The Paradox of Ethnocentric Ethnorelativism: An Examination of a Christian Worldview

by Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith
27th October 2017

In the present context of rapid globalisation, one of the unique challenges with which Christian educators have to grapple is equipping students to engage with multiple worldviews in their community and workplaces, without compromising their own (Christian) worldview.[1] Amongst Christian educators, however, engaging with multiple worldviews or ethnorelativism could be perceived as problematic in light of the position that a Christian worldview espouses the existence of objective truth.[2] If we are to educate students to be both Christian as well as to hold ethnorelative attitudes toward people of other cultures, then a closer examination of ethnocentrism, ethnorelativism, and their implications to a Christian worldview is necessary.

A Christian Worldview

Before discussing ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism, it is necessary to establish what is meant by a Christian worldview within the parameters of this discussion. The label ‘worldview’ is used here in the sense of one’s philosophical orientation to the world; thus Christian worldview implies an orientation to the world based on doctrinal beliefs of the Christian faith. However, not only are there denominational variations in these beliefs but also cultural variations in the practice of Christian faith. Therefore, in as much as there are multiple cultural iterations of Christianity, there are Christian worldviews – plural. Hence the label ‘a Christian worldview’ is used in the present discussion to acknowledge the existence of more than one Christian worldview. The assumption, however, is that the arguments presented here apply across multiple Christian worldviews.

Ethnocentrism vs. Ethnorelativism

Ethnocentrism is an orientation toward the world wherein one sees other cultures through the perspective of one’s own culture. Further one evaluates others’ values and beliefs based on one’s own (cultural) values and beliefs, making binary judgments of right and wrong using the standards of one’s own culture.[3] In early research on ethnocentrism, American philosopher Sumner[4] proposed that ethnocentrism satiates the vanity of ingroup members and fuels contempt toward outgroup members. While some ethnocentrism is inevitable and while ethnocentrism forms the basis of patriotism, for example,[5] ethnocentrism is proven to be toxic to effective and appropriate intercultural communication.[6]

Ethnorelativism, on the other hand, is the acknowledgement of multiple, equally valid, cultures – not wrong, but different. In the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), intercultural communication researcher Bennett[7] proposes that development of intercultural sensitivity occurs progressively and directionally from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. The DMIS identifies three ethnocentric stages, namely denial, defense, and minimisation, and three ethnorelative stages, namely, acceptance, adaptation, and integration. In the denial stage, people are unaware of cultural differences and even if they are aware, this awareness is simplistic and broadly general. In the defense stage people are aware of cultural differences but in stereotypical and often judgemental ways. In the minimisation stage people over-generalise similarities between them and other cultures such that they underestimate the significance of cultural differences. Acceptance, the first ethnorelative stage, is where people recognise the existence of multiple, equally valid, cultures, even if they do not agree with the ways of other cultures. Adaptation is a stage where people start changing their behaviour to suit the context, in order to be culturally appropriate. The final ethnorelative stage, integration, is where people being to internalise values and behaviours of other cultures such that some ways of other cultures become part of their own cultural repertoire.


Table 1: Ethnocentrism and Ethnorelativism from a Christian Worldview

DMIS Category Example Denial “We (i.e. the people who are of my culture and who do church the way we do) are the ‘real’ Christians.” Defense “I know Christians in other cultures have different ways of doing things, but often they’re influenced by pagan cultures or secular values and should be corrected.” Minimisation “There is only one real culture that matters– ‘kingdom’ culture.” Acceptance “The way we ‘do’ church in my culture is one of many equally valid ways of gathering together as believers; although I prefer a 20minute sermon to a 2 hour sermon.” Adaptation “I’m in a culture where everyone takes off their footwear before entering church, therefore I will too even though this action doesn’t necessarily mean anything to me personally.” Integration “Having experienced taking my shoes off for church in another culture, I appreciate the reverence in that symbolic gesture and now I take off my shoes before I enter my own church.”


A Paradox

Whilst deconstructing a Christian worldview in light of ethnocentric and ethnorelative positioning, a paradox emerges. A Christian worldview claims that there is only one path to salvation (John 14:6). To say that my way is the only (right) way is, by definition, ethnocentric. However, a Christian worldview also claims that all humans, regardless of cultural or religious beliefs, are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This validation of the inherent equality of human beings, regardless of culture, is, on the other hand, ethnorelative. A Christian worldview espouses objective truth; for example, there is one true God (Ephesians 4:6, 1Timothy 2:5), regardless of whether one believes in him or not. This belief that one’s own worldview is the objective truth is ethnocentric. By the same token, however, a Christian worldview also espouses a multicultural eschatology (Revelation 7:9) which is an ethnorelative positioning. The belief in Jesus Christ as the one true God and one path to salvation (i.e. “my God is the only true God and the only path to salvation”) is, once more, ethnocentric by definition. But the Christian scriptures also portray Jesus as someone who modelled ethnorelative behaviour in the way he communicated across social and cultural barriers (Luke 19:1-10; John 4), treating people of different cultures as people of inherent and equal value. A Christian worldview therefore appears to be paradoxically ethnocentric and ethnorelative. How then can this paradox be reconciled? In fact, can it be reconciled?

A possible answer lies in the attitudes associated with the three ethnocentric stages identified in the DMIS. Denial implies an attitude of ignorance or unwillingness to learn or understand. Such an attitude, however, is inconsistent with a Christian worldview (Proverbs 18:15, Proverbs 14:18) which strongly advocates the active pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Defense implies an attitude of pride wherein one views other cultures as inferior to one’s own culture. Pride too is inconsistent with a Christian worldview. In fact, the Christian scriptures explicitly advocate humility (James 4:6, Philippians 2:3). Minimisation implies an attitude of apathy or indifference to the rich and contextual nuances that make up variations in culture. Indifference in general, and indifference toward the circumstances and context of people, is contrary to a Christian worldview which simultaneously advocates the sameness of humanity and the uniqueness of individual humans. For example, the first public appearance of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 demonstrates the message of the gospel being communicated to people of a variety of cultures (implying they were entitled to hear the message, regardless of their origin) but in their own languages (showing a customisation and acknowledgement of unique cultures).

It can thus be argued that, while some beliefs of a Christian worldview are indeed ethnocentric, a Christian worldview does not support the attitudes associated with the stages of ethnocentrism identified in the DMIS. Therefore it is proposed that, within a Christian worldview, it is possible to hold ethnocentric views without ethnocentric attitudes. In other words, in order to be consistent with the teachings of Christianity, these ethnocentric views within a Christian worldview must be accompanied by ethnorelative attitudes in the meeting of a Christian worldview with other worldviews.


Table 2: Examples of Ethnocentric Views and Ethnorelative Attitudes from a Christian Worldview.

Ethnocentric Position Ethnorelative Attitude “I believe there is only one true path to salvation, through Christ.”


“I am aware not everyone believes as I do and I am interested and willing to listen to what they believe and why.” “I believe there is objective Truth, which is the teachings of my Christian faith.” “I am aware that my culture and my experiences influence my reality and recognise that other people’s cultures and experiences lead them to different perceptions reality. I recognise that they may hold to what they believe as the truth as passionately as I hold to mine, even if I disagree with their view.” “I believe there is only one true God, who is my God.” “I recognise that others believe in other deities. I recognise that their beliefs are as sacred to them as mine are to me. I am willing to have open two-way dialogues about faith.”



One of the fundamental facets of a Christian worldview is the mandate to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20). This implies effective and appropriate communication with people of a variety of cultures – which in turn necessitates an ethnorelative orientation rather than an ethnocentric orientation. It is therefore essential that Christian educators equip their students (and indeed members of church congregations) to hold in balance their Christian worldview while being open to engage with multiple other worldviews. In fact, the basis of communication is shared meaning. How can a Christian communicate with someone with a different worldview if the Christian is unable and/or unwilling to genuinely understand the world as the other person sees it? From an outsider’s perspective, a Christian worldview may, and in some ways rightly, seem ethnocentric. Therefore it is necessary for Christians to closely examine the paradox of ethnocentric ethnorelativism within a Christian worldview in order to be able to authentically engage with other worldviews. This essay has presented one perspective on how a Christian could reconcile his/her seemingly ethnocentric positions with ethnorelative attitudes that are appropriate for communicating relationally with people of other worldviews.



About the Author: Associate Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is the Director of Research at Alphacrucis College and a disciplinary expert in intercultural communication.


[1] Smith, D. L. (2009). Learning from the stranger. Grand Rapids, MI: Eederman’s Publishing.

[2] Smith, N. L. (2013). (Re)Considering a critical ethnorelative worldview goal and pedagogy for global and biblical demands in Christian higher education. Christian Scholar’s Review, 42(4), 345-373.

[3] Gudykunst, W. B. & Kim, Y. Y. (2003). Communicating with strangers. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

[4] Sumner, W, G, (1906). Folkways. Boston, MA: Ginn,

[5] Neuliep, J. W. & McCroskey, J. C. (1997). The development of U.S. and generalized ethnocentrism scale. Communication Research Reports, 14, 385–398.

[6] Arasaratnam, L. A., & Banerjee, S. C. (2007). Ethnocentrism and sensation seeking as variables that influence intercultural contact-seeking behavior: A path analysis. Communication Research Reports, 24, 303 – 310.

[7] Bennett, M. (1986). A developmental approach to training for intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10(2), 179-95.

Bennett, M. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practices. Boston: Intercultural Press.