Confronting Cultural Prejudice – the journey of the early Church

The early church had a deep problem of cultural prejudice that they presented as a “theological problem” for a while. The problems included issues such as discrimination practices against other people-groups (Acts 6:1-7); unwillingness to minister to the gentiles or other people-groups, even though they (the church) had recieved clear personal instruction from the Lord to go to all nations (Acts ch. 10:9-34, Acts 11:1-3 and Matt. 28:18-20); imposition of culture upon other people-groups (Acts 15:1-6); refusal to recieve ministry from people of different ethnicity, unless they were conformed to the church’s own dominant culture (Acts 16:1-3, Acts 21:20-26); exclusivity and refusal to integrate and share life with other cultures (Gal. 2:11-14). The problem wasn’t God, it wasn’t the Bible and it wasn’t the gentiles. The problem was clearly the church itself – it was the ‘dominant group’ within the church. Although they preached ‘grace and the God of reconciliation’, but some, within their ranks were simply not aligned in practice, to the very message the church represented. They opted for cultural dominance, instead of transforming and humbling themselves to reach out to a people different from them. As far as they were concerned, to be truly saved, you needed to (culturally) look like them (to be circumcised, just as they were). And for a while, the leadership staggered around this issue, still trying to figure out their own personal positions and feelings about the matter. It eventually took some courageous and Holy Spirit empowered apostolic leaders to distinguish between the way of the Kingdom and ethnic based cultural preferences, and to expose the lie behind cultural preference, in the process of salvation.

This reveals the ff…

  1. Beyond the question of sin and immorality, salvation must confront the very ethnic cultural foundations and prejudices upon which our humanity is built, and remove the cultural dross (or impurities) that prevent us from walking in the fullness of the ways of Christ (we must count it all loss, just like how Paul confronted his own ethnicity in Phil. 3:4-11).
  2. It is the way of Christ that must determine the culture of the Church, and not the dominant people-group.
  3. There is a fundamental difference between spiritual transformation towards Christlikeness and cultural conformity. Cultural conformity is when we change from our native (man-made) culture to another man-made culture. Spiritual transformation is when we change from our native (man-made) culture to the nature and way of Christ.
  4. When the image of Christ is not defined, and His ways not clearly articulated, dominant people-groups (whether by number, money or social class) will inevitably dictate culture in the church (intentionally or unintentionally).
  5. Beyond the ministry of teaching, leaders are crucial in leading a lifestyle that reflects the way of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1, Heb. 13:7). On this point, the apostle Peter didn’t help in his own personal struggles with cultural prejudice, he only compounded the problem (Gal. 2:11-14). All this reveals that we can have ‘a great word’ but that’s still encased in some form of structural deficiency. And that this can get in the way of demonstrating the way of Christ, which is best reflected not in how well we ‘worship together’, but in how well we live together in community, in our diversity, bound together by our common humanity and kinship in Christ.
  6. When our gospel fails to capture these burdens, it becomes fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus of the Bible. If the Spirit of Christ was giving apostles visions of unclean animals, and was convicting the church in conferences about transforming their attitude and worldview, and in being willing to engage the diversity of nations (in the midst of other things that He was doing – eg. healings, miracles prophecies etc.), I refuse to believe that His heart has changed over the years.
  7. Like apostle Peter, we can minister the gospel to other cultures but still carrying deep cultural prejudices within our own hearts. Peter went on a mission to the house of Cornelius and ministered the love of Jesus there, but still had deep inner deficiency within himself about other cultures (as was demonstrated in Paul’s letter to the Galatians). We must therefore not validate ourselves on the basis of our ‘sacrificial’ missionary works towards other cultures, but we must continually put our hearts under the convicting spotlight of the Holy Spirit, for Him to search and purify.
  8. Lastly, in diagnosing the problem of the early church, we realize the ff. – (a) for a while, they got caught up in offering God the revival of the meeting, but the Spirit of Christ challenged them to offer the revival of godly humanity; (b) they got caught up in offering the world the revival of the meeting, but the world was looking for the revival of authentic Kingdom Humanity.

We have to seek and pray for a holistic revival of godly humanity, evidenced by the power of integrated and reconciled human existence (of the saints – our kingdom citizenship), and that expresses itself powerfully during the meeting.

Robert Ntuli

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