Before communication and connection exploded with the Internet and social media, most groups of people used to be more monocultural, where their beliefs and values were far more similar within their families, neighborhoods, and communities. Boy have times changed! What once seemed like a large world just several decades ago, now feels like the smallest in human history.
Now we daily navigate cultures that both reflect our own, and are vastly different, in our own families and beyond. At any given moment, we live in a global community – whether in the palm of our hands, on our desktops, televisions, or even through seemingly global access to news channels around the world.
Given this fairly recent global connection, how does this affect our own cultural identification? How does this shift our opinions or beliefs? With all of this exposure, how does it help or hurt our faith? To take a better look at what this might mean for us today, let us look to history to gain wisdom and insight moving further into a globally connected world. Let’s look at the early church and how Jewish Christians might have experienced such a culture clash, since they also had been monocultural for centuries (or were at least trying to be), and were suddenly melded with Gentiles from different regions, values, and cultural references as Christ followers.
How did the Jewish believers in the early church handle being flooded with cultural influences different from theirs? How should we? How tight or loose should we hang on to our own culture, and how might either choice impact our following of the Lord?
Let’s start with the ministry of Jesus. He made audacious claims that the early church initially had massive issue with.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,’” Matthew 5:43-45
The early Jewish Christians would have certainly seen the Gentiles at least as separate, if not enemies. Many Gentiles had no moral compass, no ethical boundaries to speak of, and rarely followed Jewish law or customs. Jesus, himself a Jew, was even viewed as an enemy by the Pharisees of Jewish law. As much as the early Jewish Christians would have known who their enemy was, I’m sure it’s not hard to think of a faction or ideology of a group of people that you may think of as an enemy or in opposition to your own core values, convictions, or set of beliefs. It becomes so easy to forget the message behind what Jesus was saying, yet, in many ways, maybe it’s never been more relevant. They were facing strong and dominant political regimes in Rome, amid blind religious leaders in the Pharisees (who themselves couldn’t see Jesus as the Messiah). They were also up against jealous and vengeful kings looking to take out anyone that opposed their decisions and ruling kingship.
Jesus had a clear message: love others. This message didn’t have conditions or presupposed factors, it was a bold and blatant charge on the people who received this message. This message challenged those who heard it. It likely frustrated many of them, and yet – it would have caused them to question their own heart and reality. Groups of people different than their own would have easily been ostracized for their cultural differences, shunned for not following Biblical Jewish law all their life, and given the Jewish people of the time a hollow sense of pride and superiority –religion and performance typically do.
Another example of this, even within the faith itself, was between Paul and James (brother of Jesus). James, a deeply devout Jew and firm follower of Jewish law and customs, looked at the ministry of Paul, and seemingly had a difficult time with how he walked out his ministry. In Acts 15 and Acts 21, the tensions between James and Paul seem to arise from their differing perspectives: James as leader of the church in Jerusalem and concerned with the mission to his own people, the Jews in Judaea, and Paul, as a Jewish believer concerned with the mission to the Gentiles. The conflicting priorities that arose from their two missions are made explicit by Paul in Gal 2:1-14, especially Gal 2:11-14. Unfortunately, we have no source that gives clear expression to the views of James on this matter. But we do know from the passage in verses 11-14, James retreated from eating with the Gentiles for fear of eating with those not circumcised, or in other words — for fear of sullying the righteousness he felt Jews carried in maintaining Jewish laws or customs. We even see Peter in the midst of this interaction being confronted by Paul.
It would have been easy for James to look at what Paul was doing and in the process, assume he was denying or blaspheming the Jewish beliefs and traditions to reach the Gentiles. James may have thought that in the process of how Paul was preaching the gospel, he was desecrating his very roots and foundational principles of the Jewish faith. Of course, this is where we get one of Paul’s most famous sayings in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but specifically in verse 22, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
I think it’s safe to imagine those of the Jewish faith would have had a difficult time hearing the words of Jesus when he said in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus took the cultural norm of their day, and flipped it on its head. Factions based off of religious beliefs alone likely already created a division, so when Jesus says this, it likely challenged a large portion of those listening on either side.
One of the biggest issues affecting people today is that of identity. And it’s the not knowing our identity that often causes the division we see around us. People are searching for identity, wanting to understand their identity, get clarity on who they are, who they are meant to be, and what they are called to do. But to truly understand that, we’ve got to first understand who God has called us to be, because our identity is ultimately in Christ and in God’s love for us. The book of Ephesians not only helps us better understand this, but also gives us a clue of what a bustling city brimming with business, trade, and a melting pot of mixed culture can teach us juxtaposed to the Christian faith.
Ancient Ephesus was one of the biggest and most important cities within the Roman Empire. This in turn attracted many outside travelers who decided to move in to the city, along with their cultures, world views, and religious beliefs. Ephesus, a largely freely religious city with most people predominantly polytheistic, had over 50 gods they worshipped. None of these gods were seen as exclusive, but the culture set a value of freedom to worship any amount of these gods as the people pleased. With this worship of gods and goddesses in Ephesus, came a heightened awareness of the spiritual world. The Ephesians viewed this world as one filled with demons and dark powers that were set on bringing harm. To protect themselves, they practiced superstition and magic rituals, hoping to impress the gods and in turn keep the gods from attacking them. I recently heard someone say that the growing problem in America isn’t a lack of belief, but a rise in the belief of the alternative-supernatural. People want to “experience” and arenas outside of the church are offering that. New age practices, for example, are on the sharp rise in popularity.
So what did this mean for Ephesus? Well, in the midst of all this religious diversity, it had a large Jewish population as well. And rather than worshipping a whole slew of gods and goddesses, the Jews would only worship one invisible God, keeping themselves separate from the practices and sacrifices involving any other god. Because of this, people viewed them as intolerant and much of the population held animosity toward the Jews, having little to do with them. So when Paul enters the scene into Ephesus, he came with the power of the Holy Spirit. God actually used Paul to break through the darkness and fear of the spirit world. Thousands among the city, and throughout the surrounding Roman province of Asia, began to realize that it was only through Jesus that they could stand against the demons and dark powers that threatened them.
When Paul writes the letter to the church in Ephesus (about six years after he visited), the church had continued to grow throughout the entire region amongst the Jews, but even more so among the Gentiles. Unfortunately, even though they became followers of Jesus, many of these new Gentile Christians carried with them some of the unhealthy worldviews of their past, continuing to fear the darkness of the spiritual world. The Gentiles had a hard time letting go of their old identity, the belief that they were insignificant puppets of uncaring gods and victims of evil spirits. This all culminates in the church where the previous animosity between Jews and Gentiles carried over. Divisions and pride grew as both factions claimed to be more spiritual than the other. So, when we go back and read this letter, what can we apply to better understand not only our own identity, but how we connect and commune with those around us, whether in agreement or not?
When we choose to accept Jesus, our cultural worldview no longer defines who we are. You aren’t an insignificant pawn, but rather a chosen and adopted child of God. We’re actually called by God to live a life of significance and power to walk out who God has created us to be. As we grow into our identity in Christ, this is the lesson we can learn from the Ephesians. The hardest part would have been for the Jews and Gentiles to not only accept one another, but learn to live in unity and spiritual community with each other. Which leads to one of our biggest questions: how can we find peace, unity, and even kinship with those of differing cultures, backgrounds, and worldviews?
I believe the answer comes not in agreement, but rather in understanding. I’d propose to you that where we stand in our opinions, views, and beliefs—will always influence how we read and apply the Bible, let alone how we hold people in our opinions or perceptions. For Americans in the western world, it’s important to remember that scripture was written from a foreign land and thus, reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. It’s not a stretch to understand that opening and reading scripture itself is quite literally stepping into a strange and different world where things are very unlike our own. To quote Brandon O’Brien, co-author of the book Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes:
“We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite. ….And because we believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us, no matter where on the planet or when in history we read it, we tend to read scripture in our own when and where, in a way that makes sense on our terms.”
In a similar fashion, humans tend to do the same to those of differing cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. If we’re being honest about it, it’s much more difficult to befriend others that aren’t exactly like us, choosing to err on the side of those with synonymous viewpoints or belief systems. I have many friends who have pulled away upon learning my viewpoints or opinions, and subsequently, even fewer friends with differing beliefs or political affiliations that have chosen to remain in friendship or relationship. In today’s Western climate, we have more reasons than ever to either justify severing relationships or pressing into relationships. One will always be easier than the other. But what could lie in the road less taken? How might we benefit from choosing to make the simple decision to first seek to understand one another?
It doesn’t mean the Jews wouldn’t have had some discomfort or struggle in choosing to incorporate the Gentiles to a more expedited, open, or vulnerable spiritual community. It also doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been messes or road blocks to work through, but what it would have meant was this – they were walking out God’s will.
Much like a step to better understanding scripture, we need to become more aware of cultural differences that separate us from it, and ultimately, each other. One of our goals should be to raise this question: if our cultural context and assumptions can cause us to overlook people or scripture, what else do we fail to notice? The Good Samaritan had to look past it, Rahab had to look past it, Esther had to look past it, Daniel had to look past it, and countless others as well. They had a choice to let cultural or differing views stop them from changing their stories, and ultimately, their place in history. But it was only because each of them decided to move past offense, suffering, selfishness, or differing backgrounds and instead partnered with love to see something different. They chose what was more important, so much so that a life, a region, or even a kingdom was changed.
As Paul looked passed Jewish law and tradition, he also brought with him a solution to the practicing Gentiles and believers of the gods of their day. He didn’t relent, he didn’t let culture stop him from reaching a people group or sharing the love of God, but instead he chose to reach them where they were. He came bringing a solution of peace and authority that would end the fear they faced. Much like the nature of God is to meet us where we are, so too is the Christian model for sharing God’s love and good news with others. The Ephesians had a need to find answers against the darkness of their day, and now, as much as ever, so are our vast cultures and worldviews also looking for an answer that only one powerful, but loving and gracious God can bring.