Cultural practices and Christian identity—some further thoughts

Q. In the study guide on Galatians, you ask whether our personal experiences of the Holy Spirit have been “sufficient to convince [us] that no particular cultural practices have to be added to what [we’ve] believed about Jesus” (Paul’s Journey Letters, p. 93). Are you using the term “cultural” in a particular, narrow sense? It seems as if everything that we do as humans is in some sense “cultural”—even if it’s simply avoiding “acts of the flesh” such as selfish ambition and drunkenness, or practicing “fruit of the Spirit” such as forbearance and self-control, which Paul mentions at the end of his letter.

I answered this question in my last post, but it has suggested some further questions to me that I think would make for interesting reflection and conversation:

– If we’re members of a community of Jesus’ followers in a particular place and time, chances are it has some “insignia” of its own.  But we often take these for granted and don’t recognize them for what they are. Can you identify the insignia of your own community?  Is it legitimate for a community to expect its members to follow some specific cultural practices (in the narrower sense of the word culture), not to be accepted by God, but to further the community’s mission in its place and time?  What happens to someone in your community who doesn’t adopt these practices?

– Can a person who’s coming from the background of another religion continue to maintain some of their previous insignia as cultural practices (in the broader sense), without this constituting any disloyalty to Jesus or the community of his followers?  For example, if Jewish followers of Jesus can legitimately continue to practice circumcision, observe the sabbath, and keep kosher (as the New Testament says they can), can a person from a Muslim background who becomes a follower of Jesus continue to fast during the day in the month of Ramadan and eat only halal food?

–  Are some insignia, such as baptism and communion, expected of all followers of Jesus, based on Jesus’ own commands?  (“Do this in remembrance of me” and “Go and make disciples, baptizing them”)

Corrado Giaquinto, The Holy Spirit, 1750

–  Will followers of Jesus in different cultures live out in different practical ways the mandate to forsake the acts of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even if their internal values and attitudes are basically the same?

– The study guide question is originally about the Holy Spirit:  Has our experience of the Spirit been such that we recognize that insignia are not needed to make us more acceptable to God?  What kind of experience have you had of the Holy Spirit’s presence and transforming power?

As a rule this blog presents my answers to questions I’ve been asked, but in this case I wanted to ask a few questions of my own!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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