An American missionary visited a remote African tribe in the 1950's. The Tribal Leader was moved and felt called to the Lord. He asked what needed to be done to go to Heaven. The missionary told the Tribal Leader that he needed to repent and be baptized. The Tribal Leader asked of his sin and was then informed that he could not be married to three women and unless he leaves behind this sinful life, he could not be baptized, and could not receive the gifts of the Spirit. With a heavy heart, the Tribal Leader watched the missionary leave.
A year later, the missionary returned to the tribe. After a lesson, the Tribal Leader came forward and claimed his acceptance of Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The missionary was overjoyed and asked if the Tribal Leader had acted on the words of wisdom from his last visit. The Tribal Leader exclaimed with great exuberance that he did and he now only had one wife! The missionary was so excited that the Tribal Leader could now become a baptized believer! Curiously, he then asked of the whereabouts of the former wives, the Tribal Leader told the missionary that he had killed them.
The American missionary came to bring good news, truly a noble and worthy thing; but failed to recognize how different the cultures were. In this particular tribe, plural marriage was a lesson in love and respect. The cultural reasoning behind this was in the event the first wife was barren, the husband could marry a second woman so she could bear children for his first wife. In this case, the second wife was also barren, so the Tribal Leader married a third time in order to have children to share among all three women. (This is actually a very Jewish concept.) When the Tribal Leader was informed he could only be baptized after he choose between the wives he loved and the Jesus the preacher spoke of, he was put in a tough spot. Divorcing two of them would be a life sentence of prostitution or slavery. So with love, the Tribal Leader killed them to keep them from a destitute life.
As part of our training for Africa, we discussed this very lesson so we could begin to see the world isn't based on American ideas and opinions. How can we reach the unreached if we don’t first adapt to the culture in which we serve? What good is it if the first thing we do is offend a culture who was taught their way of doing things is the only possible correct way, much like what we have been taught? What happened when the Tribal Leader (from our story) begin to read the Old Testament story of Solomon, with 300 wives and 800 concubines, when he himself was not permitted to have only three beloved wives? Will the remainder of the tribe then come to believe that one must commit murder in order to become a Christian?
Unfortunately, the answer to bridging cultural gaps is very complex. For example, look at the way we Americans dress. We cover our breasts and are comfortable revealing our legs. In many African cultures, this is forbidden. The breasts are not sexual because they are used for feeding a baby; covering them only hinders the feeding process. But the legs are part of the sexual beauty in a woman and thus covered in long dress. What if a visiting Western woman were to walk around in shorts, what impression will she give an African male? It would be one that says all Western women are sexually immoral simply because of their only experience with this one Western woman. Does it make their culture wrong and Americans right or does it make their culture right and ours wrong?
The basic awareness of cultural differences can be applied to just about any relationship, from different races, different nationalities, different Christian denominations, and even to different families. Each one has a micro-culture specific to them and will do things slightly different than another, and all of this is OK.
"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Galatians 3:28
Does Paul say everyone must do everything the same? Certainly the Jewish culture was completely different than that of the Gentiles. Certainly some cultural changes had to happen in order to live more like Christ, but to completely act the same would be absurd. The important thing to remember is one is not better or worse than another, just different.