The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles
Change is a major characteristic of our modern world. For example, technological developments, increased mobility and multiculturalism all impact on our way of life. How then, should believers respond, both individually and collectively, to change and diversity in their communities?
Two New Testament truths seem relevant here, namely: acceptance, not favoritism; and principles, not regulations.
It is important that we practice New Testament attitudes and behaviors, and not those more appropriate to Old Testament times.
Acceptance – not favoritism
God’s favored people in the Old Testament, the children of Israel, were of one nationality. They were given special promises (Gen. 12:2-3; 17:7-8), the sign of circumcision, and detailed rules and regulations for their customs and culture. (See Exodus to Deuteronomy). Other nations were despised as they had detestable customs (Lev. 18:30).
But in Christ, God’s favor and loving concern now extends to all humanity (Jn. 3:16-17), as His salvation is for all people and nations across the world (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8).
The New Testament principle is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people who follow Him from every nation (Acts 10:34-35). All believers are now accepted and favored by God, regardless of their nationality, customs, culture, status in society, or gender (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Clearly, God does not discriminate among believers. In fact, we are told to accept one another just as Christ accepted us (Rom. 15:7), and that it is a sin to show favoritism (Jas. 2:9). Similarly, we are urged to do good to all people, especially all believers (Gal. 6:10).
The only people we should not accept are those who claim to be believers but who are immoral, greedy, who cheat, slander others, get drunk, worship idols (1 Cor. 5:9-13), cause divisions (Rom. 16:17-18; Ti. 3:10-11), or do not bring the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11).
Principles – not regulations
The Bible contains many important principles for humanity from the time of Adam and Eve up until today.
The Old Testament also contains detailed regulations and procedures on how many of these principles were to be practiced by the Jews of that period. This even included the design of their building and furniture to be used for worship (Ex. 25-27, 35-38; 2 Chr. 3-4). These were for a particular time in the history of the Jewish nation.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is left free to apply biblical principles among the diverse nations, customs and cultures across the earth since the times of the early Church described in Acts. This means that local practices and methods may vary in different communities according to their
way of life and particular needs.
A changing world
The greatest change that faced the early Church was when Christianity extended to the Gentiles (Acts 10, 11, 15). Prior to this time, the believers were mainly Jews and converts to Judaism (Acts2:11, 22; 6:1). Cornelius’ conversion represented a significant step in the separation of the early Church from Judaism. The divine principle of acceptance– not favoritism was given to Peter at this time. Evangelism among the Gentiles was pioneered by men from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20), encouraged by Barnabas (Acts 11:23) and was Paul’s mission (Acts 9:15).
Different people can react differently to change in their circumstances and environment. When conflict arose among believers because of this change it was resolved after discussion by the elders. Peter claimed that God does not discriminate among believers, but accepts all by giving them the same Holy Spirit. Consequently, unnecessary requirements should not be imposed on fellow believers (Acts 15:8-11). He had profited from Paul’s rebuke of his pride and hypocrisy in forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs, and then separating from them (Gal. 2:11-21). James agreed with Peter: they should not insist that Gentile believers obey Jewish regulations (Acts 15:19).
Likewise, we should not make it difficult for people in our community who are turning to God by placing unnecessary and non-biblical requirements on them.
A multicultural world
Many of us live in multicultural communities where there is a diversity of customs and lifestyles. The Bible recognizes and allows for diversity among believers in the nonessential aspects of the Christian faith.
Such issues faced by the early church concerned food and drink and whether one day was more sacred than another (Col. 2:16).
Paul commanded that we accept one another, as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7) by respecting the other’s viewpoint and their conscience (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10:23-33). This means not criticizing and not stumbling another, particularly a weaker believer, but acting in love towards them. We will give an account of our conduct to God (Rom. 14:12). Remember, how we treat each other is how we are treating the Lord (Mt. 25:40,45).
Consideration of others, rather than selfishness, is given as the key to unity among Christians, with Christ the greatest example (Rom. 15:1-7). He always acted to please His Father (Jn. 8:29).
This principle also applies to our attitudes and behavior towards non-Christians. Paul went out of his way to identify with all kinds of people, by serving them rather than imposing on them in order to effectively communicate the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:33).
We also should be aware of local customs and respect those that are not evil (1 Th. 5:21-22).
Let’s understand our times (like the men of Issachar in 1 Chr. 12:32) and follow the examples of Christ, Peter, Paul and James in our changeable and diverse world by:
- Accepting and welcoming other believers and non-believers.
- Encouraging each generation, nationality and community to express the Christian faith within their culture.
- Assessing the appropriateness of our customs and practices. Some may hinder the communication of the gospel or the building of relationships among believers.
Summary of attitudes to others
(from Romans 14:1-15:7 and Acts 10, 11 and 15)
|Divine Nature||Sinful Nature|
|Accepts, welcomes, encourages||Criticizes, discriminates|
|Pleases and builds up||Selfishly dominates and controls|
|Allows diversity||Imposes uniformity|
|Is humble, confesses, forgives||Is proud|
|Is loving, patient, tolerant||Causes to stumble or fall into sin|
|Presents Christian liberty||Loads with unnecessary rules|
Published, May 1995
Christianity is for people of all languages and all cultures all over the world. Christ said it Himself: “God so loved the (multicultural) world (of humanity) that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 NIV). He commissioned His followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), and this great commission is the basis of all evangelism. Missionaries spend years studying and learning the languages and cultures of other nations, tribes and peoples in order to fulfill our Lord’s command.
Christ’s incarnation – His coming to earth and living as a fellow human being – is the ideal example of how to relate to another culture. He identified very closely with humanity in every way, except for sin. He identified particularly with the common, ordinary people of His day, as He usually spoke their language (Aramaic) rather than Hebrew, the religious language of the Jews, or Greek, the international language of trade and scholarship in the Roman empire. Aramaic was the mother tongue of most of the Jews of first century Palestine; those raised outside of Palestine spoke Greek. Only about 5 percent of the population were literate in Hebrew, so Christ spoke in the vernacular, the language of the people, rather than the scholarly language1.
It is interesting to note that God performed a linguistic miracle when He communicated the gospel to a multicultural crowd in Acts 2: “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound … each one heard their own language being spoken” (Acts 2:5-6). God wanted these people to hear His message in their own language. And Acts 2:9-11 goes on to mention at least 16 different countries by way of example.
Today, there is often diversity of language and culture in our ever-changing communities, especially as the world population becomes increasingly more mobile. But the body of believers is called to transcend the differences of language and culture: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All have the right to approach God, and the responsibility to discover and apply scriptural truths within their own cultural situation.
This should really challenge evangelists and missionaries. This should also challenge church groups – especially those whose roots go back to earlier generations – as they reach out to the lost in their communities.
To apply the above principles, we need to do four things:
1. Have a healthy acceptance of cultural variance, including respect for language preference as much as possible.
2. Take account of people’s language, way of life and culture as we go about the Lord’s business of making disciples in our church gatherings.
3. Encourage expression of biblical truths and practices in appropriate contemporary language, songs and cultural forms. Use everyday language as much as possible, rather than imposing a “foreign” language or one from a previous era.
4. Train fellow believers to apply biblical principles to their cultural context and so enable each generation to come to its own living faith (2 Tim. 2:2).
1. Herbert V. Klen, Oral Communication of Scripture, 1982, William Carey Library, Pasadena, California.
2. Biblical truth transcends language and culture: Christ spoke Aramaic, He read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and His words were recorded in Koine Greek by the writers of the New Testament. The New Testament was not written in a peculiar language, as some medieval scholars believed, but in the everyday language of the era.
Published, June 1997
Like marriage and food, the ability to communicate in song was created by God and “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV). Everyone can sing, so let’s make sure we make good use of this ability.
Some people can sing solo or harmony, musicians can accompany singing, and some have the ability to write lyrics and to create melodies. Such creativity may be seen as being part of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). This form of expression and communication is one of the characteristics of humanity and the Bible shows that in many respects singing distinguishes God’s people.
Let’s consider some biblical principles concerning the purposes and characteristics of spiritual songs, as well as some thoughts on practical aspects of singing for Christians and churches.
To praise the Lord
The need to praise the Lord in song for His goodness is evident throughout the history of mankind – past, present and future. It is one of the main themes of the Bible.
Past: After their miraculous escape from Egypt, the Israelites praised God in song (Ex. 15:1-18). The Old Testament has many examples of the Israelites’ songs of praise, with Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, being their hymnbook. Also, David, one of the major figures of the Old Testament, was a prolific songwriter and a skilled musician.
Present: In the New Testament era and today, joy is to be expressed as songs of praise (Jas. 5:13) and our praise is to “our Lord and Father” (Jas. 3:9). This is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of non-Jewish people praising the Lord (Rom. 15:8-12). After describing the importance of Christ, the writer of Hebrews urges, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Future: Songs of praise will be offered to Christ and the Father in a time to come (Rev. 5:1-14). This will culminate in “every creature in heaven and on earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To Him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb be praise and
honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever’” (Rev. 5:13).
To strengthen believers
It is clear from the few references to singing in the New Testament that it is an essential component of the Christian faith. The following verses show that singing is associated with teaching from the Bible and prayer:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16).
“When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray so others can understand: I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing so others can understand” (paraphrase of 1 Cor. 14:15).
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
So, a major purpose of singing is for strengthening the Church. Singing is a means of communication between believers and to the Lord: “Speaking to one another … Sing and make music … to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Collective singing should promote encouragement of one another, which is the purpose of meeting together (Heb. 10:25).
Singing can be a strong symbol of unity as everyone can participate.
With thanks, from the heart
Songs can be powerful ways of expressing feelings and emotions. They should be used to express thanks and gratitude to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:16). Also, singing is the outcome of happiness and joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” As with all we do, we should sing with enthusiasm (Eph. 6:7).
Singing is also a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Christians are instructed to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). So songs and music are associated with the “heart” which is used in Scripture for the emotional part of our lives.
Paul and Silas are an example of Christians whose songs reflected the joy and hope within, rather than the external circumstances. After being falsely accused by the crowd, severely flogged, thrown into prison and their feet put in stocks, they prayed and sang praises to God in the middle of the night (Acts 16:20-25). They also illustrate how we can sing at any time of the day and in any situation.
Our singing should be readily understandable by those present (1 Cor. 14:15). Like speech, singing should be intelligent in the sense of being meaningful, not intellectual and not in a foreign language (1 Cor. 14:9).
Spiritual songs differ from psalms in that they are composed by Christians rather than being direct quotations from the Bible. The Scriptures, which were completed some 1,900 years ago, should not be added to or changed in any way (Rev. 22:18-19). They contain divine principles to guide us. In order to understand these principles, the Bible has been translated into various languages. So, the language can change, but not the principles.
Songs, on the other hand, are expressions of Christian faith that reflect the language, tunes, circumstances and culture of their origin. When language changes and as new experiences and new circumstances arise, the Holy Spirit causes new songs to be written. For example, the faithful will sing a “new song” in heaven (Rev. 5:9). These changes with time usually come about as believers, filled with the Spirit, create new songs (Eph. 5:18-19). In fact, the term “new song” occurs nine times in the Bible.
New songs should flow from significant events in the lives of Christians. For example, Moses (Ex. 15:1-19), Deborah and Barak (Jud. 15), David (2 Sam. 22:2-51), Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79) were inspired to create spiritual songs. The latter two are poems, which were probably also sung.
The diversity of spiritual songs is indicated in the Book of Psalms where some songs are collective and some are individual. They also vary in content from praise, thanksgiving and instruction to personal experience, history and laments.
With musical accompaniment?
It is interesting that little is said regarding musical accompaniment to singing in the New Testament. This is similar to other topics, such as church buildings and other Christian practices. Why the difference, when compared to the greater detail in the Old Testament? I believe it is because the New Testament concentrates on the essentials of the faith, which are to be expressed in various cultures throughout the world over a period of at least 2,000 years. It applies to every community, language and nation (Rev. 5:9), whereas the Old Testament mainly addressed one nation. Many practical details are not mentioned in the New Testament as these can vary according to circumstances and cultures.
The first mention of musicians in the Bible is associated with a generation that also pioneered livestock farming and metal toolmaking (Gen. 4:20-22). One implication of this is that music meets an important human need, as does agriculture and industry.
Three verbs are used in the Greek text of the New Testament to denote singing, namely, ado, psallo and humneo1. Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument. This word seems to refer to the melody or tune of a song in Ephesians 5:19; “sing (ado) and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord.” This supports the fact that the melody or tune is an integral part of a song.
Similarly, three nouns are used in the New Testament to describe what is sung: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms (or psalmos in Greek), used in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, were songs sung to musical accompaniment of voice, harp or other instrument2.
Of course, accompaniment is not essential to singing – and would have been difficult in times of persecution – but neither is it prohibited. Paul and Silas would have sung without it in prison, and this may be why psallo is not used in Acts 16:25, but is in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13.
Any musical accompaniment is to assist singing, with the singing being the primary purpose and the accompaniment secondary. So, while singing is essential to the Christian faith, musical accompaniment is optional.
We need to be careful to avoid putting limitations in areas when they are not clearly given in the Scriptures. Musical accompaniment to singing is such a case3. Whether it is used or not, and the type of instruments used depend on circumstances, traditions and culture. Christians should have the wisdom to know what is appropriate.
The Lord desires expressions of thanks and praise sung from the heart with understanding that strengthens the faith of believers. However we sing, whether with or without accompaniment, our singing should meet these goals.
Now let’s consider some practical aspects of the role of singing in our lives. Failure to sing with understanding and failure to include new songs can hinder our singing and thereby affect our praise to the Lord and the strength of our church.
It should be noted that God accepts all languages and cultures, with none being more acceptable to Him today than others. Consider, for example, a situation where missionaries are living in another culture. The songs from their homeland would be foreign to the local people. Obviously, Christianity should not be considered a foreign faith, and indigenous people should be encouraged to read the Scriptures in their local language and sing Christian songs in that language, with culturally relevant tunes and perhaps accompaniment. In Zaire, when the local language was used instead of French, it was reported that “this seemed to give more liberty in taking part and much joy singing in their own language”.
Of course, living languages also change over the course of time. For example, English has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Under these circumstances, new songs are required from time to time, in order for there to be a balance between traditional songs and more contemporary songs. Churches should have a process for incorporating contemporary songs. Otherwise, they are in danger of wrongly elevating traditional songs to the status of the Scriptures. This was the problem of the Pharisees who treated their traditions as though they were divine principles.
Are we ready to accept new songs and allow others in our church to have the opportunity of singing songs that are significant to them, including songs in everyday language and with contemporary tunes?
Do we have a vision of the role of songs of praise in our church? Are we willing to evaluate our attitudes and practices and endeavor to improve in this area of our Christian lives?
As with other talents, singing, musical ability, song writing and composing should be used for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Have these been neglected in your gathering? Hopefully this article will encourage you.
Let’s sing to praise the Lord; to express thanks, gratitude, happiness and joy; to strengthen the Church; and to encourage one another. Let’s sing with understanding and let’s encourage a balance between new and traditional songs.
1. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1970.
2. See Vine; R. Young, Analytical Concordance of the Bible, 1939; J. H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Baker, 1992.
3. Church buildings would be another.
Published, March 1997 (Scripture quotations updated March 2015)
Postmodernism is the prevailing mindset or worldview of our society today, having largely replaced the previous mindset known as “modernism”.
In the modern era, faith was placed in human reasoning as the means to discover truth. It was optimistic for the future: science and technology would lead to unlimited progress toward a better life because it was thought that people were basically good. Because everything was explained by science, religious faith was viewed as being made up of outdated myths and superstition. The theory of evolution replaced the need for God. The supernatural, the spiritual world and miracles were dismissed as they were inconsistent with science, which rejected the possibility of the supernatural.
However, people became disenchanted with reason and science, as neither was able to deliver on its promise to solve all human problems and reshape society into utopia. So modernism was replaced by postmodernism where truth and morals are assumed to be subjective, and experiences and feelings are important. Consequently, truth and morals can vary from person to person or society to society. People rely on their own ideas of what is right or wrong, true or false. They make up their own minds. Experience and feelings are more important for postmodernists than reason; they follow their feelings.
The postmodernists also believe that all values, viewpoints and religions are equally valid and equally true; this is known as pluralism. When applied to religious faith this leads to all religions being equivalent and to New Age beliefs.
Learning about postmodernism helps us to better evangelise in a postmodern culture. The pluralistic postmodernists are open to all interpretations, including Christianity (although they may say, “It’s all right for you, but not for me”). The most important factor to postmoderists, when deciding what is true, is not reason but experience. Consequently, they are less likely to be influenced by what they only read or hear. Instead they need to see and feel Christian behaviour in action so their emotions are engaged.
This means that we should make sure that people experience real Christian love, hospitality and community while they are hearing the truth about Christ. Truth demonstrated has enormous impact. Pointing out the difference Christianity makes in a one’s own life may be the best way to catch the interest of the postmodernists to whom experience and feelings are important.
The fluid, ever-changing environment of postmodernity offers little support or shelter in the face of overwhelming change and almost unlimited choice. In these circumstances, people look for safe and welcoming places where they can find a sense of togetherness and safety. Let’s model a Christianity that meets the need of postmodern seekers.
Published, January 2012
See the other article in this series:
– Living in a postmodern world
As a fish lives in water, we live in the environment of our culture. We are all influenced by the world we live in: it shapes and influences our thinking. We all live in a community and society that has a characteristic culture and beliefs. None of us is isolated from this world. How we live at home, at work and at church is influenced by our current culture and human tradition, which is derived from the culture of previous eras. These cultures and worldviews can have both positive and negative aspects.
The word “postmodern” can be used in two ways. Firstly, to describe an era, the present period of time, which is characterised by: consumerism, many options and choices, globalisation, Google, Facebook, SMS, GPS, constant change, and superficial lives that lack depth, where the most common goal is to enjoy yourself.
Secondly, “postmodern” describes an attitude or mindset (which is a way of looking at things, a paradigm or a worldview). In this article we are mainly looking at the second meaning: “postmodernism”, which is the prevailing mindset of our society. It is largely a state of mind. As the word implies “postmodernism” has now largely replaced “modernism”, which was the previous mindset. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.
I was brought up when modernism was the prevailing mindset. In the modern era, faith was placed in human reasoning to discover truth. This was an ordered view of the world where truth was objective and able to be discovered. It was the age of reason; reason largely replaced Christian faith. It was optimistic for the future: science and technology would lead to unlimited progress toward a better life because it was thought that people were basically good.
Because everything was explained by science, religious faith was viewed as being made up of outdated myths and superstition. The idea of evolution replaced the need for God. The supernatural, the spiritual world and miracles were dismissed as they were inconsistent with science, which rejected the possibility of the supernatural. So, it was thought that religion would wither.
However, modernism was a false god, because according to the Christian mindset our thinking should be God-centred, not based on reasoning that rejects God’s existence. Truth can only be discovered by basing our reasoning on God’s revelation in the Bible. Also, the human mind is flawed by sin and so it is a poor foundation for our reasoning (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:23). In fact, without a personal relationship with the living God, people are in a hopeless situation.
As with all worldviews, except the biblical one, modernism would ultimately disappoint. People became disenchanted with reason and science, as neither was able to deliver on their promises to solve all human problems and reshape society into utopia. Instead, there were wars, weapons of mass destruction and poverty. Consequently, the ideas behind modernism were thought to be dangerous and the modernist optimistic view of human nature was discredited. The response was postmodernism.
Today our culture is changing and postmodern ideas are driving the change. Let’s look at some of the ideas and values that people say are behind our postmodern world.
Truth and Morals
People also began to think that modernism was a failure because it oppressed the disadvantaged. For example, colonial powers erased non-western cultures. Instead postmodernists thought that all cultures are valid and they dismissed the foundations of modernism, including reason and progress. This means that they assumed that truth and morals were relative; there is no big story about history and no answers to the big questions of life; and experiences and feelings are important. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Relative truth and morality
What can you see in this image: a duck or a rabbit? This illustrates that different people can see things differently.
According to postmodernism, truth is subjective; relativeto one’s viewpoint; and relational, being perceived through the beliefs, values, and practices of the community. Consequently, truth can vary from person to person or society to society. So the Christian message (like all worldviews) is seen as being true only for those who accept it. As each person makes their own truths, these can be made up of inconsistent parts. Such truth is not objective; absolute; universal or fixed.
According to postmodernism there are no absolute mortal truths and morality is always relative. People rely on their own ideas of what is right or wrong, true or false. They make up their own mind.
No big stories
Postmodernists say they don’t believe any big story about history and reject the idea of absolute truth for the big questions of life such as how we should live, and moral, social and political claims. The reason given is to stop the oppression of minorities (who they think were oppressed by the dominant culture of modernism) such as the holocaust in Germany and mass murder in Russia, China and Cambodia. They believe that all big stories have winners and losers. That is why they support affirmative action for the marginalised such as women (feminism), homosexuals, racial minorities, and environmental protection (Modernism is blamed for the destruction of the environment). This is where the idea of being “politically correct” comes from.
Experiences and feelings
Because they believe that truth is relative, postmodernists do what they feel like doing. Instead of asking “Is it right or true”, the question is “does it make me feel good? Does it solve my problems?”. It’s self-centred and pragmatic.
Experience and feelings are more important for postmodernists than truth; they follow their feelings. Experience becomes more important than reason and images than words. Consequently, they use music, images, films, stories, plays and poems to communicate as they think people can be influenced more through their emotions.
But postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- Although some truth is relative, a significant amount of truth and knowledge are absolute. For example, morals do not change, because human nature does not change.
- God has established moral absolutes to protect us. People will be hurt and oppressed if we ignore these. The great evils of colonial exploitation, the Holocaust, and totalitarian government would have been prevented if some moral absolutes were in place. Jesus said: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Moral rules are a way of expressing love, even if it’s sometimes tough love. A loving attitude is essential when dealing with moral absolutes.
- It is dangerous when feelings are more important than consistency with God’s revelation. For example, a Christian may use it to justify having a sexual relationship outside marriage.
- A value system that teaches that truth is unavailable or oppressive, is ungodly. Instead follow and proclaim the message of truth that God gives in Scripture, which is called “the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). If we know the truth it will set us free from being enslaved to such false worldviews (Jn. 8:31-32).
- Jesus is the source of all truth: He was “the way, the truth and the life” and “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14, 17; 14:6).
Tolerance and Pluralism
If truth and morals are always relative, then the next step is pluralism and a new definition of tolerance.
Because truth and morals are seen as relative and not absolute, every culture, religion and diverse group on the planet can claim that their truths are just as valid as anyone else’s. In this sense, everyone’s beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims are equal. In other words, all beliefs are equal, all values are equal, all lifestyles are equal and all truth is equal. This has led to the concept of “tolerance”.
According to the dictionary, “tolerate” means “to allow something to be practised or done without prohibition or interference”. For the postmodernist “tolerance” now means that all values, beliefs, lifestyles and claims to truth are equally valid. This is compromise, not tolerance. So not only does everyone have an equal right to their beliefs, but all beliefs are equal. By tolerance, the postmodern is asking us to give up on our faith, and tolerance replaces truth.
Pluralism is a word with multiple meanings, ranging from recognising diversity to accepting the beliefs of others. For the postmodernist, it is a diversity of beliefs and values. If truth is plural, and all beliefs are equally valid, without the boundaries of reason and moral assessment, this leads to a plurality of values and a viewpoint that all religions are equally valid and equally true. Consequently multiple, competing and contradictory truths are embraced.
Religious pluralism assumes that one religion is not the only source of values, truths, and supreme deity. It therefore must recognize that at least “some” truth must exist in other belief systems. So although there is no absolute religion, it leads to all religions being equivalent and to New Age beliefs.
Such postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- There is one true God who is a personal trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is different to the gods of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and other religious. “Salvation is found in no one else” but Christ (Acts 4:12).
- God has revealed Himself and His will. The result is that we can know truth even though it is not exhaustive. There is a big picture – we do have an idea of where history is going, and we do have a basis for moral judgment.
Interpreting the Bible
For a postmodern, the meaning of a text lies ultimately in the hands of its reader. No one interpretation is viewed as being superior to another as a person’s worldview influences their interpretation and they are encouraged to come up with original ideas. This means that as each person can have their own interpretation, they make their own truth and they can leave out inconvenient doctrines and moral commands. Just like in the supermarket, they can pick and choose what suits them. Also, in the name of liberation, text can be rejected because it is deemed to be patriarchal, or homophobic or has a political or ideological bias. It is then replaced by an interpretation that affirms the oppressed.
This is dangerous, because according to the Christian mindset:
- The Bible is God’s word, not a guideline that we can interpret anyway we want to (2 Tim. 3:16). There are no controls to limit the meaning of the postmodernist’s interpretation.
- The original meaning of the text can be lost and replaced with ideas that are inconsistent with the original meaning.
- We need to be careful because a new interpretation can be supported by a person saying they were led by the Spirit.
- This stops the Bible speaking to us.
We are to be missionaries bringing the gospel to the world around us. How did Paul do this? Firstly, when he was in Athens, Paul was distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16-23). So he reasoned with the religious in the synagogue and with the rest in the marketplace. He engaged the philosophies of the day. This led to him speaking at the meeting of the Areopagus, which was the city council. He began by talking about an altar in the city that was dedicated to an unknown god.
Secondly, Paul identified with those he spoke to (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul, recognised and adapted to the culture and worldview, except where it violated Scripture. He made himself “a slave to everyone” and respected their conscience to help communicate the gospel so people would be more likely to receive the message. As Peter said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Effective evangelism requires discerning the spirit of the age. We need to be relevant. If we’re going to connect with people and represent the good news, we’re going to have to wrestle with their assumptions and worldview. Learning about postmodernism helps evangelise in a postmodern culture. The pluralistic postmodernist is open to all interpretations, including Christianity (although they may say: it’s all right for you, but not for me). The most important factor to postmoderns when deciding what is true is not reason, but experience. Consequently, they are less likely to be influenced by what they only read or only hear. Instead they need to see and feel Christian behaviour in action so their emotions are engaged.
This means that we should make sure that people experience real Christian love and hospitality and community while they are hearing the truth about Christ. Truth demonstrated has enormous impact. Demonstrating the difference Christianity makes in a person’s life may be the best way to catch the interest of the postmodernist to whom experience and feelings are important. The fluid, ever-changing environment of postmodernity offers little support or shelter in the face of overwhelming change and almost unlimited choice. In these circumstances, people look for safe and welcoming places where they can find a sense of togetherness and safety. Let’s model Christianity that meets this need.
Modernism gave us a sense of God’s order in the universe, and elevated our ability to think and reason toward truth. It indicated what humanity can achieve, but dismissed the dark side of human nature. But, human reason alone is a false god to base our life on.
Postmodernism, on the other hand supports the marginalised and brings a sense of our finite limitations. But it tends to create an inability to have assurance about anything for certain. Also, personal experiences, feelings, interpretations and opinions are false gods to base our life on.
Modernism and postmodernism are two different mindsets. Those of us who are older will have a more modernist mindset and those of us who are younger will have a more postmodern mindset. So we view things differently. If we realise this, it should help us to communicate better with each other both inside the church and in evangelism.
Written, December 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is post-modernism and how should Christians respond to it?
Why is the Bible, a book written thousands of years ago, still relevant today? Because it contains universal principles that apply to everyone regardless of circumstances. God actually caused the writers of the Bible to address all the essential issues needed by us to live on this planet.
So how do we apply the principles in the Bible, originally expressed in a society foreign to ours, to our circumstances today? Fortunately, God has not left us alone. The Holy Spirit has been with believers since our Lord’s ascension (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:8), and provides all the guidance we need through the Word (Jn. 16:13). As a result, we have God’s wisdom, “the mind of Christ,” revealed to us by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16 NIV). This is just as true for today’s situations as it was for events that occurred thousands of years ago.
Faith And Action
James 2:14-26 shows the relationship between what we believe (our faith) and what we do (our actions). Our faith is shown by what we do, so faith that does not result in appropriate action is dead (Jas. 2:17-18). As scriptural principles are the foundation of our faith, they should be expressed in our actions. Otherwise our faith is not based on the Scriptures and we are acting as if the Bible is no longer relevant today. God is interested in what we do and how we do it. For example, we are urged to “speak … the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Wineskins And Clothes
An incident recorded in the Gospels helps to show the relationship between what we believe (scriptural principles), what we do (practices) and the present circumstances. In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because his disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for this and explained it further with a parable of the wineskins (Lk. 5:36-38).
Jesus said that “no one pours new wine into old wineskins,” but “new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” The wineskins contained the wine and protected it from the environment. Without an effective container, the wine would be spilled out and the wineskin would be useless. The application of this illustration was that the “wine” of the gospel of Jesus Christ could not be contained and expressed by the practices (or “wineskins”) of Judaism. New practices were required in order to preserve the Christian faith: “Put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17).
From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Similarly, our practices are between the principles we follow and the circumstances we face. The practices are a result of the application of divine principles to human circumstances.
In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. We should also address changes that occur in our environment (or circumstances).
It is interesting that Christ used wineskins and clothes in his story. These are items that wear out and eventually must be replaced. Likewise, our practices will need replacing from time to time as no society or culture is stagnant. Of course, for us it is a case of the circumstances changing rather than the principles, or it could be due to a new understanding or application of the principles. This means that our practices must be based on scriptural principles and relate to the present circumstances we face.
Traditions And Circumstances
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences and present circumstances. An example of inappropriate behavior is given in Mark 7:1-9. Here Jesus calls the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on ceremonial washing than on God’s commands. Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (v.9). So their practices were dominated by traditions, which were contrary to scriptural principles. Similarly in Luke 6:1-11, Christ opposed their regulations of what was allowable on the Sabbath day. In both of the above situations the religious leaders were treating a tradition as though it were a scriptural truth.
A good example of how behavior can be influenced by circumstances is Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive he “walked around and looked carefully at” their “objects of worship” (v. 23). This gave him an insight regarding these people which he was able to use when he spoke to them. Paul was like the men of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). Note that it was essential to understand the times (or situation) in order to know what should be done.
Likewise, Christ recognized the needs of the people – “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36) – and responded to their needs and was willing to be their Shepherd (Jn. 10:14).
A Framework For Action
Christians are called to be active representatives of Christ today (2 Cor. 5:20). It is helpful to visualize the relationship between what we believe and do, as shown in the diagram. This shows that when scriptural principles are put into practice, the way they are expressed is influenced by both past practices (which are now traditions) and the present circumstances. Circumstances change in families, communities and nations, because life is a dynamic process. Practices which were once appropriate may become obsolete, but if we persist in their use an opportunity is lost to demonstrate the principles in present circumstances.
The principles are important because they provide divine guidance and purpose. We need to distinguish between scriptural principles (which are fixed) and our practices of them which can change according to present, local circumstances.
In order to discern biblical principles and apply them, consideration is required of the culture, way of life and language at the following periods of time: Bible times (to interpret the Bible); previous generations of family, church, community and nation (to understand our traditions); and the present (to understand current circumstances). This will help to distinguish the relevant principles and the most suitable practices to meet the circumstances we face.
Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). After Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” he noted, “and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:16-17). Following the example of Christ, our traditions should always be evaluated by scriptural truths and current circumstances, replacing those traditions that are no longer appropriate with more relevant practices.
Like wineskins and clothes, our Christian practices only exist to serve a purpose. They are human expressions of divine principles within a given historical, social and cultural context. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
So, when evaluating our practices we need to consider each of the following, under the Spirit’s guidance: scriptural principles, present circumstances, and past practices or traditions. In a sense, the Scriptures only live and survive as we believers apply them to all the circumstances of life – otherwise we are living as though the Bible is merely a history book that is not relevant today.Published: June 1999
See application to the local church:
– The local church in a changing world