Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.

Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.

But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.

Now, let me explain myself.

Retributive Justice in the Old Testament

Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .

  • The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.

  • The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.

This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.

However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.

The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)

Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)

Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism

Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .

Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?

The Effects of this Syncretism

Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.

  1. It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.

  2. Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.

  3. Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.

  4. Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.

  5. Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.

  6. These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?

  7. Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.

The Seeds Have Always Been There

The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.

In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.

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Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

One of the typically abused texts that Ghanaian Christians are quick to quote when their favourite pastor/prophet/bishop etc is under criticism is Ps 105:15

Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm” (Ps 105:15).

But are we sure we understand this verse?

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

This has become a blanket statement to prevent any form of questioning of the teaching or practice of church leaders. It’s usage is particularly very dominant in certain circles of Christianity, who limit all their experience and knowledge of Christianity through the lens of their beloved preachers. Any criticism of such preachers therefore elicits not a welcome ear to listen and think through the accusation/critique, but a knee jerk reaction to defend such beloved preachers/prophets, even to possibly naming the critique as a “heretic” or “unspiritual person”. And this is further worsened by such preachers also intentionally exploiting the above verse as a means to defend themselves, leading their followers to assume that that is the proper way to understand this verse.

What The Phrase Means in Context

This is probably the easiest abuse of the bible to detect, yet the dominance of this abuse simply amazes me. This is because one can see what the author of the Psalm is talking about by simply reading the whole Psalm 105 from beginning. The Psalm begins by calling Israel to give thanks to God for what he has done for them.

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name, make known among the nations what he has done” (v 1)

The author then proceeds to state the exact things that Yahweh has actually done for them.

“Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob … He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit’ … When they were but few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it … He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings; ‘Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm’ ”(v5-15).

It is obvious from the above (paying attention to the portions I’ve boldened) that the Psalmist is talking about how Yahweh protected HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE from harm whiles they travelled from Egypt to Canaan, so that they may obtain God’s promise of ENTERING THE LAND OF CANAAN. In the process, God actually defeats both Og, king of Bashan and Sihon, king of the Amorites just to get his way. These are the “kings” he rebuked (as well as Pharaoh of course). The theme of Yahweh defeating Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites is repeated in many Psalms (Ps 139;135;68) as well as the rest of the Old Testament, and is told to remind the people of ancient Israel how God had led them to “the land”. Even before the reading of the Ten Commandments to the people in Deuteronomy, it is preceded with reminding the people of God how he took them from Egypt, defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan before bringing them to conquer Canaan (Deut 2,3).

Therefore the reference to “anointed one” and “prophets” here is but a reference to the nation Israel.

So What?

Obviously the above cannot be used to defend only certain preachers, simply because it doesn’t even refer to them. But as usual, many Christians like to mine the Old Testament to justify what they are bent on doing without first understanding the Old Testament on it’s own terms as a document that records the history and stories of God’s relationship with his chosen people. And when the OT is read only for its “mining” or allegorical value, these are the kind of results we get (an example is the “seven to one” misinterpretation that occurred recently from one of the leading Ghanaian preachers). So having done the correct thing above, let us then indulge the “miners” of the OT and apply the text properly.

If the church is Israel expanded, then this passage is specifically talking about us all as God’s anointed and God’s prophets. None of us is more anointed than the other. The only anointed one is Jesus Christ (which is what Christ means i.e. the anointed one), and we are all anointed because we are a part of his body. In the same way the passage is talking about the nation Israel, let’s be minded to speak of the church as God’s anointed and prophets, and let’s stop giving our favourite preachers/prophets/bishops the free pass to move from being people who are tasked with preparing us for works of service to people who are performing a show for us which we have to accept whether we like it or yes because “they are the anointed” and we are the mere mortals.

If we truly are serious about doing this, we can start the process by simply refusing to refer to such men as “anointed”. How hard can that be? Will a few sacred cows be lost by doing so?

(This article is also published on the SimplyChrist website)

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

I’ve been meaning to do a series on common statements that Ghanaian Christians make on a day to day basis which have become accepted, but where what we actually mean by such statements are totally unrelated to how those phrases are used biblically, or a sheer abuse of the phrase for a parochial interest. I start off with one that is very popular among Ghanaian Christians, but which has a very negative effect on our ability to actually follow in the example of Jesus.

Twi: “Enfa wo were enhye nipa mu”

English: “Do not put your trust in man”

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

This is probably the most used and abused phrase by Ghanaian gospel musicians and preachers alike. It is typically meant to convey the idea that when one has a problem, it is useless to actually seek help and advise from any human being about it, including even one’s brethren in Christ.

This way of interpreting the above scriptural statement is further aggravated by the incidence of gossip that is so rife in many churches. As a result, church (in a lot of Christians’ experience) is no longer a safe place for one to find brethren who can be of help in one’s journey of faith and in whom one can confide. Finally, it has led many Ghanaians to anachronistically now put their faith in so called “men of God”, because they are the ones whom God listens to, so God can solve their problem.

In summary then, this phrase has come to mean simply “Everyone for himself, God for us all”. The Ghanaian Christian usage of this phrase is akin to a picture of many people gathered in a building and each person taking their own telephone line and making a call to God to tell them their personal problems. At the end of the day, we all say goodbye and we go home.

What The Phrase Means in Context

Ps 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save”

Ps 118:8-9 “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

Is 2:22 Stop trusting in mere humans,who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?

One of the easiest clues to what the authors meant is by asking why apart from skepticism about “trust in human beings”, they almost always add skepticism about trust in “princes”. This alone should sound the alarm bells that the authors of the Old Testament were not talking about refraining from telling your brother that you are hungry and broke.

You see, the people of Israel had a covenant relationship with Yahweh, which required that if they are faithful to their side of the covenant, Yahweh will remain faithful to his. One of the obligations of the covenant on Yahweh as captured in Torah (the books of Moses) was that he was to be the protector of that nation, in so far as the nation stayed faithful to him. This reciprocal relationship is what is captured in Deut 28-30, in what people sometimes describe as “blessings and curses” of the Law.

Yahweh in many ways forbid Israel from having a standing army, so that the people of Israel will rely on him to save them, not on their military might. A clear example of this is how Yahweh orders Gideon to reduce the size of his army by so using methods like asking them to drink water at a river and choosing those who did it right, etc etc. (Judges 6-7). But as usual the nation sometimes got scared when an enemy was at their gates, and some of their kings refused to rely on Yahweh for salvation, but to form alliances with other nations for their protection. The problem with such alliances was that since every nation in the Ancient Near East had it’s own god/gods, this presupposes that Israel was no longer relying on Yahweh but on the god of whatever nation they were looking up to, which was the functional equivalent of idolatory and sin. Therefore the prophets never ceased to criticize these alliances and the kings/leaders of Israel who forged them with their neighbours, warning that such alliances are an idolatrous breach of the covenant with Yahweh and will bring negative consequences. An example of such criticism is Is 30.

Is:30:1-2; “Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge.”

In context then, these warnings are to ensure that Israel should not abandon trust in Yahweh to defend them and to keep his promises, and has very little to do with listening to and helping one another.

So What?

If we are going to extrapolate what lessons this holds for us today, we should rather be realizing that God is questioning the Christian church’s and it’s membership’s faith in political institutions, rather than preventing us from sharing our concerns with one another in church.

Have we not noticed how Christians, even church leaders, feel so frustrated with government after government for not “fighting corruption” or “fixing the economy” or proposing to “solve dumsor in 3 months”? Have we not noticed our churches holding “thanksgiving services” (whatever that means) for our political parties et al? Is it not a sign that we have put our faith in “princes” and “human beings”, when we should be putting our faith in Jesus? Or is it because paying attention to Jesus actually means when times are hard we should actually be caring for our church members instead of asking more money from them and complaining that “the bad economy has affected our collections”?

Ironically, there’s a Ghanaian saying that “the one who sells his sickness finds a cure for it”. Can we go back to selling our sicknesses to one another as the New Testament shows, that we may be rid of this abuse of scripture and stop doing harm to the body of Christ?