Is there a Christian Culture?
There is a special word we use for crossing or mixing incompatible things - syncretism. Syncretism is dangerous. One of the most dangerous cocktails is the one you get when you carelessly mix together gospel culture with incompatible human culture.
Colossians 2:6 reads: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him...” Paul is making a sharp point here. To get Paul’s point let me translate this same expression in a more wooden manner straight from the Greek: “As therefore you received the tradition, namely Christ Jesus the Lord, keep walking in him.” Note those words “the tradition”. The word translated “received” in the NIV is a special word. It is often used, as here, in a technical manner, in which case it means “to receive a tradition.” It means to receive something which has been passed on from one generation to another. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul uses this same word when he says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance.” Paul is describing the passing on, the handing down of the gospel tradition, a tradition which had first been passed down to him.
In Colossians 2:6 -8 Paul is making a fundamental contrast. In Colossians 2:6 he reminds Christians of their gospel tradition when he says, “As therefore you received the tradition, namely Christ Jesus the Lord, keep walking in him.” In Colossians 2:8 he warns them against human tradition. Note carefully his wording: “See to it that no one takes you captive (or hostage) through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental forces of the universe rather than on God.” Christians must cling to the gospel tradition of Christ Jesus as Lord. But there is a danger we must be very careful to avoid. The danger posed by human tradition, the kind of human tradition which is associated with “the elemental forces of the universe.” The kind of human tradition which gives rise to a “hollow and deceptive philosophy” which robs Christians of their freedom in Christ, which takes them hostage.
We warn our children not to talk to strangers, not to accept lollies from strangers, for example, from the driver who stops his car and asks a kid, “Would you like a lolly?” We warn our kids about the danger of being kidnapped. As Paul indicates, we must warn one another not to act like naive children. There is a way of understanding the Christian life and how to live it which is really incompatible with the gospel. It is persuasive. It seems convincing. It has great appeal. Which is why it is so “deceptive”. But it is “hollow”. In Christ is “all the fullness of the Deity dwelling in bodily form” and “in Christ” we have all received “fullness.” The gospel tradition gives us fullness of life in Christ. But human tradition is dangerous because it can lead us to think of the Christian life in a way which robs us of this full life and imprisons us. We must beware of ‘strangers offering lollies’; steering clear of enticements to being a ‘Christian’ we find more acceptable and agreeable than the one we are called to be in the gospel tradition.
“As therefore you received the tradition, namely Christ Jesus the Lord, keep walking in him.” Paul teaches us that we have all received the same cultural tradition. Of course, on the human plane we all come from a great variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We may eat differently. We may dress differently. We may talk differently. We do many, many things differently from each other. Our cultures are quite different. But there is one cultural tradition we have all received. There is one cultural tradition which all Christians share: “namely, Christ Jesus the Lord.” It has been passed down to each one of us that Christ Jesus is Lord. Our cultural way of life is entirely predicated on this fact. Our cultural way of life is completely shaped by this reality, the reality of Christ’s lordship.
There is a very old Buddhist monastery built on the edge of a sheer cliff. This cliff is over a hundred feet high. To get to it you have to sit in a basket which is fastened to a rope. Two monks pull on this rope and lift you in this basket till you get to the top. Once a visitor sat in the basket. He was being pulled to the top. When he was getting near the top he suddenly noticed how old and frayed the rope was. He started to feel extremely nervous. He shouted to the monks, “How often do you change the rope?” One of the monks shouted back, “When the old one breaks.”
Sometimes our own culture and traditions are like that old rope. We like to hang on to it, even when it is getting very old and worn. Sometimes we depend too much on our culture and traditions. This is very dangerous, like sitting in a basket one hundred feet in the air. There is much in our own cultures and traditions which the gospel does not disturb. The gospel does not say, “Stop eating with chopsticks.” Nor does the gospel say, “Stop eating with a knife and fork.” But sometimes our culture and our traditions are more important to us than the gospel itself.
I once visited the pastor of a church in a Pakistani village. This village did not have a church building. The pastor wanted the mission to give him money to build a church in his village. He took me to his mud house. He had a small verandah and a small courtyard. He told me that this was where the church met on Sundays. I asked him, “How many Christians meet together here on Sundays?” He kept changing the subject. He did not want to answer this question. Eventually I asked again, “How many Christians meet together here on Sundays?” After asking this same question a number of times he told me, “Five people." Yet there were hundreds of Christian families in this village and this man was the village pastor. I asked him, “Why do you need a church building when hardly anyone comes to church?” He said, “Some Christian families in this village refuse to have relationships with certain other families. If we meet in the home of one family for worship then many other families refuse to come and associate with them. But a church building is neutral ground. Then everybody will feel comfortable to meet together.”
This is a case where culture was more important than gospel. This pastor was not looking to the gospel to deal with these relational conflicts between Christians but instead was depending on the traditional value Christians place on going to a church building. In Pakistani culture, and I believe many other cultures, family relationships and responsibilities are more important than our relationships in the Christian church, the family of God. When Christians treat their own families as more important than the family of God they are treating their culture as more important than the gospel.
When we bring the gospel to people we ask them to receive the gospel tradition. Paul tells us in 2:6: “As therefore you received the gospel tradition, namely Christ Jesus the Lord.” The gospel tradition is Christ Jesus the Lord. All Christians have this same cultural tradition. All Christians live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our brothers and sisters in that Pakistani village were listening to another philosophy of life which depends on human tradition and we often are guilty of such deviance in our own ways of privileging human cultural tradition over our commitment to Jesus as Lord, the gospel tradition.
In verses 6 and 7 Paul first reminds the Colossian Christians of the gospel tradition. Then in verse 8 he warns them against the danger of our cultural traditions. He says: “See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the elemental spirits of the universe rather than on Christ.”
Here Paul especially has in mind some Jewish Christians who were telling other Christians that certain Jewish cultural traditions were more important than the gospel. They told those non-Jewish Christians in Colossae they needed to be circumcised just like Jews are (vv9-15). They told these non-Jewish Christians they needed to keep the religious festivals and Sabbath days which God commanded in the Old Testament (v16). And they tried to push other traditions too. But Paul says, “Don’t let people who make a big thing of their culture take you captive. Don’t let them kidnap you.”
DISTINGUISHING GOSPEL CULTURE AND INCOMPATIBLE HUMAN CULTURE
The most important tradition of all for Christians is the Lordship of Christ. Nothing must stop Christ being Lord of our lives in every respect. A lady once described how different her grandchildren were when they opened presents at Christmas time. Family members went to great trouble in choosing the right kind of wrapping paper for these presents. The wrapping paper was expensive. Family members would also take care to wrap these presents beautifully. There were pretty ribbons on the presents and special Christmas decorations. But when the small grandson saw his present he did not notice these things. He did not appreciate the great trouble taken to wrap this present for him. He just wanted to get his present. So he ripped the beautiful paper into shreds and shouted with delight when he saw what the present was. The tiny granddaughter was quite different. She was fascinated with the wrapping paper. She sat on the floor simply enjoying the feeling of wrinkling this beautiful, multi-coloured paper and looking at the wonderful patterns on the paper. She had no interest at all in the present that lay inside all of that paper.
Sometimes those of us who are older may rightly feel that younger people don’t have enough respect for our cultural traditions. You feel they are like the little boy who doesn’t appreciate the trouble others have gone to in order to give him the present. But we all rejoice with the little boy when we see how delighted he is with his present. So those of us who are older need to remember what is of central importance. If the younger people truly treasure Jesus as their Lord then we need not to be too critical when they show little regard for cultural traditions we highly value. Rejoice with them.
Sometimes it is frustrating to see Christians who make much of their cultural traditions but do not take the Lordship of Jesus seriously. They are like the little girl who plays with the wrapping paper and who shows little interest in the gift she has received. There are some non-English-speaking background churches where people meet together on Sundays because it is part of their culture to meet in church on Sundays. They do not meet together to take the Lordship of Christ seriously. Of course there are many English-speaking churches like this as well. In such churches people who call themselves Christians commit sexual immorality during the week, they engage in gambling, in heavy drinking, in hitting their wives and children, and yet they still meet on Sunday in church because it is part of their culture to do so. This is wrapping-paper Christianity which has lost the gift of the gospel.
Remember for us the present is the gospel. It is impossible to ever give the gospel tradition to people without wrapping paper. The gospel is always in the wrapping paper of our culture. The gospel tradition is “Christ Jesus the Lord”. If I say, “Christ is Lord” to a Hindu he might say he accepts Jesus as his Lord and continue to be a Hindu. All he is doing is adding Jesus to all the other lords he worships. We have to learn to communicate the reality of Christ’s lordship but without treating “Christ is Lord” as if it was a mantra. We have to find ways of helping our Hindu friend to treasure Jesus in all his greatness without compromise and syncretism. When we are communicating the gospel tradition to other people we have to think carefully about what wrapping paper we will use.
Truly Christian culture is not monolithic. The culture of African Christians who honour Christ as Lord will still significantly differ from the culture of Asian Christians who submit to Christ’s lordship. But, whatever our cultural and ethnic origins, those of us who give our primary allegiance to Jesus in all areas of our lives will have a Christ-exalting ‘culture’, a way of life, that grates with the non-Christian cultures in which we are immersed. Much could be said about what this Christian culture will look like. But in closing let me draw attention to one key implication, which I draw from verse 7. When we faithfully receive the gospel tradition, the reality of Christ as our Lord, and “live in him” (under his lordship) then this is what it looks like: “rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” When our way of life is profoundly shaped by the reality of Christ as Lord then we will be a people distinguished by the fact that we ‘overflow with thankfulness.”