In an informal conversation with university students in São Paulo few years ago, I heard the question, “Can an anthropologist be a Christian?” As I was preparing to answer, a complementary question arose, “Could a Christian be an anthropologist?" The questions were rooted in a collective perception of incompatibility between anthropology and the Christian faith, or even between science and faith. I started the answer by stating that not every anthropologist is a Christian, but every Christian should have anthropological interest by nature.

Christian faith and science are compatible and move in the line of searching for truth. One of the differences, the significant one, is the authoritative source of each segment. Science seeks for evidence or facts that indicate the truth through a cyclical process of research, testing,  authenticating and contestation, whose results become the general momentary consensus. The non-Christian and non-religious scientist investigates the evidences with his established assumptions, usually material and rational, seeking verifiable facts, approaching the universe and life as fruits of a mechanically accidental coincidence and placing himself in a position of distance from spiritual elements such as faith in a personal God.

Christian faith is based on universal facts revealed in the Holy Scriptures and observes other phenomena from this lens and worldview as part of a great story revealed by God. The Christian worldview is rooted in the understanding that all things exist, develop and are established within a universal narrative. This narrative begins with God who creates all things, including the human being to relate to him; the human sin that separates men from God, corrupts all things and leads to death; the divine love that seeks the lost and redeems them through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who, on the cross, paid the unthinkable price so that everyone who believes has life; and the church of Christ with the mission to live and share their faith in the world until the end, when God will judge everything and everyone.

Both segments approach the facts with their presuppositions; whether scientific or non-scientific, religious, personal or intuitive.

My intention is to reflect on the role of the Christian anthropologist who, with his worldview built on faith, interacts with the areas of knowledge and profession. By anthropologist, I mean anyone who scientifically reflects on mankind, society and culture in the purposeful search for knowledge, understanding, relationship and service.

Anthropology has a diverse range of study and reflection evolving via the development and testing of theories, academic positions, empirical provocations and all sorts of human interaction and culture throughout the story. Among various lines, which expand every day, Anthropology can be divided into physical, cultural, archaeological and linguistic, encompassing several areas of the human existence, forming societies.

A Christian has his identity defined in Christ, wherein he believes, loves and follows. Thus, his Christian worldview permeates and defines the way he sees the world and the way he sees himself in this world recognizing the authority of the Holy Scriptures.

Here lies the basis of the recurrent tension between science and faith as the message of Christ is not parallel or selective, but integrated. Thus, it neither walks parallel to human knowledge nor interacts with only some parts of the existence selectively, but involves the whole history, knowledge and human experience from the lenses of God's revelation in Scripture. A fully integrated faith (non-parallel or selective) builds a particular view of the world in the Christian. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if the Christian faith is false, it is no more than a belief; if true, provides new meaning of all things [1]; the belief that Jesus Christ is God, who, having been resurrected, brings a different meaning to all things in the universe.

Paul Hiebert, probably the greatest Christian anthropologist of our generation, proposes that Christian truth transforms the human being into three dimensions; convictions, behaviour and worldview. The truth of the gospel transforms the way one believes, the way one behaves and the way one sees and interacts with the world around [2].

Therefore, the Christian faith touches, transforms and gives new meaning to the human being in a complete way, also encompassing the way in which this search assimilates and develops knowledge. A simple example is the perception of nature, a fundamental point for all those who search for understanding patterns of thinking and social facts. The classical evolutionist tends to see nature as the result of an accident which, in a coincidental and logical way, succeeded in organising and generating the universe, the human being and the conditions for subsistence. Christians tend to see nature as an intentional and personal manifestation of God, his revelation, love and purpose for humanity. This distinct perception at a fundamental point fatally promotes different interpretations of facts and applications of knowledge [3] .

Anthropology, however, must be one of the areas of knowledge most open to diverse interpretations and presuppositions, including those pertaining to faith, since it has been tailored to seek understanding of the human being in its most divergent and different forms of organisation, relationship and beliefs. Anthropology, which takes into account the significance of faith in those who are investigated, should also recognise its real influence on the investigator.

I believe that the three main scenarios where the Christian anthropologist carries out his activities are society, academy and the church.

The role of the Christian anthropologist in society can be conceptualised from its dimension and intention. The scale is established with respect to its identity and mission. However, before I proceed further, I must mention that in referring to Christians, I have in mind a specific group: those who believe and embrace (1) the Holy Scriptures as the revelation of the truth communicated by God to man; (2) the sacrifice of Christ, motivated by love and grace, redeeming the human being by faith and transforming people in new creation; and (3) the church, a community of the redeemed in Christ, with the mission of proclaiming and living the Gospel to all people in all places.

In a way, an anthropologist defines his area of ​​knowledge and profession from human society, its demands, needs and opportunities, assisting the society to understand itself and others. It bestows elements so that the human being perceives better what he observes in search of understanding.

A Christian anthropologist possesses the same dimension in search of knowledge and service, but he exercises knowledge under the fundamental belief in the providence of God. His interaction with this, or any other area of ​​knowledge, does not take place by evolutionary presuppositions, wherein existence results from a coincidental fatalistic accident, rather by the  conviction of God’s providence in creation, redemption and governance in the world.

Returning to the university students in São Paulo, they asked me, for an example, about the attitude of a Christian anthropologist. With this question, a service provided in an African community from Ghana, North West Africa, years ago came to my mind.

It was a Konkomba-Bimonkpeln community which was facing a relational conflict between two clans that shared space and history over a century and a half. Discussing the possible alternatives, each group claimed the right to the land and asked the other to leave. The animosity grew, especially among the young ones. They consulted an anthropologist, who was a Christian, asking for a study of each group’s contribution in the formation of the community, clearly searching for questions related to rights and law. The anthropologist burnt midnight oil in researching and interacting with both groups in an ethnographic task. At the end of the process, he presented the results in a formal and oral approach during a joint meeting, describing the participation of their ancestors in the formation of that society besides presenting the role of each clan. Although the results pointed to more or less equal roles among them, the intent of division was clear and one group found itself in a position to impose their desire on the other asking them to leave. The anthropologist, however, asking for an opportunity to continue, explored one of the fundamental sociocultural elements in the early times of that community: tolerance. He explained that according to his findings, the level of tolerance, including linguistic (since they spoke distinct dialects) and cultural (they had distinct marriage patterns, among other contrasts), was an element that made living together possible. During the meeting, there was a moment of elucidation followed by some comments that analysed the subject, but soon they addressed once again the central reason for the meeting, which was the right to the land and the need for one group to depart.

The anthropologist, asking them to continue sharing his mind, said that there was something more to be mentioned. As a Christian, he understands that above human relationships and nature, there is God. Also, Christ Jesus came to promote reconciliation between man and God and between man and man, summing up all the commandments in two: love God above all things and love the neighbour as oneself. There were a few Christians in that community in both clans. Through them, a reflection on the possibility of resolving conflicts began as love was greater than tolerance. Among the non-Christians, some people also perceived enough reason to reflect little bit more and scheduled new meetings. The anthropologist finished his participation and both groups raised the matter several times over several months. Finally, they reached to the conclusion that they could resolve the conflicts and if they were to divide, they would do it in a peaceful/befitting manner so that they can keep living as neighbours in a tolerant way, as in the past, or even loving; a possible new step.

The end of the story was positive,  in the perception of the group as well as the anthropologist, but the emphasis I make isn’t associated to the result, but to the process. The anthropologist used the appropriate knowledge and procedure to serve the community in an endeavour to be faithful to the historical, cultural and relational findings, identifying a central element (tolerance) in the group’s tradition that could or couldn’t be used by the parts. Also, as a Christian, he presented his interpretation, within the space offered and allowed by the groups, about the providence of God.

It seems that the role of a Christian anthropologist in the human society is to search for knowledge in a way to serve the people providing more clarity in their vision about themselves and others  observing the findings promoted by social sciences, interpreting them as part of a grand narrative, revealed by God, involving facts, truths and principles; serving, never imposing; learning, never controlling.

As far as the academy is concerned, I understand that the role of a Christian anthropologist is to conduct with integrity and competence, learning and growing with the scientific community, its history and tradition, contributing to the development of knowledge from his studies and faith. This conciliation (knowledge and faith), sometimes strange to those in the extremes, i.e. those who despise knowledge or those without faith, is indeed feasible and relevant/pertinent. 

Along these lines, it is also appropriate to highlight the role of Christian missionaries in the development of anthropological knowledge. According to Taber [4], the first explicit interaction between missionaries and anthropologists occurred in 1860 when missionaries began to serve as field researchers for anthropologists who were dedicated to the academic environment. Darrell Whiteman presented that anthropologists such as Tylor and Morgan, among many others, have used world missionary force as their field researchers [5].

In their book Anthropology's Debt to Missionaries, the authors emphasized the significant contribution of missionaries’ research and intercultural experiences over more than three centuries to the development of ethnography and modern anthropology and pointed out that this occurred at a time without competition or animosity between these segments [6].

In the publication The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith, the author highlighted the role of some Christian anthropologists in the scientific environment, especially studies by Edward Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas and Victor Turner in which the influence of the Christian worldview is present in classics like The Nuer, Purity and Danger and The Ritual Process, among others [7] .

In a way, the role of a Christian anthropologist in the academic context is to participate in the history and tradition of the scientific community, searching for knowledge in the social sciences environment, growing as an individual and part of the academic community, also contributing with his talents, proposals and discoveries, with deep respect to the scientific knowledge, to what he approaches and interacts with his Christian worldview.

Thinking about the church, the role of a Christian anthropologist is manifold. Firstly, the role of a Christian anthropologist is to collaborate so that the church understands the present society, trends and worldview to better communicate and interact with that. Secondly, the role of a Christian anthropologist is to collaborate through a variety of studies and reflections involving issues related to urban and sociocultural research, communication patterns and everything that involves the human being, his context and culture.  Thirdly, the role of a Christian anthropologist is to interconnect in local and cross-cultural missionary settings with adequate training for the work of Gospel communication and church formation in another cultural context. 

The Scriptures answer to human questions, but the way people ask questions changes with time, language, culture and context. The Holy Scriptures condemn sensuality, but what is sensual is expressed in particular ways in each generation, environment and culture. A dress, considered provocative in the generation of our grandparents, may be perceived as conservative in the eyes of our children. Therefore, identifying the questions that need to be answered, observing and understanding the context is also a way a Christian anthropologist serves the Christian church. A poor contextualisation leads the church to promote cement temples for clay cultures, keyboard playing for drum people, linear sermons for cyclic minds and polished shoes for bare feet.

Recently I was asked to study the perception of the postmodern, pluralistic and mystical non-Christian society on some Christian values. The result of the study pointed out some serious changes in the Brazilian urban society in the last four decades in the way of seeing the Bible, sin and Christ. In the last chapter, the research revealed that non-Christians don’t reject Christ, but his singularity. To embrace that Christ is one way is something positive, as far it is not presented as being the only way. The research also indicated that in some large Brazilian universities, there is an environment very close to the post-Christian, which demands a more apologetic approach in sharing the faith. With conclusion of the study in hands, leaders of some churches concluded that during the process of evangelisation, they should use the Bible more directly, present the biblical concept of sin more clearly and emphatically announce the singularity of Christ. This example indicates how social sciences could be used to cooperate with the church in the fulfilment of its mission: to communicate the message of the Gospel in a theologically faithful and culturally intelligible way.

In a panoramic view, a Christian anthropologist searches for knowledge in a process of individual on-going learning and towards assisting people to see the world in a more consistent and realistic way, observed by his lenses which are defined by his Christian faith. This is part of his identity as well as his mission.


Ronaldo Lidorio is a theologian and anthropologist, international director of Missiology and church planting of WEC International, also serving as a missionary among unreached people groups in the Amazon. 



[1] Lewis, Clive. God in the dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics . Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.

[2] Hiebert , Paul. Transforming worldviews . São Paulo: New Life, 2016.

[3] Lidorio , Ronaldo. Introduction to Anthropology missionary. São Paulo: New Life, 2014.

[4] Taber, Charles. To understand the world, to save the world: the interface between missiology and social science . Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000.

[5] Witheman , Darrell. "Part 1: Anthropology and mission: the incarnational connection ", International Journal of Frontier Missions 21.1 (2003).

[6] Brown, Paula; Plotnicov , Leonard; Sutlive , Vinson. Anthropology's debt to missionaries . Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh, 2007.

[7] Larsen, Timothy. The slain God: anthropologists and the Christian faith . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.