One of the challenges missionaries face is sorting out what parts of the culture they are working in can and can not be mixed with Christianity. Certainly Jesus has been worshipped and followed within all kinds of cultural situations throughout history throughout the world.
Every culture, however, has elements that don’t mix with Jesus. For example, when tribal people who have been cannibals for generations become Christians, they must abandon their diet of choice. You can’t be a Christian cannibal. If deception or petty theft is part of the culture, when Christ comes in, lying and stealing must go.
The point of these illustrations is that every culture must submit its practices to Christ. That includes our own southern culture. I love being from the south. Even though the south is known as the Bible-belt and our culture tends to be moral and friendly, that does not mean that all of our customs are right before the Lord. Like the pagans across the sea, we too must submit our culture afresh to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The southern cultural criticism many think of immediately is our history with racism. Racism is a terrible sin! I want to make a few comments about poisonous attitudes some southerners have in their hearts about people of different races, but let me save those until the end of this article.
While racism is a blatant sin in any culture where it is practiced, I want to challenge you to consider an even more subtle southern sin.
What makes southerners so appealing to folks from other parts of the country is our overall sweetness. In the south, we tend to be friendly folks. We like to speak up and ask about one another and our families and so on. We are careful to use our best manners in these polite conversations. We try to put a nice spin on our business.
But what about where there is sin among our family or close friends? Some southern Christians, in the name of our sweet culture, either minimize or outright cover up those sins. Of course, another sin, which is not just a southern sin, is gossip. It is never right to talk about another person’s sin with someone who is not part of the problem or the solution. But the Bible is clear that there are times that Christians must talk about sin.
Consider these words from Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Jesus spells out a four-fold process of helping someone involved in interpersonal sin. The first step is a private meeting where the sin is confronted. This kind of meeting happens a lot among healthy church families, and most sins are candidly dealt with.
In other places, God gives more details of how these meetings must be carried out. Jesus says that the one doing the confronting should start by looking to his or her own heart. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:2-5).
Paul adds these wise words about getting involved in rescuing others from their sins. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1). So while the Bible clearly warns about how confronting sin is to be done, it is equally clear that it must be done.
In Matthew 18, Jesus goes on in his four step process to show that if the person in sin does not repent, others must be involved in the issue. The next step is a semi-private meeting that includes one or two other witnesses. If there is no repentance, Jesus himself commands that the entire church should be informed so that all of them can call the person to repent. Finally, the offender is to be put out of the church so that they will long to be forgiven and repent of their sin.
While these must be matters of clear cut sins and not mere preference or hearsay, how many southern Christians actually participate in this kind of work? I am suspicious that too many southerners allow family members and friends who claim to love Jesus to stay in their sins rather than get others involved to gently helping them to repent.
If this describes you, let be gently challenge you to submit your cultural niceness to Jesus Christ. We must love him or her more than we want to avoid potentially looking less than perfect in the eyes of our neighbors or our church family. When stubborn sins persist in our loved ones, they are being hurt, and even more importantly God’s glory is being attacked.
I’m very happy to follow Jesus as a man of the south. But you and I must always follow Christ when there is a choice between him and our culture.
Let me close with a few comments about racism. While the south is often thought of as more racist than other cultures, racism is a sin of just about every culture on the planet. Certainly, it comes out in different ways, but fallen hearts can be very creative in the ways that they sin.
Slavery and racism went together in the old south as did segregation and racism in the new south. Those wicked sins have been done massive damage to millions of southerners of all ethnicities within the history of our country.
God made every man and woman in his image. Everyone is worthy of your respect. There is only one race, in fact, the human race. God made all people from one man and one woman. After the flood, the human race divided around the globe and developed ethnic distinctions, like shades of skin color. But down to our DNA, all humans have everything that matters in common. We are almost identical genetically, because we are all people made in God’s image.
Thankfully the sins of favoring people of your skin color over another have been repented of before God by many southerners then and now. Even more folks, however, need to die to their racial attitudes, and replace them with attitudes of Christian love and respect. Make friends with brothers and sisters of different ethnicities. Learn to celebrate the diversity that God made in his colorful world. We each have much to learn from each other. Start enjoying the diversity of future heaven while still on earth.
If you are still struggling with the sin of racism, humbly get help from a godly brother or sister. Christians need each other. That includes believers from every family, race, and culture. Get humble; get others involved; and let’s take our sinful hearts to Jesus for cleansing.
By John Crotts