Whenever God reveals Himself He does so in the cultural dress of the people who are the recipients of His message. That was true in Old Testament times. It was also true in the New. God uses the language of the people, employing their modes of thought and metaphors. He speaks through their natural environment—mountains, sheep, water—and makes use of their social institutions. All of Scripture bears evidence to the fact that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14, RSV).
This does not mean, of course, that God is limited to the existing forms of culture. Revelation has often brought about change—even radical change—and sometimes introduced new elements of culture. Though it takes on the diverse forms of human culture, God's truth itself comes from outside that culture. It sometimes stands above it, some times over against it. But whether in or above or over against culture, it always transcends it. Revelation and culture, integrated as they are, relate to each other as substance to shadow, meaning to form, content to the vessel that carries it.
There's a second biblical-theological axiom to be noted in connection with the relationship between gospel and culture. Not only does God reveal Himself in the cultural dress of the people to whom He is reaching out with His message. He also urges people to respond to His message in their own cultural ways.
In Old Testament times, people praised God with "joyful noise," "with timbrel and dance," and "with loud clashing cymbals" (Ps. 98; 150, RSV). New Testament Christians of Hellenic culture expressed their praise in much more sober forms. Similar differences are characteristic of Adventist worship today. Some of us make a "joyful noise" in loud and rhythmic singing, the clapping of hands, the playing of the organ, drums, saxophones, and guitars, while others prefer worship more characterized by "silence before the Lord."
While obviously it is not true that anything goes, none of these forms of worship can, in themselves, be considered more devotional, more worshipful, than any others. They are all biblical. God expects us to express our awe and praises in forms that fit our own culture. He wants the church to be a place where people feel at home. No one church, therefore, has the right to superimpose its own particular cultural forms upon sister churches in other cultures.
Because of our common heritage, organization, and fellowship and the oneness of the message and mission that we share, we have a common order as well as unity of faith. But we must practice and celebrate that unity through a oneness in Spirit expressed in our own cultural ways rather than through maintaining some kind of uniformity.
As all history of mission teaches us clearly, the greatest barriers to the advance of the gospel and to a rapid growth of the church are not religious but social and cultural! Unless a church couches the eternal gospel in the language, patterns of thinking, forms of behavior, values, and institutions of the people it is trying to reach, and unless it allows them to express their response to the gospel in their own cultural ways, there will be no universal mission and effective church growth.
Judaism failed to reach out in this way. That's why it never became a worldwide missionary movement. The Jews gradually came to identify the forms and ways in which God's truth was expressed with the truth itself. Their traditions and cultural values, though God-approved, became the barriers that prevented the conversion of the nations.
A similar situation threatened the missionary outreach of the early Christian church. Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile believers express their response to God in Jewish cultural ways. Of course, like most people, rather than realizing that these expressions were cultural, they considered them part of the whole divine revelation.
The issue at the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15) was not just the practice of circumcision or the keeping of dietary laws. The question was whether the forms and expressions of the message shaped by one culture determine the ways and the means by which converts from other cultures should experience and express their faith. And, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early church answered with a clear and unmistakable no. Any other answer would have slowed the rapid advance of the gospel. It would also clearly have denied the heart of all of God's revelation: "the Word became flesh."
Like no other in the early church, the apostle Paul again and again, in deed and in word, powerfully pleaded for this freedom, nay, this right of believers from different cultures to experience and to express their newly won faith in Christ in terms of their own culture. So all-important was this issue to the apostle that he was willing to disrupt the unity of the church. Of these conflicts Scripture uses such expressions as "Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them"; "after there had been much debate"; "why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples?"; "false brethren"; "when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to the face, because he stood condemned"; and "the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity" (Acts 15, RSV; Gal. 2, RSV). Paul drove home his point with the question, "How can you compel the Gentiles to live like the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14, RSV).
So, guided by the Holy Spirit, the brethren made the irrevocable ruling that the church must not require believers from different cultures to abide by the forms of the culture that first gave them the message. And that means that even such divinely ordained institutions as circumcision, a sign between God and His people Israel, or the eating of meat that was offered to the idols, or the washing of hands, or the wearing of a veil, or women not speaking in public should not be considered absolutes for all cultures and for all times.
"So send I you into the world"
When the fullness of time had come, God revealed Himself again in a special way and let the whole world know that He was about to begin the final phase of the restoration of His kingdom. Though He spoke through people from diverse cultures—Europe, Latin America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa—God chose in particular to reveal Himself to people conditioned by the American culture. Again, God has no favorite people and no favorite culture. But the basic values of the mid-nineteenth-century American frontier offered the best possibilities for a rapid and universal spreading of the message. So God willed that the language, thought patterns, and values of the United States of America should shape the great Advent movement.
God's special revelation to our pioneers did bring about changes in their attitudes toward a number of elements of the American culture—from food to clothes to concepts and practices of health and hygiene. Yet, for the most part, the Adventist Church in America reflected and embodied—even "sanctified"—basic norms and standards of the American frontier. As the church developed, these cultural elements became more and more part of the whole life and fabric of the movement. So much so that by the early part of this century the divine message and the cultural forms became one integrated whole. The next generation of believers inherited this Adventist culture as a total, indivisible, gift from God: message and organization, standards of behavior and mission. And when the church began to extend its work to other countries and cultures, it did so in the same forms and manners as "back home": evangelists pitched tents even in the middle of medieval European towns where tents had a totally different connotation than they did on the American frontier; sermons and publications followed American style, using American images, metaphors, and stories; American hymns and styles of worship were introduced; Christian education became identified with American educational practices and philosophy; proper dress and adornment were stressed, reflecting frontier tastes and values. In other words, many of our American habits and means and methods became the model of Adventism around the world. 1
The Adventist Jerusalem Council
Soon after the arrival of the American missionaries in Europe, serious dissension arose over these American forms and ways and means. So the Adventist Church held a series of missionary councils (1883, 1884, 1885) that fulfilled the same role for our church as had the Jerusalem Council of A.D. 50 in the early church. Both the issues and the emotion-laden dissensions were the same: Should the form of the message, shaped by the culture of the American frontier, be the same for all cultures, everywhere, and for all times? Or should the particular cultures concepts, languages, attitudes, values, modes of thought, patterns of behavior of the people who are the recipients of that message shape the ways of communicating it, the forms of worship, and the standards of Christian behavior?
Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists preserves the accounts of those meetings. Many of the American missionaries were arguing that the European believers should not rewrite the important truths in terms of their own culture "since [these truths] are the product of the best thought and most thorough study of men who have been longest connected with this work" and that "for this reason it will doubtless be the case that the work of preparing the truth in foreign tongues will ever be quite largely one of translation from English." 2
But Ellen White, who attended and addressed the Basle council of 1885, held the view that "all through these countries there is precious talent that God will use; and we must be wide awake to secure it." 3 "No one should feel that his judgment is faultless, that his ideas are above criticism. . . . The third angel's message is not a narrow message. It is worldwide. . . . The history of God's work in the past shows that some have an understanding of one thing; others of another. It is His plan that there should be counseling together." 4 "I have been shown that souls here in Europe have been turned away from the truth because of a lack of tact and skill in presenting it," that is, by a lack of cultural sensitivity. "Agree with the people on every point where you can consistently do so." 5
The same message of adapting the message and its priorities to the cultural conditions of the people rings through in all of Mrs. White's "Practical Addresses" given at the missionary council of 1885. As to church life, standards, and norms, she wrote, "When the mission fields in this new country were opened before me, I was shown that some things in every branch of the mission needed a different mold. . . .
"The impression was given to unbelievers that Sabbath-keeping Adventists were a set of fanatics and extremists, and that their peculiar faith rendered them unkind, uncourteous, and really unchristian in character," Sister White writes. "Some were making the matter of dress of first importance, criticizing articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn everyone who did not exactly meet their ideas. . . . These one idea men can see nothing except to press the one thing that presents itself to their minds." 6
As the council concluded, Mrs. White made a passionate plea not to limit the truth of the everlasting gospel to only one form, or the believers' responses to the message to the American way only. "What these brethren need is elevation of thought, and refinement of character. They need to make the Bible their guide; the study of God's Holy Word will strengthen and expand the mind. But they must learn the truth as it is in Jesus." 7
Giving the same answer
The answer at which our church arrived at these missionary councils was as clear and unmistakable as the one given in Jerusalem and Antioch—and exactly the same! Sister White totally and wholeheartedly defended the position that paralleled that taken by the apostle Paul; she pleaded that the Adventist message, shaped by the American frontier, be adapted to the needs of the people of other cultures, and that these people be allowed to respond to that divine truth in their own diverse cultural ways!
Wherever the church follows this biblical principle, it advances the gospel rapidly and sees tremendous growth in all dimensions.8 Where it does not, however, the work stagnates, the church becomes a foreign institution, there is isolation and withdrawal and little or no growth, resistance to the message is strong, and apostasy is high, very high. Both the history of Adventist mission and current studies on Adventist church growth around the world confirm this.
While Mrs. White lived, she guided the church along the lines of the actions taken by the Jerusalem Council and the Adventist missionary councils. When she was shown the lack of progress in Africa, where the church had the potential of reaping large harvests through people movements toward Christ, she wrote to a leading missionary in Africa: "Too many of the methods and habits and fashions have been transported from America to Africa, and the result is not favorable." 9
We all know what she was talking about! When we missionaries came to Africa, for instance, we forbade the institution of the lobola, the presentation of gifts by the bridegroom's family to that of the bride. We were of the mistaken opinion that the institution was purely an economic transaction: the buying of a bride. We interpreted the Africans' behavior in terms of our own values, and then insisted that they adopt ours. Fortunately, when we began to consider the institution within their own culture, we saw things differently and withdrew that prohibition—at least in Africa, where it is a powerful cement of marriage. In Papua New Guinea, however, the church still forbids that highly respected indigenous custom, even though Mrs. White herself, using Scripture, makes a powerful plea for its practice. 10
In one East Asian country with very little growth, a worker from the West recently remarked, "If we [missionaries] would all leave, the church here would soon become a heathen Adventist church." To that, a national church leader replied, "As long as you [Westerners] are here, we will never have a church where we feel at home."
In 1957 David Lin, secretary of the China Division, wrote a critical evaluation of Adventist missionary policies and practices in that country. He made it very clear that it was precisely because of the lack of indigenization that the work in China could not advance and that the church had practically collapsed. "The Adventist Church in China," he wrote, "was a foreign institution." Its organization, church life, and institutions were transplanted from America. The church had no roots in the cultural soil of that country's hundreds of millions of people. And when an evil wind began to blow, the transplant toppled.
Now the church in China is entirely a native plant. And its growth is explosive. The same can be said of the church in a number of other areas in Asia and around the world.
These biblical and Spirit of Prophecy guidelines challenge us on two levels of cross-cultural mission: on the geographical level and on the cultural-dynamic level. The first deals with the communication of the Adventist message from one area to another, from Brazil to Uganda, for instance. The second deals with its communication from one culture to another, or from one generation to the next within the same area.
All that has been said about the need to share the message in terms of people's specific cultural conditions, needs, and circumstances applies with equal force also to the communication of the gospel to our own youth. They are part of a culture that in many ways differs radically from the one that shaped the Adventist Church yesteryear. Large—all too large—percentages of Adventist young people are leaving the church. They do not reject the message. To the contrary. Research indicates that the vast majority of them leave because they do not feel at home in this church. It represents to them a culture that no longer exists. Its forms and ways are foreign to them, and hold no appeal. And if they do respond to the message and want to experience and express it in their own way, many of the older members cannot accept them.
The issue of gospel, culture, and mission is of such enormous consequence for the life and growth of the whole church that it deserves a world conference. The Adventist Church must consider this issue and develop guidelines for its work in all the world. Too much is at stake here: the salvation of the billions of people who now cannot even hear the message because of social and cultural barriers; the growth of the church in all its dimensions, which captivity to specific cultures threatens; the salvation of our own youth; and the finishing of God's work in this generation through a conscious attempt to make the one everlasting gospel relevant again that is, to make it present truth in the diversity of cultures.
1 See Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of
the Seventh-day Adventists (Basle: Imprimerie Polyglotte,
2 Ibid., p. 26.
3 Ibid., p. 147.
4 Ibid., pp. 124, 125.
5 Ibid.,-p. 122.
6 Ibid., pp. 211,212.
7 Ibid., p. 215.
8 See D. A. McGavran, Understanding Church
Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980). The
whole literature on church growth confirms this
sound biblical principle.
9 Ellen G. White letter 188, 1899.
10 See The Adventist Home, pp. 92, 93, where she
deplores the fact that we in the West have
abandoned this practice.
Differing Adventist practices
In some areas Adventists express their awe before God by demanding that people take off their shoes when they enter the sanctuary; in other areas custom requires that women wear hats in church, and in still others that men and women sit in separate areas of the sanctuary.
In some countries (even in the tropics) those preaching from the pulpit absolutely must wear suits and ties no matter how hot it is. Others allow a formal shirt open at the neck. North American Adventists generally call an ordained individual "Elder" and a licensed minister "Pastor."
In Britain, an ordained person is called "Pastor" and a licensed minister "Brother." In some places local Adventist understanding of modesty and simplicity of lifestyle demands that no gold or silver be worn in any form, that women not wear pants, and always cover their arms and legs, never cut or curl their hair, and enter the sanctuary behind their husbands or fathers.
In other areas women enter the sanctuary first, and in yet others they may wear certain "ornaments" as part of their dress in honor of God and celebration of their salvation in Christ.
In some countries, Adventists who marry non-Adventists are disfellowshipped. In some others, women who marry non-Adventist men are disfellowshipped, but men who marry non-Adventist women are not.
In some areas Adventists think nothing of going mountain climbing, driving their automobiles to church, riding bicycles, or using public transportation on Sabbath activities that Adventists in other areas frown upon if they don't outrightly condemn as transgressions of the fourth commandment.
In some areas Adventists express their obedience to the fifth commandment by absolute submission to the wishes of their parents in all major decisions of life, from the choice of a career to that of a spouse to where they should live and to how they spend their money. In many of those areas, church members regard as a sin someone's putting his or her parents in an old people's home or nursing home.
In some areas Adventists celebrate Christmas with all the trappings required by the local culture, whereas Adventists in other areas think such celebrations heathen and idolatrous. But many of the Adventists who reject such practices think nothing of celebrating life and reconciliation at the graves of their ancestors on the days demanded by their culture, activities that Adventists elsewhere often consider at least as heathen and idolatrous.
In some areas Adventists regard dating, holding hands, and even kissing in public as acceptable Christian behavior. In others they reject these practices as outrightly immoral, even adulterous. There Adventist men and
women would not even think of publicly touching each other's hands or sharing food together, which is considered the most intimate form of relating to each other.
How shall we decide?
With such a diversity of forms of church life and expressions of faith, how can this church be kept together as the one Body of Christ?
First, through sermons and seminars, special meetings, and publications, we must inform all members of the relationship between gospel and culture.
Second, as in Antioch, Jerusalem, and Galatia in the past, or Basle, Washington, or Asia in our time, let the whole church, ''all the saints,'' counsel together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must conduct this council on the basis of equality and mutuality. No one group within this universal sisterhood of churches has the right to dominate, let alone legislate, the proper behavior or thought forms of the others. The only absolutes for worldwide faith and behavior are those that clearly emerge as a result of the Holy Spirit's work of illumination in the fellowship of believers.
The criteria for such absolutes are:
1. Is the practice biblical? What forms does it take in Scripture, and what was its meaning there?
2. Does it advance the gospel, and in what ways? (See 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul writes that he submitted himself to the cultural practices of different people groups in order to win as many as possible.)
3. What associations does the particular value or activity have with other (negative) aspects of the culture? (Wearing a beard, though biblical, can have a negative connotation. So can a particular form of music.)
4. How does it affect the image of the church in a given area? (Proclaiming peace or social justice or liberation of the poor and the oppressed may enhance the status of the church in one area, but may lump it together with rebellion and revolt in another.)
Since cultures constantly change and the church must therefore continually respond to those changes in the light of Scripture, this activity of counseling, studying, and praying together must never end.
Third, in all the discussions, even dissensions, let the attitude prevail: If this practice harms my brother or sister in any way, I won't do it (see 1 Cor. 8). If it does not help or build up, why insist on it? "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor" (1 Cor. 10:24, RSV; see also verses 31-33).