By Jonathan Ho
What if following Jesus requires more than knowing Scripture and being filled with the Holy Spirit?
Growing up in the Chinese-American church community, I never wondered what I was supposed to do. I did what I was told. As a child I went to potlucks full of chicken curries and dumplings, and had my fair share of hot pot meals over portable gas stoves. My non-denominational evangelical church had options for mission trips to Hopi lands located in the Southeast of the United States, to local urban areas, and to Taiwan. As I grew older, I started participating in the Taiwan mission teams.
When I went to college, I joined a Christian college ministry and participated in the evangelical lifestyle of sharing the gospel and studying the Bible weekly in small groups. Once I graduated, I moved into a ministry house full of members of this college ministry and started attending the church group which owned the house. Although the college ministry and the Chinese church I grew up in had many theological similarities, I started to feel different from everyone, especially once I stepped away from my ministry team of more diverse fellow students to a ministry team full of mostly white staff members. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt like I was different. Looking back, maybe it was how people took my overly self-defacing words seriously instead of telling me I wasn’t that bad, or how very few people would offer to help unless asked, or how I’d be the only one without a room for each of our team retreats.
Part of joining the college ministry required raising financial support. The college ministry organization had their way of raising support and it was very, very direct. During my individual presentations I was supposed to ask for X amount of dollars and just wait for a response. When I tried pushing back on my supervising staff (in a very indirect, Taiwanese manner), I was told to form a list of people and call them and then text my staff member afterwards so they could pray for me and celebrate my calls (though I just saw this as an uncharacteristically indirect way to enforce my calls). I wanted to push back but hesitated as I thought God wanted me to respect authority and thought maybe this was just how God wanted me to grow. I did what I was told but the call I made felt terrible. There was an awkward silence as I spoke with my friend’s father and he eventually said his son might be interested in giving.
At this point, some readers may think, well, you should be direct, you shouldn’t be afraid of awkwardness, while others might sympathize with how I felt. In the images of “East Meets West” by Yang Liu, western culture can be seen as footsteps walking straight over an issue while eastern culture will walk around it. There are clearly differences in approaches across different cultures and these differences often cause us to hurt one another both unintentionally and intentionally. If we believe God calls us to the nations, then we must learn to live out Kingdom culture, one which values Jesus over any earthly culture. If we fail to do so, we will share an incomplete gospel, one which fails to speak of reconciliation not only between humanity and God, but also between one person and another.
We often believe knowing Biblical truths is enough to determine Kingdom culture, but our beliefs are always a mix of Biblical truths and cultural norms. What would you say if I told you the truth could only be found from people of one background? Do you ever find it odd how many Evangelical leaders are white, especially considering the demographics of the world? Christians in the United States often only hear about theologians such as John Calvin, N.T. Wright, John Piper, C.S. Lewis, or Tim Keller, all theologians from western backgrounds. Culture influences the questions we ask, the passages we focus on, and the ways we apply Scripture. Western cultures often emphasize guilt and keeping the law, while Eastern cultures often emphasize two other sets of dichotomous pairs: shame/honor and fear/power. Leaders who share cultural backgrounds will give their followers similar cultural gifts and baggage. This cultural bias affects not only theological discussion but also how we live out our faith.
Cultural blindness affected the early church, even among those full of the Holy Spirit. Much of the New Testament describes how the early church (pretty much all Jewish) struggled to battle legalism and disputes even among different types of Jews. In Acts 6, we read of how the Hellenistic Jews complained to the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being neglected. We also read about how the Apostle Peter, who was Jewish, began to separate himself from the Gentiles, people who were not Jewish, and stay only with the Jews, to the point where another famous follower of Jesus, Barnabas, also stayed away. This was such a big deal the Apostle Paul opposed Peter to his face in public (see Galatians 2). These events involved “spiritual giants” of the body of Christ, people full of the Holy Spirit who had seen God work miracles through them. Clearly, there is more work necessary to walking with God beyond a one-time event.
Do you, like me, find yourself struggling to live out Kingdom culture? If so, I invite you to study the following aspects of Kingdom culture, aspects which we need to understand in addition to knowing Scripture and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Kingdom culture is:
Flexible—We must realize we are needy and have a heart as King David and not as King Saul. King David made mistakes but would confess and change his ways while King Saul was stiff-necked and would not change. Love is defined in Jesus but must be shared in incarnation, the taking on of the spiritual within physical form. Confess to God and ask God to open your eyes to your own cultural blindness. We’re all blind and needy in some way. If you don’t think so then you’re self-deceived. Kingdom culture demands you be willing to admit being wrong.
Multifaceted–Learn from those different from you. I’ve begun reading theologians from backgrounds different from mine, writers such as John Perkins, Brenda Salter McNeil, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Soong-Chan Rah, and others. I’ve also sought to cultivate and love brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me. We might not agree with everything we read or hear, but we must always be growing and learning or else we risk settling into our own ways and self-deception. The Bereans were of noble mind because they examined the Scriptures after hearing to ensure the truth (Acts 17:11). Do not fear being wrong but fear being self-deceived. Søren Kierkegaard once said the worst condition a man could be in was self-deception, for when one is self-deceived he will be unable to see his own faults and mistakes. Be on your guard! Like having spinach stuck on your teeth, you need others in order to see your own blindness.
Costly–Dr. John Perkins writes, “To be reconciled to each other, then, we must bear the burdens created by each other’s pasts. And to be reconcilers in the world, to bring others together, we must bear the burdens of both the parties we seek to reconcile” (118). Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil writes, “There is no sustained peace without justice and no sustained relationship without forgiveness” (21). In pursuing and loving others, it will cost us something. Following Jesus means denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him. This means pursuing and loving those different from you, taking the time to listen and learn. Be prepared for awkwardness, angst, weakness, and opposition as you discuss and try to live differently. Changing the status quo means unrest and discomfort, but this is necessary if we are to follow Jesus.
If we do not change our ways, we will continue to live off the path of Jesus, which means we will be grieving the Holy Spirit. If you are sick, do you not seek a doctor or rest? If you’re hungry, do you not eat? In the same way, if the body of Christ is unhealthy, will you not work with God to bring its health back? Being in the Spirit does not rule out cultural blindness. The Apostle Peter made mistakes and led even Barnabas astray, but he had Paul to correct him. We need to be prepared and also team up with others and ask them to speak the truth in love with us, even when we don’t want to hear it, even if it means public shame. Jesus himself took on our shame in public; do we dare call ourselves followers of Jesus if we are unable to follow in his steps? May we learn to address these cultural differences, and rather than become enemies, grow together as sharers of the gospel.
1. McNeil, Brenda Salter. Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness, and Justice. InterVarsity Press, 2015.
2. Perkins, John. With Justice for All: A Strategy for Community Development. Third ed., Regal Books, 2007.