Anyone who has lived in more than one culture has probably learned that ethical expectations differ. A defining feature of any culture is the way it makes some actions seem praiseworthy and others seem blameworthy. A perennial opportunity for Christians, who take the moral implications of the gospel seriously, is to seek clarity about the ethical norms that are crucial for faithfulness and the optional values of a specific culture. Do the resources of our faith help us to distinguish between the principles essential for ethical integrity and the dispensable norms of culture?
Here’s a small example. While living in Europe many years ago, we noticed that no offering was collected during the Sabbath worship service. Instead, little envelopes were distributed, and members were encouraged to mail their offering to the church the following week. We asked the grandmotherly woman we were living with about this. A staunchly faithful leader in the church, she assured us that the congregation and their pastor wanted to be true to the instructions of the apostle Paul when he told the church, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:2).
Our friend went on to tell us that she had once visited the United States, and she was dismayed to see that church members opened their wallets or purses during the divine service and took out filthy money to put in the offering plates. Had they not learned what Jesus thought about money changers in the temple (Matt. 21:12)? Had they not considered what Paul told the Corinthians? Given the firmness of her convictions, it seemed clear that little or nothing would be accomplished by suggesting an alternative point of view.
This story illustrates one of our first experiences with the variable influences of cultural norms, but it was certainly not our last. Some years later we were about to enter a church in another part of Europe, when someone greeting guests at the door noticed that my wife had no head covering. She was quietly but hurriedly offered a head scarf so she could enter the church properly attired. This time, another teaching of Paul was probably governing: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved” (1 Cor. 11:5). Why would any faithful Christian woman fail to follow this plainly written instruction? The answer from believers who don’t follow this practice usually involves making a distinction between norms that are culturally relative and those that are always obligatory regardless of culture.
But what is the legitimate process for making this distinction?
The answer involves the discovery of Scripture’s fundamental principles.
Offering counsel to those who work for God in sometimes difficult circumstances, Ellen White wrote: “If they make the broad principles of the Word of God the foundation of the character, they may stand wherever the Lord in His providence may call them, surrounded by any deleterious influence, and yet not be swayed from the path of right.”1 This process of uncovering the “broad principles” typically entails careful study, spiritual reflection, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the cases of our two earlier examples, the focus would shift from the specific modes of giving offerings or head coverings to underlying principles of generosity and modesty.
Jesus illustrated the importance of broad principles when He directed attention to the ethically essential elements of God’s revelation: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). Progress toward moral maturity in the Christian life requires discerning what in Scripture’s guidance is “weightier,” then evaluating specific cultural norms in light of the biblical principles that matter most.
As is often the case in the teachings of Jesus, His illustration of the weightier matters draws on the message of the Hebrew prophets. His threefold listing of “justice, mercy, and faith” echoes the call to repentance and to faithfulness from the prophet Micah. In the great mountain range of biblical principles found in the Hebrew prophets, one of the highest peaks is surely this passage from Micah:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Each of these three principles provides essential guidance when assessing cultural differences. For example, the prophetic call to justice gives priority to caring for those who are weak, poor, and helpless. Micah’s contemporary, Isaiah, expressed this when he wrote:
“Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:16, 17).
A major moral test of any culture is how its people treat their most vulnerable members. Whatever practices harm the most helpless are morally wrong, no matter how firmly those practices are entrenched in cultural tradition. And whatever practices aid the orphan, the widow, and the stranger are in the service of prophetic justice, no matter how challenging they may be to conventional norms.
The prophetic mandate to “love mercy” provides another resource for assessing cultural expectations. Mercy encompasses the grace of forgiveness and generosity of spirit. While we can never be less than fair, or just, we can be more than fair. This spirit of mercy is depicted as a defining attribute of God in the final verses of Micah:
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
“You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot” (Micah 7:18, 19).
We follow the way of the Lord when we delight in mercy. Cultural practices that are devoid of compassion fail the test of prophetic mercy.
Finally, we’re invited to walk humbly with our God. In-depth understanding of God’s gracious compassion can help to form in us the virtue of humility. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says,
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).
Every Christian still has much to learn about the ways of the Lord. Humble recognition of this fact may also help to prepare Christians to learn from cultural differences. Sometimes, when people visit other cultures, they tend mostly to notice customs they judge to be inferior, even immoral. More appropriate humility, a greater willingness to learn from the values of others, could open the way for finding new ethical insights—treasures that would otherwise be left undiscovered.
According to Samuel Johnson: “As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.’ So it is with travelling: a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” When visitors to another culture carry along the gift of humble appreciation, they may experience new discoveries of great ethical wealth.
Of course, the challenges of cultural differences for Christian ethics are often greater than the simple examples of head coverings or methods of giving church offerings. Cultural traditions affect the various ways families are established, how power is distributed, the ways respect for persons is accorded, and what personal traits are stigmatized or valorized. Add to all this the fact that new practices constantly emerge as varied as human organ transplantation, assisted human procreation, genetic manipulation, and a host of other interventions unheard of in ages past. Some might yearn for an ethical answer book that would give specific instructions for each of these new possibilities. But a better book has already been given, one that providentially reveals broad ethical principles to guide God’s people.
The pinnacle of Scripture’s principles is summed up in the word ”love,” our way of translating the New Testament Greek word agapē. When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40).
Love, as expressed in the ministry of Jesus, is the ultimate principle that applies in all cultures at all times. Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The love commandment is not just one rule among many others. It’s the master principle because it’s the Master’s principle, made vivid in the life and ongoing ministry of Jesus.
Of this kind of love, Paul says, “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. . . . Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).
A deep, experiential knowledge of Christ’s love is the fundamental resource that enables believers to encounter vastly different cultures and offer the blessing of God’s grace with ethical integrity. It’s God’s love that provides the evaluative filter for cultural traditions. It’s this love that unifies the essential elements of Christian ethics. In the memorable words of Ellen White: “It is love alone which in the sight of Heaven makes any act of value.”2
Gerald R. Winslow is a professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, and director of the Center for Christian Bioethics.