Cultural Diversity… A Biblical Perspective

1 Jan 2005

Dr Kofi Anane-Fenin, Department of Physics, University of Cape Coast, Ghana West Africa. Presented at the Pioneers International Conference 4, November 1999 Pattaya, Thailand.

How should cultural diversity be understood and evaluated in the Biblical perspective?

The behaviour of a person from another group can sometimes be totally incomprehensible. Very often the basic reason is that his/her culture is radically different from one’s own. Thus in any missionary movement the differences between cultures can result in communication breakdown or even clashes.

Examples of Cultural Differences

  • Clothes are considered to be important in the Western world because it would be immodest to be naked- therefore we wear clothes even in bed. The traditional Gava tribe of Nigeria believes that one covers one’s body only if one has something to hide. Therefore remain naked and prove yourself.
  • Youthfulness and age are approached in different ways. In many Western countries youth is desirable and old age undesirable. One therefore has to appear young and act youthfully. Old age is dreaded, elderly people are unwanted and are placed outside society in homes for the aged. In traditional Africa exactly the opposite applies. The youth are tolerated one day they will be grown up. Conversely, age is desirable and the aged are revered as an important Group of society because of their experience and wisdom.
  • Play in the Western culture is often not play but intense competition between the same age group with the expectation that one will be the victor. Among the Peublo of New Mexico races may involve that an old man and a little a boy are placed in the same race with young men. The aim of a race is not to beat someone else, but only to do one’s level best.
  • Personal space in some northern European Countries is quite large. In Africa and Latin America the interaction distance is far less. People from these parts of the world are unable to talk comfortably with one another unless they are in close proximity. The result is that when an African moves closer, a Westerner will withdraw. The one is trying to increase the distance in order to feel at ease, while the other tries to decrease it for the same reason. Westerners may think that Africans are obtrusive, breathing down their necks and spraying in their faces, while Africans may regard Westerners as distant, withdrawn unfriendly and cold. For the same reason Western people usually prefer working in a private office, while people of other cultures experience no problem sharing the same office space as a group.
  • Different criteria for treating people are also common. In the West if you are first you have the right to be served first. If a late comer is attended to before you, your blood pressure will surely rise. In many countries outside Europe and America however, service is dependent upon a person’s status or rank.

We could continue with many more examples. In different cultures the way people eat, walk, sit, lie down, greet, show their emotions or hide them, talk, laugh, and cry, use time, apply the law as-well as their sexual behaviour, education etc. can be totally different. From these few examples the following conclusions may be drawn:

  • There is not one aspect of human life that is not touched by culture.
  • Because one’s own culture is usually outside one’s awareness and therefore beyond conscious control, it is regard as normal and other cultures as abnormal.
  • Culture hides more often than it reveals. What it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Culture can be a person. Our real task therefore is not in the first place to understand foreign culture, but to understand our own. Learning to understand one’s own Culture is quite an achievement.

Strangely enough one of the best ways – perhaps the only way to learn about oneself is by taking the cultures of others seriously. Understanding oneself is closely related to understanding others. To do the one you must start with other and vice versa.

This brief and general over view of what happened on my continent is intended to help us learn from the mistakes of the past.

The Attitude of the West

During colonial times a generally accepted idea was that cultural differences are in born and not acquired. Western people were thought to be culturally born to be masters and Africans were born inferior and destined to remain slaves. White was regarded as civilized good, beautiful, intelligent and rational. Black was regarded as primitive, bad, ugly unintelligent and irrational.

The colonisers did not hide their Western sense of superiority. The African worldview was considered childish and therefore had to be corrected and brought to the same level as that of the West. Europe and America regarded Africa as that symbol of barbarism and as primitive pre-logical and without intelligence.

The strategy, which the Western powers and missionaries therefore applied, was the negation of indigenous African culture and its replacement by the so-called superior Western culture. But let me state categorically that this critique, is no way whatsoever suggests that the Christianity brought to Africa was useless. In spite of certain failures, Christianity has made immense contributions to our continent. The thousands of schools and hospitals established by the missions are proof enough.

The philosophical background of this viewpoint was the Western evolutionary theory developed by Charles Darwin and others. This theory was applied not only to biological but also to cultural development. Auguste Comte for instance believed that human society evolved through three basic stages the theological, metaphysical and the positive. Within the first stage the human mind evolves, said Comte from fetishism through polytheism to monotheism. Fetishism is the most primitive philosophy of mankind. Comte’s influence on Edward Taylor’s book primitive culture (1971) is seen, as Taylor believed that the acts of “primitive” people are based on a specific outlook, worldview or philosophy. So-called primitive people are not governed by reason, but their behaviour is determined by their emotions. No real understanding is possible between “primitive” Africans and “civilized Westerners”, for not only their theoretical presupposition, but also their mental functions are totally different.

The Reaction of Africans

It is against such ideas and practices that black Africa reacted. Western stereotyping and treatment of Africans was unacceptable. The African personality was treated as one without dignity and equality. Africans were viewed as primitive in their culture, savage and without history or civilization with only elementary forms of religion and societal organisation. The people who led the reaction aimed at proving the following:

a) That Africans have dignity worth and honour
b) That Africans have a history, civilized culture, society and structure and
c) That Africans are capable of becoming scientists, scholars administrators etc

The reaction was in many ways. We shall name a few.

Acceptance and Assimilation

Some Africans accepted their inferiority without changing their culture. Others however wanted to overcome their inferiority by changing their culture through hard work. In French colonies they were called Evolves and Assimilandos in the Portuguese colonies.


According to the Negritude movement culture could not be the monopoly of non-white races, advocates of this view point believed that the black man must, in his own way, have made a contribution to the civilization and history of mankind. Europe may be the master of logic, science and rationality, but Africa is the master of emotion and rhythm. Both reason and emotion should be treated as equal positive qualities in man. Negritude could not acquire deep roots among the African masses it mostly appealed to the “alienated intelligentsia”. It’s said that Leopold Senghor the former Senegalese President (one of the most well-known proponents pf negritude) was addressing the French public rather than ordinary African.


This was in the form of an uncompromising anti-white black nationalism. All the positive qualities (goodness, beauty and intelligence) previously ascribed to the white race were denied. No compromise with white Western culture was deemed possible. The black world, it was said should close ranks and fight to regain its past glory its own cultural and political independence.


Ethnicity (to belong to a particular cultural group) is normal. Ethnocentrism however is a result of the fact that one’s own culture is applied as a norm from which to judge, other cultures. They will be regarded as being abnormal, below the standard (of your own wrong and therefore having to be uplifted or even corrected). Western Euro centric attitudes towards non-Western cultures including African culture is a well-known notorious example of ethnocentrism.

In reaction to this attitude of superiority, Afro centrism has today become popular in Africa. In Ghana it is called “Sankofa” in South Africa it is called “Ubuntu”- The return of the black man to his roots. On the one hand we should rejoice that at last -African culture is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. On the other hand I have the impression that for the Sankofa supporters, Africanization has become a kind of panacea (cure – all). This will simply amount to a new rival form of ethnocentrism. We must emphatically state that neither Euro centrism nor Afro centrism will be a solution to the challenges of multiculturalism any kind of ethnocentric thinking should be rejected.

No Culture Should Be the Criterion for the Christian

As Christians today we are much more critical towards Western culture. We do now realise that no culture should serve as a criterion for the Christian. No culture is per se good or bad by the grace of God every culture contains good elements. But because of human sinfulness it also contains less acceptable or totally unacceptable elements that are against God’s word. We must also not run away from what has happened in the last two hundred years to Western Christianity.

In spite of the fact that Western culture was strongly influenced by Christian faith for nearly two thousand years it has especially during the past three hundred years become increasingly secularised. Unbiblical ideologies like individualism, materialism, scientism, and technicism (an over estimation of the value of scientific and technological development) have overshadowed- and finally eliminated the Christian faith.

The Western missionaries did not realise how deeply the Gospel they brought to Africa was contaminated by secular Western culture. Therefore the Gospel transmitted was coloured by Western culture and worldview, it was brought to Africa in Western clothes. The problem was, however, that neither the missionaries nor the recipients of their message were aware or at least aware enough of the difference between the gospel and its cultural clothes. The result was that the missionaries viewed the cultural form in which they presented the gospel as a real part of the gospel and the Africans thought that they should accept western cultural forms to enable them to be genuine Christians.

Cultural Diversity in Biblical Perspective

We need now to have a closer look at the reasons or causes for cultural diversity.

I am aware that many reasons have been put forward to explain what could be the cause of cultural differences. Some of these reasons given have been religious and worldview others have been socioeconomic political circumstances of the daily experiences of the people. Almost all these theories reveal a moment of truth but because they make that truth absolute they become one-sided. They ask the same question (why these cultural differences) but propose different causes. Besides the theories do not offer clear criteria to judge what is wrong and what is correct in any given culture.

To find answers to the cultural diversity our first point of departure is the Biblical perspective that God reveals Himself as well as information about creation to all people and nations (Romans 1: 1 9,20). Our second point is that in their different cultures all humans whether they are aware of it or not are answerable to God. Our third point emphasises the four basic relationships in which God has created all human beings.

  • In relation to God.
  • In Relation to nature.
  • In relation to his/her fellow human beings.
  • In relation to himself/herself.

These four relationships should be balanced. Because of sin different cultures tend to over emphasize one of these relationships regarding it as more basic or real than the other three. An overview of the cultures of the world for instance indicates that the culture of India (as evident from Hinduism and Buddhism) puts all emphasis on the supernatural, or divine. The self, fellow humans and nature are only appearance and not reality. The divine is the most real and important. This viewpoint could be described as Pantheism (everything is god/divine).

Other Eastern cultures, like the Chinese culture puts all emphasis on natural world (Taoism), the earth. We could indicate this viewpoint as Naturalism – overemphasising man’s relationship towards nature.

On the African continent the relationship to one’s fellow human being is of paramount importance. The individual has no existence apart from the community. The community has priority above the individual. The word to describe this viewpoint is Communalism.

Western culture is just the opposite. It stresses the importance of the individual. Being human does not mean to be in a community but implies to be independent, on one’s own. This viewpoint is described as Individualism.

Each one of these four cultures (India, China, Africa and the West) contains an element of truth because it emphasizes a real relationship. But at the same time it contains an error, a misconception because they overemphasizes one of the four relationship at the cost of the other three. I acknowledge that this sketch of the four cultures entails a generalisation. For example in China naturalism is more applicable to Taoism than to Confucianism. In Taoistic religion and culture great emphasis is placed on the perfect laws of nature as well as respect for nature. Confucianism however emphasizes interpersonal relationship and harmony like Africa.

It is also important to remove a possible wrong impression. It is not true that India, China or Africa does not know or acknowledge individuality at all – just as it is not correct to think that the West has no idea of what community is.
The four types of cultures are encountered amongst different groups in different parts of the world in different degrees. Many Chinese – especially business people already accept (not only in business but also in private family relationship) an individualistic Western attitude. Some white Westerners for instance in rural areas or in the southern part of Europe reveal communalistic tendencies while more Africans especially those who are urbanized and under strong Western influence tend to become more individualistic in their behaviour.

We even encounter cultures that are mixtures of say communalism and individualism.

Culture is not something static, but it changes continuously. In our “global village” the different cultures are no longer as isolated as in the past and they reciprocally influence each other.

Africa and West Communalism and Individualism

Africa and the West are different. Their Ontologies (understanding of reality), their Anthropologies (view of man) Views of society, Theories of knowing (how knowledge of reality is obtained) and Axiologies (norms and values) are often diametrically opposed. One of the outstanding differences between the two cultures that is immediately noticed by a careful observer, is that Africa stresses human community while the West emphasizes the individual as the most important.

In that sense it is impossible for Africa to understand human individuality because the individual only exists in a community. “I am because we are”. The West cannot understand and appreciate genuine community because a community is simply viewed as the collection of a number of independent individuals. “We are because I am”.

The implications for a Christian evaluation of diversity:

Knowing this equips us with criteria to move out of our own cultural restrictions as individuals in a missionary movement and to view other cultures more objectively. “Objective” does not imply neutrality that is impossible but indicates that we are placed in a position – a third perspective that of the Bible – to study say the Western and African – cultures. Simply to criticise Western culture from African perspective or conversely, will not be a good method at all.

The Bible Rejects Both Communalism and Individualism

> Any – ISM like communalism and individualism entails an absolution of something good in God’s creation. In spite of their beautiful aspects both are distortions – also from biblical perspective. Being aware of this is important because many Western Christians try to prove their individualistic perspective from the Bible. Other Christians however frustrated by Western individualism and its consequences (loneliness, estrangement, and falling apart of marriages and families) regard communalism as a Biblical remedy to the dehumanising effects of an individualistic way of life. Yet communalism offers no real alternative to Western individualism but another kind of impoverishment. Communalism has its own dehumanizing effects in its denial of human experience to a single all-embracing community. The consequence of both individualism and communalism is a mutilated view of the human being. The anthropology of neither recognises the integral, full human being created and redeemed by God revealed in the scriptures.

Asking the wrong Question

Both provide unsatisfactory answers to the question WHO AM I? Because each likewise asks the wrong question. Each of them asks what is within the human world that gives meaning to human existence. They only differ in what they identify as the source of this meaning within the human being. Such an approach is a fundamental denial of the Gospel. Because according to the Bible it is God in Christ who establishes human identity and gives meaning to human life. The correct answer to the question WHO AM I? Is that I am created in the image of God and that (after the fall) this image can be recreated in Christ. The Bible declares the meaning of being human lies beyond the human being in God. It is in an obedient relationship to-Him and His law that we find our true identity. This starting point gives us a true perspective on individuality and communality.

Two Complementary Dimensions

In the first place we will realise that both are only dimensions of the fullness of being human. Therefore neither one of them individually or together will give us a complete anthropology. It is therefore more accurate to state that a human person has individuality than to say that the person is an individual. It is also more accurate to say that a human being has communal dimension rather than to say that the person is a communal being. Individuality and commonality each represents a fundamental quality of humanity but neither defines the human person.

In the second place complete and healthy development require the development of both the individual and communal quality of humanness, because each one of them represents an important dimension of the fullness of human experience.

In scripture both the unique individuality (John 21:20,21) and the communal quality (I Cor l2: 12-27 ) of human person are recognised as fully complementary dimension of experiences. There is no tension or conflict between them and neither is given priority over the other.

In the third place it is heresy either to say that “I belong to the group” (communalism) or that “I belong to myself” (individualism) both viewpoints are in conflict with the heart of the Gospel. What should be said is that in life and death I belong to Jesus who paid with His own blood to liberate me from the devil.

Unity and Diversity

Cultural diversity comes into being because different people deal differently with creation. Because creation offers such a wide diversity of ways for its cultivation, all people do not walk the same route from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. Being different as such is therefore not sinful. The question is rather how we should experience these differences as an embarrassment or as an opportunity.

An important prerequisite is that each cultural group should approach its calling not in arrogance or with an attitude of superiority but in humility always aware of the limitations and the deficiencies, of one’s own culture. No culture is sacred all had to be sanctified. This does not mean that cultures cannot be judged. When we judge, however the first question should not be what is wrong with a culture according to my own (African or Western) viewpoint, but what about the particular culture may be wrong, in the eyes of God. Further let God first be the judge of your own culture, before you use the criterion of His word for judging other cultures. Should we stop “playing” at being God ourselves, we can immediately be released from unnecessary stereotyping, suspicion, arrogance and even fear.

Apart from God’s word other cultures can also offer the opportunity to evaluate one’s own culture critically. In this way one’s own culture can of course be immeasurably enriched.

Locking oneself up in one’s culture always leads to impoverishment. An Indian proverb says that “When you build walls around yourself or your culture you exclude far more than you include”. In today’s world, we often find the idea that human diversity is the cause of division among people. This is not real reason; however- the reason is to be sought in the sinfulness of all people.

Seen in a Biblical perspective, diversity is the true condition for human unity-Unity is always the unity of diversity. An example from the Bible is Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:14-31). For a body to form a unity and to function as one, it cannot consist of only one limb, but should have a variety of limbs. More precisely because each limb retains its own character (a foot remains as foot, an eye, an eye) they can contribute to the unity. The eye cannot tell the foot that it is not need. A body that is only an eye is not a body. The church is therefore a unity on the basis of the diversity of its members or limbs thus an integrated diversity. According to the Bible people and cultures differ not so that they can oppose each other, but exactly the opposite, so that they (can serve each other each using his/her own gifts and talents to do so. This is the way to create true communion.

Cultural Unity Where Can It Be Found

Where does one find cultural unity in the midst of all diversity? Paul had to struggle with the problem of cultural division. When the Judaist did not want to accept the converts from among the ranks of the heathen – unless they would first become “Jews” culturally- and threatened to create schism in the church (Acts 15) Paul fought against this cultural chauvinism for the sake of unit), of the church. His statement in Galatians 3:28 is well known. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. The same emerges from Col. 3:11, “Here there is no Greek or Jew circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all”.

Paul does not apply this to other. Listen to what he says about himself – Phil 3:5. But listen to Paul ass he evaluates his impressive cultural genealogy in the light of his Christianity (Phil 3:7-9). For that reason Paul did not stand on his own identity. For the sake of serving the kingdom of God he was willing to “adopt” other cultural identities. For the Jews he became like a Jew and for the Greeks like a Greek (I Cor 9:20).

Scripture does not therefore choose one specific culture as the only valid criterion according to which cultures should be judge. One should therefore not ask somebody to reject his culture he should serve God within and not without his culture. At the same time every culture should continuously be reformed in the light of God’s word. It should also be a willing instrument in the service of God’s kingdom and not be a stumbling block in its way.

How May Cultural Unity Be Achieved

I will like to answer this question from a Christian perspective. Unity can be achieved by adhering to the following three principles: Justice, Love and Humility. We can see in the account from Acts 6 that God is able to give leaders in the church the wisdom to solve problems of cultural prejudice.


This principle is a summary of the Law and entire teaching of the Old and New Testament “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12). If we obey this basic norm – not only in what they negatively prohibit, but also in what they positively require then we will be able to reach unity across cultural barriers. The Bible is very clear in many places that this central command of Justice does not merely apply to the manner in which one has to deal with people from your own tribe, culture, nation or religion, but especially to cross-cultural situations. Christ’s parable of the merciful Samaritan is only one example. It is very simple indeed: If we are just and do justice, we will be united (the opposite, injustice, drives people and cultures apart). Abraham Lincoln applied justice in the following way to slavery: “Because I will not like to be a slave myself therefore will not have one”.


The second principle needed to overcome cultural prejudice is the principle of unselfish Love. Christ provides his followers with a new Law. “Love one another” (John 13:34). This new commandment replaces the old relationship of suspicion, intolerance and hate and opens the possibility of a new relationship- that of unity among different cultures.


This principle was also evident in the life of Christ. He, who was God, became man, accepting the status of a slave (Phil 2:6-8). We should have the same attitude in humility, considering others better than ourselves (Phil 2: 3). This principle is not only very difficult to adhere to in our personal relationships but it also challenges the pride and arrogance typical of every culture Most people believe that, because another culture is different from theirs, it’s also inferior to theirs!

Tolerance With Regard to Diversity

The Lord expects us to practice tolerance toward other cultures. Also in this case we are encouraged to do as God did and is still doing to us. God is good, long-suffering God. Paul warns Christians in Rome and asks them not to pass judgment but to be tolerant, to show compassion and charity.

Tolerance, however, should not cancel the basic principles of unity (Justice, Love and Humility). God’s patience does not imply that He approves of evil. We should also not be tolerant towards what is wrong, sinful and evil (Mk 9:43-47, 2 Cor 6:14-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13). Tolerance does not mean relativism!

Biblical tolerance is also something different from indifference, aloofness or neutrality towards other’s cultures. Neither is it an opportunistic attitude of “lets tolerate each other for the sake of peace”. The Biblical idea of tolerance is not a negative but a positive concept. Furthermore it is not something passive. Tolerance implies that one should actively affirm the culture of another. Instead of looking down on him or putting him down, his talents and the good in his culture should be acknowledged and respected. This affirmation should be mutual.


Culture is not to be viewed as something apart, or separate from the way of life of people. It is not something, which people attend on special occasions. It is not a commodity which could be bought, sold, imported, exported or imprisoned in a museums, art galleries and opera houses- places where people do not live but which they only visit. But culture is something alive. Not only that, it is also rich and complex. It includes habits, customs, social organisation, techniques, language, values, norms, ideas, beliefs and much more. We could briefly define culture as being the way in which human shape their natural and human environment. It is a secondary environment – which man creates out of God’s original creation. Culture however is not confined to man’s relationship to his fellow creatures. Because human beings are not locked up in themselves or confined to this world, but also have a relationship with the TRUE God or a substitute in his place regarded as absolute, culture also includes a religious dimension.

  • Every culture in the world has its own beauty, dignity and legitimacy because it contains an answer of God’s creational revelation and focuses on an important aspect of God’s multifaceted creation.
  • Every culture also reveals a lack of beauty, dignity and legitimacy because it does not listen to God’s revelation carefully enough, and tends to suppress and replace it with a lie, and therefore overemphasizes an aspect of God’s multifaceted creation, resulting in an -ism (i.e.; communalism, individualism, etc).
  • Therefore truth is not found in only one culture, for example one’s own. At the same time no culture could be regarded as totally evil. We should therefore neither uncritically romanticise any culture nor over-critically reject any culture.
  • On the one hand we should acknowledge and appreciate the positive elements in every culture. But on the other hand we should criticise their negative elements (absolutism and distortions).
  • Cross – cultural contact is vital importance. Because of the fact that every human being is to a great extent the captive of his/her own culture, it is necessary to view it from a distance. The best way to achieve this is to try and do so through the eyes of another culture.
  • Christianity never exists in a cultural vacuum. One experiences one’s religion in and not outside one’s own culture. This should be kept in mind-especially in transcultural communication of the gospel.
  • Transcultural communication of the gospel is not something new. It already occurred during the time of the New Testament, when John Paul and the others brought the gospel from its Hebrew origins into the world of Greek thought, used Greek words but filled them with a new meaning. The message in its new form filled the Greek cultural and religious concept with a Biblical substance and so “revolutionised”.
  • We see in the account from Acts that God is able to solve problems Of Cultural prejudice. The main thing needed in the church is that church leaders must be selected on the basis of scriptural qualification rather than on human abilities, education or cultural loyalty. It is only the wisdom and work of the Holy Spirit that can overcome the problem of cultural prejudice (Acts 6:3).
  • In order to give undivided loyalty to Christ, a person must understand that in becoming a Christian he/she became part of an eternal community of brothers and sisters from every culture in the world. This extended family of God will live together in heaven, worshiping the Lamb of God (Rev. 7: 9-10). This truth about the church and culture must be faithfully taught if the church is to be strong for Christ and to see God’s will done on earth through it prayers.


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