The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Afflictions of the 'Body': The Early Church’s Opponents and Its Prescriptions against Heresy; 1. Opposition and Mission

Afflictions of the 'Body': The Early Church’s Opponents and Its Prescriptions against Heresy; 1. Mission and Opposition


The Church was born in the midst of great controversy.  The Body of Christ, the Church, continues to face external and internal afflictions.  As a messianic movement, its first two representatives, John the Baptist and Jesus, were put to death.  Other very early proponents of Christianity were put to death: Stephen the deacon and James the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ close disciples.  Such opposition came from outside the faith.  Beginning with Judas Iscariot, disciples of Christ have experienced internal afflictions as well.  In these studies, we intend to examine the external and internal afflictions of God’s people in the days of the early Church as well as in our day.

God’s Afflicted People:

Any such study needs to begin with the observation that the early Church did not see itself as a new religion without a history.  Believers saw themselves as the fulfillment of centuries of history and prophecy that were recorded in the Scriptures (the Old Testament).  Whether they were Jews or Gentiles, the history of God’s people in Scripture was their history.  That history was a history of God calling out his people from the other nations (the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons), out of Egypt (Moses); separating his people from the nations in and surrounding Canaan (Joshua, Judges, and the history of the kings of Israel); living for God among idolatrous nations while in exile; and returning to the land of Israel from captivity but only to find themselves more often than not under foreign rule.  God’s people were ‘wandering Arameans,’ a wilderness people, a righteous remnant, sojourners in the world whose citizenship was in heaven.  Such a history is chock full not only of external opposition and persecution of God’s people but also of betrayal, misguidance, and rebellion.

No wonder, then, that the early Church could read her own experience of opposition right out of Israel’s own history.  Jesus began his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel with a warning about the opposition that his followers would face because the unrighteous have always opposed God’s people.  He said,

Matthew 5:11-12 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

As he faced his own arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem, Jesus predicted that his followers would also face tribulation.  Speaking in particular regarding the scribes and Pharisees in Israel, Jesus linked the opposition his followers would face to that the prophets of old had faced from other Jews:

Matthew 23:31-35 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.  33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?  34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town,  35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….

Jesus repeated this as a warning to his disciples, noting that the threat would be internal as well.  The Church itself would be harassed and persecuted by false prophets and supposed disciples who, in reality, rejected God’s commandments (lawlessness) and who had grown cold in their love of God and of faithful believers:

Matthew 24:9-13 "Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.  10 Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.  11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.  13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

In speaking of the horror of persecution, Jesus used language from the book of Daniel.  Daniel had predicted a ‘desolating sacrilege,’ a desecration of the altar in the most holy place of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This prophecy was fulfilled in 167 B.C., when the Syrian ruler, Antiochus the IV ‘Epiphanes’ entered the most holy place and had a pig sacrificed on the altar.  During this time, Jews were compelled to sacrifice to other gods or be put to death.  Moreover (and this is crucial to understand), Jewish religious authorities would compromise the true faith in order to accommodate themselves to the new situation.  They would attempt to retain power: the office of the high priest was even bought by the highest bidder.  Many Jews chose to adopt Greek morals, right down to an operation to remove the signs of circumcision (so-called ‘epispasm’) so that they could exercise naked and appear to be Gentiles in the newly built Greek gymnasiums!  The story of the righteous martyrs who remained faithful to God and withstood the lure of their new, cultural context can be read in 1 and 2 Maccabees.  These two books in the Apocrypha, like such books as Daniel and Esther in the Old Testament, recorded heroic stories of resisting culture in order to stay faithful to God.  They were deeply ingrained stories in the narrative identity of faithful Jews in the time of Jesus.

Such a history was the Church’s history.  Jesus warned his disciples that his crucifixion would inaugurate a period of tribulation that would define the Church’s existence in the same way that Israel’s existence under Antiochus IV was defined: persecution, martyrdom, false teaching, grasps for power in religious institutions, and compromise of the true faith.  Once again, God’s people would find themselves facing a time of ‘desolating sacrilege’ as Daniel had predicted.  Jesus’ warnings were fulfilled within the lifetime of his disciples, yet their experience would also be the subsequent history of the Church to our day: the Church regularly—sometimes more, sometimes less—faces persecution, martyrdom, false teaching, grasps for power in religious institutions, and compromise of the true faith.

The history of the Church’s afflictions, however, would not be the history of a godly nation surrounded by oppressive, idolatrous nations but of a godly people sent out to the nations to bring them to God.  However much we can speak of Israel’s mission in the Old Testament, its primary focus was on being God’s righteous people to which the nations would stream (Isaiah 2.2-5).  Matthew 24.9-13 was quoted above; in the very next verse, Jesus tells his disciples that mission would now be to the nations:

Matthew 24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

The church’s history of persecution is a history of its mission in and to the world.  When Jesus predicted suffering for his disciples, he did so within the context of a message regarding their mission to the nations.

Mission with Opposition; Opposition with Mission

In his Missionary Discourse in Matthew 10, Jesus describes the mission of his disciples in terms of persecution and suffering: mission and suffering go together.  Jesus’ message is not an ascetic message, where people give up the pleasures of life for some monastic or solitary existence, protecting themselves against the evils of society.  He expects his disciples to engage the world and warns that, as they do so, they will find opposition.  Opposition without mission turns the Church into a self-pitying community whose primary goal is to avoid suffering or even to gain control within society, if possible, in order to exercise its own version of righteous rule.  Mission, on the other hand, gives purpose to the Church.  The Church’s mission engages the world and therefore God’s people experience persecution.  Like Jesus, the Church steps forward to present God’s reign in a sinful world, offering forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and hope.

One of the great ‘dangers’ facing orthodox Christian communities—groups holding to historic Christian doctrine and ethics (whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or certain Protestant denominations)—is that they might affirm orthodoxy without engaging in mission to the world.  In particular, the danger is that they maintain their orthodoxy and experience persecution for this without engaging in mission.  Indeed, persecution might lead some to withdraw from the world and pull back from mission to the world.  Neither a bunker mentality nor a posture of power and dominion are acceptable options for the Church in its mission to the world.  Thus, Jesus’ teaching that opposition and persecution is a result not only of following the faith but also of engaging in mission is a word on target for the Church today.  How many churches have little or no missions budget, put inordinate amounts of money into maintaining their buildings, campuses, and programs without supporting the Great Commission of the risen Lord?  One of the primary purposes of the Church is to participate in God’s sending labourers (missionaries) into fields ripe for harvesting (Matthew 9.37-38).  Jesus’ missionary disciples go into all the world with the authority of the risen Lord in order to make disciples of all nations and teach them to obey Jesus’ commandments.

Evangelical churches that bemoan the wayward direction of society and the increasing persecution they are experiencing should stop and reflect on whether they are only experiencing this struggle because of who they are or also experiencing it because of their missionary engagement with the world.  This is the time to focus the Christian mission according to the Great Commission (rather than make mission mean everything and therefore nothing).  It is the time to engage more and more in mission.  This is the time to tell the world why it needs a Saviour.  The instinct of some during increasing persecution is to try to show the world that the Church is not a threat but a positive factor in society.  In many cases in the West, the urge to be liked by tolerating, even affirming, diversity ends in Universalism—the teaching that there is no hell, there are many ways to God, and all will be saved in the end (if there is such a thing as sin at all!).  Such a theology undermines and typically rejects a mission to the nations that proclaims Christ’s death on the cross to take away the sins of the world.  It seeks only to have a positive acceptance in our diverse society.

Of course the Church is a positive factor for the world.  Of course it is a loving community.  But it is so because it opposes the forces of darkness, proclaims the rule of God over all of life, and turns the world upside down with the message of Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world.  Such a message courts controversy, especially in an ‘I’m OK, You're OK’ society.

Mission as Extending God’s Rule

The nature of the disciples’ mission entailed curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, and proclaiming the good news that God’s reign has come near (Matthew 10.7-8).  While we have no reason to limit the Church’s mission today to this (we can speak of holistic mission), we should note that this mission is not about our good works for a needy world but about the coming of God’s good reign to a needy world.  The mission of the disciples was a demonstration of the fact of God’s rule, His overcoming evil through His power and authority.  Mission is not first about how good God’s people are but about how good God is.  It is about His activity in the world. 

Churches that hold to a Cessationist theology—the teaching that miracles ceased after the apostolic age and do not occur today—have completely missed an essential teaching of Christian orthodoxy: Jesus inaugurated the reign of God, and the Church continues to proclaim and present the powerful rule of God (not its own institutions!) to the world until Christ comes again.  Evangelical churches that teach Cessationism are unorthodox (and therefore should not be considered ‘evangelical’).  Worse, they no longer proclaim God’s rule for the world.  They offer a ‘theology’ (more a philosophy) of God’s sovereignty without understanding much about God’s authority.  The opposition they face from the world is from persons who wonder how a sovereign, all powerful God could allow suffering.  Their static understanding of theology cannot explain the dynamics of Christian life and ministry: the power of prayer, the active ministry of evangelism, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous rule of God in our day.

On the other hand, the Prosperity (‘Health and Wealth’) ‘Gospel’ has equally misconstrued the Scriptures and the truth of Christian life and ministry.  It understands nothing of the ongoing struggle of life in a sin-ridden world.  Its overrealized understanding of the coming of God’s rule leads people to expect nothing but a good life (health and wealth), whereas, in fact, Christians face all the struggles of humanity plus persecution in this time before Christ’s return.  (The theology of the ‘righteous sufferer’ in the book of Psalms is still relevant to the Christian life!)  Extending the reign of God in this world does not mean prosperity.  Healing is not a ‘state’—as though no one gets sick or suffers again; it is rather a demonstration of God’s reign that awaits the complete rule of Jesus Christ when He comes again.  The Christian life is about experiencing God’s reign in a suffering and sinful world, not about being extricated from this world before Jesus returns.  Christian life and ministry are about extending God’s reign in a suffering and sinful world, not about enjoying the good life on some island while the rest of the world suffers on its way to hell.  The Prosperity Gospel is antithetical to the mission of the Church.  Churches lured by a message of prosperity (and this extends far beyond those associating themselves with the Prosperity Gospel itself to many if not most churches in the West today) will find a prescription for their affliction in Jesus’ call to mission.  And, be warned, as they do so, they will be less prosperous, experience greater opposition, and yet see God’s reign not for their own pleasures and amusements but for the world for which Jesus Himself died.


The early Church understood the opposition it faced in terms of the opposition God’s people had always faced in the world—whether from outside or inside.  For Christians, opposition and mission go together: a separation of these is probably a sign of bad theology and mission practice.  Opposition and persecution came not only because God’s people stood out as different from a sinful world (as particularly in the Old Testament) but also because they engaged the world (as particularly in the New Testament).  Jesus made the connection between the righteous sufferers of the Old Testament and the opposition and persecution that He and His disciples would face.  Yet He more closely linked the opposition and persecution of God’s people, his disciples, to their mission in the world.  Jesus inaugurated the reign of God in this world, and this is what mission continues to be all about.  A right understanding of this mission in the face of opposition will keep believers from unorthodox, heretical teachings, such as Universalism, Cessationism, the Prosperity Gospel, and a self-indulging notion of Christian life and ministry.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 34: ‘Radicalized’

Issues Facing Missions Today 34: ‘Radicalized’

A peculiar word, ‘radical’.  The English word really relates to the word ‘root’ (Latin, radix)—getting to the heart or root of what something truly is.  But we hear the word used differently: someone who is ‘radical’ is ‘out there,’ ‘on the edge,’ even ‘dangerous’.

The word is now being used in the media’s phrase, ‘radical Islam.’  If someone commits murder as a Muslim the Western press will say that this isn’t real Islam but a radical form of Islam.  The person is said to have been ‘radicalized.’  The question is, ‘Is real Islam the opposite of radical Islam, or is radical Islam real Islam?’  Are these radicals getting to the root of their faith, or are they departing from it?  As far as politicians and the press are concerned, it would be terribly inconvenient in a politically correct world to identify radical Islam with real Islam. 

So much for confusing the word ‘radical’ with the opposite of its original meaning.

The question I would like to ask is, ‘What if you became radicalized?’  What if your thoughts, words, and actions were guided by your most basic convictions rather than some compromise of them?  Is the problem departing from root convictions or following the wrong root convictions?  Almost daily in the news we have to reckon with people who are led to perform shockingly evil things as they follow a radical path set by their most basic convictions. 

Jesus called his disciples to radical discipleship.  He criticized the religious groups of his day for failing to be radical enough.  If you are going to live by your most basic convictions about God and His kingdom, you will be ‘out there’ in your thoughts, words, and actions as far as society is concerned.  Jesus said to his disciples,

Matthew 5:20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

He also challenged the Jewish priestly class, the Sadducees, for not getting to the ‘root’ of faith in God.  They failed in their understanding of Scripture, God’s Word, and they failed in their understanding of the power of God.  For them, religion was disconnected from its authority and faith in God.  It was a collection of ideas that need not bother someone too deeply, except in the exercise of religious duties.  Their religious activities did not touch their convictions about finances, politics, or trust in God.  They only required ritual acts that gave them a cultural identity and secured their positions of power and respect in society.  So Jesus indicted the Sadducees with words that could be spoken to many a church today, saying, ‘you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God’ (Matthew 22:29).

In the West, politicians, the press, and the public square do not appreciate radicals, whether those living according to their root convictions or persons ‘out there,’ taking their convictions in the ‘wrong’ direction.  Far better, it is thought, to hold everything loosely.

But what if Christians were radicalized?  Because Jesus Christ crucified is at the root of Christian convictions about God, radicalized Christians would not and do not strap explosives to their bodies and blow up a crowd of innocent people.  They do not join an army to attack their enemies.  They do not put people to death for blasphemy but tell people that Jesus died for their sins.  They do not riot in the streets, destroy property, and steal every time some real or imagined racial injustice occurs.  Instead, like relatives and members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, they forgive the hate-filled murderer (17 June, 2015).

The radical Christian picks up his or her figurative cross to follow Jesus, who himself went to die on a real cross (Luke 14.27).  The radical Christian does not attack enemies but prays for them (Matthew 5.44-45).  The radical Christian ‘seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6.33).  The radical Christian does not seek unity and tolerance as cardinal virtues because his or her commitment to God and his Kingdom could even divide families (Luke 12.51-53).  The radical Christian forsakes home comforts and reasonable responsibilities that might postpone the call to follow Jesus in God’s mission throughout the world (Luke 9.58, 60, 62).

What might happen if you were radicalized—if you dug deeply enough into your root convictions and lived accordingly?  Would you pursue hate-filled convictions that destroy any opposition in your way?  Or would you discover that you do not even have any convictions of consequence so that you can live a self-gratifying life?

More to the point, what if you became a radicalized Christian?  You would first discover that the radical Christian life is the only, real Christian life.  The disciple of Christ indulges himself or herself in no private religious imaginations that make little difference in life. 

As a Christian—a radical Christian, a real Christian—what mediocrity in life must you forsake?  What self-sacrificing, suffering cross would you raise to your shoulders to follow Jesus?  What earthly pursuits would be set aside for God’s rule and mission?  What passions of the flesh would you crucify in order to receive the resurrection life of Jesus?  What passing pleasures would you relinquish as you ‘press on to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3.14)?  What if you became radicalized?  Your root convictions, your faith in Jesus Christ, would transform your thinking, speaking, and actions.  And you would, as a consequence, be ‘out there’—radical—but in a far different way from those who do not find Jesus at the root of their very being.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 33: Jettisoning the Leadership Paradigm for Ministry in Africa

Issues Facing Missions Today 33: Jettisoning the Leadership Paradigm for Ministry in Africa

Three challenges to ministry posed by certain concepts of leadership are: (1) ministry from a position of power; (2) elitism; and (3) personal rule.  The present post examines these three points with respect to Africa through three authors.  Clearly, certain people rise to positions of responsibility and have to exercise certain duties in the course of their ministry, but understanding this in terms of ‘leadership’ rather than ‘ministry’ seems to open Christian mission and ministry up to various abuses.  Perhaps, I would argue, it is time to return to the simple notion of ‘ministry’ and drop the language of ‘leadership’ altogether.[1]

Ministry from a Position of Power

In 1990, Gottfried Osei-Mensah warned of a connection between power and Christianity in Africa.  He wrote,

The entrance of the Gospel in Africa through the modern missionary movement coincided with the spread of western colonial power and commerce in the same regions.  It is not difficult therefore to see how Christianity came to be identified in the minds of many of our people with western culture, power and money….  Western culture, power and money seemed to be necessities if you were to take up the work of an evangelist.[2]

Osei-Mensah further notes that the spread of Christianity in the early Church did not come through money and power, and he asks whether it is not possible for Africans to do so as well:

We who by historical circumstance have been servants, former colonial servants, who still today have no economic power, no influence in the councils of the world, but who have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, can we not prove again in this generation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who will believe?[3]

Modern missionary work in Africa by missionaries from the West, Osei-Mensah notes, also was not undertaken by the wealthy:

Many of the missionaries who brought the Gospel to Africa so many years ago set out with only a oneway [sic] ticket for the ship on which they travelled.  They did not have bank accounts.  All they had was faith in the One who was accompanying them.  We are the products of that kind of venturesome faith, and the Lord did not disappoint them or we would not be here!  That we are powerless materially is no disadvantage; it is in fact a qualification.[4]

However, he warns, ‘Because of their resources, missionaries today from the west are often not taken seriously.  People attribute mixed motives to their efforts.’[5]  The paper concludes with examples and statistics regarding African efforts in missions, particularly back to the West.


Also in 1990, Isaac Zoukwe warned against elitism among leaders in the Church.[6]  He says that Africa in particular has a propensity for elitism among theological educators and educated ministers in general because the literacy level of the population is lower than elsewhere.  Education becomes a means to elitism, which is unbecoming of the minister of God.  He observes the danger that education poses for meaningful, Christian ministry:

Certain aspects of African culture tend toward domination.  The priority due to the oldest person, the fear of the sorcerer, the servile submission to the chief, and the power of the healer are values that are projected onto the pastor or leader.  In the majority of our churches the pastor is considered to be the one who simultaneously plays the roles of elder, chief, healer, etc.[7]

Zoukwe is obviously not opposed to education or to educated ministers in the Church.  His warning is not about education but the use of education as a power in a culture ready to succumb to the abuses of leadership.  One might add that, in any culture, the educated might assume an air of elitism and disparage others for their lack of theological sophistication or institutionalization.  This has been a problem where more philosophical expressions of Christian faith encounter more experiential expressions, or where Western theologians and churchmen dismiss the orthodox faithfulness of believers in the non-Western world.

Zoukwe further notes that celebration in African cultures also involves the exhibition of titles and receiving of honours.[8]  Honouring elders and leaders is considered a virtue, and disloyalty and dishonor by Westerners is shocking to African culture.  Therein lies a challenge: not to promote elitism through African culture while still showing loyalty and respect to those in authority.

Personal Rule

Samuel Decalo examines the nature of leadership in African contexts.[9]  He argues that leadership is understood in terms of personal rule, which works through patronage and reward.  Servant leadership can easily be construed as personal power (and not only in Africa): ‘give me the authority, and I will do good things for the people.’  This is one reason that ‘servant leadership’ is an inadequate concept for Christian ministry.  As personal power, servant leadership easily devolves into nepotism, fraud, bribery, dictatorships, and psychoses of power.  Decalo writes,

Political power is highly personalized in Africa, and personal rule is virtually the norm….  The specific style of governance adopted by the personal ruler—whether active or passive, open or authoritarian—reflects his personality, thus allowing for a variety of possible typologies of personal rule, even though the centrality of the personal basis of power is common to all…. Personal rule can thus be seen as a fundamentally elitist style of governance that trades off patronage and societal rewards to other political aspirants or socially influential figures in exchange for personal support and political quiescence….  Such a system of governance rests, as one scholar has put it, on ‘mercenary support’ for the personal ruler who acquires ‘instrumental allegiance from influential individuals and groups through patronage.’ [10] … Personal rule need not be authoritarian, although, by definition, it is autocratic and inimical to the development of a completely open and competitive political system….  It opens the door for significant social waste, graft, and corruption (the necessary prices of securing the allegiance of the ruler’s cohorts) and thus inevitably serves the personal and sectional interests of the ruling group first and the wider society last.  When such a system of personal rule is headed by a totally illegitimate or venal leader, by an individual with headstrong paternalistic inclinations, or by one suffused by millennial or visionary goals, it may evolve into an autocracy (as in Samuel Doe’s Libera or Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire), a benevolent personal dictatorship (as in Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi), or a highly idiosyncratic authoritarian regime (as in Qadaffi’s Libya).

Personal rule potentially involves several other abuses: inertia; bureaucracy; lack of creative problem solving; and stagnation of social change.

Decalo did see the beginning of change in Africa at the time of writing (1989), but the issues he identified then are still present today throughout Africa.  Where change from personal rule is coming in Africa, according to Decalo, is through

a growing intelligentsia, the glaring inconsistencies of widening class cleavages and income disparities, the burdens of servicing onerous national debts with the dwindling resources of often shrinking or flagging economies, the rural-urban drift of an often nihilistic age-group of unemployed youth, and the increasingly coercive measures adopted by insecure leaders facing waning systematic legitimacy—all of these factors sap the founts of personal power in systems that are inherently ossified, where prospects of political choice, change, and peaceful transition from one set of rulers to another is precluded except through cou d’etat.[11]


A robust missionary effort by those with resources to accomplish it, a highly educated clergy, and persons in leadership positions motivated to serve others might all sound like good things for Christian ministry.  The notion of a ‘servant leader’ could easily include all three of these.  However, significant dangers lurk in the shadows of each one: power, elitism, and personal rule.  The switch to notions of ‘leadership’ have a way of cloaking these dangers in appealing ways.  Perhaps what is needed is to drop the term ‘leadership’ altogether—and the theories that surround the notion—when speaking of Christian ministry.

[1] This is not to argue that we cannot learn some helpful things from sociology about leadership.  It is, however, to challenge the notion of ministry that arises from either position or power.
[2] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, ‘The Challenge of Christian Leadership in Africa Today,’ East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 8:2 (1989): 1-10.  Here , p. 6.
[3] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 7.
[4] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 8.
[5] Gottfried Osei-Mensah, p. 8.
[6] Isaac Zoukwe, ‘Educating for Servant Leadership in Africa,’ African Journal of Evangelical Theology Vol. 9.1 (1990): 3-13.
[7] Isaac Zoukwe, p. 4.
[8] Isaac Zoukwe, p. 5.
[9] Samuel Decalo, Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships (London: Westview Press, 1989).
[10] Richard Sandbrook, The Politics of Africa’s Stagnation (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 83.
[11] Samuel Decalo, Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships (London: Westview Press, 1989), p. 188.  Decalo offers several reasons for coups: absence of political legitimacy, failures of institutionalization and leadership, economic stress, corruption, ethnicity, etc.—but especially the coup leader’s personal ambition to gain power (and with it wealth) (pp. 189-191).  The same issues, we might note, may arise in churches, theological colleges, mission agencies, and other Christian ministries—they are neither unique to governments or to Africa.  See further: Ronald Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993); David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany Pub. House, 2005).

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

Postmodernity, wrote Jean Francois Lyotard, entails an incredulity towards metanarratives.[1]  We might put this the other way around.  Postmodernity find mininarratives credible.  That is, that a story gives meaning to one’s own life is sufficient to make it right or true, without regard to some larger understanding.  Simply put, we create our own meaning and identity.

Constructed Identity, Not Universal, Natural Law

This way of thinking has now reached the level of the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges, 26 June, 2015).[2]  One might say that this is not the first time the court has interpreted law in light of postmodern thinking, but the decision announced today to legalize same-sex ‘marriage’ is a prime example of postmodern logic.  Marriage is what we say it is, not what God established in creation.

We need to recognize, however, that what we refer to today as postmodern is a perspective that has long been with Western society.  The focus of Modernity was on establishing universal laws and principles through a scientific rather than faith-based mode of argument.  The undermining of faith and the affirmation of rational argument, particularly scientific investigation, required a freedom from established social and intellectual conventions.  After doubt regarding what came before so as to argue from incontrovertible foundations (the Cartesian method) came a prioritizing of liberty among the other values.  Freedom was a way to pursue a different path from the social forces that used to direct society, as exemplified in the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century.  Freedom came to entail a personal pursuit of happiness, a construction of one’s own identity.  This pursuit of freedom ran alongside scientific exploration, although the two were not by any means in full accord.  If science found that something was an incontrovertible fact, those who wished to resist a universal, natural, and objective metanarrative found their freedom challenged.

Indeed, postmodernity believes that identity is constructed, not handed down to us by religion, government, science, or anything else.  We have in recent weeks discovered some fascinating examples of the idea that we can construct our own identities.  One man insists that his sexual identity is not confined to his biological make-up but is rather something that he can construct.  A woman of European descent determines that she should be able to define her identity in terms of her own choice, and so decides to consider herself black.

The reason I earlier suggested that the Supreme Court has already ventured into this arena of postmodern thought was in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973).  The court decided that being considered human was not based on having life alone but also on viability—the viability of the foetus.  It also found that a woman’s rights were to be considered in this matter: a woman had the right to determine whether or not to ‘terminate a pregnancy.’  In this decision, the meaning of human life was restricted by independence (the child’s freedom from its mother by being able to live on its own) and rights (the woman’s freedom to choose what she wished to do with her foetus).  Thus the Supreme Court at that time moved in the direction of the logic of construction of one’s own identity rather than affirm a more universal understanding of human life.

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court was a major affirmation of constructed identity.  If two people of the same sex wish to ‘marry,’ then they have the ‘right’ to construct their own meaning of marriage.  In antiquity, Stoic philosophers argued that identity was God-given.  One of their terms for homosexuality was ‘against nature’ (para physis).  Thus, one philosophical tradition without any Christian influence opposed homosexuality on the grounds that it was not according to nature or the laws God had written into creation.  This was precisely what Jews and Christians at the time argued from a different tradition of moral thought—a theological tradition based on the Old Testament.  They believed that God’s purposes in and definition of marriage were to be found in his creating male and female for marriage to one another (Gen. 2.24).  This is also the basis for Paul’s opposition to homosexuality in general in Rom. 1.24-28.

What we find today, however, is an incredulity towards a creation metanarrative.  The culture’s conviction that we can construct our identities runs fully against the Biblical teaching that God made things a certain way and that humans were not to go against this.  The idea that we can construct our identity is something that came to full expression over one hundred years ago in the West in Existentialist philosophy.  Existentialists taught that humans were ‘thrown’ into existence, that their existence precedes essence.  So, for instance, in Friedrich Nietzsche's view, the 'superman' was the one who exercised his will freely; he created his own identity (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s view, we begin with ‘nothingness’ and need to create our ‘being’ through our own choices and actions (see Being and Nothingness).  This means that we do not begin with some definition of ourselves to be found in nature or God’s laws but that, through the decisions we freely make, we construct our essence, our identity.

Thus, what Christians in the West now face is a suppression of their ‘metanarrative’ of creation and an opposition to a God who has his laws that stand against one’s freedom to define things according to the way he or she desires.  We Christians, instead, believe that God made us and that we are, as the Old Testament often says, to walk in his ways.  As Paul says, ‘…you are not your own’ (1 Cor. 6.19).  We find ourselves challenging a culture that lives by the value of freedom without regard for God.

Limits of Engagement and Church Discipline

Love is a major part of the Christian life.  We are called to unity in Christ and to show love for those outside the faith.  Yet love is not to be diluted into our culture’s affirmation of tolerance—an affirmation arising out of the conviction that everyone gets to construct his or her own identity.  Indeed, ‘love’ for Christians has more to do with directing people back to the God of all creation, showing them what it is to live—to find life!—in his ways, and telling them the good news that Jesus died for their sins and that the Holy Spirit is given to enable them to live righteous and holy lives. 

This is also why church discipline is so necessary: those claiming to be believers are not free to live however they wish in the Christian community (as we see Paul argue in 1 Cor. 5).  Christian love, if Biblical, is based on living according to God’s precepts.  As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘"If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14.15).  The notion, touted by some, that the church should be welcoming to homosexuals living in homosexual marriages is not Biblical—no more so than accepting persons willfully practicing bestiality or living in incestuous relationships—two other examples of adults exercising their freedom in sexual matters.  We need to extend these examples to other sins than just sexual sins, of course.  Persons struggling to become free of sin are certainly to be welcomed and helped, but persons willfully continuing in their sin and denying that their actions are sinful are to be excommunicated. 

Excommunication is a loving gesture to show willfully sinful people that their way leads to ultimate judgement (1 Cor. 5.5) and exclusion from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9-11).  If the person is simply welcomed into fellowship, this toleration of sin will give the person a mistaken conviction that God, too, will not judge him or her.  (Similarly, to discipline children playing with fire to teach them that fire is dangerous and that they will be burned is a loving thing to do.  If someone does not believe fire burns and sees playing with it a beautiful thing, he or she may think such discipline is abusive.) 

Moreover, failure to offer loving judgement[3] of persons continuing to live in willful sin undermines the purity of the community of believers in Christ.  Paul sees the church as ‘unleavened bread,’ a community that has prepared itself to celebrate the Passover of Christ’s sacrifice (1 Cor. 5.7-8).

1 Corinthians 5:6-8  6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  

The holiness of the community must be upheld, and the church is not a community without standards of membership.  Some expect this to be the case, since their postmodern notion of community and Christian unity is that everyone accepts everyone else no matter what.

To get at a Christian understanding of community, consider two golf courses.  One golf course is owned by a wealthy club with exclusive membership, such as only for men with a certain income.  The other golf course is open to any players.  Some people think that Christian standards of community make it like the club-owned course.  In actual fact, the church is more like the second golf course: everyone is welcome.  Both golf courses, however, expect and require persons to play golf on the course.  If several people showed up at either golf course to play Frisbee instead of golf, they would be disrupting the purpose of the golf course.  Christians welcome people into their midst, but their purpose is to create a righteous community that walks in the ways of the Lord.  For a person entering into such a community but willfully sinning—whether through unjust business practices or homosexual practice—would be like a Frisbee player showing up at a golf course that welcomes everyone to play golf.

Attending homosexual ‘weddings’ (‘But he is a relative!’) is just one example of compromise of Christian witness that believers are already having to consider.  One might be tempted to argue in this case that Christians should not judge those outside the faith, only those inside (so 1 Cor. 5.9-11), and so attend such a wedding ceremony.  However, attending a homosexual wedding goes way beyond not judging—it involves a level of affirmation similar to participating in idol worship.  We should doubt that John the Baptist (or Jesus) would have attended Herod Antipas’s wedding ceremony: he divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law (Mark 6.18).  The argument that we should not participate in some sinful practice is one already put forward with the photographers and bakers who do not want to support an act that is sinful.  Persons withdrawing money from Wells Fargo bank or no longer buying Tylenol because of their promotion of homosexuality in television advertisements are doing so not because these companies serve all customers but because they are advocating a sinful way of life (these are two recent examples in the USA).  The early Corinthian believers had questions similar to these: should they attend ceremonies (banquets, birthday parties, etc.) with their unbelieving neighbours when a god or goddess was also part of the celebration?  To this question, eating food sacrificed to idols, Paul gave a clear answer when it involved affirmation of or participation in such ceremonies, ‘No!’ Believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols bought in the marketplace—when the food did not involve participation in or celebration of idolatry.  But they were in no way to eat food sacrificed to idols in the context of celebration or worship of the god or goddess (1 Cor. 8-10).  The Xhosa asking whether he as a Christian can 'go to the mountain' (to participate in religious ceremonies of manhood) is asking the same question in a different cultural context: ‘Can a Christian participate in ceremonies that lead to accepting him as a man within the community but that also involve non-Christian activities, such as sacrifice?’  Paul also appears to be addressing the subject in 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 6:14-18   14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you,  18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."

Such a theological argument extends beyond engaging in temple worship with others in society; it has to do with limitations on Christian engagement within society.  While we should leave judgement to God of those living against his ways, we equally should not celebrate or participate in their sinful acts.

The Gospel, moreover, offers real change, not just forgiveness of sins (1 Cor. 6.11).  But the church that thinks it is doing well by showing unconditional love to persons willfully continuing in sin is a church that has affirmed that we create our own identity and receive God’s smile of approval for our creativity and exercise of freedom.  It is also a church that denies the power of God to transform sinners.  Here, too, mission in the West runs contrary to the culture.  The Gospel message is not only that God forgives us for our sins—and homosexual practice is a sin—it is also about the life-changing power of God at work through the Holy Spirit in our lives to release us from what binds us and frees us to walk in the ways of the Lord.  This is good news.


Postmodern, Western culture is the culmination of an experiment in freedom initiated already in the Enlightenment.  It parted from the universal, science-based, affirmation of some metanarrative or other that defined Modernity.  It affirmed the construction of identity over whatever claims were made in Modernity and whatever claims were made in religious faith.  It has come to see sexual identity as constructed.  With today’s announcement by the Supreme Court that same-sex coupling can be considered to be marriage, we have another example of an authority understanding freedom as license and identity as locally (individually or socially) constructed.  This argument is easily applied to incestuous and polygamous marriages.  It probably also applies to bestial relationships and the pornography industry.  As long as ‘freedom’ is protected, what is to limit one’s own construction of a sexual identity or one’s own definition of what constitutes ‘marriage’?

Christian mission to the West, then, faces several new realities.  It is a mission in a post-Christian society.  It is conducted by a minority community facing increasing opposition from the larger society.  It challenges a Western notion of freedom.  It finds itself announcing a universal message—the Gospel for all people—to solve a universal problem—sin.  In order to do so, it claims that there is a universal right and wrong established in the sovereign will of the Creator.  This is experienced by Postmodern society as simply incredulous, since the assumption is that truth is local, that identity is constructed—even sexual identity.  Christian mission to the West also includes a challenge to understand the nature of community—a righteous community living to please God over against the culture’s notion of community as tolerance and acceptance of a spectrum of diverse views and practices.

How, then, should we live?  Christians can be glad that there is an increasing clarity about what it means to be a Christian.  In previous generations in the West, the faith was regularly compromised as the Church, government, and society negotiated a political settlement about how to live within ‘Christendom.’  There is simply no room left for such compromises: we are now all Anabaptists.  (Anabaptists are known for, among other things, refusing to compromise Biblical, Christian faith and practice in the face of pressure from governments and society—including established, state-sanctioned churches.  They lived against the grain of culture where it was contrary to Biblical teaching.  Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics in the 16th century, they saw the Church as radically separate from the State and were often persecuted.)  This frees us to bear a clearer witness, even if persecution comes with the package.  This also brings with it a needed purifying of the Church.  And it also means that we have a challenge not only to offer a particular message to a hostile culture but also to offer a new vision of community to it.  The new, post-Christian climate in the West calls for Christians to stop attending church and start being the Church.  

In all this, we have a tremendous task ahead.  Our efforts are best spent not bemoaning the demise of the society in which we live but in getting on with our mission of being God’s people for this time and place and proclaiming the good news in Jesus Christ that our sins can be forgiven and our lives transformed by the power of the Spirit at work in us and through us.

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984; French, 1979), p. xxiv.
[3] One often hears people say that Christians do not judge.  Behind this statement lies a serious confusion regarding several Biblical texts.  First, when Jesus said, ‘Do not judge’ (Matthew 7.1), he was not uttering an absolute statement.  He finished the sentence with ‘so that you may not be judged.’  He went on to warn against hypocrisy.  He further said that one should not point out the speck in someone else’s eye when one has a log in one’s own eye.  In other words, Jesus was not saying we should not judge because everything is alright, there is no such thing as sin, let’s tolerate or celebrate each other’s decisions and actions.  Rather, he was warning not to be hypocritical when judging.  Another passage to consider comes from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (Matthew 6.12).  The point is not that there is no such thing as sin but that we should forgive others because God has forgiven us.  Christians offer a message of forgiveness for sin, not a denial that certain actions are sinful and so should be affirmed.  A third passage to consider is one discussed in this essay, 1 Cor. 5.9-11.  Paul says that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people (v. 9). He qualifies this statement by saying that this does not mean that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people outside the church, ‘since you would then need to go outside the world’ (v. 10).  Rather, he says, this applies to persons claiming to be believers who are sexually immoral—and then he extends the list of sins to other than sexual sins (v. 11).  He concludes, ‘Do not even eat with such a one’ (v. 11).  His view on judgement is summarized in vv. 12-13: ‘For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you."’

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Church 11: Christian Mission to the Post-Christian West

The Church 11: Christian Mission to the Post-Christian West


Early Christian mission was far more than a theological challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman belief systems.  Our understanding of mission in terms of presenting a message about Jesus Christ and a challenge to believe that message to some extent accurately reflects the kind of missional preaching we find in the book of Acts.  Yet Acts also tells us that early Christian mission was not merely about what one believed; it was also about repentance and the transformation of one’s life.  Peter concludes the first missionary discourse in Acts by telling his audience what the expected response is to the Gospel message about Jesus Christ that he has just preached:

Acts 2:38-39  Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."

Indeed, early Christian mission was also a direct personal and social challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman society.  Such challenges do not come without a hostile reaction from society.

In our day in Western society, there is a turning from what people have believed about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a rejection of the Christian way of life, and a hostility to orthodox Christians.  In this context, Christian missionary efforts are hampered from some within the Church.  Unbelievers are confused about what a Christian really is when persons (including scholars and ministers) teach against the Church’s long-held teaching and practices that are Biblically founded.  At the same time, society at large has an increasing antagonism towards Christians themselves.  The early Church, however, was able to advance the Church—its beliefs and ethics—in the context of antagonism and persecution.

The question for missions today is the one that the early Church had as well: ‘How should Christians engage in the Christian mission as they (1) present the message of the Gospel, (2) challenge social and ethical aspects of the culture, and (3) negotiate the Church’s own status in a somewhat hostile and post-Christian culture?’  This essay will address these questions in reverse order.  The fact that the early Church was facing the same questions in its day should lead us back to the writings of the Church Fathers (to about the early 500s).

Proclaiming God’s Word in a Hostile Context

John the Baptist and Jesus

Proclamation of the Kingdom of God began during a time of foaming political and social unrest in Israel.  The alternative ‘Kingdom of God’ was welcomed by average people as much as it was deemed insurrectionist by political rulers.  John the Baptist and Jesus were both executed by the government—by Herod Agrippa and Pontius Pilate, respectively.  John the Baptist met his death because his moral message (‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ Mark 1.4), when applied to King Herod Agrippa, was offensive.  Herod had married his brother’s wife (Mark 6.18).  He had actually divorced his first wife in the process, and so the wording in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on divorce could especially apply to Herod: ‘And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’ (Matthew 19.9).  Jesus’ death came at the hands of Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, and so it was a political matter.  His message involved proclaiming the coming of God’s rule through him, and so he called people to believe this message and to believe in him.  Yet his proclamation of the reign of God was also to a great extent a moral preaching, as John’s was.  Jesus proclaimed, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1.15).

Faithful Jews and the Prophets of God of Whom the World Was Not Worthy

John the Baptist and Jesus were continuing a pattern set much earlier by Israel’s righteous martyrs and the prophets of God.  1 and 2 Maccabees tells the story of faithful Jews martyred for their faith in the 2nd c. BC.  Books like Esther and Daniel tell of persecution during the earlier time of the exile.  Still earlier, Isaiah understood his prophetic ministry to be one of constant opposition from the Jews themselves (Isaiah 6.9-10).  Hebrews 11.35-38 summarizes the history of faithful Jews, persecuted for their faith, and it in particular has the prophets in view.

Hebrews 11:35-38   35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--  38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Isaiah, for example, was said to have been arrested by King Manasseh and sawn in two while false prophets and leaders exulted (Martyrdom of Isaiah 5 and Lives of the Prophets, both from c. AD 100).  The Lives of the Prophets also tells of the deaths of other prophets, several of whom were martyred:

·         Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt by Jews
·         Ezekiel was killed by Jewish leaders in Babylonian exile because he accused them of idolatry
·         Micah was thrown from a cliff by King Joram because he accused him of following in the wicked ways of his father King Ahab
·         Amos was often beaten by Amaziah, priest of Bethel, and finally delivered a deadly blow with a cudgel by Amaziah’s son
·         Zechariah son of the priest, Jehoidah (cf. 2 Chronicles 24.20), was killed (stoned) beside the altar by King Joash because he said, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you’ (2 Chron. 24.20)

The Early Church

Persecuted Christians found themselves picking up the narrative of the persecuted righteous, of whom the world was not worthy.  Contrary to Christians with a Christendom narrative, they did not see themselves as a majority maintaining control of a culture, or as a group that needs to try to regain recently lost authority.  They saw themselves as a moral, persecuted minority.

Paul went so far as to say, ‘Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3.12).  The emphasis for Paul is not on what one believes but how one lives (eusebōs) in this passage, although it would be wrong to make too much of a distinction between theology and ethics.  The early Church faced waves of local and universal persecution until the Emperor Constantine in AD 312.  Nearly 300 years of persecution gave rise to an ‘apologetic’ literature that sought to explain Christianity to the larger society.  Learning to articulate the faith in a hostile context is something that the Church in our day needs to practice because nothing can still be assumed on the part of the larger culture.  That is, the Church is increasingly at odds with Western culture, and we need to learn how to dialogue intelligently with the newly emerged, post-Christian culture.

Teaching God’s Righteousness in an Amoral or Immoral Culture

Where Christianity is coming into conflict with Western culture most is in the area of social and personal ethics.  Beliefs are, peculiarly, often considered private and independent from behaviour, and so the focus is more on Christian social and personal ethics by Western culture.  The early Church found particular opposition to its sexual ethics, refusal to abort or kill children, distancing itself from the gods of the age and social practices associated with them (socially correct worship in a given city and religious engagement in festivities), and Christians’ refusal to serve in the military.  Oddly, in my view, the last of these is not on the agenda of many American Christians.  Yet in many of the issues facing the Church, Christians today are once again finding themselves having to proclaim a message of righteousness that cuts right into the social and personal morality of contemporary culture.  Mission in Western countries, then, needs to be understood more and more as a message about a transformed life.  In a culture that values tolerance of any view (allegedly!—we know this is not really so) and that reductionistically determines most every ethical issue in terms of a single value—freedom or right—does not want to tell people that their choices are wrong or that they can and should change.

In the early Church, however, teaching a new morality was part of mission.  Jesus’ Great Commission focussed on preaching the morality of the Kingdom of God.  He said to his disciples that they were to teach the nations everything that he had commanded them (Matthew 28.20).  Such a concept of a moral mission was much earlier seen as the role of Israel, to whom, one day, the nations would stream to learn righteousness (Is. 2.1-4).  Peace was not conceived as learning to live and let live, to allow various ethical beliefs to coexist.  Unity was not found in the tolerance of plurality but in teaching the One God’s commandments.  Turning to God was not merely a belief system but also a new righteousness according to God’s Law.  Israel’s failure at the time of the early Church was a general failure to live up to the Law of God that it acknowledged—the problem was not a work’s righteousness but a sinfulness despite acknowledging the Law.  Non-Jews, who did not know God’s Law, needed to be taught to live righteously.

So it is not at all surprising to learn that Paul’s missionary proclamation of the Good News was followed by teaching about God’s righteousness.  We see this approach to ministry through a study of Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians.  According to Acts, Paul was only in the city of Thessalonica for three Sabbaths (Acts 17.1-2).  Having left the city in haste and under hostility, Paul wrote two letters to the young Christians.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul admonishes them to abide by the teaching that he had given them in the short time that he was with them.  He begins with these words,

1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.  2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

We see, then, that Paul had incorporated moral instruction in his evangelistic ministry in the city.  Moreover, the following verses give us clues as to what the content of that teaching was:

·         Sexual ethics (4.2-8)
·         Community ethics (love, 4.9-10)
·         Social ethics (how to live as believers in the larger society, 4.11-12)

In a post-Christian culture in particular, the Church’s evangelistic mission needs to be followed by ethical teaching.  Elsewhere Paul states that Christians should not judge the non-Christian world for its ethics but should judge those who claim to be fellow-Christians.  He says,

1 Corinthians 5:12-13  For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you.

Binding oneself to a Christian Church is not merely a matter of beliefs and community.  It is also a matter of following a Christian way of life, of pursuing a life of righteousness and walking in the ways of the Lord.  Mission does not end with proclamation of Good News but with transformed lives. 

To be sure, Paul found that he could, to some extent, find agreement with non-Christians.  One example is the issue of homosexuality, which Paul saw as a fundamental disregard of God’s intentions in creation.  This view, that there was natural sex between a man and a woman and unnatural sex between two persons of the same sex, could also be found in Stoicism (see Musonius Rufus and Epictetus).  Paul’s agreement with Stoicism extends to the view that what is natural is so precisely because God made it that way.  Thus his comments on homosexuality in Rom. 1.24-28 have a strongly creational focus that began in v. 18 with reference to unnatural worship (idolatry). A second example is in Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17.22-31).  In this speech, Paul is able to find connections to the beliefs of Athenians, to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in particular.  However, any agreement found in the overlap of general teaching is soon lost when he introduces particular teaching about Jesus Christ—specifically his resurrection from the dead.  The Church did not and will not find itself opposed to all non-Christian teaching and moral behaviour, but such overlap is limited.  Christian teaching about God’s righteousness begins from an entirely different basis, for it is a teaching of what Scripture says about living in a way that pleases God.  It is not a reasoning from general principles but a very particular teaching about how we should live.

Witnessing of the Gospel to a Postmodern Culture

Peter famously directed believers ‘Always [to] be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3.15).  He continues with a word about how to do this: ‘yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3.16).  The disciplinary and confrontational approach to sin within the Church noted above in Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5 is not to be the approach to outsiders.  The difference is one of dealing with hypocrites (people claiming to be Christians and wanting to associate with the Christian community but living contrary to Christian teaching) versus dealing with people living consistently according to their non-Christian beliefs.  In the latter case, says Peter, gentle and reverential discourse is appropriate.  This is no matter of tolerance of non-Christian views in the postmodern sense—that is, an acceptance of all views as equally valid and acceptable, of seeing truth as constructed and therefore diverse and localized (different groups having their own ‘truth’).  It is, rather, a matter of appreciating that people behave certain ways because they have certain beliefs.  Christian mission entails an invitation (not coercion) to change one’s core beliefs and, consequently, one’s ethics.

When Christians attempt to gain control of society’s beliefs and behaviours, they operate from a Modernist understanding that expects to obtain uniformity through the use of power (such as laws passed by the legislature or interpreted by the courts).  Christians can witness to others through sharing their beliefs and living a different life, but this witnessing approach to evangelism is not a controlling approach.  The early Church teaches us how to live as a minority in society—through witness, not entitlement or coercive power.  This is not to say we should not exercise our vote for what we believe is right.  If democracy invites us to vote, then we should vote our consciences.  Yet the early Church was able to change society in radical ways through its witness and without any voting rights.  It was able to do so in the context of persecution.  The quotations from Peter given above continue in the next verse with his expectation that Christians will suffer as they put forward an explanation of their faith: ‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17).

One of the great ironies of contemporary, Western society is its schizophrenic affirmation of both a tolerance for diversity and an intolerance of Christianity.  This makes some sense, since Christians are rightly seen to affirm ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4.4-6).  This, from a postmodern perspective, amounts to a ‘totalizing narrative’ that excludes the conflicting diversity that it wants to celebrate.  Of course, by ejecting Christian faith from the public square, postmodernity also reduces its claim of diversity to absurdity.  Its attempt to affirm diversity simply dissolves into an ultra-Modernist, totalizing agenda, a political correctness that leads to persecution of Christians—as we already see.

How, then, do Christians explain the hope they have in such a context?  This great missional challenge to Western Christians has been answered in a variety of ways, to be sure.  Increasingly, old mainline denominations have sought to do so by adopting the agenda of the culture itself.  Jettisoning Biblical authority and the Church’s teaching through the centuries, they have taken on the causes of liberal culture.  They become communities that can advocate for and practice a script handed them by the culture.  Another approach has been for some conservative Christians, as has been said already, to try to regain the reins of power.  This explains a blanket support of any military action that the government takes, seeing the best way to bring about change as through the legislature, trying to get prayer back in schools when most students do not pray, and so forth.  This power approach to social transformation will not work, but it should not in any case.  What we can learn from the early Church is a better way to engage our postmodern culture: through witness.  We do need to learn to express the faith clearly and unreservedly in a hostile context, even in the context of persecution.  And we need to learn how to live in such a way—personally and communally—that our lives are a gentle and respectful challenge to the world.  Ultimately, of course, Christianity is not successful because of its growth in numbers and control of culture but because of the integrity of its witness.


Contemporary mission to the West has similarities to the early Christian mission.  For a long time, Christians used the term ‘mission’ to refer mostly to foreign missions.  That was because believers saw themselves as a ‘Christian’ society that sent missionaries to non-Christian lands.  Now, however, the West is post-Christian.  It finds itself in the situation of the early Church, with its mission to a pre-Christian world.  This essay has explored the mission to the West in broad strokes with some comparison to the early Church—so much more could be said.  It has done so by looking at proclamation of the Gospel in a hostile context, teaching righteousness in an amoral or immoral context, and witnessing the Gospel rather than using power and coercion.