MissionSpeak: Aug 2015 - Does one's cultural view of ethics excuse sin?

Aug 2015 - Does one's cultural view of ethics excuse sin?

David Fry David Fry

     No, nothing excuses sin. So, what do we do (as American conservative holiness people) when we enter a culture that does not understand or practice what we know are biblical, transcultural principles? First, we understand that everyone’s idea of right and wrong (including ours) is shaped by their culture. So we must be humble. Second, we think very carefully about what the biblical principle is and how it might be better lived in that culture. So we must be patient. Third, since we know the Holy Spirit has already gone before us, we look for what the Spirit is doing and we follow His lead. We must be spiritually discerning. Do we sense that God has prepared these people to hear the truth we understand? Or, maybe God wants to teach me something about my own cultural assumptions. Bottom line: sin is inexcusable, but not unforgivable.

Stephen Gibson Stephen Gibson

     I’m guessing that most people would react, “No, of course not.”  I have to say, “Yes, of course it does.”

     The question is too broad to tackle briefly.  A thorough answer would include a definition of willful sin as a deliberate, conscious transgression of God’s law, which would exclude wrong actions that a person thinks are right.  Yet an action is not right just because someone thinks it is.  

     Then there are the customs that truly are not wrong in their culture.  When the disciples picked grain from somebody’s field, nobody accused them of stealing.

     And for a closing “mind-bender,” sometimes people think of polygamy as a sin that God tolerated,  but God commanded it in the case of a man taking his brother’s widow, and told David that He gave him Saul’s wives and would have given him more if he had wanted them.

Steven Hight Steven Hight

     No.  Cultural perspectives often influence one’s concept of sin, but God’s Word is the ultimate authority.  The Bible doesn’t specify some things:  God says we must have clean speech, but cultures determine which words are vulgar.  His Word instructs men and women to dress differently, but each culture defines the gender differences in clothing. 

     Other things are specific.  The Bible plainly defines adultery and murder, and the biblical definitions trump cultural concepts.

     Every culture is affected by sinfulness; therefore, each culture’s concepts of sin and ethics must be examined in the light of God’s Word.  One mission theologian wrote, “Ultimately sin is not relative, defined differently from culture to culture, but determined by God, who stands above culture. . . .  Christian communicators, therefore, must begin with already existing perceptions of sin and salvation and redefine these indigenous terminologies to conform to biblical categories.”

Eric Himelick Eric Himelick

     “Sin is a disgrace to any people.” No, there is no excuse for sin. It is always wrong to kill, to steal, or to tell a lie. One’s culture may be fallen and excuse certain behavior, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. For example, in some cultures it is acceptable for a man to have a mistress in addition to his wife. While a fallen culture may allow something, that doesn’t make it right. 

     Much like someone who thinks that saying, “That’s just my personality,” excuses every character deficiency or behavior, culture can become an excuse for selfish, sinful behavior. “That’s just my culture,” is not a free pass. Culture and its influence on ethics do not change the unchanging Word of God. What God has said is the ultimate authority on what is sin, and we should be calling people to conform to the culture of Christ.

Steven Mowery Steven Mowery

     Not in God's eyes, but culture does affect how we treat it. Within cultures, assumptions are embraced which are seldom challenged. (1) In some cultures, anger is a huge negative issue because it rips apart relationships. However, in Western societies, anger is downplayed as a matter to be addressed, not treated as a major issue. (2) In some cultures a man’s entire life is taken into consideration when evaluating a sinful act. He may have sinned, but can be restored for church leadership if his overall life has been victorious. In our Western cultures, one may have served the Lord in ministry for multiple decades, yet just one sinful choice may disqualify him from leadership. (3) In some cultures, drug smuggling, though recognized as wrong, may be overlooked by Christians within a community provided some of the drug money is invested into community or family needs.

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