The Gospel & Cultural Identity

by Jackson Watts

Recently I was perusing an older edition of Integrity, the theological journal which the Commission for Theological Integrity occasionally publishes (back issues available in PDF form here). I especially enjoyed reading an article written by Dr. Jeff Turnbough on culture as a missiological concept.

Turnbough remarks that in recent years he has given a lot of consideration to the biblical imagery of Christians as pilgrims, and the implications that has for our life in the world. As I was reading his discussion of this, simultaneously aware of his missionary background and the recent celebration of Memorial Day, I thought his piece provided a helpful caution about syncretism. Syncretism, from a religious perspective, is typically understood to be a problematic attempt to amalgamate different religious, cultures, or ideas, thus compromising the core substance of the original truth.

He warns,

While we must immerse ourselves in local cultures in order to communicate eternal truth effectively, we must be careful not to mix local wisdom with godly wisdom. This is probably most difficult when we stay in one culture all our lives, especially if the nation claims to be a Christian nation. We must pledge our allegiance first and foremost to God and heaven and treat our present location (as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom) with diplomacy and respect, without betraying our loyalty to our eternal homeland. If we fall in love with a specific earthly and human sociocultural system, that love and allegiance will tend to distort and skew our perspective of eternal values. That is dangerous for the Christian pilgrim. Divided allegiances usually lead to varying forms of syncretism. Ultimately, in order to avoid this problem, we must follow the biblical exhortation to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18) [1].

Such words of caution have significant import for not only missionaries, but national church planters, pastors, and all Christians who are serious about communicating the Gospel wisely.



[1] Jeff Turnbough, “Understanding Culture: From a Missiological Perspective,” in Integrity 3 (2006), 65-89.

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