Cultural Influences on Religious Practice

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 12, 2015

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 CEB

Some people have this idea that religion—specifically their religion—came directly from heaven.  That it was God-inspired, if not God-given.  That their religious practice by nature has been divinely-sanctioned and blessed.  Consequently, all kinds of atrocious acts can, and often do, follow from the belief that my religious beliefs and practices are of divine origin.  It can lead to “God told me so,” or “God told me to do this.”

However, could it be that religious belief and religious practice often are born as reactions to cultural trends and influences?  That is to say, could it be that the unique culture a person is born into and reared in, or that he finds himself to be in as an adult, has more influence on his religious beliefs and practice than he might realize or care to admit?

A case in point is the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord!”  This is the shortest and one of the earliest creedal affirmations in the New Testament.  The phrase “Lord Jesus” or “Lord Jesus Christ” is used several times in the New Testament.  But the specific phrase “Jesus is Lord” is used in the 1 Corinthians 12 passage that I read, as well as in Romans (10:9), and maybe a couple of other places (cf. Philippians 2:11), depending upon the translation that is chosen.  There are certain Christian denominations where you will hear quite frequently today, “Jesus is Lord!”  And you may also see it posted on church signs.  Other denominations avoid the phrase like the plague.  Why is that?

It is always important, I think, to try to understand the origins of religious beliefs and practices within their context—the time, setting, and circumstances within which they arose.  Such certainly is the case with the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord!”  To understand it, we must go back to the first century and what was taking place culturally and politically at the time.

The pure and simple truth of the matter is when Christianity was born, the Roman Emperor was referred to as “Lord.”  At the height of the Roman Empire’s power, there were those who looked upon the Emperor as a god; or at least a son of God.  From the beginning there was conflict between the way of Jesus and the mighty Roman Empire.  To look upon the Roman Emperor as a god, and to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” was anathema (something accursed) to the Jews and early Christians alike.  So as a reaction to the cultural practice and political constraints of the day that called upon Roman citizens or subjects to acknowledge the emperor as Lord, the early Christians in essence revolted and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!”  For the early Christians, it was imperative to recognize Jesus as being sovereign over their lives and church.

It is well known that a number of the Roman emperors of the first century were oppressive, hedonistic, decadent, murderous tyrants.  And so, we can see why it was important to the Apostle Paul and other Christian leaders to deny allegiance to Caesar as their ultimate lord and master and to proclaim, as Paul calls for it in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, “Jesus is Lord.”  In short, a cultural agenda that expected citizens to acknowledge the emperor as lord led, at least in part, to the early Christian practice of proclaiming Jesus as Lord.  The proclamation became an early Christian creed, and it stuck and is still proclaimed by many Christians and churches today, perhaps without some even being aware of the early context and background.

Fast forward 1800 or so years to the early 1900s and the rise of Christian Fundamentalism.  The Christian Church went about 1850 years without any belief system as unique and stringent as the Christian Fundamentalism we are familiar with today.  But this is another case where culture impacted religious beliefs and practice, and in a big way.  How did it happen that way?

Although the foundation for Christian Fundamentalism had already been laid, it was the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that really fueled and propelled forward the Christian Fundamentalist movement.  Of the particulars that might be seen as the foundation stones for Christian Fundamentalism, one was the Evangelicalism that emerged during the American revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and early 19th centuries through the preaching and teaching of George Whitfield and others like him and the weeks-long frontier camp meetings.

A second foundation stone was Dispensationalism, a movement that was made popular by the fundamentalist Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, which divided all history into seven different stages called “dispensations,” with the final stages being a bodily return of Jesus and rapture of true believers, period of great tribulation, and a 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth.

A third foundation stone for Fundamentalism was a conservative theology that came out of Princeton Seminary, primarily with the commentaries of professor Charles Hodge who stated that the Bible was divinely inspired and without error, since God dictated its contents to the biblical writers who wrote them down, a view also known as “biblical inerrancy.”

Then a fourth foundation stone for Fundamentalism was the 12-volume study guide called The Fundamentals, published between 1910-1915.  This volume stressed the core beliefs of Fundamentalism:

  • inerrancy of the Bible
  • literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding miracles and the Genesis creation accounts
  • virgin birth of Jesus
  • bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
  • substitutionary atonement of Jesus1

But as noted earlier, it was the combination of the new theological liberalism and historical-critical study of the Bible, cultural modernism, and the theory of evolution that caused many conservative followers to rise up in opposition and helped shape, strengthen, and galvanize those with Fundamentalist beliefs which made it a universal force to be reckoned with.

Since 1930, many fundamentalist churches in North America and from other parts of the world have affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, which was renamed the IFCA International in 1996.  A number of conservative Bible colleges soon cropped up to train ministers in the Christian Fundamentalist tenets, including such institutions as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  These colleges often used the Scofield Reference Bible and nothing but the King James Version.  Fundamentalist preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would have a huge impact, not only on American religion, but in American politics as well.  True to Christian Fundamentalist roots, these late 20th century Christian Fundamentalist preachers continued to define their beliefs and practices as an opposition to what they believed to be godless liberalism.

And so, these two examples—the early Christian statement of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” and the Christian Fundamentalist movement—show how Christian belief and practice often are influenced by current cultural trends and changes.  Rather than being heaven-dropped principles, religious beliefs and practices often are human-driven reactions to cultural shifts and demands.

With the early Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord,” one can understand why and sympathize with the early Christians who had such a distaste for acknowledging the Roman emperor as Lord.  It was a form of rebellion to the state as well as an affirmation of faith.  Who of us would have wanted to confess the Emperors as “Lord” either?

In the case of the rise of Fundamentalism, it was an attempt to resist change (perhaps out of fear), hold onto the status quo, and define themselves over and against the liberals.

One thing all this causes me to ask is, Is there such a thing as “pure, God-given religion”?  Religion is always influenced by the culture in which it finds itself.  It has been that way from the very beginning.  Sometimes religion incorporates cultural beliefs and practices, and sometimes religion pushes back against cultural beliefs and practices.  Sometimes religion does both of these well, and at other times not so well.  An important thing is for us to be aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  God grant us the wisdom to assimilate wisely and well when we assimilate, and react wisely and well to cultural practices and trends when we react.  Amen.

1Some material summarized from Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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