How Much Can You Put Up With?
Listen, I know it’s hard to embrace someone else’s cultural values. Whether it’s their noise level, the smell and look of their food, their communal gatherings, or the way they look at you, talk, dress, or act, another person’s way of life often feels like a disruption. Their actions and words can annoy us or make us feel uncomfortable, and more often than not our response is to avoid the person, the situation, or both. But this kind of cultural inflexibility can cause real damage. Friendships are lost, trauma is inflicted, lives are marginalized, even lost. The stakes are high.
I know you are reading this because you already recognize that a corrective is in order. Most of us would agree that we don’t want to live in a world of white privilege, a world where white culture is the invisible default determining what is acceptable and unacceptable in society. We say that we value diversity and human flourishing, but being unwilling to embrace or appreciate other people’s cultural identities — their ethnicity and their unique story — in our community, workforce, place of worship, or even our own family will only perpetuate and reinforce this invisible default standard.1
When we choose to confront cultural differences with more rules, we fall into the trap of cultural policing. Natural hair types are scrutinized and legislated by unwritten (or sometimes written) American policies. African American women are called unprofessional or even refused job appointments if they don’t conform to the straight-hair standard. There are demands that minorities and immigrants only speak English and that “formal English” should be spoken instead of slang, Ebonics, and other variations of the English language. People refuse to go to someone’s house because it “smells,” or they tell their housemate what foods she can or cannot cook in their apartment so the place won’t reek of spices. There’s a low tolerance for things like head scarves, turbans, and other “foreign” clothing items. Brown-skinned people are asked — in their own neighborhoods — if they live there. Neighbors make complaints that the family next door has too many people in a house, or that their guests are “clogging up” the street. Cultural differences make us uncomfortable so we decide they are wrong and must be stopped.
Different cultures coming together will always create tension. We value different things, and we express our values differently too. But a fear of other people’s cultures causes real and detrimental effects. As long as we see someone else’s way of life as inappropriate or wrong, we will focus our energy on controlling how the other person talks, walks, laughs, thinks, and behaves. The more we dislike what someone else is doing, the more we will define our society and the spaces we inhabit by notions of superiority and isolationism rather than tolerance, acceptance, and openness.
The resistance to cultural change, even change to cultural values, is part of an effort to control our country’s social fabric through the exclusion and intimidation of people outside the center. That is something Christians should resist, as it is the antithesis to biblical notions of racial solidarity where people of all cultures and ethnicities are to be welcomed and celebrated for who they are. Resistance to cultural change, in contrast, is the gateway to xenophobia, racism, and nativism.
Loving our neighbors means learning to love people different than we are.
We need to become comfortable with alternative ways of doing things and ask ourselves, “How much cultural discomfort am I willing to bear?” We will not even know how to answer this question unless we are willing to sit in our own discomfort and begin listening to and appreciating our fellow human beings.
It’s Not Right or Wrong, Just Different
The first step to becoming more culturally flexible is as simple as this: the next time someone of another culture does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they are wrong. Jewish Christians were doing exactly this in the first-century church. In the book of Acts, we read about Jewish Christians who traveled to Antioch and demanded that the Gentile Christians there be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law. These Jewish believers were essentially saying to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters, “If you want us to accept you, you need to become like us. To live your life any other way is wrong.” By the time Paul, Barnabas, and the elders learn of this, they know a correction is needed. In Acts 15, a council convenes in Jerusalem, and the apostles challenge the Christian leaders gathered there to stop demanding that Gentiles become Jewish to be considered part of the family of God. Rather, in this new age — the church age — the Spirit of God meets people where they are and transformation will be from the inside out.
Christians’ demands for outward cultural conformity must come to an end.
The demand for conformity is one of the big differences between the Mosaic covenant of the Old Testament and the new covenant of the New Testament. The former required people to become like the Israelites both theologically and culturally. It involved numerous outward marks, like circumcision, that physically defined what it meant to be an Israelite and part of God’s people. But under the new covenant, the gospel redeems all people and cultures. God no longer asks us all to adapt to one particular culture but instead asks us to become like the people we seek to reach. We need to have greater cultural flexibility and should avoid a strict right-wrong mentality when we encounter different cultural expressions. No matter how uncomfortable we might feel, we Christians must remind ourselves that some things are not right or wrong; they are just different. When people of different ethnicities and cultural narratives come together, the differences will always be palpable. But instead of trying to mute or control those differences, we should accommodate ourselves to other people’s cultures.
Under the new law, we don’t demand that people change who they are. We change ourselves for them.
This is the theology of cultural accommodation in a nutshell.2
The alternative is monocultural Christianity. Yet nowhere under the new covenant do we see Christians required to all act the same way. New covenant Christianity allows for diverse cultural expressions of a common faith. Moreover, unlike the ethnic and civil laws of the old covenant, the new covenant encourages us to become malleable and flexible to adapt to the uniqueness of each individual situation. For example, Paul expects different things from both Timothy and Titus. He tells Timothy to become circumcised because he is working among Jews and his mother is a Jew (Acts 16:1), while Titus, a Greek, can remain uncircumcised (Galatians 2:3-5). Every person in every context now demands a different approach.
The idea of cultural adaptability remains a controversial topic among Christians. It requires a certain allowance for cultural relativism, and we fear that this approach will threaten the permanence of biblical truths.3 However, understood correctly, changing both our perceptions (what we think) and actions (what we do) from one cultural context to the next should not pose a conflict for Christians. Rightly understood and practiced, cultural accommodation affirms deeply held biblical principles and truths. We hold Christian ethics and morality in one hand, in continuity with Christians of the past, while extending the other hand to people of other cultures as we desire to understand them and share the truth about God with them in their own unique way.
The gospel and our faith must be contextualized from one person to the next. This is not just a suggestion; it’s a warning. Because when we choose not to change for the people around us, we end up creating unhealthy rubrics for what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate cultural expressions for followers of Jesus. And this choice leads to irrevocable pain and trauma for people. That’s what’s at stake here. A failure on our part to accommodate to the cultures around us means we risk the danger of perpetuating ethnocentrism and racial hierarchies and, ultimately, turning people away from Christ.
We can stop this cycle. Paul provides a clue for how in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he writes that we should become all things to all people. Consider his ministry among Jewish converts as well as Jewish people who had not yet come to faith. With them, he is prepared to follow Jewish customs. Implicit in Paul’s worldview is a refusal to construct dichotomies of insiders and outsiders.4 There is no hint of hierarchy, no hint of Paul seeing himself as better than the people around him or serving them as if he was their savior instead of Jesus. Paul’s actions imply a view of himself as a relative nobody. He treats himself as if he is the one on the margins, the one without power, as a way to care for everyone.
Practically, this means he’s prepared to change what he eats, how he prays, and how he dresses. This commitment even leads Paul to shave his head before leaving Corinth. In Acts 18:18 we read,
Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.
After approximately two years in Corinth, Paul heads back to Jerusalem to meet with professing Jews, who call upon him to take a Nazirite vow. Though Paul is under no obligation to take this vow, he does so because he knows it will help prevent any stumbling blocks to his presentation of the gospel among them.
Paul also sacrifices in the temple in Acts 21:17-26, which by all accounts doesn’t make any sense. He knows that Christ has come and become the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin. Yet here he is, performing the practices of the old law to connect with Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. This is one of those scenes that makes your head explode! Paul is engaging in an activity that he would have considered irrelevant to his newfound faith in Jesus. But does he lecture these Jewish Christians and tell them they are wrong? Does he act like he’s better than they are? No. He puts the interests of others above his own because he knows there is a relational cost to resistance with little to be gained.
The choices Paul makes — performing religious activities that he didn’t personally believe in, shaving his head, and eating foods outside of his traditional upbringing — aren’t small things. They are bold measures, actions that came at a cost and at the very least would make many of us uncomfortable. However, if Paul was willing to do this, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to culturally accommodate ourselves for the sake of others as well. Would you change the way you worship, what you eat, something about your physical appearance, or your way of life to connect with someone of a different culture? Could you learn to tolerate a new level of noise or the way someone is conducting themselves in a public space, choosing to keep that critique stuck in your throat instead of voicing it? Could you do that for each person of another culture that you meet?
What I’m talking about is not adopting the latest trend or trying to be alternative. The reason Paul neither holds on to his culture tightly nor fears cultural change is because it is more important for him to adapt for the sake of the gospel than to demand that people of other cultures become like him. The practice of cultural accommodation lowers the cultural barriers to the gospel by meeting people where they are, thereby enabling the maximum number of people to hear of Christ without giving them additional grounds to stumble.
Paul is constantly on the lookout for anything in his actions or life that needs to change in order to share the gospel more widely.
Of course, it’s important to be clear what this does not mean. This is not about reducing Christ to a palatable mixture of love, kindness, and peace. The message of the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), must not be changed.
Even though becoming all things to all people requires a great deal of change on our part, we still need to measure whether our changes are being made for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus came to serve, not to be served. We know from Luke 22:19-20 that when Jesus offered up His body on the cross and poured out His blood so that we might be forgiven of our sins, He was establishing the new covenant:
He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you’ — (emphasis added)
Jesus’s life, death, and ministry are the premier example of a theology of cultural accommodation under the new covenant.
Being followers of Jesus means, at the very least, being willing to embrace discomfort in order to serve others.
We almost always treat white culture as normal and evaluate everyone else’s culture based on the norms we associate with white culture. As British sociologist Alistair Bonnet says, “White culture is an unchanging and unproblematic location, a position from which all other identities come to be marked by their difference” (“White Studies: The Problems and Projects of a New Research Agenda,” Theory, Culture and Society 13, no. 2 : 146). For more on white default culture, see Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 1997). On white insulation from racial discomfort, see Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2018).
I first learned of the term cultural accommodation from Paul Gardner’s exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians and
find it incredibly useful for this discussion. See Gardner, 1 Corinthians, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 403–17.
On the distinction between cultural relativism and moral relativism, see Brian Howell and Jenell Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 48–52.
Adopting an outsider mentality as we practice cultural accommodation is important because “each of the groups cited in vv. 19–23 is an ‘outsider’ from the point of view of the
Excerpted with permission from Becoming All Things by Michelle Reyes, copyright Michelle Ami Reyes.
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Loving Jesus means loving His people… all His people. Even when it isn’t easy. Even when they are outside our comfort zone. Let’s show the world the love of Jesus by sharing the gospel in ways that accommodate them so they know they’re loved! ~ Devotionals Daily