I have never truly felt at home anywhere – in America, I am plainly Asian; I can’t stand eating grilled cheese sandwiches and I need my rice – I find myself alienated from a culture that associates capitalism and republicanism with Christianity, nor can I sympathise with the functional authority bestowed upon the emotions in pop culture there. In Scotland, I only realized how American I had become. In Asia, I’m thoroughly “Westernized” (and thus almost certainly a nuisance to many). And no, sir, the Ten commandments do not necessitate an endorsement of Libertarianism or Free Market Capitalism.
One’s culture is surely not a matter of taste – a matter of indifference that theology does not speak into. Scripture informs the way we live – some simple examples: Christianity undercuts individualism and emphasizes the importance of subordinating oneself to a covenant family, but it eschews a simplistic notion of leadership where the head always has a final say – if one must choose between the Word of God and the words of man then man must go. It subverts the almost universal (sinful) instinct that material wealth constitutes worth and value, while lifts up the weak as those who are strong. The Spirit uses the Word to transform the way communities function and operate.
Not too long ago I had met someone who claimed that those who work or minister in Asia needs to accommodate themselves to the culture in which they are now in. Fair enough – one might think – I’ll wear the traditional batik dress, and I’ll celebrate Chinese New Year. But the connotations are far less banal and more significant than how one dresses or which holidays one may celebrate – the context was a discussion regarding Church polity. Apparently, for one to be a respectful minister here, one must accommodate oneself with the notion that a particular individual can run the show, and that academic theological professors have to be able to carry out “extra” tasks (which may involve, apparently, engaging in the ‘night life’ of the city for the sake of evangelism – a part of proper research [?], this person thinks). Upon an appeal to biblical texts which clearly teaches the need for Churches to be lead by elders, I was dismissed as a “young” and “Westernized” individual who clearly doesn’t know all the good that the sort of authoritarian ministry could do – sure enough we don’t have elders – but who cares if we have good numbers?
Indeed, it seems that pragmatism is the underlying problem. Just as in liberalism one may accommodate ecclesial practices to the demands of the world, so may we be tempted to implement the standards of our own cultures in our church life. Whether it be the ordination of women because of a faulty understanding of egalitarianism in some Western contexts, or the recapitulation of folk Confucianism in the form of a hierarchical Church government. In such cases whether one is considered “conservative” or “liberal” makes no difference – pragmatism has won the day.
No – neither are being more “Christ-like” – neither are being more “faithful.” No one culture has any de facto right to say so – Christianity has always been a multi-cultural phenomenon – Church unity as one body always involves the hard work of navigating through one’s cultural biases and sinful tendencies; and no one culture may demand that the other must, by virtue of some principle, submit to the standards of the other as if an act of sin was at stake.
But each culture must, at the same time, submit to clear teachings of Scripture – if the Bible says a church must be run by elders and a “pattern of sound words” then we must follow suit. If the Bible forbids fornication and the culture advocates for an expression of sexuality as constitutive of one’s freedom, then one must resist the cultural force. One must be an obedient exegete of Scripture and the World in order to apply the former to the latter.
The upshot is clear: cultural imperialism masquerading as biblical faithfulness, indeed, must go.