A Difference between Difference and Sin

Adivasi Women Dancing

For centuries, strategic missions organizations in Europe sent workers by ship or caravan to the most remote reaches of trade routes and beyond. The wild interior of Africa, the savage lands of the New World, the heathen masses of the Indian subcontinent, the exotic peoples of Southeast Asia, and the seemingly countless but interconnected micro societies scattered across the South Pacific. All these peoples — assuming the powers that be considered them to be people at the time — needed to hear the Gospel, so missionaries were sent.

Not to their Liking

They were different from the European homeland, so they must be sinful.

Often these men and women were ill prepared for what awaited them, and culture shock would be a kind label for their experience. Curious about these distinct people yet nonetheless raised and trained within the prim and proper European culture, their sensibilities were highly offended by what they found.

The ancestral honor of the Japanese, the bare-breasted women of the African interior, the Confucian social customs of the Far East, and the public sexuality of some Polynesian islands were rapidly condemned as idolatry, indecency, paganism, and hedonism by the new arrivals, long before they had been there long enough to understand the culture, purpose, and spiritual influence (if any) behind these practices. They were different from the European homeland, so they must be sinful.

Not the First Time

The great irony, of course, is that European culture was not Christianity’s native culture either. The Hebrews of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria held that privilege, and they had a very different culture from Europe.

In fact, this created no end of strife in the early church, for the Jews made the same mistakes with Rome and other Gentiles that European missionaries made with the wider world: they considered their own cultures and customs godly and therefore to be enforced upon converts.

Paul, the first major missionary (or apostle, as opposed to “Apostle” which he was as well), spent a great deal of time and energy combatting this narrow thinking that would practically require conversion to Judaism prior to conversion to Christianity. The Jews expected circumcision, Passover, and other Hebrew customs to be propagated among any Gentiles with Christian leanings, but Paul faced frequent condemnation and accusation of heresy when he countered this claim.

Provided customs didn’t actually serve other gods or embrace sinful lifestyles, he argued that culture was irrelevant; only Christ mattered. The rest were different, not sinful.

For the early apostolic church, this required scrutiny and deliberation because it meant the same godly principles were applied differently within different cultures. Paul took time to follow this model. For example, in Corinth, where pagan priestesses and ceremonial prostitutes often went about bareheaded, and teaching and proclaiming their gods’ words in temples, Paul instructs women to cover their heads and remain silent in church. Yet, we see no indication that he gave the same instruction to the church in Philippi. Why not?

Because godliness was applied to the local culture. This was a very distinct model from the cultural transplant the Jews intended. And we’ll note who was more successful at reaching the Gentiles: Paul or the entirety of the Jewish congregation. It’s a landslide!

Around the World

Fifteen hundred years later, the problem has been repeating itself over and over throughout the known world. And the gospel of Jesus Christ was greeted with the same condemnation and animosity the would-be apostles brought with them, but often with far more brutal results.

In Japan, where we condemned the private rituals that honored ancestral heritage as “worship of the dead”, Christians were tolerated, then persecuted, then slaughtered, leaving the islands darkened and generally gospel-free for generations. The locals of China had a similar response when we insisted the markedly secular teachings of Confucius were universally religious in nature and therefore pagan.

The gospel of Jesus Christ was greeted with the same condemnation and animosity the would-be apostles brought with them, but often with far more brutal results.

I don’t mean to say that all local customs are acceptable. Like Paul, I recognize that some aren’t, but it’s because they’re tied to something against God. Religious intolerance is only biblical when we’re intolerant of other religion, not when we’re intolerant because of our religion.

Around the World Today

This is a particularly important lesson for missionaries today. Consider Paul Brand’s words from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made:

People, created in God’s image, have continued the process of individualization… Consider the continent of Asia for a crazy salad. In China, women often wear long pants and men wear gowns. In tropical Asia, people drink hot tea and munch on blistering peppers to keep cool. Japanese fry ice cream. Indonesian men dance in public with other men to demonstrate that they are not homosexual. Westerners smile at the common Asian custom of marriages arranged by parents; Asians gasp at our entrusting such a decision to vague romantic love. Balinese men squat to urinate and women stand. Many Asians begin a meal with a sweet and finish it with a soup. And when the British introduced the violin to India a century ago, men started playing with while sitting on the floor, holding it between the shoulder and the sole of the foot. Why not?

These cultural dialects offer a beauty to the human race and, subsequently, our expressions of godly worship upon conversion. Dr. Brand goes on to say:

African-Americans in Murphy, North Carolina, shout their praises to God. Believers in Austria intone them, accompanied by magnificent organs and illuminated by stained glass. Some Africans dance their praise to God, following the beat of a skilled drummer. Sedate Japanese Christians express their gratitude by creating objects of beauty. Indians point their hands upward, palms together, in the namaste greeting of respect, that has its origin in the Hindu concept, “I worship the God I see in you,” but gains a new meaning as Christians use it to recognize the image of God in each other.

He later writes, “I started in a close-knit group holding rigid ideas of what a Christian was and who was worthy of fellowship. As I traveled and gained breadth of experience, I realized that not all Christians were of my race with my style of worship and my footnoted doctrinal statement.” I would expect most who do international missions work for years at a time recognize this, eventually, as the missionaries of the past did eventually.

At Home

Where this truth is often overlooked is right here at home. Western society is a vast melting pot, and we’re excessively intolerant, even of the slight variations of fellow Christians’ practices.

The only thing Christians have in common with all other religions is how much they hate Christians.


We get hung up on how this church down the road uses guitars or drums, and that one uses no instruments at all. That odd one down the road dances in services, this weird one has people speaking in tongues, and that freakish one across the street often meditates in silence. And we hate, and we hate, and we hate.

While serving in the youth ministry at one church, I heard a pastor condemn the highly effective youth ministry of a church down the road. Why? Because they had built some skateboard ramps. And his beef with that? It made kids come. (Oh the horror!) It vexed him that someone was going to church for a reason beyond the word being preached. He hated it.

The only thing Christians have in common with all other religions is how much they hate Christians.

I’m even guilty at times. I get so irritated when I hear or read a teaching that condemns what I consider to be healthy sexual activity within a marriage (a passion of mine, obviously). Left unchecked, that irritation can fester and grow, infecting my spirit with intolerance and elitism. All because someone has some different doctrinal details. In truth, it’s their loss, but I make it my loss if I’m not mature enough to accept that difference and move on.

To be fair, healthy conversation and debate is a good thing. The Greeks were dead on with that. But this requires taking time to truly listen, to truly hear, and to forfeit our own bias. And we’ve got to be able to agree to disagree and still walk in love toward one another. Not always an easy thing to do.

But I suspect when we all get to heaven, we’ll all be shocked at how much we rallied against fervently while God never blinked. Except perhaps His blink at our kneejerk declarations of sin in His name.

Originally posted 2015-10-19 08:00:47.

About Phil (250 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.