It is important to distinguish between ethnicity and culture because if we don’t, we only fuel volatile hostility between groups like white supremacists and multiculturalists.
Many Christians are talking about culture these days, but unfortunately, few have given any serious thought to what culture is, especially in biblical terms.
The term “culture” is a concept that has developed in the last few hundred years as a way to explain different behaviors between groups of people. “Culture” originally meant something more along the lines of what we would call “high culture,” but now it has come to take on a broader meaning. British anthropologist Edward Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” This understanding has come to be the standard definition, and evangelicals have adopted the concept as well, as evidenced in Lesslie Newbigin’s definition: “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”
Very simply, culture is the shared behavior of a particular group of people. The question for Christians, then, should be this: what in Scripture best parallels this concept of “culture”?
Most Evangelicals automatically assume that when the Bible talks about a “nation” or “ethnicity,” it is the same thing as “culture.” This is clear because when most Evangelicals defend cultural neutrality or stress the need for multicultural churches, they appeal to passages that talk about ethnicity, such as Matthew 28:19 or Revelation 5:9. This is also evident by the way Evangelicals insist that it is racist to criticize certain cultural expressions.
However, what should be evident after careful biblical reflection is that “nation” or “ethnicity” is not the same thing as “culture.”
Ethnicity (I deliberately use the term “ethnicity” instead of “race” because biblically speaking, there is only one human race) refers to people united by common ancestry. The Bible is clear that God desires to save people (and, indeed, will save people) from every ethnicity, and consequently, we Christians have the responsibility to spread the gospel to people from every ethnicity. God ordains ethnicities. They are all equally good and valuable. People from every ethnicity are all united into one body in the church of Jesus Christ. One day, redeemed people from every ethnicity will surround the throne of God in the worship of him.