Imagine you are living in the deep south in the year of 1845. You are part of the Baptist faith. Your denomination has just made the announcement that if you own slaves you cannot be a missionary for the Baptist church. So, what do you do? Well in the south, Baptist churches met in Augusta, Georgia to form the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention believed that God permitted slavery and they had Bible verses to prove it. Many Christians in the southern states believed that the Negro race was an inferior race. These teachings were prevalent in southern churches well into the 20th century. It was not until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Church publicly renounced the view of slavery and racial discrimination.
How could so many Christians believe the false idea that the white race was superior or that owning slaves was what God would want? Being on this side of history, it is easy to point out the errors of our ancestors. Imagine though if you grew up in the southern culture in the 1850’s. As much as I like to think I would be opposed to slavery and the belief that the white race is superior, I believe that it would be hard to think differently. Why? Because most of us view scripture through the lens of our culture. Culture is a powerful influence. It shapes how we view life and the Bible story. If we have always been told something through the pulpit, many of us will believe it whether it is true or not because within our context we believe it to be true, especially if so many others believe it to be true. Germany had produced some of the greatest theologians at the turn of the 20th century, yet somehow anti-Semitism was allowed to grow and flourish. Adolph Hitler capitalized on this by saying, “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” We all know that these strong cultural misunderstandings caused not only the lives of 6 million Jews but also the lives of tens of millions across the planet. Allowing the culture to shape the Biblical story is dangerous to the work and mission of the church.
The great task of the American church today is seeking to understand the biblical story beyond the shaping influences of our culture. This is not an easy task, especially when we are being bombarded by so many messages from social media and cable news. The church needs to not be so arrogant to believe that we are not like our ancestors of the past. They too believed they were preaching the pure gospel. So how do we prevent our culture from shaping how we view the Bible story? I believe with much humility and patience. We need to have humility enough to say that maybe what we have believed could be wrong. I am not saying what you believe is wrong, but we need to check it against the story the Bible is trying to share with us. We need to have the patience to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. We need to be like the Apostle Paul who spent his life seeking to align himself up with the story of the Bible and work to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5. This will not be easy. It will take hard work to detox our cultural biases from our view of scripture, but the work is worth it.
God has an amazing story. It transcends time and culture and yet it is for our time and our culture. Work hard my friend for your effort will obtain for you a most glorious prize. God is good and rewards those who seek him. Below I have added the words of Frederick Douglass who challenged the Christianity of the South. May it also challenge us with whatever views we may have that are not part of the Christian story.
“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference-so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity…”.