Cultural Differentiation

Dr. Kevin Watson

Cultural Differentiation

January 26, 2024
Dr. Kevin Watson

In Daniel 3, everyone but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bow down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. These three men refused to bow down, even though it came on penalty of death (though we know that the Lord delivered them from Nebuchadnezzar’s hand).

In Daniel 6, those who are jealous of Daniel’s rise to power set a trap for him, convincing the king (now King Darius) to make a law forbidding prayer for thirty days to anyone but the king himself. When Daniel heard about the new law, “he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” (v. 10)

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego provide a model for something I believe is desperately needed in the church today: cultural differentiation.

What is cultural differentiation?

One of the keys to healthy interpersonal relationships is differentiation. Take a married couple: A husband and wife must each take responsibility for their own actions, words, and feelings and not demand that the other person take ownership of what is theirs. (This is not to say that hard heartedness towards each other is encouraged, on the contrary!) A relationship becomes unhealthy when one person either completely loses himself to the other person, or when a person demands that the other person take ownership for his own feelings or actions. Differentiation is a key piece of a healthy marriage, as well as other relationships.

Cultural differentiation is my way of thinking about the need for the church to know who it is as distinct from the dominant cultural moment.

The first six chapters of the Book of Daniel offer a model for cultural differentiation.

In many parts of Daniel, the protagonists negotiate with the dominant culture. They aren’t stubborn and looking for a fight with the powers and principalities of their day. In Daniel 1, for example, all four are given new names. Daniel’s is Belteshazzar, and the other three are the names by which I’ve referred to them. Their Hebrew names are Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

When the diet they were expected to eat would have transgressed their dietary laws, they asked for a trial to see whether the desired outcome (looking healthy and well nourished) could be better achieved by eating only vegetables and water. It worked.

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not always resort to confrontation. In fact, they rarely did. This is part of what makes the stories of confrontation noteworthy in the Book of Daniel.

They Knew Who They Were

The key to how the responded to the various demands of their day was the clarity they had that they were first and foremost a part of God’s chosen people. They were clear that their first priority was faithfulness to God. They would be loyal servants of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius as long as this did not lead them to violate their prior commitment to being faithful to God.

This was not just lip service for these men. They knew their faith. They practiced it with disciplined commitment. And they were connected to each other to walk out their faith together, even in an unpredictably hostile cultural context.

This Is the Way

We live in a time of tremendous upheaval and change in both the broader dominant culture and in the church itself.

Daniel provides a great starting place for us, if we are to be faithful in our day.

First, we need to be immersed in the Christian faith. We need to regularly read the Scriptures, so we are immersed in their worldview. We need to be molded and remade by the Bible. We need to cultivate a prayer life, learning to talk to God and recognize his small still voice. We need to be anchored into a local church and put down deep roots there. We need to intentionally connect with brothers and sisters in our faith family.

Second, as we do the deep work of being formed in a thoroughly Christian identity, we can then hope to faithfully engage the world around us. We can be differentiated from the particular time in which we live.

Third, we must count the cost and be ready to sacrifice for the of faithfulness to the gospel. If this is all merely theoretical, it is dung and dross. Jesus gave his whole life for our justification and sanctification. And the servant is not greater than the Master.

Living Our Faith in Real Time

The Christian life is always lived in the present. We know how Daniel 3 ends. It is a beautiful story! But we must make decisions in the present, where we have faith in the goodness of God, but lack certainty about what will happen next.

I am asking the Lord to raise up a church that will take a stand just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3: 17-18

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

May God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, give us clarity and grant us courage for the living of these days, that we might be faithful to Christ alone!

Kevin M. Watson is Director of Academic Growth & Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is anchored at Asbury Seminary’s Tulsa Extension Site. He also serves in Tulsa as Scholar in Residence at Asbury Church. Connect with Kevin at: