Theology of the Holy Spirit


You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The coming of the Holy Spirit was the key to the expansion of the Christian church and the demonstration of His life-transforming work.

Preaching in the NT resulted in great numbers of people turning to the Lord and the visitation of the Holy Spirit (eg Samaria, Acts 8). This preaching was not carried out by “professionals”, but ordinary men and women who “proclaimed Christ” (Acts 8:15). The ministry of the Gospel in Samaria was Christ-centred, with the conviction that the coming of the Holy Spirit was one of the mighty acts of God, not human agency or traditions.

The early Christians usually had limited wealth, no national support, stately buildings, or media; yet they experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit in their preaching, church life, ministry to others and testimony, even before hostile rulers.

Most revivals have been characterized by increased missionary outreach, eg.

Section 14 of the Lausanne Covenant (1974) (most evangelical denominations are signatories) states:

We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father sent His Spirit to bear witness to His Son; without his witness ours is futile. Conviction of sin, faith in Christ, new birth, and Christian growth are all His work. Further, the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit; thus evangelism should arise spontaneously from a Spirit-filled church. A church that is not a missionary church is contradicting itself and quenching the Spirit. Worldwide evangelism will become a realistic possibility only when the Spirit renews the church in truth and wisdom, faith, holiness, love and power. We therefore call upon all Christians to pray for such a visitation of the Spirit of God that all of His fruit may appear in all of His people, and that all of His gifts may enrich the Body of Christ. Only then will the whole church become a fit instrument in His hands, that the whole earth may hear His voice.”

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The Holy Spirit still gives gifts to members of the Body of Christ for the purpose of building up the Body and reaching out to the world. He uses:

The “Barrier” of Culture

Discussion: what is culture

what is changing?

The Holy Spirit prepares us for mission in different cultures to people of other faiths and ideologies by:

Churches filled with the Holy Spirit will respond joyfully, faithfully, eagerly to the evangelization of the unreached peoples of the world.

Discussion How do our Christian communities currently measure up against this statement?

The New Testament Pattern

The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” – Acts 11:21.

The New Testament shows us:

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The Holy Spirit has a direct role in mission in the following ways:

  1. He prepares peoples’ hearts for the Word of God- John 16:8; He brings them to an inescapable sense of guilt so that they seek the forgiveness Christ offers

  1. He calls out and sets apart individuals for the task of mission. While all Christians are “missionaries”, nevertheless the Holy Spirit calls some for specific tasks – Acts 13:2. The sense of the call” of God is a significant factor in raising up missionaries

  1. He empowers believers as witnesses through the baptism in the Holy Spirit- Acts 1:8

  1. He equips believers through supernatural “gifts”, in order to further the work of mission as a demonstration of “power”- 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4

  1. He accompanies the declaration of the Gospel with manifest demonstrations of His power – 1 Corinthians 2:4. healings, deliverances, other signs and wonders convince men to let their faith rest on God’s power, not men’s’ wisdom

  1. He gives specific direction for believers in the spread of the Gospel, eg led Philip out of Samaria to the road to Gaza to meet the Ethiopian Eunuch – Acts 8

Conclusion- The Holy Spirit is Our Key to Effectiveness

The world today is in need of a great spiritual awakening on the part of the Christian church.

In the West much of the organised church is beset by

  1. unbelief

  2. irrelevance

  3. liberalism

  4. hedonism

  5. materialism

  6. organised ecumenism that embraces non-Christian faiths

  7. syncretism

However, in large parts of Africa, China and South America (to name a few) there is great growth, much of which goes unreported by the media (and trends to be under-reported by conservative Christianity).

God is moving, by His Spirit, just as Joel and others prophesied. It is imperative that we be actively involved in that move.

John closed the Revelation with the invitation: “Come”. It is given by the Spirit and the bride – Revelation 22:17. How refreshing to hear the Spirit and the Church speaking with one voice! This is how revival is maintained and touches the world. When the Holy Spirit’s concerns are ours, His life will flow through us. Souls will be gathered in. Our community will be ablaze with the light that shines from Spirit-filled lives. The Word of God will grow mightily and prevail and the world will come to know Jesus Christ.

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The Impact of Culture

The work of the Holy Spirit crosses people of all cultures, with the aim of bringing them to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Christians live and operate within many different cultural milieux.

This means that expressions of the Christian message, the value of tradition and the shape of the church, even many of its operational values, vary from one culture to another. What often results is a mix of Biblical teaching, wrapped in conventions and changed to suit individuals, with elements rusted on that have nothing to do with the Gospel, and can help or hinder proclamation and acceptance of the Message.

Our cultures define us more than we realise. We need to be aware of what cultural changes that impact us mean in practice and know how to bridge divides effectively and communicate Christ cross-culturally.

What is “Culture”

Culture is the way we are, how we live, what we share with other people, what makes “our” group/s distinct. (Many of us belong to sub-cultures.)

Culture includes:

The “Culture” of Contemporary Christianity

Your church has a “culture”. However, is it “culturally relevant”?

The idea of organised "church" turns many people off the Christian message because they (naturally) focus on external forms, ie what they see. The challenge to Christian leaders and congregations alike is to be "in touch" with the world at large and positioned to share the message of eternal life from the perspective of those who have "experienced" Jesus Christ in their lives. Christian "ministry" (or "service") must reflect this reality.

Understanding “World View” in a Theological Context

Every culture has meanings against which everything else is assessed and judged.

World views” include peoples’ perceptions of what is “real”. These involve systems of belief, values and behaviours, and impact how men and women interpret the world and interact with it. We can talk about an “Islamic world view”, a “Marxist world view”, or an “Australian Aboriginal world view”.

When people cross from one world view to another, in a way that re-positions their thinking, we call this a “paradigm shift”.

The difference between a scientific approach to world view and the Gospel is that Biblical paradigm shifts only occur in the human heart as a result of supernatural revelation. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the implications of 1 Corinthians Chapter 2. Or the man healed by Jesus in John 9 “Once I was blind, but now I see”. Saving faith is not subjective; it requires divine intervention (cf Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about being “born again” in John 3).

We need to understand the world view of those we meet, their “drivers”; otherwise we will never be able to build a bridge between us and them. This involves adapting the message, but not its truth. For example,

The Church Has Historically Undergone Continuous Cultural Change

Jewish versus Gentile Culture in the New Testament

In Jesus’ day, there was not a unified “Jewish culture”. Josephus talks about three main schools of Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes (each of which had theological distinctives).

From other sources we know of as many as 20 additional variations. Jesus encountered ethnic Jews, Samaritans, Hellenic Jews and non-Jews, Roman administrators and soldiers, Arabs. On the Day of Pentecost:

There were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:5, 9-11)

The earliest Christians had different cultures. Look at the book of Acts, which is our earliest internal record of the history of the church.

Followers of Jesus Christ were not called Christians until quite a bit down the road, in the context of the Hellenistic city of Antioch. Until then, the name that was used was a descriptive term: “the people of the Way” or “the Nazarenes.”

In Paul’s letters and the book of Acts an assumption is made that the audience is predominantly made up of Gentiles, some of whom started out as participants in Jewish culture. For example, when Paul visited Philippi, he went out on the Sabbath (the traditional day of rest and worship) to a place where people would be gathering for prayer (the small number of Jewish men in Philippi meant there was not a synagogue in the city).

The Philippians were meeting on the Jewish holy day; praying to the Jewish God, reading the Jewish Scriptures; and yet many of them were Gentiles (consider also the story of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10). These followers of Paul followed the rhythms of Jewish life; they were sometimes referred to as “God-fearers”. They were familiar with the Jewish calendar and were clearly deriving some sort of meaning out of observing these days. No wonder some observers took the Christian movement to be a sub-group of Judaism.

One of the greatest challenges facing Paul and others in leadership in the New Testament church was “Judaisers”, who insisted people accept Moses and become Jews ritually (including submitting to the rite of circumcision)as part of their conversion to Jesus Christ. Paul rejected the connection; it even led to an argument with the Apostle Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified”. (Galatians 2:11-16)

Parts of the Gentile church today still use models from Judaism/Jerusalem church.


Acts 2:44-46 is often quoted as the norm for Christian relationships, but these patterns (eg shared living) were generally not adopted by non-Jewish Christians. The latter were Christians in their own cultural settings.


We have inherited the notion that God dwells in particular buildings, and sanctify those buildings. We use terms such as “the House of God”, or “the presence of God”, in inaccurate ways.


Clothing worn by priests is redolent of the Old Testament priesthood.


The notion that priests stand between people and God, to intercede, is widespread but is not Biblical teaching.


Differentiating between professional clergy and the rest of the Body of Christ is not Biblical. It ends up excluding most Christians from service.

It is important not to become too legalistic about applying one cultural more to another.

Many of the major splits in the Christian movement have resulted from rejection of the legalistic application of old cultures not supported by the Gospel.

There are some absolutes. In Acts 15 these centred on matters of morality and worship. In recent church history they have included differences such as plural marriages in indigenous settings, such as Papua New Guinea.

Major Cultural Changes in the New Millennium

Cultural trends influence the world-wide Body of Christ in the new millennium.

1. Demographic Trends

World population trend data

World historical and predicted populations (in millions











Global Population










Source: Dr. Todd Johnson, Director, Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The average Christian family in 1907 can be represented by a European family with a few children. Children went to Sunday School. Today, the average Christian family is much more likely to be African or Latin American, with more children.

Ministers emerging from Bible colleges in the West today are facing age gaps of sometimes 50 years with their congregants or colleagues, becoming mired in disempowering governance procedures, and not having their ideas taken seriously. In addition, fewer young people choose to enter the ministry as a profession—presenting another challenge to the church. Young people easily drift away from church.

"Culture" is the way we live. The Christian message is not meant to be confined to buildings, creeds, programs or denominations. The Gospel is relevant to every generation. Jesus is above culture; He transcends it. Instead of changing Him into our likeness, He transforms us into His own image, by the Holy Spirit He has given us. Culture can get in the way, but Christ came into human culture and sends us our into the world to share His eternal message and love.

2. Denominational Trends

Christians are now found in thirty-nine thousand denominations. These range in size from millions of members to less than one hundred members and are listed for each of the world’s 238 countries in the World Christian Database. By 2025, there will likely be fifty-five thousand denominations. The vast majority of these denominations will be Protestant and Independent, forming the core of global evangelicalism.

3. Attitudinal Trends

The church in the West is declining in a secular environment. In countries it is growing.

According to Roland Croucher, five trends have significantly impacted the Western church: individualism, privatism, pluralism, relativism, anti-institutionalism.

Let’s tease them out a little.

Michael Moynagh (a British Anglican) says the church must realise it now operates in a different 'It Must Fit Me' world.

* We are moving from an off-the-peg to a tailor-made world. Post-modern values include the rejection of hierarchy, suspicion of institutions and strong emphasis on personal choice: so a different approach is needed - one that is more sensitive to the differences between people. No longer does tradition, 'the way we do things around here', guide people's behaviour and outlook. We must reach out to people on their terms/turf, rather than expecting them to come to us on ours.

* Today, people want a challenging, fulfilling, interesting job: when work was drudgery people sought fulfilment somewhere else. The notion of 'parish' is based on geographical neighbourhood, but people now get together in common-interest groups (e.g. on the Internet). 'Church on Sundays' is being supplemented by church-whenever-it's-convenient.

* 'Looking good' in a consumer culture boosts self-esteem more than the unconditional love of an invisible God. The growing groups of divorced, singles, people who cohabit feel alienated from churches. Today's songs are less 'theologically objective', more about individual themes; preaching is more life-related, less declamatory.

* Church planting is an effective strategy - provided the plants are designed for their target-audience, rather than clones of the sending church. 'Seeker services' (à la Willow Creek) attempt to be culturally relevant: but people are suspicious of organisations trying to sell them things.

* Today we can't avoid global issues: more power in fewer hands; the growing gap between rich and poor; people feeling they're simply pawns in a world where bottom-line economics rules (and today we would add: global nervousness about the dangers of terrorism).


* Alpha Courses are successful partly because they're organised by local churches to fit their particular circumstances. Also people eat together (parties are one of the icons of our age), and the emphasis is on building community (rather than its simply being a sales pitch). There's now a 'Y' course for those not ready for Alpha - people who don't know the difference between an epistle and an apostle!

* Young people live in an MTV world where images foster intuitive rather than rational modes of thought, impressions rather than logic, thinking in parallel rather than in sequence, pictures rather than paragraphs.

* Why is London's Kensington Temple church so popular? Partly because they get in touch with people new to London ('Would you like some Filippino food and meet other people from home...?').

* People abandon “church”, but not groups (½ a million 'support' groups in the US).

* Prayer-visitation ministries are working in some British churches. A letter is sent to all the people in a street, with an offer for a couple from the church to come and pray, unless they say they would prefer not. One church in Rochester aims to visit every home in its area over three years. Moderns apparently don't mind no-strings-attached prayer! And city-wide prayer networks are growing...

* Why does Vineyard-type worship attract so many? It's 'laid-back'.

* Mentoring/coaching is big these days: after-school clubs to help kids with their homework; courses on parenting, computer skills, stress etc.

But is this all compromising our biblical faith? Not at all: the apostles' strategy was to go to people and form the church around them.

4. Gender and Morality Trends

Gender and morality issues have come to affect the church, including in the areas of:

The role of women in the church beyond reproduction and care taking has become more widespread, but not without major division about how to interpret the Scriptures on the matter.

Many of our cultural trends are far from God’s will for married life and families.

5. Medical, Scientific and Ethical Trends

Many current issues do not have ready answers in Biblical text. Take, for example:

Scientism (the suggestion that the physical sciences are the only way to understand the world) and positivism (the belief that the scientific method replaces faith) have closed people's minds to the power and perception of the spiritual realm.

Post-modernism, the philosophical and cultural successor of modernism, has undermined the certainty of science and other belief structures. It seeks to discredit religious faith as truth.

6. Economic Trends

Someone has coined the word McChurch. McDonalds is well known for mass producing fast food in a generic way, aimed at younger people, often attracting children because of give-aways (toys) and colourful advertising. Customers landing in any city in the world where McDonalds has outlets can generally predict what the menu will look like, what the food and coffee will taste like, the physical lay-out and the broad price range.

There are many temptations in the West for churches to adopt the McDonalds franchise approach. Why have individuality when the shape and content of the burger can be prescribed and all you need to do is smile and offer a fast food approach to spirituality. Just don’t hang around for depth.

7. Legal Trends

The Western church today is positioned in a society where practices that are inimical to the Gospel are entrenched in law. These include:

Christians are increasingly being involved in social justice issues (however this often gets caught up in “right” versus “left” debates).

Some marginal sections of the church have promoted “theonomy. This term has been used to describe various views which see God revealed in the Bible as the sole source of human ethics. The ethical perspective of Christian Reconstructionism is a view that claims to be a faithful revival of the historic Protestant view of the Old Testament law as espoused by many European Reformers and Puritans. American John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was a Calvinist philosopher, historian, and theologian and is widely credited as the father of Christian Reconstructionism and an inspiration for the modern Christian homeschool movement. His writings have exerted considerable influence on the Christian right.

8. Political Trends

The conversion of Constantine in 312 marked a radical change in the State’s perception of Christianity. In 313 he issued the "Edict of Milan," which commanded official toleration of Christianity and other religions. He ordered that Sunday be granted the same legal rights as pagan feasts and that feasts in memory of Christian martyrs be recognized. Constantine's program was one of toleration and he continued to support both Christianity and paganism.

In 314, the cross appeared on Constantine's coins, but so did the figures of Sol Invictus and Mars Convervator. Constantine raised his children as Christians and employed Christian clergy as advisors, but retained the title pontifex maximus, the chief priest of the state cult, until his death. In 380 Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire.

Since then Christianity has had a major impact on Western culture, but the more the message adapts to the culture the more it disappears, until we are Christian in name only.

9. Dealing with Collocated Belief Systems

Inter-Faith Dialogue

Multiculturalism has led to secular governments having to deal with substantial religious differences. Sometimes such differences lead to clashes. While official policies about social harmonisation and security in the West are often articulated on relevant government websites, community experiences, views and practice are not as easily distilled, leading to disconnects in available information and analysis. The impact of policies and community programs around inter-faith dialogue (and related cross-cultural understanding) is not fully understood.

World views change. Commerce has impacted cultural diversity enormously.

Future Trend Challenges

Sharing the Good News Cross-Culturally

By Pastor Allan Davis

Those who are sharing the Gospel today must keep sending it to new addresses. The recipients are constantly changing their location and no one is forwarding the mail.

It is important that Christians understand how culture works if they are to successfully present the Gospel in a pluralistic society. This article explores the issue in some depth. The reader is encouraged to consider carefully how the elements are inter-woven, in order to communicate Christ cross-culturally (and keep up with changes in culture in order to remain relevant and appealing).

A case study

The film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (written and directed by South African Jamie Uys) was a hit movie in the 1980s. It told the story of a Kalahari Bushman named Xixo, whose tribe had no prior contact with the outside world. One day the pilot of a small plane passing overhead discarded a Coca Cola bottle, which landed near Xixo’s family. At first the bottle, perceived as a gift from the gods, was gratefully received and put to innovative uses in daily village life. Eventually, competition over control and ownership (a new concept in the community) of the bottle caused division and Xixo decided that the only remedy was to take the “thing” to the edge of the world and return it to the gods. (The elders concluded the gods must have been crazy to bestow this gift on the clan in the first place.)

During his journey Xixo met members of Western civilization for the first time. One was a scientist, another a teacher, and others still members of a militant group fleeing after an aborted coup attempt in a neighbouring country. As the story unfolded and the characters collided in unusual circumstances, the film presented a fascinating and funny interpretation of differences in cultures. Xixo eventually reached an escarpment where the countryside below was obscured by a solid layer of low-lying clouds. He believed this was the edge of the world and threw the bottle over the side before returning home to his relieved family.

I first saw “The Gods Must Be Crazy” on a British Airways flight from London to New York. It was the only time I ever observed rows of suited British businessmen laughing uproariously at an in-flight movie. The film has a powerful sub-plot and continues to have appeal to audiences around the world. It was recently re-released in DVD format and had high sales. One reason for its popularity is that it demonstrates graphically how cultural assumptions and misunderstandings between people can lead to major differences, with consequences that can be either amusing or disastrous for those involved.

Christians who desire to be relevant and touch the world for Christ need to understand the role of culture in informing what people believe, how they build and live out their existence and how they relate to one another.

What is culture?

Culture is the way we think, structure society, understand the world around us, interpret events, establish relationships, determine mores (norms for behaviour), provide and use shelter and act (eg dance, eat, dress, marry, work). Culture is not isolated. it is shared with other people. Culture unifies individuals through common experiences. People generally learn culture by growing up in a society, through language, watching and imitating others. This is known as “enculturation”.

Every society has a culture, reflected in its art, literature, music, beliefs, customs, institutions, inventions, language, technology, and values. “Popular” culture includes arts and entertainment expressed via such media as television, radio, sound recordings, advertising, sports, hobbies, fads, and fashions. Culture is also demonstrated symbiologically, by the use of religious symbols, national emblems, war stories, slogans and flags.

Multiculturalism (as a policy of government) recognizes that distinct cultures can be collocated. It encourages diversity where this is the case. Multiculturalism works best in a society with different ethnic groups and a political system that promotes freedom of expression and awareness of differences. Ethnic groups bring variety and richness by introducing exogenous (external) ideas and customs. However, ethnic groups that keep their values and traditions can also threaten national unity. Many people feel confused and uneasy when they deal with people of “other” cultures.

Ethnocentrism” is an attitude that one's culture is central, that it is the best. It contributes to nationalistic militarism (remember the stories of “ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the early 1990s). The opposite view is “cultural relativism”, which contends that no culture should be judged by the standards of others. This approach can be carried to extremes, such as promoting universal morality (or amorality) and rules that allow infanticide, genocide, cannibalism and torture.

Cultural can be local or national. Australian culture has been influenced by: the original inhabitants (as reflected in many place names); the settlement experience (convicts and free settlers); shared ancestries; common experiences in war and sport; national values (egalitarianism, “fairness”, mateship); religious values (particularly our “Judeo-Christian heritage”); and economic views.

Culture and religious expression

Religion has been a supreme source of inspiration in the arts. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the world are houses of worship. A lot of the greatest music is religious. Religious stories have provided countless subjects for paintings, sculptures, literature, dance, and films. The Christian music industry is an under-reported multi-billion dollar sector in every major Western economy.

Many people follow specific religions because of heritage, tribe, or family. Judaism and Christianity have been major influences in the formation of Western culture. The cultures of Asia have been shaped by Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and Daoism. Most extant religions have been influenced by older ones.

Rituals commemorate historical events. The Jewish Passover ritual recalls the meal the Israelites ate before their departure from slavery in Egypt. Christian celebrations of Communion (an echo of the Passover) are related to the last meal that Jesus shared with His disciples before His death. Hindu rituals reflect ancient stories. Rituals mark important life events, such as ceremonies making sacred events out of birth, marriage and death. Rites of passage (from one stage of life to another, such as puberty) serve to transition young people into the religion and society. In Judaism, circumcision is performed on baby boys. Some Christians “baptize” babies soon after birth; others baptize only teenagers or adults. Traditional Aboriginal circumcision signalled passage to manhood.

Many cultures are “closed”, not allowing outsiders into the group, even through marriage, and ostracizing those who change their religious affiliation – unless the whole group does so. (The notion of “people movements”, entire groups coming to Christ, has existed since the days of the early church).

Why people fear cultural change

Culture is never static. It is dynamic and constantly changing. Some people fear and oppose change. One effect of change can be the substitution of a culture for another (such as using the vernacular instead of Latin in Roman Catholic liturgy); loss of culture (eg young Catholics not using the rosary, or young Muslims not praying 5 times a day), incremental culture (additions to traditional forms) through television, food franchises and the Internet and fusion of new cultures on what already exists, and consequent loss of value systems, through the atrophying of language or oral traditions. Let me give an example. Roman Catholic churches in Australia were recently reproved for using gluten-free bread in masses (introduced to serve people with gluten intolerance), because the change was considered by the Vatican to be inconsistent with long-held protocols about trans-substantiation. The changes had nothing to do with Biblical truths, but those who feared change moved against it with ecclesiastical authority.

We need to understand the nature of culture if we are to appreciate the nuances of religious systems and how to reach people with the Gospel. This includes the historical role of the caste system in Hinduism; the influence of the “land” in defining Judaism; Islam as a total culture for those within its fold; the role of “the Dreaming” in Aboriginal identity and self-determination; the influence of Irish Catholicism in the Australian Labor Party and the impact of our economic and business priorities on editorial value in the print and electronic media.

How far are we prepared to tolerate pluralism? People I meet tell me they are tolerant but would object to a mosque with a 20 metre minaret being built in their street. Others have issues working with Sikhs' wearing turbans in government departments; being surrounded by people speaking another language; being served by Muslim women wearing the hijab, and dealing with people of other faiths who take work breaks for prayer. Celebration of multiculturalism and positive discrimination in favour of non-Christian traditions, at a government level has had the effect of making evangelicalism appear grossly intolerant. It is now considered offensive to criticize other faiths, while the radio and print media have reduced scorn of Christianity to an art form.

Christianity is not Western

I once sat on a flight between Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) discussing Christianity and Islam with a Muslim cleric. He spoke about Christians and the excess of Western culture in the same breath, as though they were the same thing. He was surprised when I told him Anglo-Saxon Christians are a minority group in the world-wide Christian movement and that people he observed to be living immoral lives in the West were not true believers. I said it not to assuage his concerns, but because it is true.

Christianity is not quintessentially Western. It is a faith system that had its genesis in Judaism and oriental values, language and values. Moreover, in a sense, it is not human, because it is predicated on divine revelation. But the moment we act as though “our” culture is the right one to be a vehicle for saving faith and genuine worship we alienate the rest of the world. The same thing happens when churches take sides in political debates and alienate half the population on matters that are not even central to the Gospel (God does not vote Labor, Liberal, Democrat, Republican, or even Christian Democrat).

There is nothing efficacious about Western culture. As Christians we cannot be captive to the human environment that produced us. After all, we are born “from above” (John 3:3-8). God is our heavenly Father and His desire is to make us like His Son. The Holy Spirit in us, transforming our minds, hearts and attitudes makes us more and more like Jesus, not our cultural icons.

Improving receptivity and responsiveness

In Biblical Christianity, culture is broken down. There can be no distinction between Jews and Greeks (Galatians 3:26-28), Americans and Sudanese, Germans and Chinese. We belong to the family of God. The Bible describes a multiplicity of languages, tribes, kinships and forms of worship serving Jesus Christ in His Kingdom. These differences speak to the diversity of the Christian community, differences that make us one, not opponents or exclusive sects. If we cannot embrace a Christian from another culture because they look, act, smell, dress and sing differently, we are not acting in the spirit of Christ.

How can a Biblical Christian operate in a pluralistic world? The answer is simple. The same way the early church worked it out. The geo-political environment that obtained in the first century was characterised by pantheons of gods, hostile political systems and innumerable vested interests. Our world is not very different. In every generation, the Holy Spirit enables the people of God to transcend cultural differences and proclaim that Christ died for all people, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.

The Problem of Syncretism - Being Just Like Everyone Else

By Pastor Allan Davis

In an attempt to remain relevant and attractive in a changing world, many Christians are apt to reflect the patterns and modalities of society at large. Playing “follow-the-leader” this way may be a logical soft option, but only conforming to the image of Christ will empower us to impact our generation. Christians must be contemporary as, indeed, Jesus was, but he was not “just like everyone else”. The life of God, multiplied exponentially by the Spirit living within gave him (and will give us) the burst of power we need to make a difference.

Which God?

The mass over, the priest’s words were echoing around the niches and chapels built into the sides of San Francisco Cathedral in La Paz as the Aymara family next to me stood up and prepared to leave. Pulling his “chullo” down over his ears, to keep the cold off his head, Don Juan (not his real name) told me he was going home. I asked what the mass meant to him. He told me he had been coming to the church every week since he was a boy. Did he believe in prayer, I asked. He told me that he did, but that he didn’t understand some of the things that happened in the service. He was mainly concerned about keeping his family going. Religion was helpful, but he confided that it did not always meet his needs. When prayer failed the shaman in his village would say incantations over him, maybe sacrifice a chicken, so that the spirits would heed the sight of blood and give him the favour he needed. I asked him how he managed to balance two competing faiths. He told me they were one and the same, in his opinion. “They are all about God.” In his mind, shamanism and Christianity functioned as one paradigm. He saw no conflict, because that is how he had been brought up. He told me the spirit world of his village predated the arrival of the Spaniards and their gilt images five hundred years previously. It had kept his ancestors together and given them hope and power in times of need.

What exactly is Syncretism?

The option of mixing faith systems and observing them as one is called “syncretism”. It is a framework, a process by which elements of a single set of world views are harmonized and assimilated into another, resulting in a change in the nature of both of them and the emergence of a new system, a revised set of beliefs and rules. It is a union of theologies. The synthesized form is a new product, although separate segments retain some identifiable components, such as a high altar, or a witchdoctor’s tools of trade. I have seen syncretism at work in some African churches, where animism and other traditional religions have been wedded to the Christian message. I have observed it in Andean villages in Peru, where indigenous religions are often mapped to Christianity, giving local deities new Christian identities, so that prayers are said in old ways to new names, such as the Virgin Mary or the Apostle Peter. When our Prime Minister recently attended a Christian church service to celebrate the opening of a new parliament, nodding his assent to the creed recited, and then went to help officiate at a Hindu ceremony, he was being syncretistic. Biblical Christianity and this type of accommodation simply do not mix (2 Corinthians 6:15-16).

Syncretism is usually associated with attempts by belief systems to be relevant, less confrontational, controversial and culturally alienated by mixing and matching with local ones. It removes absolutes and works on the assumption that any belief can be adopted, melded, re-shaped, discarded, denied or repudiated, depending on whether it suits the new operating environment. Syncretism involves representation of a limited and distorted part of the underlying message, so that it fits the values and traditions of outsiders, or is rendered acceptable to them. And it is all around us.

I have been to India a number of times. Hinduism is syncretistic. I recently read a fictionalised account of an Indian boy who met a Christian missionary who explained the Gospel and led him to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour. The boy then went home and thanked Krishna for helping him find Jesus as his new god. In spite of its claim to be universally monotheistic, Islam is also practiced alongside traditional faiths in many countries. In Indonesia, millions of Muslims tolerate traditional Javanese folk religion, parallel to the mosque.

In the West, syncretism is widespread. In essence, it means “living like everyone else”, adopting their world views and mixing them with faith, so that the new soup is palatable to everyone and no one is offended by “fundamentalist” beliefs. It involves downplaying key elements of the Gospel that are considered “old fashioned” or “not cool”, so as to be more acceptable, less eccentric. Young people growing up in church have a fear - almost a phobia – about distinctiveness, of being rejected because they are different. They don’t want to be associated with the image of the small, traditional, suburban church with a hall, a manse and an aging membership. The church of the future must employ culturally sensitive evangelism, without being seduced to conform. Otherwise, the natural process of syncretism will increasingly lead to the acceptance and validation of extra-Biblical offshoots such as Christian feminism, Christian gay groups, atheistic evolution in Christian schools, removing Christ from Christmas celebrations and a host of similar developments in respectable ecclesial circles.

So, what’s wrong with syncretism?

Syncretism demands that worship of God be shared with competing deities. This occurred constantly in the Old Testament, as the values of the Canaanites, Babylonians, Assyrians and others permeated ancient Israel. On one occasion, the Prophet Elijah challenged the nation to stop dithering between two opinions and decide whether Jehovah or Baal was the deity worth following (1 Kings 18:21). That should have been a no-brainer, but Baal and other gods of the Canaanites had great influence. I have visited ancient Canaanite settlements in Lebanon and seen the influence of the deities that sought to displace Jehovah in the life of his people.

Church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious and economic sources. In New Testament times, Greek, Roman and so-called “mystery religions” sought to undermine the Christian community through syncretism. In subsequent centuries (particularly after Christianity became the official religion of the state following the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD) it was easier to undermine Christian faith by mandating “toleration” rather than persecuting Christians, which only led to martyrs.

One crisis that faced the early church was acceptance of non-Jewish Christian converts. Many Jewish believers acted as though their faith was an extension of their national history and identity. When God began to save Gentiles many of them were horrified. Only a major conference in Jerusalem, under the leadership of wise men of God, was able to deal with the issue (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Now we know the people of God are not identified by ethnicity, gender or social status, but their relationship to God and to one another through Christ (Galatians 3:28).

Pressures exist on all sides today, as secular humanism strives to be the common ground for solving problems. Pluralism is proclaimed as the ground for melting all religions into a porridge of new religious ideas. The values of this world view strive for a place in the church's response to both the demands for conformity and the cries for liberation confronting it.

Some people argue (or act on the basis that) that the best way to reach people is to live in their space and be like them. This involves “contextualising” the Gospel. I once listened in horror as a visiting speaker in a church I attended told the congregation it was OK to break the law if imprisonment could be used by God to reach non-Christian prisoners. Where do we draw the line? When God is just like everyone else, the whole reason for being a Christian is up for grabs.

Syncretism occurs when basic elements of the Bible are replaced by religious elements from other faiths. It often results from a quest to make the Gospel acceptable, less alien, or embodied in a different cultural context. In many societies, including in the West, standing up for the absolutes of Christian revelation is a criminal offence. It is safer to look for common ground and inter-faith dialogue than run the risk of being called a “crank”.

The Bible teaches that truth comes by revelation, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. There are times when elements of traditional religion foreshadow aspects of the Gospel and can be a way of opening up communities to evangelism. This was the case in Athens (read Acts Chapter 17) and many Asian societies where missionaries eventually made inroads when they learned enough about local religions to show the people that Christ was the One they were looking for and encouraged them to abandon half-truths for the real thing.

Syncretism, on the other hand, involves adding other beliefs to Christian doctrine, with the intention of supplementing the salvation provided by Jesus - as if it were somehow incomplete. Syncretism springs from lack of faith in Christ's saving power. At issue are not methods of praying, clothing worn, songs that are sung, styles, forms and expressions that are used (let’s celebrate Jesus with the best music available), languages that are spoken, or even objects used in worship, but the heart. Syncretism is a tool of Satan to water down revelation and separate God from his people by the accretion of symbols, liturgies, art forms and theologies that do not “offend”. It involves a loss of moral and spiritual authority.

Squeezed, but into whose mould?

Six billion people simply do not squeeze into fixed moulds. They are influenced by a host of cultural realties that include gender, education, ethnic space, occupation, family mores, taboos and semiotic frameworks. The global cultural economy is a complex network, a sophisticated multi-dimensional jigsaw. Culture is not unified.

It is ideological, political and economic. If we are to be relevant Christians in a global village we have to recognize local dynamics, histories, subcultures, prejudices and imagined communities and try not to compartmentalize people or insist on a single “fix” on human dynamics that cannot be constrained by a single “snapshot”. Our message must be addressed to population fluidity, disjunctiveness and rapid global transformation. As Christians, being relevant in the modern world involves learning how to be simple, uncomplicated and transparent as we relate to the Eternal and His creation. It means being open to people but sticking to Truth. That is a hard juggle. If the balls fall, the message is compromised and people look elsewhere.

The First Commandment requires that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus is the only one through whom we can be saved (Acts 4:12). He said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one can come to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). These are categorical statements. The Bible says that the “natural mind” of the non-Christian cannot understand the things of the Spirit, but rejects them. They are “foolish” to him (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). When we strive to be like others, and reify their values in our lives, as our guiding principles and aspirations, we are not consciously bowing to false idols or making them our “gods”, but yielding in more subtle ways.

Our efforts not to be squeezed into everyone else’s mould (Romans 12:1-2) must not be confused with religious pride and self-effort, making us so out of step that our walk is disqualified and people are turned off by our lives. (People should be drawn to the message because of our lives, not driven away from it.) My father used to tell the story of a man who went to a passing-out parade to watch his son’s graduating class. As he sat in the stands, he looked hard to make out his son. Finally he saw him. “Look”, he cried out, “There is my son. He is the only one marching in time”. No doubt his listeners realized the poor man’s son was the only one marching out of step. Instead of surveying the whole, he focused on one small aspect and missed the obvious.

God is building a contemporary church, one that overflows with his abounding life, presence and purpose, in step with the Holy Spirit. He has come to show us how to live, and how to make the reality of Christ a compelling force in our generation, tearing down false images, rather than the other way around. Sections of the modern church are working hard to reinvent techniques of praise and worship, to make it more “real”, more tangible, but fully birthed of God. This is great news. Lamentably, some traditional elements of the Body of Christ respond with criticism, rather than rejoicing.

Holding to the simplicity of Christ

In an effort not to be like the world around us, it is important that we not become so different as to turn them off. Let me give an example. I once took a flight from Perth to Melbourne, surrounded by several dozen men and women who belonged to an exclusive Christian denomination and were on their way to a conference. The women wore scarves on their heads. The men were well-dressed and spoke conservative English (not unlike the vernacular used in the version of the Bible authorised by King James in 1611). One of their number, a middle-aged farmer who sat beside me told me the group refused to have formal contact with other Christian denominations, because they considered them a’’ “too worldly”.

The longer we talked the more convinced I became that the focus of this group was not holiness but exclusivity. What was important, in their world view, was not the Body of Christ but externalities such as dress styles, forms of music and social intercourse. Their response to syncretism was to cut themselves off. In so doing, they lived as though they were the only ones left in God’s Family. Jesus lived among us and we were attracted to him because the presence of the Spirit in Him created and celebrated overflowing life, not because he established an exclusive society. It is important that we not tie ourselves to legalistic bandwagons that focus on stereotypes about form, rather than substance. We are not different for the sake of being different, but as a consequence of a new inner life, living by new values, appetites and priorities. The normative family of God is above culture, nation, language or familial ties.

The Apostle Paul encouraged Christians in the first church at Corinth not to lose sight of their pure and simple devotion to Christ, not to add anything to it, but hold firm to the simplicity of the Christian message (2 Corinthians 11:3). We can add nothing to what Jesus has already done for us, but need to know what we believe and be committed to it, holding to the absolutes of Biblical revelation, living by our faith. God doesn’t have to be so different as to be ‘weird”.

People of influence

How can we be people of influence, relevant, dynamic, attractive, persuasive and still be able to proclaim the message, with integrity to the truth. How do we avoid syncretism in our church, family and personal lives?

None of us is free from the innate desire to be accepted by others and to be like the world around us. The human heart reaches out to gods in all forms. Dealing effectively with the temptation to compromise on many levels is an essential part of Christian growth and maturity. We cannot long mask the subtle attachments we feel to “our” world, and the hunger to be part of what is going on.

God calls us to be different, to escape the downward drag and be re-made in the image of His Son. The Bible says that true liberty comes from the Lordship of the Holy Spirit, as He makes us less like others and more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Only He can give us power to be different. Regardless of culture or personal background, believers don’t have to live by the standards and patterns of everyone else, because they are “born of God” and their Biblical praxis is predicated on the person and presence of His Son. Let’s allow Him to bring this about in a transforming way.


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