Cultural Separatism

In this article I am using “Christian” as it is used in India–one born into the Christian religious community. My use also includes non-Indians (i.e. Americans, etc) who follow Christ. This article is based largely on Dr. J. Paul Pennington’s chapter on Cultural Separatism in his book Christian Barriers to Jesus.


Many Christians, including “first generation” Hindu background believers, have been taught that they should stay as far away as possible from Hindu culture and community. They were taught to leave their Hindu family to follow Jesus, to change their names, and to avoid as much as possible any contact with Hindus or Hindu things. Christian children were told not to befriend Hindus or enter their Hindu friends’ homes.

The defining verse for this cultural separatism was Isaiah 52:11 (quoted by the apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 6:17): “Come out from among them and be separate, and touch no unclean thing.” This has been taught to mean that believers should have as little relationship as possible with Hindus, even on an ordinary social interaction basis. Christians were instead encouraged to form and join a separate, self-contained socio-religious community.

An Indian Christian who has lived in the US for many years related to me that when a Hindu woman came into his shop one day, he would not even move to serve her as a customer. That is the extent to which his upbringing told him to be separate from “idol worshippers.”

However, Christians have failed to balance 2 Cor. 6:17 with Paul’s instructions to the same Corinthian believers in 1 Cor. 5:9-10: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.”

Dr. J. Paul Pennington, in Christian Barriers to Jesus, stresses that “the will of the Lord is found in a Spirit-led balance between 1 Cor. 5:9-10 and 2 Cor. 6:17…. Jesus rejected [the separatist spirit of the Old Covenant] and called his followers to become incarnational rather than isolationist.” Both the Apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus clearly modeled relationships with those in need of the Good News that involved going to them, meeting them in their natural places, touching and being touched, eating with them, and other close associations. This model has been called “incarnational” or “contextualized” ministry.

The results of such close interaction were that many sinners were drawn to repentance, and those “harassed and helpless” under the prevailing religious system were set free to enter new relationships with their God. It also resulted in the murderous ire of the Pharisees, whose name epitomizes their model of dealing with sinners–“The Separated Ones.”

Pennington writes (and my experiences agree) that the Indian Christian spirit of cultural separatism may run a range from mild “disregard for Hindu concerns… [to] overt disrespect or even disdain for the Hindu communities and traditions around them.”

Indian Christians, with their cultural and linguistic knowledge, their access to Hindus in this country, mobility to and from the mother country, and their willingness to support evangelism if not engage in it themselves, can be key players in the effort to bring Jesus to those who need him. Pennington observes, “Many Indians [i.e. Hindus] admire Jesus and respect the Bible. Yet, despite this interest, Christian separatist practices… actively keep people from considering Jesus.” Thus, winning over Christians into a more incarnational attitude from their separatist attitudes is valuable Kingdom work, if only to avoid further damage in the name of Christ. The Indian Christian mentioned above repented of his attitude when he heard a clear appeal to incarnational ministry based on Matthew 9:35-38.

Do Christians in America and other western countries also practice cultural separatism? Yes, but it usually takes a very different form – as unfriendliness toward immigrant neighbors, willful ignorance and disdain of other cultures, fear of change and power loss and of those who seem to be causing that change. These attitudes result in withdrawal rather than loving relationships, self-protection rather than self-giving. They too are the essence of pharisaism.

Even Christians who are attempting to engage in incarnational ministry among our Hindu neighbors sometimes show separatistic attitudes toward those who follow more traditional ministry models (which they deem harmful). One such incarnational Christian said to me, “You can’t convert Indian Christians.”

So this lesson of cultural separatism is for all of us. As true Alongsiders, let us all treat each other with love, grace, and humility as we journey toward being more Christlike, bringing our Hindu friends with us.


Hear more from Cathy as she presents at the 2018 Rethinking Forum in Chicago. 

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