Cultural Blinders: A Former Missionary’s Perspective on How Cross Cultural Experiences Can Both Expose and Remove Them
Peter said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34, 35 ESV). As a former overseas missionary, it’s no surprise to me at least that this realization did not come 1) after Peter had preached the equality of the Gentiles on Pentecost by inspiration (2:39), 2) after Peter had seen a vision from the Lord that strongly implied such equality (10:9-16), or 3) after the Holy Spirit Himself told Peter to go with the men sent by Cornelius (10:19-20). It wasn’t that this lesson couldn’t be learned; Philip for example learned a love for Gentiles while ministering to widowed Grecian proselytes (6:1-7) that saw him obey an order to take the Gospel to an Ethiopian without hesitation (8:26-30). No, it was simply that for Peter the best learning laboratory to overcome his misunderstanding and prejudices was in a place that was and amongst a people who were foreign to him.
If an inspired apostle of Jesus Christ could be guilty of wearing “cultural blinders” that kept him from seeing the scope of the very Gospel he preached, why should we believe that we won’t be tempted to wear blinders of our own? In fact, if we have any understanding of our own culture at all, we should understand that America possibly provides an even more difficult environment in which to learn some of the Gospel’s lessons than the one that surrounded Peter. Peter lived in country dominated by Roman officials, traversed by Grecian merchants, and surrounded by Gentile countries. Just crossing a lake (the “Sea” of Galilee, 8 miles across) put Peter in foreign territory! If we’re being honest, we should admit that the cacophonous noise coming from a country of 330 million people that spans a continent is more than enough to drown out the “still small voice” of God speaking through His Word (1 Kings 19:12).
God granted me the opportunity to live for nearly a decade outside of my culture. I’ve lived in two foreign countries (Australia and Singapore), and even now I find myself in Alaska, which is on the fringe somewhat as it relates to American culture. If you’ll indulge me, I’d love to share with you some of the impact that this experience has had on me. It’s my hope that in sharing how God providentially removed some blinders from my eyes, you can judge for yourself whether some might need to be removed from your own.
The first set of blinders that were removed rather forcibly from my eyes when I moved overseas was the notion that the American way is the right way. America has undoubtedly been blessed by God, as Americans are privileged to have a disproportionate amount of “this world’s goods,” and “every good and every perfect gift is from above” (1 John 3:17; James 1:17). However, like Job’s friends Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, Americans are frequently guilty of assuming that material blessings are an indication of God’s favor and that a lack of them amongst others is a sign that they are doing something wrong. This “wealth equals spiritual health” mindset, coupled with an environment created by everything from our public schools to our news networks that focuses on American rather than foreign interests, gives Americans an air of superiority if/when they venture beyond the 50 states of their country.
I remember my first couple of years overseas frequently getting frustrated with the behaviors, thought processes, and ways of doing that were common in the country where I was a guest. I would frequently refer to the way things were done or the things I previously had back in the states. I was experiencing something that writers of missionary literature often refer to as “culture shock,” a term that describes the feeling one gets when his concept of what is right and normal comes into conflict with what someone else considers to be right and normal. It happens on a small scale when someone from the southern US goes to upstate New York and orders iced sweet tea; it happens on a much larger scale on the mission field, as people within America share fewer differences than Americans share with people outside of their country.
I’m thankful that my first long-term mission experience was in Australia, a prosperous, first world nation, because the Aussies had no problems whatsoever in letting me know that no one cared about what we did or had back in America. Sometimes when American missionaries go to countries where people hold the “wealth equals spiritual health” mindset and consequently see America as the pinnacle of success, they never learn this lesson as they are effectively allowed to teach people Americanism alongside of Christianity. In my case, I was able to learn the wisdom of an American adage that we neither practice (thankfully) nor sometimes seem to believe, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” There is more than one way to navigate everyday life, and, importantly, there is more than one way manifest the unchanging patterns and truths of the Gospel.
This leads me to another set of blinders that had to come off while I was on the mission field, namely, the ones that kept me from seeing the Biblical call to serve through adaptation. Adapting one’s self for the benefit of others is a thoroughly Biblical idea, but one that I fear I didn’t fully understand before I moved overseas.
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).
While Paul never altered the Gospel message or its requirements (Galatians 1:6-10), Paul saw within the Law of Christ liberty, areas in which God has given freedom (Galatians 5:1; cf. James 1:25). For Paul, these freedom points were certainly not areas in which anyone had any right to judge him (1 Corinthians 10:29), but at the same time they were not areas for him to simply do as he pleased. Instead, he saw in liberty an opportunity to “through love serve [others]” and to “seek [their] well-being” (Galatians 5:13; 1 Corinthians 10:24).
As I came to understand the importance of adaptation in winning souls and edifying them in the faith, I came to examine more and more the scope of Biblical liberty. I came to realize while overseas that liberty is an incredibly neglected topic in the American brotherhood and that in many places, traditional habits and customs have become so wedded to the traditions of Scripture that the two are seen as one. God would have us uphold the traditions we’ve received from the apostles (2 Thessalonians 3:6) but warns us that holding our traditions can sometimes keep us from holding His (Mark 7:1-13). A thorough understanding of liberty and a willingness to adapt oneself to save and edify others helps us understand what we must hold onto and what we must be willing to let go of.
A third set of cultural blinders that came off of my eyes regarded my perception of race relations within the church. I grew up in a predominately African American neighborhood; for some years I was the only white child on the school bus. While I wasn’t ever bullied, I distinctly remember being singled out because of my skin color on several occasions, and I often felt isolated. I knew from experience that race produced friction and division in the world, but I was blessed to grow up attending some congregations in the Atlanta area where “there was neither Jew nor Greek,” and race was never an issue (Galatians 3:28).
When I began mission work, I came to realize that race was a much larger issue in the church than I realized. When I was on the support raising trail, I remember one congregation justifying not supporting us by describing how they had just spent several thousand dollars to repair the “black church’s” building in town. In other words, their desire to remain divided from the African American community trumped their desire to see souls in other places united to Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. I was angry about that then, and it still upsets me now.
Living in Singapore gave my wife and me a whole new look into the issue. For the majority of the time we lived in Singapore, we were the only Caucasian family in a congregation of around 150 people and often the only such family amongst most of the congregations we worked with in the region. While our brothers and sisters in Singapore are beautiful, amazing people and many of them viewed us from the lens of Galatians 3:28, there were times when we were excluded, stereotyped, or misunderstood. Some of it was unintentional. I remember one time when a brother expressed his disappointment on social media at foreigners taking his country’s jobs. The next time I saw him, I pointed out that I was a foreigner who had taken a job in his country, to which (of course) he responded, “Oh, you’re different.” Any of that sound familiar?
Cultural differences are real, and the Bible doesn’t encourage us to ignore those real differences. Timothy, a Jew by blood, was circumcised in keeping with his cultural tradition (Acts 16:3), but Titus, a Greek, was not as it was not a part of his culture (Galatians 2:3). Paul even agreed with the generalizations certain Cretans made of their culture (Titus 1:11-12). However, there is a big gap between saying, “Cretans behave this way,” and saying, “You are a Cretan, therefore you must be ___________.” The first is anthropology; the second is prejudice.
As Christians, we should allow for cultural expressions, just as Paul allowed and even recommended circumcision for Timothy, as expressions of liberty. However, we should also work to ensure that if we are a part of a dominant culture that our cultural expressions are not bound upon those of a minority culture. Further, both dominant and minority cultures should make sure not to exclude or prejudge those who are different, and both should seek to understand each other. With goals such as these, Christians should steer clear of the culture wars of society both in their private media consumption and as they speak in public or on social media. The solution to all that mess is to realize that there is in fact one race, the human race (Acts 17:26), and that the goal of Christ is to draw people from the many cultures into which they have divided themselves into the “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13).
God taught me several lessons through my experiences overseas, but some of the most profound relate to several issues that plague our country and our brotherhood today. It is my prayer that God’s word will continue to open the eyes of Christians as it did Peter’s and as it did mine. Hopefully and prayerfully, we will see the day when the notion of cultural superiority will be lost, when Christians will come to a greater understanding of liberty and the need of adaptation inside of it, and when brethren seek to praise God “with one mind and one mouth” in perfect unity and harmony (Romans 15:6).
 All Scripture quoted is taken from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.