Christianity: Separating The Religion From The Culture

Ufuoma E-AshogbonPosted by

Christianity as it is today is probably 40% religion and 60% culture.  That's my guesstimate and you're free to disagree.   I don't have data for this, just what I have been observing, and based on my understanding of the Faith (the beliefs and practices of the religion).

When people think of Christianity, these days, most of their focus is taken up with culture and tradition, and not the actual religion.  A lot of people who think they know Christianity or Christians and are offended by one or both, often CAN'T really appreciate the religion without the culture!  But I think it is very important for us to distinguish the two, for our own understanding and Faith, and also so we can enlighten and guide others.

The truth is that there is not ONE Christian culture.  There should be, but there isn't.  In as many different lands as Christianity has spread, it has adapted to and absorbed a lot of the culture of that society, while holding to the religion.  In some places, it is probably true that the practice of Christianity is actually 60% religion and 40% culture, but I think for the majority, the religion is highly padded with culture, which is confusing and a deterrent (or attractive factor, depending on the culture) to many.

There is also another phenomenon, when Christians deny that Christianity is a religion or has a religion (guilty!).  Based on the definition of religion ("the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods" - as defined by Google), Christianity is and should be numbered as one, even if we know that we have been called to MORE than religion (more specifically, a RELATIONSHIP).  It is still religion, and there really is nothing wrong with it being a religion or with the concept of religion at all.

The problem or cause for offence is probably because when people say Christianity is a religion, it sort of lumps it along with all the other religions that there is, so that Christianity is just one option of many...where as Christians believe that our Faith is in fact the only way to God - well, that also depends on the level and type of cultural padding the Christian has.  Confused?  Well, there are actually some versions of Christians (I would suggest HIGHLY padded with culture) who believe that Christianity or Jesus is not the only way, though they still claim to follow Him and believe in what He says (which is in fact contrary to their belief and teaching).  I believe these are confused, and perhaps have no idea of the religion they hold to.

Okay, I think it is becoming clearer that there is a lot of cultural influence in our definition and practice of Christianity.  Culture is not a bad thing.  It really isn't.  It can be a good thing if it attracts people to us, and if our religion can modify it and still take a majority stake in the representation of Christianity to society.  Culture becomes problematic when it CHANGES the religion or marginalises its practice in the overall practice of Christianity.  Such a Christianity has lost its salt (truth, light, religion, influence, power etc), and is thus fit for nothing (Matt 5:13)!

There is then the problem of distinguishing between the two.  What is cultural and what is central to the Faith?  They have been mixed up for too long that people literally can go to war on a disagreement of this magnitude.  Christians disagree for hours, days, months and years over what everyone should hold to as pinnacle to our Faith and what people can agree to disagree on and still have a cosy Fellowship.  Does it matter?

I've gone back and forth on this on my blog (consider this interesting piece titled "That Loaded Word: Believe"), especially with my emphasis on Grace and Truth, but the bottom line is that it does matter!  The Truth matters.  People perish due to misinformation (Hos 4:6).  And plain old liars.  But do you care?  That's really what's important.  Do you care to know and BELIEVE the Truth, or would you rather live in ignorance and fake peace?

Okay, so what matters?  The religion matters.  The culture is relative to your society and even personality.  But the religion is universal.  Even if you travel to Mars, this shouldn't change - except maybe to increase in magnitude!

Alright, so this post is trying to make a distinction and separate the religion from the culture.  I really don't know how safe that is to do.  In Jesus' parable, the servants were told not to try to separate the wheat from the chaff before time, lest they uproot some wheat in the process (Matt 13:24-30).  That is a fair warning with this exercise too.  I am really not the authority on what is purely cultural and what is purely religion.  There's a WHOLE LOT that went down before my time...and many before me have tried and failed to make this distinction.

However, for my own sanity, I will do my best to make that distinction.  Because, of a truth, I think I've been confused myself.  I've found myself angry at Christianity, when I should have been angry with culture...  But how did culture get so much power over religion?  People have fought to defend Christianity, but really, they have just been defending their Christian culture...while afraid of the world's culture that completely denounces faith in God.

A post I read recently also contributed to this.  It was about the distinction between praise and worship, and was called "Warning, Very Graphic Content Ahead!" (yeah...  I didn't get the title, myself).  While I agree with the point he made, (I've made a similar point in this post I wrote about "The Problem With The Question "Where Do You Worship?") I thought that perhaps there was a confusion over culture and religion going on here too.  It is the same confusion I have experienced, and has caused me not to know how to relate with or fellowship with/at Churches.

There are many people who have their own CULTURE that they practice their Faith within, who expect EVERYONE else who bears the name of Christ to not only agree with, but to accept as the only way to practice Christianity.  I lived with such people for three and a half years.  I lived in a Christian commune, and at the end of it, I was finally able to see what their problem was...  They were ETHNOCENTRIC!

According to Google, that is "evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture".

Many Christians who are ethnocentric about their practice of Christianity will draw on the practice by the very first Christians (who were also new and learning the Faith and very prone to being ethnocentric themselves), as a reason why their culture or tradition is the ONLY correct way.  By the time the Bible was compiled, the practice of the Early Christians living in communes had already evolved, as they spread over different communities, countries and cultures!  And the truth is that NONE of these people actually live as radically as the very first Christians who sold everything they had and divided the proceeds between themselves, and continued to live together without claiming anything to be their own (Act 2:44-47 and Acts 3:32-35)!

What we see here is not the propagation of a religion but of a culture!  The religion was very simple, and spreading the religion via cultural change or assimilation was the fastest way for it to spread!  What was the religion?

That Jesus of Nazareth, born of a virgin, Mary and the Holy Spirit of God, was the Messiah promised to the Jews, to save them and the whole world from God's coming judgement.  And He came as was prophesied of Him and taught many things and was crucified on a Cross, and was resurrected on the third day.  His death was to be the final atonement for the sins of the world, so that all who believe in Him, and confess and repent of their sins, will no longer be separated from God, the Father, but be called His children.  

This He did because He was willing and was also the only one worthy to make such a sacrifice, since He lived a sinless life.  And we show we believe in Him and that we love Him by our obedience to Him and our love towards one another.  And God will give His Spirit to those who love and obey Him, and lead them into all truth and unity.  And Jesus will return again, not as a Saviour, but as Judge, to pour out the wrath of God on the unbelievers and unfaithful.

This, for me, is the religion.  This is the Gospel.  Everything else on top is doctrine.  And doctrine is profitable for convincing people to believe the message (if they need it).  Doctrine is important where there is no revelation.  But where there is revelation, doctrine is simply tradition, that is passed on to keep the Faith and Gospel message in tact.  Basically, if I have a revelation of God myself, and I can declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, like Peter did (Matt 16:16-17),  I DO NOT NEED DOCTRINE (1 John 2:27)!

But people depend on doctrine because they are afraid of revelation, partly due to the false doctrinal message that God no longer gives revelations...and that everything we ever need to know about God can and should only be obtained from reading the Bible.  And that is one load of tradition for you...

The Trinity teaching is doctrine.  The Body of Christ teaching is doctrine.  The teaching on the Gifts and Fruit of the Spirit is doctrine.  The teaching on Church membership, attendance, tithing etc is doctrine.

I am not saying that the teaching of these doctrines are wrong or needless.  They were and are definitely needful, even if you have revelation, because they are essential for teaching others who haven't received revelation.  Doctrine also helps us know how the Faith should be practiced, and is a type of authority to enable us to have unity in worship.  Like Paul wrote, "...all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim 3:16-17).

I hope that with a clearer understanding of what Christianity really is, we can stop bickering with ourselves over doctrine, tradition and culture, and actually start showing the world that we are Christians, by the practice of our love and faith.  If we are NOT doing the latter, then we are just wasting our time and kidding ourselves with the former.

"...If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23).

"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:34-35).

"Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (Jam 1:27).

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2 comments

  1. I think people shy away from using religion because they’re afraid of being lumped in with religious people (pharisees) – maybe? The last three scriptures sum it up well. It all comes down to love and faith. And I’m also reminded of Mark 7 – that culture is not bad. But when it supersedes God’s word, it becomes harmful.

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