Cultural Evolution

I have often heard references to the idea that culture naturally “evolves”. This concept is discussed quite a bit in the context of homosexuals gaining more widespread acceptance. An argument along these lines might sound something like this: “African Americans once were not allowed to vote in this country, but our culture ‘evolved’ and finally gave them the rights which always should have been theirs.” 

The turmoil surrounding equal civil rights for all ethnicities in our country is well documented. So, what happened? Through education, and the efforts of sincere people of multiple races, new information was convincingly presented to our culture and we changed. To put it another way, we “evolved”. This was a good thing because the U.S. Constitution does not offer differing rights to American citizens on the basis of ethnicity. Similarly, the gospel does not offer different salvations to people on the basis of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. However, I also believe that we can find evidence of the phenomenon referred to as “cultural evolution” in the Scriptures, and it does not always result in more tolerance nor is it always a good thing.

First of all, culture is cyclical, not progressive. In other words, culture tends to move in circles rather than upward straight lines. The Seleucid empire desired to to expand their borders and gain a tactical advantage over their rivals to the south, the Ptolemies. As a result of this, the Seleucids were very intolerant of Judaism. They forcefully imposed their Greek culture in the land of Palestine and opposed the observance of Mosaic customs. Antiochus IV even went so far as to desecrate the rebuilt temple of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. These actions would eventually lead to what was known as the Maccabean revolt. 

When Rome came into power, we might say that they took a more “evolved” approach in governing the Jews. They allowed them a relative amount of autonomy by way of the Sanhedrin council and they even gave the Sanhedrin council authority over Jews in cities beyond Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 9:1-2). But when tolerance no longer suited the Roman empire, they “evolved” again and descended upon the city of Jerusalem -- killing most of the Jews within the city and utterly destroying the temple in A.D. 70. 

The same illustration could be made using the Jewish attitude towards early Christians. At first, they appeared tolerant of this “sect” presuming that nothing significant would come of it (Acts 5:38-40). Then they “evolved” and sought to do everything within their power to destroy Christianity. 

Jews lived in relative peace in Europe in the 1900s until the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany. Was the evolution of European culture influenced by Hitler a step forwards or a step backwards? 

Why does an understanding of the cyclical nature of culture matter? Because Sodom and Gomorrah provide an example for us of the danger of unrestrained culture. It is uncertain whether Lot initially knew that his visitors were angels. When the mob comes beating on his door seeking to sexually assault the two angels, they are looking for men (Genesis 19:5). One thing we know for certain is that Lot did not want these “men” to spend the night in the open square, and for good reason (Genesis 19:2, 3). A very similar situation would later occur in the village of Gibeah in the territory belonging to the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19). The events in the book of Judges describe a time in which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes(Judges 21:25). Would you want to live in the cultural environments described in ancient Sodom, Gomorrah, or Gibeah?

We should also consider the fact that cultural distinctions can serve an important purpose. This is not to say that any one culture should be elevated over the other. Paul writing to the Galatians said that in Christ there were no Jews or Greeks, men or women, slaves or free men. There were only children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-29). However, on two occasions in the Bible when men were not separated by cultural distinctions, evil abounded. In the time before the flood, when the descendants of Seth (sons of God; consider Luke 3:38) began to intermarry with the descendants of Cain (daughters of men), the vast majority of the human race became corrupt (Genesis 6:1-5). Later, when Noah’s descendants begin to settle in the plain of Shinar after the flood, their “one culture world” quickly became consumed with the desire to exalt themselves (Genesis 11:1-9), and God took measures to separate them and undermine their efforts. 

To the extent of whatever influence that we have allows, we need to take a stand for moral principles in whatever culture or nation we find ourselves because there is no guarantee that the world will be a better place tomorrow. We also need to understand that if we do this correctly, it will necessarily create some cultural divides. Light cannot have fellowship with darkness, and those who are of the light should have no interest in working together with those who are of the darkness. (2 Corinthians 9:14-18; Ephesians 5:11) But don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that the people of God take their stand on generic principles of morality. Ultimately, generic principles of morality cannot unite men, only the truth of the gospel can do that.  

Will the message that all men are in need of salvation from sin and the fact that salvation is only in Jesus Christ limit our influence with many people? Probably. But this approach will accomplish two things that are impossible to do when discussing morality in generic terms. 1) This approach introduces Jesus as the means of salvation from sin and His word as the standard by which moral judgments must be made. 2) This approach will help us to know much about the heart of person that we are engaging. If men reject the light of Jesus’ words, they are in darkness. (John 3:19-21) If we are to truly be helpful to the people around us, we must confront them with their need for Jesus in a specific way. This is how every person who has ever been saved from their sins was converted.