As a priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church, I acknowledge that there are few issues that cause greater fear, anxiety, and debate within the global Coptic Church than the topic of faith and culture. The good news is that this sort of debate goes all the way back to the 1st Century Church and can be clearly seen in the book of Acts, so this is nothing new. As my parents immigrated to the United States in 1970, I suppose that makes me a first generation Coptic-American (born in Detroit). Growing up trapped between 3 worlds (America, Egypt, and Orthodox Christianity), it wasn’t until many years later that I was finally able to reconcile all 3 of these paradigms in the person of Christ, the One in who all of us live, and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
A significant part of the process that an immigrant Church must engage in is in developing a correct sense of inculturation (making the Gospel incarnate into host culture). This of course presumes that it has already effectively passed through the sociological process of enculturation. There are two great dangers to be aware of. What are thee twin pitfalls? Indiscriminate enculturation on one side and the complete rejection of the new culture on the other side. The three steps a healthy Church community will pass through include:
1. Adopt the positive aspects of a specific culture, which are compatible with the values of the Gospel (language is just the tip of the iceberg)
2. Reject the negative aspects of culture that are contradictory to the Orthodox Christian understanding of the Gospel (such as individualism, sexual perversions, consumerism, etc)
3. Infuse life into the host culture by seeking to transform the local culture with aspects from previous context that may enrich the new environment
All 3 steps require deep thought and consideration. That said, if this process does not occur, we as Christians miss out on our God-given call to be witnesses by sharing the Gospel locally. A caution that must be considered is that the Community – in the process of enculturating – does not lose its particularity, by melting into this generic spirituality.
While it is clear to most people that there is a need to inculturate, it does however come with a great sacrifice. The sacrifice is that I have to put Christ above culture, as He is truly is! In the words of the 2nd Century Letter to Diognetus “Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
This must be done while not dismissing the plight of those who are fleeing as refugees from their homelands abroad. This requires that those who have traveled from far to our local churches be received, as indicated in the 1st century document the Didache, 12. However, in the occasion that one requires an extended time to transition culturally to the new context, certain communities and persons ought to be dedicated to receive them in such a way that they may continue to nourish them with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The mistake many people fall into is considering that communities must be “either this or that”. Rather the more wholistic approach is to maintain a “both / and” type presence, in order to serve the increasingly diverse places we live.
Whereas the ancient Church of Egypt certainly maintains a rich history of martyria – as reflected through martyrdom, monasticism, theological etc – there is an absolute necessity to unveil those ancient truths to the modern world in which we live. There is much at stake, and either way you slice it, THE COST IS HIGH!
More on this in my book Incarnational Exodus. Click HERE or on the image below for more details.