Clarence L. Haynes Jr.
When you initially think about culture, what pops into your mind? For me, I usually think about two things food and customs. On that note, our world is filled with many different cultures, which means there are large varieties of food and customs. These varieties of culture influence the way people see life which leads to a conversation about cultural relativism.
According to simplypsychology.org, here is a definition of cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the viewpoint of that culture itself.
It states that there are no universal beliefs, and each culture must be understood in its own terms because cultures cannot be translated into terms which are accessible everywhere.
Cultural Relativism refers to the ability to understand a culture on their own terms, and consequently not making judgments based on the standards of one’s own culture.
Within that definition, let’s consider the good side and bad side of cultural relativism.
The Good Side of Cultural Relativism
When you consider the definition of cultural relativism, there are some good aspects of it. First, we must be humble enough to acknowledge the tendency for us to judge a different culture based on our own experience. I would not say doing this is wrong; I would simply call it being human. For example, in the United States, it is the norm to sit in the backseat of a cab or uber, especially if you are traveling by yourself. The driver sits up front, and the passenger sits in the back seat. In Australia, it is considered rude not to ride in the front of a cab with the driver. If someone from Australia comes to the United States and sits in the front seat of the cab, the driver might look at them like there is something wrong with them, even though to the Australian person, this is perfectly normal. This is a judgment based on cultural norms.
With this practice and others, there are two ways you can respond. You can judge it based on your experience, or you can try to view it through the lens of the other culture. To attempt to understand the viewpoint of another culture is a healthy and good part of cultural relativism as it seeks to remove potential biases that we are all engrained with.
Cultural Relativism in the Book of Acts
The Early Church had to wrestle with cultural relativism, which led to a sharp dispute recorded in Acts 15. The very first believers were Jewish, and as the gospel spread more and more Gentiles were being saved. This created a big problem because some of the leaders in the church who followed the law of Moses before coming to Christ felt the Gentiles should be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses. Because of this, a council meeting was called in Jerusalem to address this issue. The major question was should we subject Gentiles who have never lived under the law of Moses to the same requirements as those Jews who did and now were Christians? You can read the entire story in Acts 15 to get the full picture, but here was the verdict.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” – Acts 15:19-20
Before coming to that conclusion, many of the leaders were judging the Gentiles based on their own cultural norms. However, when they came to their conclusion, they considered the beliefs, values, and practices of the Gentiles and made their decision based on that.
The Bad Side of Cultural Relativism
There is another side of cultural relativism that needs to be addressed. Here is a further definition of cultural relativism from the same site.
Cultural relativism is also based on the idea that there is no absolute standard of good or evil, and thus that every decision and judgment of what is right or wrong is individually decided in each society…Cultural relativism challenges beliefs about the objectivity and universality of moral truth.
On this definition, I believe we must draw the line. While it is true that customs and practices will differ from culture to culture, this does not eliminate the fact there is universal and moral truth. If you remove universal and moral truth and make that relative to each society, then we can never judge what is right or wrong. This does not align with scripture. The Bible provides a standard of truth that is consistent and applicable to every culture. While the Bible gives some freedom of expression, which I will share in a moment, it is all based on foundational and universal standards. Cultural relativism that removes universal truth should not be embraced but rejected.
How Does the Bible Address Cultural Relativism?
We must first recognize the Bible is full of absolutes. For example, the Bible clearly defines what sin is and tells us the way to salvation which is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. These are absolute truths that cut across every culture. It doesn’t matter where you are from you cannot come to the Father unless you come through Jesus Christ. However, there are some grey areas that allow for cultural expression. This allows us to view that expression from the perspective of the person’s culture without passing judgment on their choices. Romans 14 sheds some light on this issue. Consider some of what Paul says in this chapter.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” – Romans 14:1-3
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” – Romans 14:5-6
Paul is addressing the issue of judging someone else’s decision based on your own norms. What I love about this passage is the freedom that God gives for cultural expressions. The Bible clearly states God has accepted them. I must be clear this only applies to matters of scripture that are not absolute, and what you eat is not an absolute. We should not judge a person for their views on these things, which was the conclusion Paul came to.
“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” – Romans 14:10
One more example:
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul has a similar conversation regarding food sacrificed to idols.
“So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” – 1 Corinthians 8:4-8
Paul was instructing the Corinthian church to view this issue from the perspective of the younger and weaker believer. He was saying to be careful in not judging them but make decisions and choices that will strengthen them and not cause them to fall into sin. He was expressing a form of cultural relativism that does not judge a person’s decisions based on norms or expectations.
How Should the Church Respond to These Issues?
There is one last thing to share regarding how the church should respond to these issues. The church must first embrace the absolute truth of Scripture. We have the right to hold people accountable to the clear absolutes of Scripture, what I will call the black and white. However, too often, we get lost in the gray, which Paul calls disputable matters in Romans 14. We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to conform people to a norm we have established and then judge them when they don’t. If we are going to be the Church and welcome people from every culture, we must reject the temptation to do this. Naturally, people from other cultures will do things differently from how you would, and that is okay. The challenge for us is to celebrate these differences and avoid the temptation to judge them.