Discipleship and the Imago Dei

following-jesus

A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.

Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East

One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.

Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.

Imago Dei in the Old Testament

However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.

  1. Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.

  2. Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.

    Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)

    And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)

  3. The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)

  4. And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:

    For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)

In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.

Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.

Enter Jesus

Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)

John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth

Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)

The author of Hebrews nails it down further

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)

It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.

  1. God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.

  2. We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).

  3. That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.

  4. God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.

The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)

The Priority of Discipleship

The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,

And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)

Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him

 

Why are We Not Having More Sex (sorry, I meant more Communion)?

Why are We Not Having More Sex (sorry, I meant more Communion)?

One of the bits of advice I got during marital counseling and also via websites and gurus of relationships and marriage, was the importance of sex to the strengthening of the marital bond. And the standard advice at the end of the day was couched one way or the other in this form – each marriage is different, but so far as is possible for the couple, they should have sex regularly, probably a number of times each week.

Now of course that was brilliant news for a couple pining away to be with each other, and when the marriage was finally entered into, we certainly did our best to have as much of it as we can, leading to two children as we speak (the most recent one giving us red and tired eyes from sleeplessness). But it’s become obvious to me the value of that advice – sex between a married couple is indeed a reminder of their bonds with one another i.e. it is a covenant reminder. No matter how couples fight, if they still agree to have sex, it means there is still hope for the union.

And so my recent ruminations on the relationship between the Great Commandment and Communion has lead me to wonder why we are not applying the same “wisdom” to communion. Think about it. In my previous post, I came to the conclusion that the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)is a covenant reminder. Hence it is not surprising that Yahweh instructs the Israelites to find ways to daily remind themselves of that covenant via all sorts of ingenious means (writing them on door frames, as symbols on hands, talking about them daily etc). If that is the case, then I have a few questions for Christians to ponder on this subject.

My Questions

  1. Why have most Protestant churches (including those I identify with i.e. historically Anabaptist) so regimented Communion to a once-a-month affair? I know most of the excuses, but I sincerely don’t buy it because the Roman Catholics are able to do it every Sunday, so if we wanted to, we could. If communion is a covenant reminder like in marriage, would our marriage counselors be satisfied to hear that we (the church community) only “have sex” with our husband once a month? Why can’t we do this more often?

  2. Why have we (most Protestants) made communion into an exercise in reflection on personal piety, when it’s primarily a reminder of our relationship with God and with one another? Somehow we’ve ignored the real point that Paul was addressing with his instructions to the Corinthian church (the issue of disunity, captured succinctly in 1 Cor 11:17-22, but visible all throughout the letter), and hence have interpreted v 23-34 as a diatribe on personal holiness. Can we get back to a communal-covenant theology instead of an individualist-legal theology when talking about communion?

  3. On the other hand, why have the Roman Catholics so mystified communion to the point where there is no real connection to the event? Yes, I know they view the wine and bread as the literal blood and body of Jesus, but for the love of peace can we get past those pagan notions and pay attention to the Jewish context of Passover, why it existed and why Jesus would transform that into his own meal for his disciples?

  4. Most importantly, and this one applies to almost all Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Why have we implanted the idea in the heads of our congregants that 1) communion can only be administered by clergy and 2) that it can only be had in the 4 walls of a church building. I’m sure most churches will disagree with this accusation, but I’m yet to see any visible efforts at encouraging Christians to have communion in their homes with one another – that’s probably because most of us place no real value to meetings in homes anyway, unlike the early Christians. This attitude is akin to a marital counselor telling the about-to-be-married couple to only have sex in their bedroom. Well, some of us will be going to hell if that was the case, but I know that God is more imaginative and fun than that, considering he want his commands on door frames and the like.

So those are my 4 short and sweet questions. I know I’m rocking a few boats, but that’s what boats exist for – to be rocked.

Let us remember that there is a good reason for New Testament’s imagery of Jesus Christ and his church being depicted as a marriage. Prophets like Hosea started the trend in regards to Yahweh and Israel, and the NT simply followed in that direction. If we want our marriage (as a community) to Jesus to be as exciting as we want human marriages to be, let us reconsider the importance of the one tool of covenant renewal – sex. Let us have more of it, more regularly. (Oops sorry, I meant communion).

Communion & The Greatest Commandment

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI have a confession to make – I’ve developed a deeper appreciation and interest in the Old Testament, and it’s deepening my reading and understanding of the New, especially of the Gospels and of Paul’s letters. It has also radically re-aligned my understanding of one of the most important practices within Christianity since it’s foundation – the Communion or Eucharist. This is partly because I’ve been reading a lot of OT scholars of late, but also because of Richard Hays’ enlightening work in “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” about making use of metalepsis when reading OT quotations one finds in the NT. By metalepsis, Hays simply means that when one sees a verse of the OT quoted in the NT, do not just look for the corresponding verse in the OT and be satisfied, but rather read the whole OT chapter or chapters from which that one verse was obtained and quoted in the NT. Following that advise has wrecked my theology of Communion – but only for the better. So let me share with you how metalepsis has challenged my understanding of Communion.

The Greatest Commandment

The Gospels record a time when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah. Jesus responded by saying

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)

Years ago I simply thought of this as an injunction to strengthen my personal relationship with God via much bible study, prayer, church activities and a zeal to be obedient to God’s laws as found in the Bible. Of course, having been brought up a Pentecostal, such an individualist interpretation of this passage is well within acceptable bounds and will be common to many readers of this post. But going back to read and reflect on Deuteronomy 6 where Jesus quotes this from yields a much more interesting interpretation than most will be used to.

The Shema, Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East

If one reads the above passage from any good bible, one might see a footnote that points to Deut 6:5 as the source of Jesus’s quotation in Mt 22:37-38. What many readers of the bible may not know however is that Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the foundation of a famous prayer called the Shema which was recited by Jews in Jesus’s day and is still recited by modern day practicing Jews as well. You can find out a bit more about it here. The fact that Jesus was quoting from the Shema is more obvious if you read Mark’s account of the interaction (Mk 12:29-34), which starts off with “Hear, O Israel…”, exactly as the opening line of the Shema.

Reading the whole of Deuteronomy 6 however, I found that the primary concern of Yahweh giving that commandment to love him so wholly was tied to something I’m discovering more and more all over both the OT and subsequently, seeing it’s footprints in the NT – Yahweh had a covenant relationship with Israel, who in their Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture were surrounded by many neighbouring nations who worshiped many other gods. Therefore this injunction to love Yahweh with their heart, soul and mind was a covenant reminder – a reminder not to go chasing after those other gods. Check out some subsequent verses in Deut 6.

It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you – for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God – lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (Deut 6:13-15 NIV)

Note that the consequence of following those other gods were not just personal. This injunction was about the fate of the nation Israel, not about an individual’s own punishment.

I also began to notice that many of the commandments in the Torah are prefixed or suffixed by a reminder that Yahweh was the one who delivered them from Egypt (or the one who created the world) and hence the only one they were to worship (Ex 20:1-3; Deut 5:6-7; Lev 26:13-14).

Many of us modern readers may miss the seriousness of this injunction because we tend to have separations between our religious convictions and our day to day interactions with people around us, but in the ANE world, everybody’s religious beliefs were part and parcel of their lives and all activities, including how they related to other neighbours. Having one’s “personal” or “family” gods in addition to national gods was the norm, not the exception amongst ancient Israel’s neighboring nations with whom they interacted regularly.

Hence what Jesus calls “the greatest commandment” was a commandment to Israel mainly to remind them to avoid unfaithfulness to Yahweh and switching their loyalty away from him to other gods. It was a covenant reminder. In a culture that was surrounded by many gods, an intentional effort was needed to remind them of the one Creator god with whom they had a special relationship as a nation. Hence the encouragement not just to love with all their minds, heart and soul, but additionally to “impress them on your children”, “tie them as symbols on your hands” etc etc. As with all outward showings of belief aka rituals, doing these things were not a guarantee of one’s love for Yahweh, but a means to remind oneself of who one was vis-a-vis one’s God. Unfortunately as with all outward expressions of inner belief, sometimes the rituals themselves gain a life of their own, leaving what it was supposed to remind us of itself behind. This is exactly the case by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, but in addition this has been the bane of all religions, Jewish, Christian, Islam, you name it. Too many of us find our comfort in our symbols rather than what they are supposed to represent.

The Wine as a Covenant Reminder

Having been directed to the importance of covenant in understanding the death of Jesus Christ by Michael Gorman of which I wrote about here, my mind immediately saw the link between “The Greatest Commandment”, and the wine of communion. When Jesus picked up the wine to share with his disciples, he called it “the blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28 NIV) and “new covenant in my blood”. In this process, Jesus was not only evoking the “blood of the covenant” in Ex 24:8, he also invoked Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31). Mulling this over, I came to the following conclusion.

Drinking of the communion wine is primarily an act reminding us that we the gathered people together are in a covenant relationship with God. It is a reminder to uphold the 1st great commandment – to not follow any other god but Yahweh, who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bread as Community and Unity Reminder

Which brought me then to the subject of the bread. I’m yet to find any Old Testament linkage of Jesus’s use of the bread to signify his body. However, looking at Paul’s epistles and his statements about “the body of Christ”, it seems to be that the bread then stands for the unity of the participants gathered as one people of God. Paying better attention to the full context of Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 then, one sees Paul’s rebuke of disunity in the body of Christ at Corinth as manifesting itself in how they actually didn’t have “the Lord’s supper” , but rather were eating individual meals (v 20-21). And given that the whole NT is emphatic that love of God must lead to love of brother, I came to the second conclusion.

Eating the communion bread is primarily an act reminding us that we who are gathered are one in the body of Christ, accepted by grace and of equal worth before God. Just as the unleavened bread used in the Passover during Jesus’s last supper with the disciples, we are indeed holy and set apart for his purposes – that of being a royal priesthood and a holy nation for the benefit of the world. We are made up of Jews, Gentiles, slave, free, male, female, Ewe, Akan, Dagomba, Fante, American, Chinese, Yoruba, Igbo etc. Nothing must divide us, because nothing can separate us from the love of God which we already confess by taking the wine. It is a reminder of the second greatest commandment – love your neighbour as yourself.

Rethinking Christian Unity

Following from these 2 conclusions on Communion, it became more obvious to me the futility of building Christian unity without prioritizing what Jesus explicitly commanded we must do regularly – communion and its associated Christian fellowship. As I put on my Facebook wall recently, Jesus never said “when you meet, have bible discussions in remembrance of me”, but rather speaking of communion, he says “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me”. As Scott McKnight pointed out recently whiles reviewing Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible” (a book I enjoyed myself and highly recommend), it is impossible to build unity around unity of biblical interpretations, and the abundance of divisions between many churches all claiming to obtain their authority from “Scripture only” is clear evidence to that fact. Unity built on “doctrine” and biblical interpretations is only possible among those who hold the same thoughts on these kinds of matters, which renders the concept of Christian unity quite unattainable.

Conclusion

So, I’ve come to some conclusions after such re-arrangement of my mental furniture regarding communion, Christian unity and the Great commandments. Whiles I continue to vigorously pursue improving my understanding of Jesus via the study of scripture, of theology and cultural/historical backgrounds of the biblical text, I’ve resolved that the pursuit of fellowship takes precedence over the pursuit of theological “rightness”. I’ve found myself having communion in some “unapproved” locations with some “unapproved” friends, and we’ve enjoyed doing so tremendously. This has not dulled my interest in learning one bit, but has rather led me to understand Jesus better – he was more interested in gaining a “negative” reputation for spending time eating and drinking with the “unacceptables” than he was pleasing the theological gatekeepers of his time. He didn’t have to compromise any of the truth he knew, but he knew that truth has a purpose – that in him (Jesus Christ) “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19)

Isn’t it genius of Jesus to use the one practice he commanded us to do regularly to also serve as a means to remind us of the 2 Greatest Commandments?

How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

The Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

It is a well known and oft-repeated mantra that Christians should read the bible on their own to further develop a relationship with God. But I find a worrying trend among Ghanaian Christians that will rather retard that relationship, if not kill it, and that trend is the rise of the “daily devotional”.

Growing up, I remember there were only a few devotionals that were recommended for Christians to read as a means of “doing their quiet time”. Typically the focus on 1 verse of scripture with a other proof-texts to support the main one, and an explanation, story, illustration etc and some praying points. These were mostly written from a typical evangelical Christian perspective by a wide range of respected Christians sometimes from different church backgrounds, and as much as possible kept the focus on one’s salvation and daily walk with God. Back then, we were encouraged to read the bible for ourselves and then add on these devotionals, but overtime many people who actually desired the ability to have “quiet time” simply substituted reading the bible with reading the devotionals only. After all, the devotionals were also quoting the bible, not so?

The trend however began to shift when every pastor worth their salt decided that their church members needed to not only hear their voices on Sundays, but carry them along all through the week as well. Matters have now deteriorated to the point where everyone who feels they have some level of understanding of the bible wants to write one, and with the advent of social media and chat platforms, easily spread their devotional to friends and family.

In my opinion this trend is however leading us down a very dangerous path – it is blinding us from discovering the bible ourselves in it’s fullness and complexity, and has become a sure means of spreading bad theology amongst Christians, to their own detriment. And here are the reasons why.

  1. It encourages proof-texting. Devotionals pick a verse or 2 out of their contexts, and then try to make sense of the verses on their own. Sometimes the authors try to draw in from the surrounding context, but since these devotionals are meant to be short, they woefully fail at doing this and focus on their interpretations of the the quoted verses. This is a sure formula for distorting scripture, as any single verse in the bible can be quoted to support any interpretation one desires, even including killing people.

  2. It props up individualistic readings of the bible. Most devotionals focus on giving their readers some snippet of encouragement, advice etc on how to live their personal lives. This means that every quoted verse is plumbed for its application to the individual, without realizing and emphasizing the corporate nature of the biblical texts themselves from which these verses are lifted. Where for example Paul is speaking of the church, devotionals teach their adherents to read them as speaking of themselves as individuals. I was amazed when someone was quoting Eph 3:10 from a devotional and feeling abuzz, letting us all know that the rulers and principalities will know God’s wisdom through him, a total distortion of the whole bible’s teaching on the critical nature of the nation of God – the church.

  3. It fails to situate Christians in their place as participants in God’s mission. Because of the explicit focus on giving Christians a personal boost for their daily lives, devotionals fail woefully at bringing to the fore God’s mission of care for one another and care for creation that can only be acted out by communities of dedicated Christians, not by individuals. The bible is meant to guide the life of a community of people who are working to make the kingdom of God felt on the earth today. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Individualistic reading of scripture promoted by devotionals prevent one from seeing this point.

  4. It hides the complexity of the bible from it’s audience. Devotionals by their nature are very selective of scripture. This means that its readers will get the sense of a bible which is very simple to read and understand, where every verse of scripture is self-explanatory. It propagates the well-cherished Protestant teaching that with a plain reading of scripture and the holy spirit’s help, everyone can come to the same conclusions on bible passages as the writers of these devotionals have. Given the millions of different denominations all stating that their interpretation of scripture is the right one, its amazing the irony of such teaching hasn’t dawned on us yet.

  5. It keeps it’s readers ignorant of the history and background of the biblical texts. By their nature, there’s very little understanding of the history and background of the bible that one can get from devotionals, which actually have a huge impact on how to actually interpret a particular verse of the bible. Some devotionals try to give themselves a sense of going deeper by doing “the greek word means …”, but really, if it was a simple as quoting words from the original languages, we will all still be reading the KJV as the only English translation.

I could go on with more reasons to be wary of devotionals, but I think the point is made. By its very nature, there is no real way that devotionals can make one a better student of the bible. The best it can do is to give you a boost for the day. And frankly that won’t cut it if we are going to produce Christians who actually know what the bible has to say and who will not fall for deception. As they say, “give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Devotionals are the equivalent of giving a man a fish – Christians who rely on them will never learn to discern scripture themselves. Our churches need to be equipping Christians with the right methods to enable study the bible for all it’s worth, and in addition realize the value of community in the interpretation of scripture. In addition, the false pressure that one must read the bible EVERY DAY is one that needs to be countered – so we don’t fall into the temptation to fill up the “quiet time” slot with rather unhelpful material. Jesus’s didn’t say we need to read the bible daily – he said we need to carry our cross and follow him daily (Lk 9:23). That cross was a cross of self-denial for the other, just as he denied himself for us. What are we denying ourselves for our fellow Christian and even non-Christian on a daily basis?

We are in an unprecedented time in history where the bible is very easily obtainable due to the invention of the printing press, but sadly we are also in a time when the ignorance of the bible is even higher. This is simply due to the fact that those who actually can read aren’t reading it, and those who are reading it haven’t been trained in proper methods of understanding it.

Tips

Here are some tips for you if you are serious about reading the bible for all its worth,

  1. Stop reading devotionals. Some of them may sound like they have some depth, but if you develop the habit of reading the bible yourself, you’ll realise that there’s nothing special about them, and very soon you’ll be poking holes in them yourself.

  2. Pray to God to give you the strength to read the bible for yourself.

  3. Read whole chapters of the bible at once. Don’t feel pressured to do so everyday, but if you can then read one chapter a day. To be frank with you, I don’t read the bible everyday, so you are in good company (or rather I’m in good company).

  4. Rediscover Jesus by intentionally reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) once every year. Just read them in chapters.

  5. There is an amazing magic about the Psalms, which I intend to write about soon. But I’ll encourage you to read them on a regular basis. Come up with your own schedule. Anytime you do your regular reading of the bible, read a Psalm to boot, even the confusing ones. I’ll be sharing very soon the songs that we’ve written at church from the Psalms following this practice.

  6. No matter how you do it, start small. A chapter a day and a Psalm a day. Or a chapter a week and a Psalm a week. It’s about consistency, not about “Read Your Bible, Pray Everyday”.

  7. Find friends in your church who are practicing/want to practice reading the bible this way and plan this together so you can share your thoughts with each other. Remember, the early disciples didn’t have bibles in their homes. They had to have the books of the bible read to them and they interpreted it together.

  8. Commit yourself to reading a book by a theologian at least once a year which discusses a theological concept. By a theologian I don’t mean pastors. I mean a world renowned biblical scholar. This is not to condemn pastors and teachers. The goal of this advice is to open you up to learning from people who are not found in your usual comfort zones, but who have dedicated their lives to explaining the bible for both academic and spiritual purposes, and who are aware of the complexities of the bible.

Conclusion

One of the questions I ask my friends who take themselves seriously when it comes to Christianity is this. Are you in the business of producing believers, or you are in the business of producing disciples? Jesus called us to do one of these, and we should know which one by now.

Why Small Group Gatherings ≠ Bible Studies

Bible Study

One of the issues that one is confronted with when speaking of small church communities like house churches is the tendency for people to immediately relate it to their experience of “Bible Study” groups. This can indeed be a frustrating experience for the one doing the communication, since naturally human beings easier understand a concept by relating it to something that they may already be familiar with. I got the sense of this problem again during our most recent public seminar event “A Different Kind of Christianity”, and I think an attempt to explain what the goal of discipleship via small communities is.

The Assumptions

Many Christians have simply assumed that the purpose of a meeting of Christians is to primarily listen to “the word of God”, which is typically a sermon based on some biblical passages. As a result, even when Christians meet in small group settings, it must be defined by the necessity to “look into the word” – aka read the bible. Hence whenever one speaks of home meetings – the mental picture is people gathering to follow a Bible Study manual.

There are many reasons why this has become the standard expectation

  1. The Protestant Reformation came along with it the abundant availability of the bible, and based on the theology of Sola Scriptura, the expectation that every Tom, Dick and Harry must be able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret it of their own accord. So, a personal ability to read and interpret the bible oneself became the goal. This was of course an overreaction to the Roman Catholic church’s attempt to make the Pope the only person qualified to interpret scripture.

  2. Again, the Reformation now put the bible and in particular the sermon at the center of church life. The great Reformer Martin Luther called the church a “Mundhouse” – a mouth house or speech house due to the prominence of hearing the word preached in church. John Calvin placed much emphasis on “orthodoxy” – correct teaching – and was prepared to go to the extent of having “heresy” – false teaching – punished via death, despite Jesus’ own teaching and example to the contrary on enemy love. In the psyche of the Protestant Christian then, Christians meeting without reading scripture is a misnomer.

As a result then, even when we try to create smaller gatherings, the goal has been typically to see this as an opportunity to make Christians more bible-savvy. Any attempt at discipleship then gets filtered through this lens as well. Any other thing else is seen as a secondary benefit.

What’s Wrong With These Assumptions

There are many things problematic about these assumptions and here I mention a few without going into too much detail.

  1. Early Christianity thrived without everybody having a copy of the bible to read. There were no printing presses to churn out copies of bibles for each one. Social historians state that in the 1st and 2nd centuries, only 20% of the population could read, and only 15% of could write. And that’s not even talking about Christians. So I’m not quite sure that they would have been singing songs like “read your bible, pray everyday”. And yet we have so many historians speaking glowingly of how these communities of Christians defied their the world with their way of life as a community and towards their society.

  2. Most modern Christians do not even envisage suffering as being part of their calling, much less have a proper theology that prepares them for it. But early Christianity suffered untold hardship and persecution, but this rather increased and not decreased their numbers. This is because by their theology and way of life, it became expected that persecution would follow.

  3. Western Christianity (as well as Christianity influenced by the West) has elevated the individual to quite unbiblical heights, making the individual and their personal relationship with God the center of Christian life. This then has led to an explosion of material and teaching for individual personal Christianity (even to the point of reading the New Testament, originally written to communities, with individualistic eyes), and very little resources on how to be a community of the Lamb. This is in contrast to early Christianity, which placed the church community at the center of Christian life, and enjoined the individual to work and make sacrifices for unity and love to be manifest in each community. When Paul is asked a simple matter of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he takes 3 chapters to explain the paramount importance of Christian community over individual rights (1 Cor 8-10).

  4. For a long time, the bible has been read as a flat book, where every part has equal importance. As a result, the distinctive nature of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus and how that should change how Christians view everything has been lost in many Christian traditions. Despite the fact that the word “disciple” appears 22 more times than the word “Christian”, most Christians simply assume that discipleship is for the “uber” Christians, not for them. So even when reading the bible, modern Christians don’t tend to see Jesus as a person in whose footsteps they must follow, but only as the savior of their sins whose only purpose was to die on the cross.

What Should It Be About Then?

If the purpose of small group gatherings is not to create “bible scholars” out of us all, then what exactly is it for, and what should be happening in such gatherings?

Let me first state here (before I’m accused of anything untoward) that I do believe in the importance of the bible and its authoritativeness for Christian life. I read the bible regularly and have a growing library of books from theologians and scholars whom I read often (besides a very long wish-list on Amazon). But I believe that small group gatherings have the enormous potential to form us into disciples of Jesus in ways that large gatherings cannot, and running them with the same mentality as large ones is an exercise in missing the point.

  1. Small gatherings should be used to focus on the activity of applying the lessons learnt from teachings about following Jesus, both in community and as individuals. For example it should be a time to share the challenges of work and living in our neighborhoods, so we may think through them and learn together what is the Jesus way of dealing with such challenges.

  2. Small gatherings should be a place for creating bonds of fellowship through actually eating together regularly. I even recommend having communion at such gatherings instead of/alongside the larger ones. There’s a good reason why the NT, especially the Gospels are littered with stories of eating in people’s homes, whether its Jesus or the early disciples.

  3. In developing countries like ours with high levels of illiteracy, as well as multiple ethnic and language groups, small gatherings should become places where these voices can be heard and teaching further disseminated. In larger settings, there’s the tendency only to focus on the subject matter at hand i.e. worship and sermon. In smaller ones, we learn to focus on people. Some try to overcome these kind of language barriers by having translations of the sermon, but in my experience that tends to be a distraction, is fraught with mis-communication and ultimately buys into the Protestant prioritization of the sermon/bible as the only means by which people encounter Jesus.

  4. Expanding on the point above, if a church truly sees itself as fulfilling the biblical mission of bringing the Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, rich or poor, social elite or social outcast together, then small gatherings serve as an excellent, biblically-inspired tool to practicalise this integration. It enables making room to listen to life from the perspective of the other, be they the richer or poorer person, be they from the other ethnic group or nationality. Let us remember that the church is, as Scott McKnight puts it “a fellowship of differents” – a kingdom community of many shades of people, gathered under the headship of Jesus Christ and showing the world that despite it’s attempts at division and strife, Jesus offers a new hope of a community of unity and love in diversity.

  5. Small gatherings should be seen as a means of moving us beyond our comfort zones and to teach us the value of hospitality that was expected and common amongst early disciples. This should involve sometimes causing small groups to meet in homes of less fortunate members once in a while, learning to cope with situations of unpreparedness to receive guests, encouraging us to actually know where each member lives and seeing what ways we could meet needs when they arise in each other’s lives. Modernity teaches us to put up a nice facade before others, but discipleship is meant to force us to open up, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. That way, we learn to really consider those who are part of our small groups as Jesus regarded his disciples – family.

  6. The bible will definitely be a resource to us in doing things the ways I’ve described above as we seek to discover Jesus in this process of discipleship. But in this way we actually learn to pursue Jesus, not the bible.

Conclusion

For those who have such gatherings alongside large church meetings, it might be time evaluate why exactly we have these kinds of gatherings. Most places which have had such gatherings have ended up abandoning them, or stifling them of all life, making them repetitions of what larger church gatherings do. If we intend them to be places of fulfilling God’s mission of discipleship and community, then we must totally re-orient our mind and attitude towards such groups, and empower them to function properly. If not, then don’t make a pretense at having such small group gatherings, because they become more of a source of confusion and dissatisfaction than they should be.