When culture doesn't count

An appeal for Seventh-day Adventists to retain a biblical perspective

Robert S. Folkenberg is president of the General Conference.

Someone once asked Gandhi, the great leader of India, "What do you think of Western civilization?"

"I think," he responded, "that it would be a good idea."

Considering his background, his life, and the cause for which he fought, Gandhi may not have had much reason to like Western civilization. Beyond that, his reply demonstrates how a person's culture influences not only that individual's opinions of other cultures, but also how he or she thinks and acts.

As with Gandhi, our culture has much to do with the way each of us thinks. William H. Shea, of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute, explains why, for instance, the order of Daniel 7, 8, and 9 may seem inverted.

Daniel 7 emphasizes the ultimate establishment of God's kingdom; Daniel 8, Christ's high-priestly ministry; and Daniel 9, the death of Christ. The Western way of thinking would reverse the order and talk about the death of Christ, then His high-priestly ministry, and finally the establishment of God's kingdom--the chronological order in which these things occurred. Yet, according to Shea, the ancient Hebrew mind worked from effect to cause, rather than from cause to effect, as most contemporary minds would see it.

A tribal group in a remote area of South America had what might seem to be a peculiar view of time. When talking about the future, they would point be hind them. Talking about the past, they would point ahead. Most of us think it is more logical to think of the future as being in front of us, and the past behind.

Thus, we are impacted to one degree or another by our culture or environment. From a human standpoint, there is no such thing as absolute cultural objectivity.

The real question is: "How much do our cultures affect our religion?" Consider the way we worship on Sabbath morning. Every member who has traveled extensively within the world church knows that congregations worship differently in different parts of the world. The rhythm of the music and the forms of worship differ as you travel from Russia to Zimbabwe to Australia to Papua New Guinea. My concern, however, is not so much worship style as it is how secular society impacts our basic values and beliefs. Let me share a personal example.

Genetic justification?

Imagine my relief when, a few months ago, I saw a news report suggesting a direct link between chromosomes and weight! Scientists altered the genes of one group of mice and then fed two groups of otherwise identical mice the same diet. The group of mice with the altered genes became obese while the others remained slender and svelte. What comfort! My seemingly endless battle with the bathroom scale was not my fault after all. My chromosomes "made me do it!" Here society offers me an excuse, in effect saying, "Don't worry, be happy."

Society conveys the same message to the alcoholic, the homosexual, and some times even to the abusive parent or spouse: "Don't worry. It is not your fault. You are a victim of genetic predisposition, so you cannot be held responsible." Some might call this "genetic justification"!

Yet while biological factors often exert a profound influence in our lives, God provides power to cope with and conquer these tendencies. By no means are we helpless pawns adrift in a sea of sin and circumstance where, driven by some Darwinian force, we play out our lives beyond lines of personal responsibility. Scripture is explicit, urging us again and again to let the mind of Christ control us, to fight the fight of faith, to struggle against natural dispositions and passions. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).*

Ellen White said, "As we partake of the divine nature, hereditary and cultivated tendencies to wrong are cut away from the character, and we are made a living power for good. Ever learning of the divine Teacher, daily partaking of his nature, we cooperate with God in over coming Satan's temptations. God _ works, and man works, that man may be one with Christ as Christ is one with God. Then we sit together with Christ in heavenly places. The mind rests with peace and assurance in Jesus." +

Great news! We can have victory over our hereditary and cultivated tendencies through surrender to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Certainty of mission and message

My concern is that we not allow cultural differences and biases to divert us from the eternal truths that God is trying to communicate to us. He wants us to look at truth from His perspective. It is this truth that in His perspective has given us our mission, our message, our identity.

I have another concern about culture's effect on our church. In many of the more developed and sophisticated areas of the world, I sense that an increasingly secular value system is negatively impacting many of our members. I sense a growing uncertainty about why we exist as a church and what our mission is. Some all but say it makes little difference what we believe as long as we have an experience with Christ. With such thinking, focus turns inward, truth becomes one's private treasure, cut away from the revealed will of God as defined in God's Word.

This, I suggest, is an example of culture having a negative impact upon us as a people. It is reflective of the con temporary prevailing social view that there is no real, objective truth; there are no universals, particularly in the area of human morality.

Historian and natural rights philosopher Leo Strauss, in his book Natural Right and History, summed up this way of thinking with these words: "No view of the whole, and in particular no view of human life, can claim to be final or universally valid. Every doctrine, however seemingly final, will be superseded sooner or later by another doctrine." In other words, do not settle into what you believe too conclusively, because sooner or later someone will come along and prove you wrong. We Seventh-day Adventists must soundly reject this philosophy.

Wherever we live, we must not be content with a cerebral, theoretical faith, with its corollary premise that intellectual commitment to a series of statements is enough. We must have something more. We must have what Ellen White calls practical religion, a "living experience with Christ," no matter in which culture we find ourselves.

Culture's impact on our world view

Why are contemporary value systems impacting upon our worldview as a church? I see several possible answers.

One may be that our growing membership is affected by the natural centrifugal force that plagues communities who are no longer in intimate interchange with one another. This is a sociological answer. It is true that the larger our fellowship becomes, the greater will be the tendency to separate into smaller groups. This has been the experience of other church groups, and we should anticipate that tendency. But the character and the eternal perspective of the Seventh-day Adventist message has proved, and must continue to prove, a powerful agent for unity, whatever the culture.

Another influence is clearly the spirit of our times. Increasingly secular and materialistic, particularly in the Western world, we live in larger communities, highly individualistic and distrustful of leaders. The secular world is replete with examples of this, and the church is by no means immune to these influences from society in general.

Another reason is that too many of us are not personally studying our Bibles every day. Whether we live in New York City, Singapore, Havana, New Delhi, or Abidjan, we will suffer if we do not spend regular time in the Word. Our pastors must help us focus on the Scriptures, on the gospel message of righteousness by faith, and on those unique truths that identify us as God's special people.

The Bible is not a source of themes to be debated. It is a feast of revealed truths to be shared among ourselves and with the world around us. The power of God's Word transcends societal values, conventional wisdom, and all cultures. When it comes to the great themes of Scripture--the conflict of the ages, the death and resurrection of Christ, the perpetuity of the law of God--these are above and beyond borders, traditions, and history. On these truths there is no significant cultural difference. Here culture does not count.

I think every Seventh-day Adventist must ask: Can we be faithful to our Lord and indiscriminately allow culture to continue making negative inroads into the church? As leaders chosen by God's people, can we allow the drift to continue? The answer is simple: no.

God's contrasting call and promise

In contrast, God's call to us and His promises are grand. "And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient rains shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in" (Isa. 58:11, 12). The context describes a revived people, deeply concerned for those around them, and fully committed to God in their inmost souls. These are a people God can use in an out pouring of His power.

God promises to restore that which once flourished. The final proclamation of truth is a restoration, a binding up of wounds, an invitation to those who will come with us into the kingdom of Christ. It means a revival of practical godliness. This is what we need as a people, whether living in the Australian outback or in northern Norway. We need to revisit the springs of living water. Until we do, there will be an ever-growing tendency to be satisfied with things as they are.

When I refer to Isaiah's springs of living water, I have in mind those mighty efforts for God that resulted in the raising up of the Adventist movement, replete with both their spirit and the unique truths for our time. I am not thinking of mere nostalgia, a gilding of the past, an effort to reproduce today all the details of life a century ago. Such has never been the in tent of God. That solid core hewn out by early believers, firmly crafted from the Word of God, remains the core of our message today, wherever we live, how ever we express ourselves in worship. The adhesive that holds all of truth in one unit is the presence of Christ, who is in deed the desire of all the ages and of all cultures as well.

I firmly believe we stand at the door to the greatest time in all history for the growth of the church and extension of the gospel. Would it not be appropriate for us to come as did Jesus into special communion with His Father? Shall we not drink at the sources, listen to the Spirit of God, then rise to face the final challenges?

What I am saying is not idle speculation. Our minds have become so accustomed to focusing on the fine details of life that we have lost the overall broad, biblical perspective. Of all Christians, Seventh-day Adventists have the greatest opportunity to measure God's deeds on the grandest of scales. With our understanding of the great controversy, we have a cosmic vision of all that ultimately matters. Rather than trying to piece together meaning out of life's jumbled pile of ideas and events, we can go to the source of all wisdom, where God spreads before us the full panorama of His intent.

We Adventists are famous for our multitude of activities and outreaches, for our zeal in pressing forward the gospel into remote ends of the world. We love to do battle for our Lord. From the be ginning of time, God's church has been a church of action. Focused action can do what never can be accomplished by scattered activities, and dissipated energies that simply raise dust. At our fingertips lies the biblical, cosmic truth that integrates all human understanding.

While some of us think of the Adventist movement as a people who believe in a collection of individual truths, such as the Sabbath, the law of God, and the Second Coming, in reality we bring to the world a broad and unified package of meaning, which includes these components. All our doctrines fit together into a beautiful mosaic of truth, which when seen as a whole reveals the glorious God of all and His eternal purpose. It is this magnificent overview that I pray we will be able to grasp, for in it is understanding, inspiration, and direction. It is truly a message for all people in all lands, for we all whatever the color of our skin or hair, the features of our face, the language we speak, the food we eat we are all created by the same God. He has made us all of "one blood," investing us with a grand overriding likeness. All the cultural differences in the world will never change that great truth.

What holds God's people in loyalty to Him? They have taken a stand for God, and for His truth. This is an ideal that is not changed by culture, heritage, or tradition. Thus they are out of step with much of society, with culture, and tradition. They are politically incorrect to the maximum and therefore they are scorned, rejected, and hated. Above all this, theirs is the all-possessing vision that they are Christ's people--nothing more is left. Here culture does not count.

With this in mind, we encounter a new dimension of unity, for all is ultimately in Christ, of Christ, with Christ, and beside Christ before the throne of God. We need a spiritual reformation of mind, heart, and soul to be the complete persons we always have talked about being. We want to see the church, the body of Christ, scattered through the miscellany of human cultures and ethnic groups, but with a common cos mic, heaven-oriented vision. Apart from and above these things that divide us, we gather as the host of the Lord, first at the foot of the cross, then on the sea of glass before the throne. No longer are we drifters along the highway of life. No longer are we aliens and outcasts, but the assembly of the firstborn, adopted, transformed into citizens of the kingdom by the utter grace of one who Himself paid the price for our salvation. Now He presents the fruits of His timeless sacrifice before the throne. The cosmic plan of the ages is complete. The best news is, we--from all backgrounds, traditions, and cultures--are there with Him in heaven, where culture does not count.

Adapted from his keynote address at the 1995 Annual Council session.

* All Scriptures are from the Revised Standard Version.


+ Ellen G. White in Review and Herald, April 24, 1900.


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Robert S. Folkenberg is president of the General Conference.

December 1995

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