Borders, Language, and Culture
by Rick Shrader
41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. 42And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:41-47)
“Borders, Language, and Culture” are terms that we hear repeated a lot during a national election year. I very much agree with the intended meaning in the triple description of the nation’s needs. All nations have borders. That is the normal way of saying where the territory starts and stops and also of declaring who is allowed in and who is not. It is like the property line of your home or the title on your car or the lock on your front door. As individuals have a natural right to property, so a nation has also.
All nations have a language. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t also other languages spoken there, or that the citizens don’t work hard at learning other languages. I found this out by marrying into an immigrant family of Russian/Ukrainians who had immigrated to Brazil and Argentina before immigrating to the United States. But even then, when they came to the U.S. they gladly learned the native tongue one more time because English would be necessary to communicate with their new neighbors.
All nations have a culture. This is one of the fun and educational experiences of travel to foreign countries. We never totally lose our native culture even though we work hard at adapting to a new one. We’ve all had the enjoyable experience of eating at a Mexican or Italian restaurant, or at the myriad of other cultural “islands” within our own country. But to be a real country even immigrants blend into their new homeland and become one with many others who add and contribute to the unity of the country.
The more insecure the world becomes the more these three things are important. If every country would do right by these, all countries would benefit. When a country ignores these, the rogue countries of the world flood in to take control and conquer.
The local church of the New Testament also has borders, language, and culture. Every individual church ought to feel that they are the best church and that the environment which they have created is the best place for any other person to be. They ought to believe that the border they have, the language they speak, and the culture they create are all as Biblical as can be.
The New Testament is full of passages that speak about the borders, language, and culture of the church. Acts 2:41-47 is the first picture we have of a church and it is plain enough to see these principles displayed from the very first days of the gospel era.
Borders: the need for membership in the church.
Just as an immigrant desires to become a citizen of a country, so a believer ought to desire to become a member of a local church. A country has a line defined by its constitution which are requirements that must be met. Borders aren’t meant to enslave a nation’s citizens but act as a protection against dangerous intruders and give definition to the procedure for entrance. Church membership can’t forbid a person to leave but it can prohibit a person from coming in who does not agree with the language and culture of the church.
Salvation. “Then they that gladly received his word” (Acts 2:41). The first part of the border of the church is that a person knows Jesus Christ as Savior. Here that is described as “receiving the word.” The book of Acts has many other descriptions of the same thing: repent (38), believe (44), be saved (47), be converted (3:19), hear (3:22), turn (3:26), be obedient (6:7), follow (13:23), and attend to (16:14). The local church is commissioned to take the gospel to the whole world and persuade people to believe, to put their trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then we direct them to the church. In other words, we are ambassadors who are recruiting members to come within our borders by these qualifications.
The New Testament doesn’t take this lightly and neither should we. It is a tragedy when a local church is filled with unconverted members. How can they walk in the Spirit? How can they pray? How can they seek God’s will? How can they vote on spiritual matters? How can they evangelize others? We cannot be more interested in the quantity of our membership than in the specific quality of it. Let visitors be visitors and welcome them gladly, just as a country welcomes visitors, but a citizen must have a change of status. The sinner must be converted. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
Baptism. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Every convert in the book of Acts was baptized. In fact, as F.F. Bruce wrote, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the NT.”1 Baptism is not part of salvation, that is, the forgiveness of sins, but “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). In the initial commission to the church, they were to baptize the disciples which were made (Matt. 28:19-20). These instructions have never been rescinded.
Baptism has both a proper motive and mode. It is a public profession of the person’s salvation experience. It boldly proclaims and pictures the person’s faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The text says, “THEN they that gladly received his word were baptized.” When the eunuch asked to be baptized Philip replied, “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest” (Acts 8:37). When Peter saw many converted in Caesarea he asked, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost?” (Acts 10:47).
The mode of baptism must be immersion as the Greek word baptizō only means. This is the only valid picture of death, burial, and resurrection. Philip and the eunuch “went down both into the water” and came “up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39). The ancient meaning of the word has been well established throughout the history of the church.
Whether a local church makes baptism “the door of the church” or makes it “stand at the door” of the church,2 the principle is that it is part of the border, or port of entry, into the church. To skip this requirement, or to lessen its inconvenience, would be both unbiblical and detrimental to the strength of the church. It is a person’s personal testimony that he has been saved and is qualified to enter.
Agreement. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). No one should become an American citizen who does not believe in its Constitution and who does not intend to uphold it. Not every saved and baptized person should join a particular church but only those who are also in agreement with its beliefs and practices.
Though it would be a great thing if all local churches in the world believed the same thing about the New Testament, but they don’t. We can’t change that on this side of glory. Denominational distinctions have been a good thing for this reason. A believer should desire to practice his/her faith with like-minded believers. Just as a country is glad for other countries, churches do not forbid other churches that differ, but rather are glad for the freedom to practice as they feel they must. It is a wonderful fellowship of believers who share salvation, baptism, and agreement as the basis for their common worship.
Language: the understanding of like-minded faith in the church.
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common” (Acts 2:44). Just as a common language allows the citizens of a country to communicate with one another, so like-minded faith allows the members of a local church to fellowship with one another. Common language is the ability to hear, speak, and nuance specific communication. Like-minded faith is the ability to talk, listen, and comprehend in a common biblical terminology.
Church documents. All churches have official founding documents. Though we have the Bible as our basis for faith and practice, we also have learned the need to specify how we understand the Bible, both for those who want to join with us and for those who want to know about us. Usually these are divided into the doctrinal statement (a statement of what we believe) and by-laws (a description of how we practice). Many churches also have a church covenant which is a statement of agreed intentions of how we will live as members together in the church. In addition, the church documents will include Articles of Incorporation, which are legal statements that satisfy the state of residence for specific things, especially if the church is a registered non-profit organization.
Above, when I pointed out “agreement” as a border to the church, I mentioned all of these as a “Constitution.” These documents are not just ancillary paperwork but are the very language that the members of a particular church speak. We will carry on the business of the church by this language. We will show proper recognition for our leadership by this language. We will vote and abide by the majority of Spirit-filled people because we know the syntax and speak the language of the church.
Church worship. “And they, continuing daily with one accord” (Acts 2:46). “They lifted up their voice to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24). Worship in the local church has become a “style.” We have this worship style and that worship style. It is true that churches behave differently during their services, but why and how we do this is more important than a mere style. The clothes I wear may be a style, or the car I drive to church may show a style, but how we fellowship, sing, pray, and preach are what we believe about worship.
“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16).
Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Most of the skills we learn in order to get along successfully in this life will be of no use in heaven…But when we invest ourselves in learning to worship, we are making an investment in a skill that will be essential throughout eternity.”3 Worship is an essential language both in this life and in the life to come.
Jesus said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). John Flavel, a fifteenth century Puritan, said, “Carnal men rejoice carnally, and spiritual men rejoice spiritually.”4 A believer cannot forsake the assembling together with other believers (Heb. 10:25) and when he assembles he must be able to approach God in a clear conscience with his heart and mind in a humble and reverent attitude. We want to do this with other believers who are speaking this same language.
Church doctrine. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). Paul admonished Timothy, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16). As with our agreement about like-minded faith, and the language of our documents, our doctrine becomes everyday language at church and at home. We will hear it from the pulpit and in Bible study. We will teach it to our children and to our new converts. We will use this language in the fellowship halls and homes of our members. We agreed to speak this language when we joined the church.
Our day has also seen a certain downplaying of doctrine when it comes to church fellowship. We think we can remain in fellowship though we believe differently in major areas of doctrine. In America we are witnessing vastly opposing points of view, almost as if we have two countries within a country. It is obvious that this cannot last for long. Neither can it last within a church. Like a nation’s Constitution, a church’s doctrinal statement is its lowest common denominator. A church’s doctrine is both broad and narrow: it is broad enough that there is room for difference on minor things, and it is narrow enough that it at least says something specific. This makes church fellowship and worship comfortable and safe. We all know what we have in common.
There should be no stealth applications for membership in a nation or in a church. No one should come in who plans to fundamentally change the nation or church. Rather, find a nation or church with which you agree and live there happily. Nor should a pastor seek to be called to a church who plans from the beginning to change the church into something contrary to its constitution. This would be dishonest. Agreement in faith and practice is vital to citizenship and membership.
Culture: the life-style of Christians living within the church.
“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46). Our country is facing the problem of becoming a hobo stew rather than a melting pot. Immigrants should come into a country and blend with its culture and become one of them. My in-laws, though bringing multiple cultures with them, were anxious to become Americans. Sure, they retained many cultural things, things that one cannot discard very quickly such as an accent, or a facial look, or a taste for certain foods. But these are harmless when the great desire is to be a part of the new culture.
Life-style convictions. I doubt that cannibalism would fit very well into American society. Polygamy has also been banned except in rare places. It was a better day when bootlegging, gangs, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and the like were also unacceptable in a civilized society. God’s people who join local churches know that the Bible describes the life-style of a believer. There have always been and there will always be differences as to how we apply these teachings to our own time. But a believer must live by his conscience in the culture in which he lives. There are certain things he cannot do. That may be some language, or matters of modesty, or certain beverages, or various places of entertainment. His attitude toward these is a Biblical thing to him, and his church is a big part of his life within that culture.
Just as a citizen of a country will choose to live or not live in certain localities, or will choose to work or not work in certain occupations, or will choose to participate or not participate in various cultural mores, so the Christian will choose a church that fits his Christian cultural convictions. A Christian cannot live contrary to those convictions. Carl Trueman wrote, “The frothy entertainment culture in which we live is a narcotic: not only is it addictive, so that we always want more; it also eats away at us, skewing our priorities, rotting our values as surely as too much sugar rots our teeth.”5 The local church is the most important culture a Christian has.
John wrote, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God” (1 John 4:4-6). It doesn’t affect us what the world does outside the church, but it greatly affects us what the culture is inside the church.
Loving the brethren. Immediately upon receiving Christ we become brothers or sisters to other believers. We are part of the family, we are joint heirs together with Christ and all Christians. Just as a legal immigrant is pronounced a citizen at a legal ceremony and is immediately given all rights as a citizen, so the believer in Christ receives all the rights of a child of God.
We are obligated as believers to “love the brethren.” We now see all believers as God sees them, special objects of His grace. In fact, we now see all people as potential objects of His grace. We can no longer curse someone who we understand bears the image of God in his/her very makeup (Jas. 3:8-10). It is a terrible thing to see believers with hatred toward other believers. We might as well have hatred toward Christ our brother.
Mortals join this happy chorus
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the Joy divine.6
In a country we can become very partial in our loves and likes, and even bigoted or racist. But in the church all human distinctions are removed—the only place on earth where these distinctions are truly removed. The biggest struggle that I observe is the difficulty in loving and respecting our elders. We live in a youth-oriented time. As a pastor of wonderful older people I can truly say that they possess the wisdom, the servant attitude, the toughness, the faithfulness, the humor, and the love that is characteristic of Christians. “Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger women as sisters, with all purity. Honor widows that are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:1-3).
Local church life. “And all that believed had all things common. . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:44, 47). Multi-Culturalism is tearing our country apart. It seems like a good thing but in reality it divides rather than unifies. It is the American culture that has made America great. George Washington said, “The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.”7 The local church should be one culture. Yes, we bring our earthly baggage with us, but we check it at the door as best we can.
Besides the borders, the language, and various elements of culture, the point of most of this article has been the life of the local church. Among the myriad other things we must do in life, nothing is more precious to the believer than the local church. We are pilgrims and strangers on this earth and the local church is the rest area for travelers. It is made up of homeless people. Peter writes to us as, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11). “Stranger” literally means “without a house,” and “pilgrim” literally means “without kin.” Yet we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
If we would love the church more than the world, the church would again have power in the world. It is that power we need to be witnesses in a dark world. “Save yourselves from this ontoward generation” Peter preached at the beginning of our text (Acts 2:40). We do that through sustained life in the body of Christ, through a Christian culture.
And So . . .
A nation needs definite borders, one language, and a unifying culture. So does a church. A church should have a high wall of salvation, baptism, and agreement. It should speak the same language of by-laws, worship, and doctrine. It should also live a common life-style of conviction, love, and church life.
“Now unto him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).
- F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 77.
- Edward Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1894 to 1970) describes both methods for Baptist churches. Pages 77 & 121.
- Douglas Groothuis, Christianity That Counts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 75.
- John Flavel, “From A Coronation Sermon,” A Collection of Orations from Homer to McKinley, vol. 4 (New York: Collier and Son, 1902) 1599.
- Carl Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, Kindle, 1416, p. 111.
- Henry Van Dyke, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. A mixture of verses 3 and 4.
- George Washington, “Farewell Address,” Orations, 2526.