Criticism of Got Questions Ministries' view on cultural relativism

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question:  Hi, I am commenting on the Got Question’s Ministries topic on cultural relativism. I find your answer to lack objectivity considering that nothing is mentioned about how in the past missionary work has seriously damaged cultures and have changed their way of life to the point of extinction. There are numerous documented examples within various case studies I can list them if you insist. Also as an African-American, I am offended that you say missionary work can lead to the end of slavery when it was once used against my people who were Christians ourselves to justify our enslavement. Our Christianity was inferior. If you admit that was wrong then that is the very purpose of cultural relativism we have a veil which is blinded by our current culture in what is sin and what is not sin, Christians have made many errors in the past and the holy text itself is clearly based on a different culture containing acceptable practices that are now considered major sins in today's culture. Converting/informing individuals about Jesus and the Christian way is one thing, but to use it to alter an individual's culture is beyond our ability as individuals and is up to God. Cultural relativism is very important and is the key to world peace and equality. I ask you to alter your explanation.

(This questioner is aware that I have a relationship with Got Questions Ministries although I did not write the article in question. The article can be found at the following link. EP.)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for visiting the Got Questions Ministries web site. I am sorry, however, that you've found its cultural perspectives to be unacceptable. I'll try to sort out some of the issues. In the interests of full disclosure, I am not in your demographic. I am a white American male, a resident and a native of the northeastern quadrant of the USA, and I'm over sixty years old. Truth, however, is truth — regardless of demographics. That being said, I must begin by weighing-in in defense of my fellow writers.

You've stated that Got Question's treatment of cultural relativism lacks objectivity because it left out some particular events of its history. In this, you have not considered the scope of the Got Questions articles. These articles are meant to inform generally and somewhat introductorily on Christian topics. They are not intended to be complete treatises on any topic. In this they must respond to one of the ethics of writing: To stay within the advertised form. In Got Question's case, they are introductory essays designed to answer some queries — but only as a starting point. All articles include Scripture references in the hope of driving people to an independent investigation of the topic and many point to extra-biblical scholarly works that are designed to cover the topics more completely.

The biggest challenge for many a writer is not the gathering of information — we're simply tripping over histories, data and the like. The biggest challenge is to decide what to include given a venue's promised form. It would, therefore, be unethical to include information that did not contribute to the article's main thought, as true and as highly-charged as that information might be. In the case of this Got Questions article, the author gave a proper overview, all within the venue's constraints. The addition of any particular historical events would not have improved this piece. On the contrary, such inclusions would have introduced other points, and, in so doing, steal from the primary point. I support his piece as it stands, and I challenge anyone to try writing cogently yet completely in less than 1000 words. It's simply not that easy, and no piece of writing worthy of the name can ever be 100% topically comprehensive and still provide optimal communication.

I'll not argue the point that much cultural mayhem has been committed in the name of Christ. I will argue the point, however, that doing something in the name of Christ does not necessarily mean that Christ (or true Christians at large) supports those activities. For example, non-believers frequently offer the Crusades as an example of Christianity run amok... and I agree with their assessment! What I do not agree with is that the Crusades were a legitimate Christian enterprise. In my opinion, they were cultural (papal) imperialism of the first order — bereft of Christ. Jesus never approved of such activities. In fact, he warned us about them — and predicted them.

“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”
(Matthew 24:5, ESV).

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23, ESV).

Jesus knows which works are legitimately his. Note, however, that he does not berate the people who acted wrongly. He disavows them! (I never knew you). During our current era of sin, even God himself will not (completely) stop the flood of horrors that are performed in his name. So, it's a given that people will do things wrong in his name. But none of that changes the legitimacy of the Christian enterprise. Christians are still called to perform legitimate works under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is a huge public relations disaster that people-of-the-world refuse to recognize the difference between the two... but let's face it: Christians cannot expect good PR when Satan is the head of that department.

The case of American slavery is a good case in point. You are correct in noting that a particular "current" of Christian thought sought to justify that behavior as biblical... but it is not biblical, of course, and the vast majority of Christians never thought that it was. Now, just because some American bigots posed as the voice of Christianity, does not mean that the introduction of Christianity into some oppressed areas did not relieve slavery. That remains a historical fact. Both are true. America sinned. Some foreign slaves were freed. One does not undo the other.

I can't turn back the clock, and I have (personally) enslaved no people. I call upon African-American Christians to forgive their country this sin. And if they cannot find it within themselves to do this, I call upon them to examine their salvation to see if it is true. Forgiveness is a hallmark of Christian behavior. Anyone who truly understands the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for their own sins cannot forever allow a smoldering bitterness against their brothers... their brothers of any color.

Concerning cultural relativism per se, since religion is an element of culture, all cultures will be changed (to some degree) by the introduction of Christianity. This is an unavoidable outcome. But it is one that doesn't necessarily lead to cultural destruction. But even if we acknowledge the possibility of a worst-case scenario, we must still proceed into other cultures, because Jesus made it very plain that he wants us to go into the entire world with the gospel.

“And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15, ESV).

Concerning this issue, the first question a Christian must ask, to whom should we listen? To Jesus Christ? Or to the protectors of indigenous cultures? We must listen to the Lord, of course. But what we do not have to do, is to westernize targeted people. (By westernize, I mean to make other cultures like the USA or Western Europe... although missionaries cannot help but do this a little bit. What people in an undeveloped area would not be fascinated by our western clothes and electronics... or be attracted to our clean water?) We should, rather, be sensitive to their culture, and not substitute theirs with ours. In any case, the introduction of another culture should never become the driving method for spreading the Gospel. We do not desire to make other people American. We desire to make them biblical.

It is my strong opinion that establishing foreign churches that are modeled on the ones in the USA puts unnecessary burdens on both the indigenous population and on the supporting churches (or supporting individuals) back home. That being said, missionaries should not introduce indigenous people to Christianity per se, but to the person of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Christianity, as practiced broadly, is mere methodology. But Jesus is a person — he is the person for salvation. As the Bible reveals him as foremost in all things, so should we. With that in place, and in the absence of other agenda, then it is a Godly thing to let the culture change as it may.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, ESV).

Please note that not interfering with indigenous cultures is not always in order. Christians must respond to legitimate emergencies of the human condition — conditions that may overlap with so-called "human rights" issues which are often held high (at least in theory) by many nations. Where people are brutally oppressed, we should relieve them by whatever methods we can find, since crisis (true crisis, that is) trumps methodology, and even the Gospel can't reach the butchered dead.

Finally, you are correct in noting that the Bible was written from a foreign cultural perspective. Indeed, it is all ancient and mostly Eastern. It is a lively book, however, and its fingerprint is all over our Western culture. Note that it did not make us Eastern, though. It saved the souls of many individuals, and it made the nations better. I find it interesting that God (Jesus) will judge all the nations in addition to every individual. In this, I find the non-separable nature of Christianity and culture. If a nation (a culture) does not find God (as shown by supporting godly enterprise) then they will be destroyed by God personally. Although we should not look to oppress and destroy at this time, we might look at those occurrences as a foreshadowing.

“The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” (Revelation 11:18, ESV).

Thank you for promoting such a discussion!

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