Opportunity or Accommodation? Thinking Through Cultural Practices in the Immigrant Church

Article
04.10.2020

What’s the proper place of cultural practices in the local church? Whenever people from a particular culture gather together in a church, there’s always a danger of various cultural practices and traditions rising above Scripture. This is a challenge in all churches, but it can be a particular challenge in churches full of immigrants, where cultural preservation is part of the attraction.

The apostle Paul provides some guidance for us:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. (Galatians 2:11–12)

What should we think of this “circumcision party”? It’s easy to paint them as evil false teachers. But the issue might be more complicated than that. First of all, we know they associated with James, which means they likely were a part of the Jerusalem church, professing faith in Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah. Clearly, the rumors of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles had reached Jerusalem. Upon hearing of it, some Jewish believers found it harder and harder to be associated with the message of salvation in Christ alone. What’s more, they’ve heard that even their pastor, Peter, is eating with Gentiles.

So it would be quite understandable for a group of them to come up to Antioch and say, “Look, we’re all trying to follow Jesus, but take it easy! If the Gentiles want to be Gentiles, fine! Let them be. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop being a Jew. If you’re going to eat with Gentiles, they should at least wash up and be circumcised. Let them show that they support the Law of Moses. After all, you’re making it harder for us to share the gospel back home. So help us out. Tone it down a bit.” Whatever their reasoning, Peter and the Jewish believers were convinced. Even Barnabas was led astray.

THE IMPORTANCE AND DANGER OF ACCOMMODATION

But not Paul.

Now, Paul understood the importance of cultural accommodation. Though he ministered among Gentiles, he was regularly in contact with Jews and Jewish believers. Writing to the Corinthians, he describes how to the Jews he lived like a Jew, and to those without the law, he became like one of them. “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

And yet, he also understood the danger of cultural accommodation. If the circumcision party was going to define Jewishness by a refusal to associate with uncircumcised Gentiles, then Paul knew he must reject their teaching. Such teaching rejected the union that Christ accomplished between Jew and Gentile in the gospel, and therefore, was a rejection of the gospel itself.

The challenge Paul faced is something that churches have experienced throughout history. Whenever the gospel brings together people from different cultural backgrounds, they have to wrestle with what it looks like to evaluate their cultural practices according to their newfound unity in Christ.

Paul offers us a model for evaluating our cultural practices within the church. Notice that it’s not undergirded by the pragmatism of trying to reach as many people as possible—nor is it under the yoke of maintaining cultural traditions. Instead, Paul teaches us to evaluate all we do according to the Word of God and the truth of the gospel.

In particular, Paul discerned two different categories of cultural practices:

  • Cultural practices that create opportunities for the church to grow in understanding and unity.
  • Cultural practices that compromise the gospel and should be rejected.

What would it look like to apply these two categories? Here are three case studies:

CHURCH LEADERSHIP

Worth Celebrating:

The elder-board of a Russian immigrant church contains elders from both the Russian-speaking and English-speaking congregations. The elders of the English-speaking congregation are learning to adjust their communication style to serve the older, Russian-speaking elders. This means that rather than confronting their disagreements immediately, they listen patiently and extend conversations past elders’ meetings and into meals during the week. The Russian-speaking elders are also learning to appreciate the initiative and energy of the younger, English-speaking elders. While it can be difficult to conduct meetings in English, they believe it’s worth the trouble in order to raise up the next generation of leaders.

Worth Rejecting:

The elder board is composed entirely of Russian-speaking elders from the Russian congregation. Even though the English-speaking congregation—comprised almost entirely of 2nd-generation Russians—has been around for a decade and is demonstrating a growing maturity, it’s hard for the elders not to see that congregation as made up of “kids.” Moreover, the differences in language and culture between the two groups would make elder meetings too difficult for the Russian-speaking elders. As a result, they never consider elder-qualified men from the English-speaking congregation.

CHURCH MEMBERSHIP

Worth Celebrating:

As a Chinese church, the various language congregations recognize the strategic opportunity they have for the gospel. The Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking congregations are active in reaching out to international students at the local university. By serving them with airport rides, grocery store trips, hospitality, and genuine friendships, many of these students have been able to hear the gospel for the first time and respond in faith. Likewise, the English congregation looks for ways to participate in various Asian-American community events to build relationships for the gospel.

Worth Rejecting:

Living in cities with a small Asian population, Chinese immigrants quickly find the local Chinese church to be a place full of cultural familiarity. They find a common language, common celebrations, and common values. And so the church feels like home and they quickly join. But in this abbreviated membership process, the gospel is not explicit. Their membership is based on their interest in shared cultural values, more than the gospel. Soon, these members are leading fellowship groups, and even serving as deacons. In the meantime, the English-speaking congregation is glad to see the outreach to immigrants, but are wondering if enough attention is being given to their understanding of the gospel as they join the church. After all, if the Chinese-speaking congregation finds its most essential unity around cultural values, then what does this mean for these 2nd-generation believers who share a different culture?

CHURCH DISCIPLINE

Worth Celebrating:

Like other Asian cultures, confrontation in a Korean church can be difficult. The English-speaking pastors are learning that any confrontation should seek to minimize public shame. Much thought needs to be given about how things are communicated and who communicates it. Rather than dealing with matters entirely at congregational meetings, the pastors meet with small groups and in homes to answer questions. However, along with the Korean pastors, this church is committed to making confession and restoration a part of the church’s culture, even if it means practicing church discipline in cases of serious, unrepentant sin.

Worth Rejecting:

Because public confrontation of sin would bring unbearable shame, this Korean church refuses to practice any church discipline. Cases of public and unrepentant sin are ignored or swept under the rug, even when it comes to those serving in leadership. In order to minimize shame, little communication is provided for those who question these decisions. As a result, there’s growing disunity and mistrust between the different-language congregations.

CONCLUSION

Clearly, different cultural practices can create an opportunity for growth or lead to a compromise of the gospel. How can churches discern whether or not they’re on the road to compromising the gospel?

Simply put, they must evaluate their practices not by pragmatism or tradition, but according to God’s Word. When Paul confronted Peter and the circumcision party, he did so that “the truth of the gospel would be preserved” (Gal. 2:5). May our churches be faithful in doing the same.

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Editor’s note: This piece is a part of a series on immigrant churches:

By:
Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as an assistant professor of church history and historical theology and is also the curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffchang.