Core and Culture

Recently, I discovered there is something you do not know that you should know. It’s something you need to know. This something is an essential part of Christian practice. It’s vital for church life. It’s necessary for church growth. Without it change—good, essential change—is impossible. Communicating the Gospel is impossible. It is imperative that you hear and absorb what you’re about to read.      

Here is a simple fact. There is a difference between core truths and values and the way those values are expressed. Core values, what it is to be a Christian, never, ever change. Those core truths are the same everywhere, always, throughout all time. The way those values are expressed changes. Everywhere and always. They are never the same but move with time and with the place. Core values are bedrock. Cultural expressions shift with the sands. They are not the same thing. Mistaking one for the other is just that: a mistake, a big, huge mistake. The mistake can lead to situations that are humorous, like at a Baptist World Alliance meeting when the American women came in wearing make-up, the German women were so shocked they couldn’t finish their beer. Or to  head-shaking moments like when the seminary professor said in a class I attended, “A church cannot properly worship God without a pipe organ.” Really? Then what in heaven’s name was that misguided, pipe-organ-less first-century church doing? In the first example, the core value is holiness and separation from being like the world. Both groups thought they were expressing that value and both thought the other group wasn’t. In the second example, the question was reverence. The professor thought it could only be expressed one way: with a massively expensive instrument that belongs to another time. In both examples everyone is wrong. The cultural expression of a core value is not the core value itself. It’s good to worship God with a pipe organ if you’re in medieval Europe but what if you’re in Slap Out Oklahoma? And yes, that’s a real place.

The cultural expression of a core value is not the core value. Worshipping God alone is a core value. A certain kind of music is, at best, a cultural vehicle for that. The sound, look, feel, tone, the dress code, where we stand or whether we stand, all of that is nothing more than culture. To confuse it with core truth is an error. And it’s not just a mental mistake. It freezes us in time and fixes us in place. And that means we cannot reach people who aren’t frozen in that place with us. And guess what? We need to reach people.

Paul taught all this. In I Corinthians 9 he told that church, which was divided over a cultural issue, that to those who had the Law he became like one under the Law even though he was not. To those not under the Law he became like those who were not even though he was always under the Law of Christ. He shifted cultural expression while holding onto core truth. He did this in order to “save some.” Paul knew core truth mattered. Cultural expression of that was only a tool. He could change culture in order to advance the truth.

The question is, can we?