These arguments often come down to definitions. If we define culture as the sum of a series of factors including language, a web of relationships (family, community), that shapes the way we think about food, clothing, and work then culture is one thing and confession is another. The Reformed confess what they do in a variety of cultures. The Reformed faith is confessed and practiced faithfully in a variety of culture (e.g., African, Asian, and Western). That confession is in each of these cultures and to some degree is necessarily affected by them and yet it also transcends them all. We confess truths about revelation, God, man, salvation, the church, and last things that find faithful expression in each of these cultures and that binds us together who confess the same faith in ways that transcend our particular cultures.
To be sure, a confession, in its own way is or creates a culture. It has a language (a grammar), it does create a web of relationships and associations, that also shapes the way we look at food, clothing, and work. So we have a common culture that we share with non-believers and we have a sacred culture that we share with other believers who confess the same theology, piety, and practice.
When the two collide, however, confession must trump culture. This is much easier to say than to practice. It is easy to assume that our culture, in the first sense, is our confession. This is particularly true when a given cultural setting (e.g., Scottish Highlanders perhaps or Dutchmen or Huguenots) has been very closely associated with the Reformed confession. When the faith has been practiced in a group for a very long time, in roughly the same way, it’s natural to assume that is the way it must be practiced. When the lines between church and family (as one expression of culture in the broader sense, which is the sense in which I am most interested here) become blurred, it may become difficult even to know that there ever was a distinction between the culture in which we learned the confession and the confession itself.
There is a difference. The New Testament church experienced this acutely when Gentiles began to be admitted to the churches. What had been hitherto a Jewish movement was now a culturally mixed movement. The Gentiles didn’t share Jewish assumptions about language, food, clothing. Many Jewish Christians assumed that their culture was the faith, that there was no other way to practice the faith than the way it had been received and practiced by them. The conflict became so intense that a council was called (Acts 15) to sort it out. The church determined that God’s Word does not require that Gentiles continue what were distinctively Jewish practices. Paul had to confront this often enough that twice he said, in two different epistles, essentially the same thing: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. Those social and cultural differences, as important as they were in daily life, relative to the our life before the face of God (coram Deo) in the church have no status. Our only status is our status in Christ.
One of the great functions of the confession is to give us a measuring line by which to determine what of our practice is cultural and what is confessional. E.g., we don’t confess tunes and tempos but we do confess a principle of worship. We don’t confess a language (French or German) but we do confess a particular view of Scripture, of humanity, of God, salvation, the church, and last things. In the church, what we confess together out of the Scriptures is far more important than the culture in which we learned the faith. That culture may have great benefits but it isn’t the faith.
In that sense, there is often, in the church, a clash between the culture of the confession and the culture in which the confession was learned and taught. The Gentiles who were grafted in, however, did not have to become Jews to become Christians. In this clash, the confession (culture in the narrow sense) trumps culture (in the broader sense). These conflicts are useful because they should drive us back behind our assumptions about the way things must have been (even if they weren’t) to a study of what God’s Word actually says and what we actually confess.
We do not define the faith. It defines us. It comes to us from outside of us. We receive the faith in a culture but we test that (broader) culture in which we receive the faith by God’s Word. It is not easy to be critical of a culture while one is in it. In some ways it is not possible but it will help if we recognize that the culture and confession are distinct. That’s why Scripture (as confessed by the churches) is our test and that’s the test by which we measure everything in the church.