The negative and positive values of cultural anthropology
- Cultural anthropology helps missionaries avoid cultural
mistakes and misunderstandings that can hinder their work and cause offense.
- Cultural anthropology provides guidance on appropriate
procedures, communication methods, and language proficiency, thus enabling missionaries to
establish rapport and effectively convey the Gospel.
- Cultural anthropology offers resources, methodologies, and insights to aid missionaries in
evangelism efforts and the development of indigenous churches.
Anthropology for the Christian missionary
A reading for Cultural Anthropology
by Alan Tippett (Original version appeared in Introduction to
Missiology. Edited and used under the educational "Fair Use" provision of U.S. copyright
Many otherwise conscientious Western Christians fail to
distinguish between two different attitudes expatriate missionaries take toward
culture. Paul deals with both attitudes in his letters to Timothy and Titus.
- Leave the old behind! -- There is a wealth of Biblical instruction about the need for would-be
Christians to discard behaviors of their old way of life: moral evils such as murder, lying,
fornication, blaspheming, greed, false accusation, lust, and so on. Bad behaviors of unregenerate
human beings may be either individual or collective. Paul says such old ways must be discarded
when conversion to Christ occurs.
- Pick and choose! -- Paul's writings contain references to behavior patterns that Christians are
not expected to discard (though they may justifiably be expected to transform them). These are
the accepted behavior patterns of organized society -- what the anthropologist calls the social
structure. It is important to distinguish between the bad customs that converts must discard and
the social structure within which they must operate.
Missionaries who set themselves against neutral social structures take upon themselves a
grave responsibility for which they have no biblical precedent or injunction to do so. Of course,
social structures are changing all the time, and Christianity will certainly influence those changes.
The Apostle Paul's approach seemed to be: "What is God's will for me in this situation?
How can I win these people for Christ within their structures?"
In his Pastoral letters, Paul urges Christians to pray for
"kings and rulers and those in authority" for the worthy motive that people may live
in peace, which he considers "good and acceptable in the sight of God" (1 Timothy
2:2-3). Paul tells Titus that civil powers should be obeyed (Titus 3:1). On another social level, we
find references to the structured family, which Paul recognized when he gave rules for governing
the home (1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12) and rules for husband/wife relationships (Titus 2:5). Paul
recognizes the responsibilities of master and servant as a two-way process and religious duty (1
Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-19).
In maintaining community peace, Paul recognized the useful
function of law as a controlling force: "We know that the law is good if one uses it properly." (1
Timothy 1:8). He also recognized that societies tended to be stratified and that people from each
stratum had responsibilities to maintain the balance of society. Those in the favored groups were
especially expected to help the less fortunate. The fact that an individual was rich rendered
that person responsible for community service (1 Timothy 6:17-18). Paul's reasoning on the
classification of widows' need for hospitality by the church shows his awareness of social
stratification and responsibility (1 Timothy 5).
In 2 Timothy, Paul uses a series of allegories grounded in
the social groupings of his day. He recognizes the rules for the life and training of the soldier (2
Timothy 2:4), and the athlete (v. 5) and the patterns of cultivating and harvesting used by the
farmer (v. 6). Such allusions make it clear that, for Paul, religion is clearly not isolated from life
but operates within the world of human culture.
This picture emerges from the Pastorals:
- Within the church -- One is to preach the word and, when necessary, reprove and
rebuke (2 Timothy 4:2).
- Outside the church -- One is to "do the work of an evangelist and make a full proof of
his ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5), as Paul said of himself "that the Gentiles might
hear" (4:17). To equip oneself for this role one is to form fixed habits of prayer (2 Timothy
2:1) and Scripture study (2 Timothy 3:14-15). While the Christians are not to embroil themselves
in worldliness, they still have to live the Christian life "in this present world" (Titus
What then is the will of God for missionaries within the structure of the society He
sends them to evangelize? As Christ was sent "into the
world," so He sends His servants "into the world" (John 17:16). The question
then is: To what extent should the missionaries identify themselves, and how should they
identify themselves? Should they change the cultural patterns or win those structures for Christ?
Are they there primarily to establish Western denominational organizations or to help an
indigenous Church to emerge within its own way of life? Or is there some middle ground in
which those indigenous churches can be part of international fellowships?
If these are valid questions, then every missionary needs
training in anthropology, especially those aspects of anthropology which involve family and other
social structures and interpersonal relationships.
Louis Luzbetak spoke of cultural relevancy as
"an important apostolic principle." A full understanding of the cultural
context is necessary because -- wittingly or unwittingly -- the missionary is an agent of
culture change. Anthropological understanding is necessary for the missionary's spiritual guidance
and social action. Luzbetak attacked the idea that cultural anthropology is merely a side branch of
missionary training. He insisted that it is "an essential aspect of missionary
formation." A missionary without a good knowledge of the cultural context, said Luzbetak,
is a dangerous "expert."
The negative or corrective value of anthropology
Missionary work is always set within specific cultural
contexts. Those contexts are different for each missionary. So, here's the basic question:
What has anthropology to say to missionaries at work in cross-cultural situations?
Firstly, the study of cultural anthropology is corrective to
bad policy. Sadly, despite spiritual enthusiasm and worthy purposes, missionaries have
sometimes made tragic mistakes. Sometimes, by winning one convert, they have turned the
remainder of the whole village against them. Eugene Nida's classic Customs and
Cultures book highlighted this problem.
There are five ways in which poor missionary technique can
hinder the work of the Holy Spirit ( putting out the Spirit's fire, as Paul says in 1
Thessalonians 5:19). Each hindering mistake would be worth a whole chapter in itself. Put all
together, they would make a discouraging volume.
- 1. Mistakes of misunderstanding
- Mistakes of misunderstanding are caused by ignorance of customs and through treating
people of another culture as if they were just like people in the missionary's hometown. Value
patterns, courtesies and discourtesies, orientation to life, attitudes toward work and personal
relationships, felt needs, and the meanings of idioms vary much from culture to culture. Until
people really know each other, they are liable to make mistakes of misunderstanding.
There is a classic story of 19th-century British administrators in Ghana whose ignorance about
and attitude toward a golden stool led to a series of wars. The ramifications of this historical event
were applied to Christian missions by Methodist missionary Edwin Smith.
Smith believed that the form in which Christianity was expressed in any culture should be
appropriate to that culture, and he opposed the belief that traditional customs were necessarily
wrong from the get-go. It distressed him that people actually believed a person could not be both
Christian and African. He was quite aware that foreign features could be
accepted and adapted by Africans, but he was adamant that Africans should decide what to
accept, adapt, or reject.
- 2. Mistakes of offense
- Mistakes of offense spring from different values placed
on things and approaches by the missionaries and the people whom they seek to win. The most
common mistakes grow out of clashes between missionary individualism and tribal or family
collectivism. If an evangelical missionary wins only one convert out of a tribe and thereby builds
a barrier of the whole tribe against that person, so that no church can be planted and the lone
convert remains isolated, the most likely thing is that when the tribe is eventually won to faith in
Christ, it will turn to Roman Catholicism or some other denomination because this evangelical
missionary gave offense. Thus, a denominational issue is introduced as a permanent schismatic
effect. Another cause of offense is a blatant disregard for pagan taboos when people are still
- 3. Mistakes of causing opposition
- There are mistakes by missionaries that wind up creating active opposition. The pagans are
thus not just indifferent to the Gospel but move to
being actively hostile. A missionary can cause this by failing to observe the cultural paths of
communication, by ignoring community officials -- chief, priest, and elders -- or by approaches
threatening the solidarity of the group or disregarding indigenous rules of protocol.
- 4. Mistakes of imposition
- A common missionary methodological mistake has
been the unneeded imposition of foreign forms and practices, especially denominational patterns.
This can include organizational machinery, leadership patterns, worship patterns, foreign ethical
values, modes of dress, financial patterns, and missionary supervision and controls. Such imposed
patterns hinder the emergence of an indigenous church. Once they have been established, it can
be well nigh impossible to change over from a dependent mission to a self-reliant church.
Frequently the missionary -- especially after three or four generations of Christian influence -- is
blind to these impositions, but many enclosed foreign churches with congregations of 50 to 100
Christians after 100 years of missionary work can be evidence of the same old story: "killed
by foreign imposition."
- 5. Mistakes of void creation
- Finally, there are mistakes that create voids (Eugene Nida calls them vacuums). This
happens when social practices, cultural mechanisms, and economic procedures of pre-Christian
times are discarded, and no functional substitutes are provided in their place. The resulting unmet
social needs-- originally met by pre-Christian cultural patterns-- can lead to discontent in the
second generation. Many nativistic movements resulting in great loss to the
Church have flourished because of such void creation.
I have mentioned five specific types of obstruction to
church planting and development that can be caused by bad missionary methods. The list is by
no means exhaustive. Good anthropological training would help missionaries avoid these
The positive or directive value of anthropology
Secondly, on the positive side, knowledge of cultural anthropology has value to the
missionary who will use it. Let me mention how.
- Anthropological training helps a person to understand
the significance of a pattern in a community, how the pattern is composed, what classes of people
form the society and how people (individuals and groups) interact and interrelate. This helps one
know how things ought to be done or said to gain a sympathetic hearing. It is a good
thing to know the correct and courteous procedure. How do I give? How do I receive something?
How do I ask, act, respond, resist, complain, praise, or interact without offense? To do and say
things with the correct procedure is half the battle in gaining rapport.
If individuals enter into a missionary situation as foreigners,
as representatives of a Church from the West, and do things in the Western fashion, they may be
seen as agents of the West itself with all its unhappy attributes and its questionable history. If,
on the other hand, missionaries adapt to their target people and operate through
their cultural patterns, the form and procedure of the church they plant will likely be more
indigenous than Western. One of the positive things cultural anthropology has to show us is to
approach the people we seek to win for Christ within procedural patterns that are theirs
and not ours. The first step in identification is to accept as many
indigenous forms and procedures as can legitimately be retained as Christian.
- What are the indigenous methods and mechanisms for
the communication of ideas? What is the approved decision-making body? How are issue for
major decisions presented to the tribe, group, family, or whatever unit is the decision-making
body? What characters have been institutionalized within a society for this role of
communication? Are there traditional heralds, mediators, orators, or spokespersons through
whom a case is presented, or may individuals speak for themselves? How is a new message
traditionally presented? Does one go first to the chief of the tribe or the head of the household?
Or does one call together the whole group for a public meeting? What kind of a council exists for
decision-making? Who has the right to admit a person to the community so that he can
communicate at all?
These are particularly important questions for new
missionary ventures into tribal or hamlet societies, thousands of which are open for
evangelization today. If you communicate through normal channels, people know what is
being done and can concentrate on the message or matter presented for decision. If you do not do
this, you can become an obstruction as a person. You will be regarded with suspicion, and public
feeling will be weighted against the acceptance of your requests.
- Proficiency in the language
- Cultural anthropology would also indicate the need for
missionary proficiency in the language of the people for effective communication. This is
- The communication of the Gospel to the individual in conversion
- The translation of Scripture
- The effective conduct of Christian worship
- The regular instruction of new converts in the faith
- The composition of hymns, catechisms, or other aids
In all these cases, theological concepts have to be
expressed with the possibility that the faith of future generations will be adversely influenced by
the selection of unfortunate terms. Missionaries must become so proficient in the relation of
custom and language that they do not wind up creating heretical beliefs for their successors. The
selection of the wrong word for God or the term for the Three Persons of the Trinity can
lead one into polytheism, or the terminology used for Holy Communion may have pagan
overtones. It is not good enough to allow some other person to do one's translation. If a person is
to be a missionary, he or she is obliged to see that the communication is effective. The matter of
meaning is extremely complex when we start to investigate it.
Cultural anthropology has explored both the areas of linguistics and
the relation between language and culture (ethnolinguistics), and these resources are available for
- By studying innovation as the dynamics of a culture
change, anthropology has taught us much that is relevant to religious conversion. Why do
people change their traditional religion? Do they accept the new religion with the same meanings
as those intended by the advocates? What are the motivations for such decisions? What factors
suggest that people are ready for large-scale innovation change -- or, in other words, are
"ripe for conversion"? This branch of theory and research has much to give the
missionary. It is an area opened up by Barnett's research on innovation which made use
of some conversion data.
- Quite apart from these basic concepts, which are relevant to missionaries and help them
understand the processes being used by the Holy Spirit, there is a tremendous wealth of
methodology that cultural anthropology has made available in our day. These include techniques
for observing and recording data, resources for study (including many fine surveys), documented
material on the meaning of change and behavior, classified knowledge of whole culture patterns,
devices to aid the learning and exploration of foreign languages, and mechanical aids for
communication, both individual and group.
The anthropologist and missionary are not the same. The
former observes and records culture change. The latter tries to channel it in a specific direction.
Cultural anthropology is no substitute for the Christian mission because it only asks why;
it does not do (though it might suggest what to do). It does, however, offer tremendous
resources, methods, and information to consecrated missionaries in their church planting and
building up of converts in the new faith.
Cultural anthropology has a great reflex value for missionaries. It widens their outlook and
knowledge. It opens new horizons of biblical understanding and reveals Christ for who He is --
our Universal Contemporary, bigger than the Graeco-Roman
world or Reformation theology, bigger than geography, time, or language. Granted, individuals
may discover this without cultural anthropology, but cultural anthropology will develop their
capacity for it, and help them to recognize the warnings and opportunities of the cross-cultural
situation where their missioning is performed.
-- some minor editing by Howard Culbertson,
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