Culture, Context, and Conscience

JP: Thought provoking article by Dr. Steve Davis. Dr. Davis is the Missions Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Lansdale, PA. He also is an instructor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary.

Culture, Context, and Conscience – Missiological Reflections on Issues of Personal Sanctification


Much that we promote, tolerate, or allow would be viewed differently in other cultures and vice versa. From ministry experience in post-communist Romania, we learned that many Eastern European Christian women would look aghast at American Christian women who wear makeup and jewelry. This Eastern European viewpoint was certainly influenced by history and tradition. Just as we would not allow their sensitivities to be imposed on us (although we may voluntarily live under them when ministering in their culture), we must be certain that our culturally influenced sensitivities are not elevated to the place of biblical mandate.

We understand that conscience is variable (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10:27-32). A clear conscience does not necessarily guarantee that one has acted correctly. As believers we do not let conscience be our guide because we understand the decisive role of Scripture in determining our beliefs and practices. What distinguishes conscience is the content, content that is at least in part dependent on cultural norms, ideals, and values. We do not enter the world fully programmed but learn what to do or not to do. This moral programming, a proper activity of society in general and from parents in particular, serves to condone or condemn behavior, to approve or disapprove actions and activities. It may be presumptuous for persons of one culture and tradition, in which they have been acculturated, to dictate the norms for another culture and context when Scripture is silent or unclear.

We often fail to realize is that there is often a difference between how we have been programmed through our cultural upbringing and what Scripture explicitly permits, forbids, or commands. Scripture was not given in order to provide a neat and tidy list of everything of every choice with which Christians might be confronted in every cultural setting. We also must apply principles of Scripture and discern its implications for godly living. Contact with other believers and ministry in diverse cultures has taught us that there is both significant overlap and marked continuity in understanding the implications of what constitutes the sanctified life. What we tend to notice, however, are those areas of discontinuity where our conscience speaks and where theirs does not or vice versa. It is at this point that we must be patient and ask for patience, understanding that our conscience has been trained both by the Word of God and by other factors in our spiritual and social environment.

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