Andrew Walls’ 1982 paper, The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture, found as chapter 1 in his book referenced below, begins with five snapshots of the global church down the ages.
First there are the original Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, around 37AD. They are all Jews, they meet in the temple, they practice circumcision, they have large, close-knit families and enjoy many meals together.
Then there are Greek Christians at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. They are hostile to Jews, circumcision is a betrayal of the faith, marriage is considered inferior and their major concern is theological and intellectual scrutiny.
Thirdly, we visit a group of Irish monks, c600AD. Some stand in ice-cold water, others sit alone in dark caves, they eat as little as possible and they have beautiful manuscripts, versions of the same writings as the second group were using.
Fourthly we visit Victorian Christians in London in the 1840s. They are promoting Christianity, commerce and civilization in Africa, are anti-slave trade, pro-education and look remarkably well-fed.
Finally we come to Nigerian Christians dancing through Lagos in the 1980s. Their focus is on the power of God and this is revealed in preaching, healing and personal vision.
These groups are very, very different from one another, yet they are all good examples of the church in different places and at different times. Yet despite their enormous differences they hold some key points in common: each believes in Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Lord and Saviour; they use the same sacred writings; each was founded by the previous group and thinks of itself as having some continuity with the others, and each sees itself as in some way continuous with ancient Israel.
Walls then explains what he calls The Indigenizing Principle. That is, since God accepts us as we are, culture and all, there has always been the desire – the need, even – to make the church a place where people feel at home. This was what was decided at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Walls summarises: Paul taught that “since God accepts the heathen as they are, circumcision, food avoidance, and ritual washing are not for them” (p.8). The Christian faith takes root in a culture not by individuals being extracted from that culture and becoming something else but by permeating the culture so that the church becomes “a place to feel at home” (p.7) in that culture.
The broader principle that Walls extracts is that, “no group of Christians has any right to impose in the name of Christ upon another group of Christians a set of assumptions about life determined by another time and place” (p.8). It is my responsibility to work out what following Jesus faithfully means in the culture and context in which I live, not to pass judgement on Christians living in a different culture or environment.
Walls, A.F. (1996) The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.