circumcision. Paul told Timothy to undergo circumcision in order that he would be able to appropriately and effectively communicate with his Jewish converts. However, Titus was not of Jewish heritage and was demonstrating faith to a group of pagans. Circumcision was therefore not only unnecessary, but also confusing.

The Bible is often accused of having a contradictory message. But in light of the above example, we can see that what at first appears to be contradiction is in fact a form of cultural sensitivity. Paul did not make blanket prescriptions for all Christians, but encouraged them to engage thoughtfully with their environment. Effectively spreading the Gospel does not involve ignoring culture, but understanding and responding to it.

Of course, as Christians we believe that we have a vocation to tell people about Jesus. Yet we must not confuse the message of Jesus with our own cultural encoding.