Why Does the Bible Warn about Cultural Relativism?
After the Tower of Babel, God introduced languages, causing confusion among humanity. They dispersed from their centralized location around the unfinished tower – a monument to human hubris – and spread out to the ends of the earth. As groups of people began to isolate, they developed different cultures. Some elements of these cultures were benign, and had no moral implications, for example things like naming traditions, certain elements of food preparation, and architecture. Other aspects of the culture ran counter to the will of God, like false religions, certain sexual practices, or human sacrifice.
The tensions between cultures that wanted to conform to the will of God and those that did not continued leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and even after it. In the 20th century, an idea arose, primarily in the fields of sociology and anthropology, known as cultural relativism. This idea removed moral stigma from cultural behaviors and traditions by understanding them in their context, rather than compared to another culture’s standard, or an objective standard.
Because culture is greatly influenced by man, and man is creative in ways that are both good and bad, many cultures have elements that are a mix of good, bad, or neutral. Removing any objective standard of measurement of the morality of a cultural practice is not Biblical, and usually leads to good cultures embracing more wickedness.
What Is Cultural Relativism?
Cultural relativism is, “the view that a culture can only be understood and judged by the standards, behaviors, norms, and values within the culture and not by anything outside.” Examples of cultural relativism would include understanding why bullfighting is an acceptable cultural practice in Spain, when many other cultures consider it barbaric.
In many respects, Christians live within the culture of a kingdom that will come into fulfillment in the future. Like the Jews and the nation of Israel had cultural practices that were defined by their unique relationship with the one God, followers of Jesus Christ are a part of something that is in the world, but is distinctly separate from the world. Jesus reiterated many times in His ministry that His Kingdom was not of this world, and this idea was echoed by the men who wrote books of the Bible.
This concept is seen in many verses including but not limited to:
John 15:19 “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
John 17:14-16 “ I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
Philippians 3:20-21 “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
To obey the Lord, Christians must live according to the truth of God, in obedience to the commands of Christ, and undergoing the process of sanctification. Often, these commandments and this obedience means someone must give up something in their culture. Many cultural practices are wicked, or are against the law of the Lord. Many cultural practices are rooted in the religion of that culture. When someone becomes a Christian, they are called upon to reject those practices, embrace God’s way, and to change. Cultural relativism removes the moral stigma from any given cultural practice, even though God calls believers to be like Jesus, and not like the world.
What Is Objective Truth?
Jesus claims objectivity, and sets Himself and God’s law as the standard. When one of His disciples asked how to follow Him, Jesus took the time to set up that following Him is following God’s true standard, stating, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6a-7). The only way to truly know God, and to do God’s will, is to follow Jesus. He is the Truth. His Word, preserved in the Bible, is the truth left for humanity to follow so that all have the opportunity to be saved from their sins and have an eternal relationship with the Lord. Truth, and culture rooted in that truth, is based on the Bible.
Truth does not mean uniformity. Many cultures have practices and behaviors that are not contrary to God’s truth. These include language, food, dancing, valuing family, styles of music, many kinds of art, architecture, and many other cultural practices. When examining whether or not a cultural practice runs contrary to God’s law, it is important to compare them to the 10 Commandments, the example set by Jesus, and the Scripture. Behaviors that encourage idol worship, rejection of God, lies, violation of the 10 Commandments, immodesty, or other behaviors that God condemns are unholy. The Bible outlines the truth of God, and it should be the first measure of truth and what is right, followed by prayer and consultation with other believers.
Does the Bible Have Anything to Say about Cultural Relativism?
In the Old Testament, the lives of some kings of Israel serve as appropriate warnings for what can happen when a cultural practice is not examined and scrutinized with an objective moral standard, and accepted.
One of the biggest is King Solomon.
Famously, David’s son married hundreds of women, having 700 wives and 300 concubines. According to the record in 1 Kings, “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love” (1 Kings 11:1-2). Rather than asking all of his pagan wives to convert, or if they refused to convert to only practice their false religions in private, Solomon allowed them to continue practicing, elevating their religions on equal footing with the Laws of YAWEH. He engaged in cultural relativism.
These women were allowed to keep their culture, and their false gods, even though Solomon knew these cultural practices and pagan practices were not in alignment with the truth of the One true God. He built places of worship for Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, Molech, “And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods” (1 Kings 11:8).
He embraced the religions of all his false wives as if they were as acceptable as his own. After Solomon embraced foreign gods, so did most of Israel, which paved the path for its eventual cultural and moral decay, and eventual conquest.
There are certain elements of culture that were dictated to the Jews, and for anyone who chose to follow the God of Israel and obey His laws. After the death and Resurrection of Christ, many of these elements were rendered obsolete under the totality of the sacrifice of Jesus. For example, after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Jesus came to Peter to clarify the old laws about food no longer applied.
Luke recorded in the Book of Acts, “And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’” (Acts 10:10-15).
This removed a cultural barrier between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers, and it began to create a new culture that became the church. This moment was not a moment of cultural relativism, but rather a change of how the Law was to be understood, in light of Jesus.
How Should Christians Respond to Cultural Relativism in the World around Us?
There is a great deal of pressure in the world to behave like the world. The Apostle Paul encouraged believers, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Christians should find encouragement from one another and from the Scriptures to seek truth, and stand firm in it. Giving into the pressure to see any cultural practice as acceptable, just because it is not one’s own culture and has different values, means accepting sin, just because someone different is doing it. This can also hinder evangelism, as people feel reluctant to challenge people to examine their culture, and their souls, and to give up cultural strongholds that keep people in bondage to sin.
Christians should stand firm in God’s truth, and be bold to share the truth of sin and salvation. Becoming a Christian may mean giving up some cultural practices, but not all of them, and what is being given up will seem like dust compared to glory of the Lord, the love of Jesus Christ, and an eternity in Heaven.
Herskovits, Melville Jean. Cultural Relativism; Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism. New York: Random House, 1972.
Longaker, Eneida. Postmodernism Explain the Development of Postmodenism From Its Beginnings: Cultural Relativism. Independently Published, 2021.
McGavran, Donald Anderson. The Clash Between Christianity and Cultures. Canon Press, Moscow, 1974.
Norris, Christopher. Reclaiming Truth Contribution to a Critique of Cultural Relativism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.