The negative and positive values of anthropology for the expatriate missionary

A reading for Cultural Anthropology

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by Alan Tippett

(Original version appeared in Introduction to Missiology. Edited and used under the educational "Fair Use" provision of U.S. copyright acts)

Many otherwise conscientious Western Christians fail to distinguish between two different types of attitudes exhibted by expatriate missionaries toward culture. Paul deals with both types in his letters to Timothy and Titus.

  1. 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. When conversion to Christ occurs, says Paul, such old ways must be discarded.
  2. Pick and choose! -- In Paul's writings there are also references to behavior patterns which Christians are not expected to discard (although they are 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 which converts must discard and the social structure within which they have to operate.

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 a 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: "The law is good, if a man use it lawfully" (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 very 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 due for hospitality in 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 piecture emerges from the Pastorals:

within the structure of the society He sends them to evangelize? As Christ was sent "into the world," so He sends His servant "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 culture 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 their own way of life?

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 inter-personal relationships.

Louis Luzbetak speaks 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 spiritual guidance and social action of the missionary. Luzbetak attacks the idea that anthropology is merely a side branch of missionary training. He insists that it is "an essential aspect of missionary formation." A missionary without a good knowledge of the cultural context, says Luzbetak, is a dangerous "expert."

The negative or corrective value of anthropology

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, missionaries -- despite spiritual enthusiasm and worthy purposes -- have at times made tragic mistakes.  Sometimes, by winning one convert, they have turned the remainder of the whole village against them. Eugene Nida's classic book Customs and Cultures highlights 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 together, they would make a discouraging volume.

1. Mistakes of misunderstanding

There is a well-known 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 mission 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. It distressed him that so many believed that one 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
3. Mistakes of causing opposition
4. Mistakes of imposition

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 show the same old story: "killed by foreign imposition."

5. Mistakes of void creation

The positive or directive value of anthropology


If individuals enter into a missionary situation as foreigners, as a representatives of a Church from the West, and do things in the Western fashion, they are seen as agents of the West itself with all its unhappy attributes and all its questionable history. If, on the other hand, missionaries adapt to their target people and operate through their culture patterns, the form and procedure of the church they plant will likely be more indigenous than Western. To approach the people we seek to win for Christ within procedural patterns that are theirs and not ours is one of the positive things anthropology has to show us. The first step in identification is to accept as many indigenous forms and procedures as can legitimately be retained as Christian.


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 the 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
  • The communication of the Gospel to the individual in conversion
  • The translation of Scripture
  • The effective conduct of Christian worship
  • The regular instruction of the new convert in the faith, for composition of hymns, catechisms or other aids.
  • meaning is extremely complex when we start to investigate it.

    Anthropology has explored both the areas of linguistics and the relation between language and culture (ethnolinguistics) and these resources are available for the missionary.

    Holy Spirit, there is a tremendous wealth of methodology which 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. 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.

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