Why Penteco-charismtism Is Shooting Itself In The Foot

The Holy SpiritAs is always the case with any human institution, there comes a time when Christian churches and church traditions lose their way, and instead of being a means of salvation and a display of the coming kingdom, rather become a means of oppression and abuse, looking nothing like the Jesus it claims to follow.

Take for instance the Protestant Reformation, which was prompted by certain Roman Catholic priests abusing indulgences by charging money for prayers for dead relatives to be moved from purgatory to heaven. By the time the time the dust settled, the Reformation had lead to the division of the Western church into the modern day Protestant churches on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic church on the other. And although the Roman Catholic church condemned its own priests for such behaviour during and after the Reformation, the harm of division had already been done. Now even in modern times, I watch how Protestants refuse to learn from Catholicism or Catholic scholars, because they assume that the battles of the Reformation are still raging. The reverse also continues to remain true in many Roman Catholic circles.

Or take for instance my own church tradition the Anabaptists, who stuck together to survive death and torture by both Protestant and Catholic Christians. Running away and settling in the US, all sorts of division now blossomed amongst them, with denominations breaking away from each other over many debates, including about whether Christians watching TV or driving motor cars is a sin or not. Arminian scholar Roger Olsen recently did an interesting post on the Beachy Amish, driving the point home further.

But I have never seen division on the scale on which I’m seeing it being perpetuated today in Ghana, particularly amongst the Penteco-Charismatic tradition here. And that’s why I write this post to plead with my fellow Christians in this pond of Christianity, in light of not only recent events but observations and conversations I’ve had with people directly involved in this movement in Ghana.

I hear many Christians appeal to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity amongst his people, and I get the feeling we may not realize the enormity of that task if we continue to stand in the same old place looking at Scripture, Jesus and the church from the same old perspectives. So here are some things that I think need serious re-evaluation if this tradition and others wants to realize unity even within itself (including at their own local church levels) much less unity with other Christians. Some Penteco-charismatics may express these problems to different degrees, but my aim is to simply state them for evaluation, and let the chips fall where they may.

Re-evaluate The Attachment to 1 Cor 2:4

When I was a Pentecostal, one of the basic proof-texts that was used to justify the need for us to display “signs and wonders” was 1 Cor 2:4. The NIV says

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4 NIV)

I remember reading Derek Prince (a well known Pentecostal voice), who stated that the main criteria for determining who was an apostle was that they needed to be a person that demonstrates signs and wonders, and used this text to back it up. I didn’t know how powerful this interpretation of scripture had a hold on Penteco-Charismatism until I met two different leaders in this tradition, who expressed their frustration at being sidelined within their own tradition because they didn’t exhibit the usual penchant for miracles and signs in their ministries. In fact I just saw a book on Monday by one of the leading voices of this movement in Ghana, which is specifically titled “Power Demonstration”, with pictures of him having healed cripple people on the cover.

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This interpretation has meant that anyone who displays some “signs and wonders” in this movement, no matter how flawed their theology or practice of Christianity is, cannot be questioned because – and here is the standard answer – “If God was not with him, he won’t be able to display such ‘power’ as Paul says”. And therein lies the problem.

Not only is this a pivotal text in this movement, it has become a source of division – a source of gauging one Christian’s “spirituality” over the other, even amongst themselves. Pastors appeal to their ability to perform these “signs and wonders as a demonstration of power” to quench any criticism, and now have a free rein to do as they please. And this teaching is so ingrained in their followers that one can even be labelled “satanic” for being critical of any such preacher.

The sad thing though is that this interpretation of “demonstration of the Spirit and of power = signs and wonders” is not a legitimate interpretation of this scripture. Many scholars have drawn attention to the fact that in context, 1 Corinthians is a letter Paul wrote to rebuke the Corinthian church for adopting the exact behaviour that we see today – the elevation of some Christians and Christian leaders over the other based on their exhibition of one “spiritual” characteristic over another. They point out that v 2 of that 1 Cor 2 contains an essential pointer, which Paul had already elaborated in 1 Cor 1:18 . In v 2 Paul says For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, which should point out to us that what is central to Paul is the cross of Jesus. And in 1 Cor 1:18 (and many other parts of Paul’s epistles) points to the self-sacrificial nature of the cross as God’s power, which should show us that Paul is not talking about signs and wonders in 1 Cor 2:4.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 NIV).

It is at this point that I will point us to no less a person than a Roman Catholic – Michael J. Gorman – whose thoughts on the paradox of the power of weakness as a display of the power of God come highly recommended. Unless of course we are still in the “Catholics are heretics” mode of Christianity. But I trust we are wiser than that.

Maybe, just maybe, we all may recover the Pauline sense of weakness for the sake of others being strength, so that real unity can be achieved like he actually pleaded with the Corinthian church to seek and work towards.

Re-evaluate the Elevation of “Revelation” over Scripture

The second such attachment which needs re-evaluation is the tendency to claim a personal position as “revelation” by the Spirit, which can then not be critiqued by anyone else. This flows from a flawed understanding of Paul’s statements about his gospel having been revealed to him (Gal 1:12; Ro 16:25-27; Eph 6:18-20)

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:11-12 NIV)

The above passage has been used within this tradition to justify insulating oneself from being challenged for a theological position, claiming that whatever a person was saying they received it “by revelation, not by human origins”. The colloquial term for this is “revi”. As a result, even when clear heresy is being taught, most Penteco-charismatics feel bound by passages as above to shut up their mouths and receive it as teaching from God’s own Holy Spirit which must be obeyed.

But this could not be farther from the truth. The easiest place to grasp what Paul is talking about when he talks about his gospel being a revelation that is unique is in Ro 16:25-26, with the key in v 26.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith” – (Ro 16:25-26 NIV)

Here, the tendency for Christians to read the New Testament on its own without realizing its linkage with the Old Testament (especially in the Protestant tradition, which forgets that Paul is not a 16th century German but a 1st century Jew) has greatly inhibited our ability to get what Paul is talking about. In the Old Testament God had desired that the Gentiles (referred to as “the nations”) will be part of God’s chosen people in the age to come. Paul therefore realized that the return of Yahweh in the person of Jesus signaled the opening of the door to Gentiles. God’s grace of previously choosing only the people of Israel had now reached to the Gentiles through Jesus’s death on the cross, and it was time for them to also become part of God’s people. This opening of the doorway to Gentiles is what Paul considers distinctive about his ministry, as something that has been hidden (and continues to be hidden) to some of the other apostles, but which had been revealed to him. This is what motivated Paul to dedicate himself solely to mission amongst the Gentiles, as compared to his fellow apostles. His “revelation” was not outside the purview of scripture – his revelation was already within scripture, but needed a dedicated person to execute. Jesus Christ simply commissioned him Paul to be such a person. To assume therefore that Paul was somehow teaching us that God could reveal anything outside of scripture and the rest of us mere mortals should just shut up and swallow it hook, line and sinker is to totally misunderstand Paul and simply use him for our personal benefit.

Interestingly after Paul’s great claim of “independence of revelation”, he still “sought the approval of men” after 14 years of ministry by going back to Jerusalem and in his own words presenting “to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Gal 2:2). And he did receive that approval, simply because it was obvious to the Jerusalem leaders (again being 1st century Jews familiar with the OT) that God was using Paul to actualize what God had already spoken about concerning the coming in of the Gentiles.

Re-evaluate A Contract View of Faith

On this subject I’m grateful to Greg Boyd’s book “Benefit of the Doubt” for articulating something which had been on my mind for a while now – the issue of how Christians of many stripes, not just Penteco-charismatics, understand and use the word “faith”. It seems though the the problem shows itself up in extreme forms in the Penteco-charismatic tradition due to the influence of the “Word of Faith” stream in its midstt, but its been around in Protestantism for a long while.

Many people have a view of the word “faith” as mental certainty which works according how much of it one has. As a result, people are taught that once they have mental certainty about something and pray to God about it, they will receive whatever they pray for. This has been key even to evangelistic efforts in most Protestant traditions for centuries. People are even taught that doubt is a sin. Hebrews 11:1 has become the proof-text for this mentality. And yet the same Heb 11 says the people of old who had faith did NOT receive the things promised (v 13). That should clue us in that the idea that God will act according to the measure of your faith is not only bogus, its not what faith is actually about. The idea of faith as the means by which one exercises one’s side of a contract that binds God to fulfill his side is not only unbiblical, it is actually delusional.

The faith that the New Testament talks about needs to be understood again in light of the Old Testament, which pictures it in terms of a relationship. God’s relationship with the people of Israel is pictured in terms of a marriage covenant, not a legal contract. God calls Israel his bride in many OT passages (Jer 3:1,8,14;Hos 2:2,7), and calls her a harlot when she’s proven unfaithful. In marriages we enter into a relationship of trust (not a contract), and we learn to walk with each other, in sickness, in health, till death do us part. The marriage survives not because of faith in the marriage certificate that one receives, but because of constant work by both parties to keep the relationship alive. When one’s trust is in the certificate and not in the character and action of both parties, that is the beginning of the end – and that is exactly what happened to Israel in the exile. The were so certain God’s choice of them as his people was irrevocable, they got comfortable and chased after other gods, and were exiled by Babylon.

Thinking of faith this way may help not only Penteco-charismatics but a large swathe of Christianity to get away from the inevitable sickness that “faith as a contract” produces – individualism, the number one tool against unity. Because we will wake up to the fact that God desires a relationship with his bride – the church – of which we each are individually constituted. Faith then becomes our trust as individuals and as a community in the one who we are in a relationship with, whether we “get” what we want when we pray or not. That’s how a marriage works, not so? Whether we get what we want or not, we stick to our spouse. That’s how the people of old listed in Hebrews 11 viewed faith, which is the reason why even though they didn’t receive the promises, they were faithful to the end.

For me it also begins to make sense why certain New Testament scholars (especially of the New Perspective camp) point out that in many places of Paul’s letters, the Greek word “pistis” should be translated as faithfulness, not as faith. Ah well, what can a mere mortal like me contribute to that debate?

Conclusion

Well, enough of the advise. As they say, a word to the wise is in the north (or is it “enough” rather? I forget). One simple question that Penteco-charismatics must ask themselves is that why does it seem to be that almost every preacher that most people consider chalatans claim a Penteco-charismatic background? Is it because this tradition gifts them the tools for such abuse, and limits their ability to be questioned?

There’s a Ghanaian proverb that says “when your brother’s beard is on fire, keep water close to yours” – obviously in case the flame jumps from his to yours. It’s a simple reminder that we all need to learn from history, and not just our history, but the history of others not like us.

Unity does not come on a silver platter, its hard work and demands listening and learning and repenting sometimes. Let those who are called by their king to unity learn to major on that which is major. That Jesus is Lord. That he has called us to make known his self-sacrificial kind of kingship both in the church, and beyond it. And that the only means by which the world will know if we are truly his disciples is not in the abundance of signs and wonders, not in some unique “revi”, not in our abundance of “faith” we can exercise, but rather “if ye love one another”.

PS: For more on reading the New Testament with the Old Testament in mind, join us on Emmaus Road Moments on 7th March, 2016 and let’s dig in deeper. See ya.

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The Crisis of Ghanaian Christianity: Lessons from Anabaptism and Beyond

prosperity-dummiesThere is a narrative that has somehow gained traction amongst Western Christians regarding Christianity in Africa. This narrative is that though the church may be declining in the West, it is actually doing well and growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Well, I can only speak to the African side of the story. And from my vantage point, this narrative needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to Africa, especially to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. I tend to find myself often amongst Christians who are concerned about the trajectory of Ghanaian Christianity in particular, but also something that is happening in parallel across other African countries with Christian populations. During such conversations, I inevitably hear the refrain – “the churches are not preaching salvation anymore”. This is because of the rise and rapid spread of the innocuous “prosperity gospel” in Ghanaian churches. It’s now on the TV via televangelists, in our so-called “gospel” music and in our pulpits. These friends then, pine for the days when the sermons from the pulpits were focused on “preaching the bible”, condemning sin and teaching us how to be better Christians (on an individual level); basically what Dallas Willard referred to as “sin-management”. I chose then to write this to help my good friends make sense of what the real problems are, and to help my readers not in Africa to better discern when they find themselves interacting with Christianity of an African origin.

I used to think that was the solution as well, but my Christian journey has led me to question not just the “prosperity gospelers”, but the “salvation preachers”. And this is not because I don’t believe in salvation anymore – far from that. My challenge to the salvation gospelers has been that their definition of salvation is too narrow, and has actually actively contributed to the rise of the prosperity gospelers. Let me explain.

Some 30 years ago, the landscape of churches in Ghana was dominated by Roman Catholic as well as churches of a Reformed theological leaning – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Anglican et al – which in Ghana are referred to quite confusingly as “orthodox churches” (whereas globally, Orthodox is used to refer to Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek and Russian church etc, which have no footprint here in Ghana). At this time also, there was a budding number of Pentecostal churches, and a few charismatic ones. Let’s not forget the African Instituted Churches like the Mosama Disco Christo Church and the like. Most Christians desired to be associated with one of these well structured denominations.

The dominant theology of the Protestant ones among the above was the well known revivalist one of getting souls saved from sin. The regular mantra at crusades I attended was “Jesus is coming soon. You don’t know your destiny after your death. Come to Jesus and be saved, so you will also be with him in heaven when he returns or when you die” or something of the sort. The usual alter calls were made, people were saved and became church members, warming the pews and being taxed every Sunday for a church project or the other that had almost nothing to do with their daily lives and needs. A few of the poorer members of the churches did get some help once in a while, but this was not because there was a concerted effort of these churches to intentionally mitigate poverty, but because of the generosity of a few members who were approached. There was very little effort by the leadership to intentionally integrate the different classes of people that made it to these churches, so the usual social structures from which converts came continued to perpetuate themselves in these churches. But then these weren’t big issues, after all the church’s responsibility was to ensure the convert’s eternal destiny was secured. Being structurally heirarchical, leadership was dominantly more worried about how to get on the next rung of the ladder than what the real needs of the local church was. Embedded in this theology and practice was the subtle but deeply ingrained notion within Protestant Christianity that the gospel was about each individual’s salvation. And this individualism is what has and continues to be it’s weakness to this day.

This state of affairs is what most people with whom I speak on this matter refer to when they talk about churches “not preaching salvation anymore”. And this is what NT scholar Scot McKnight has to say on that yearning.

The revivalists sold us short at times in focusing so much on the past tense of salvation … as well as the future tense, eternal life – but not enough on the present: kingdom life in the church.”( Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).

Fast forward to 2015. Western individualism has seeped into Ghanaian culture, especially in the urban areas. The landscape is now littered with all sorts, shapes and sizes of churches. A lot of them have no denominational linkages, mostly founded by former leaders who have left the “orthodox” churches described above and who have unfortunately swallowed hook, line and sinker the “prosperity gospel”. Most of these claim a charismatic leaning. Instead of having a few denominational empires that one could at least identify and deal with, we now have a plethora of them, everybody wanting their piece of the pie of the overly religious and superstitious Ghanaian. Christianity has multiplied rapidly, but alongside it has been abuse, scriptural ignorance and bare-faced heresy, syncretism, and greed in the name of “the pastor must be rich to show that you can also be rich”. The segregation in our churches have also grown, with the poor going more to the charlatans running supposed “solution centers”, whiles the rich gather in their nice urban uber-church complexes. It’s now an open marketplace for membership to advance one’s empire. Whatever it is that these new churches claim to have been escaping from their “orthodox” ones, there really is no clear difference to see – maybe except that the leaders of these churches become richer overnight.

In the meantime, the “orthodox” churches are feeling the pinch of this “competition”, and are compromising on their more Reformedish theology to become more “relevant”, more “charismatic”. The words “success”, “breakthrough”, “miracles”, “prophetic”, “destiny” which used to be in the purview of the prosperity preachers, can now be heard on the lips (and seen on billboards) of an increasing number of “orthodox” churches. And this is causing some who would rather see these churches hold their ground – since they have been “hammering on sin and repentance” which is what we all need if we are going to make it to heaven – to have sleepless nights and pine for the days when the churches were “preaching salvation”. But alas, if concerned Ghanaian Christians are not willing to ask themselves the hard, long and uncomfortable questions (both theological and practical) and to take the decisions that need to follow it, then we are only doomed to the trajectory of “relevance” without faithfulness. As the musician Bono of U2 sang

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you” ( U2, Troubles from the album Songs of Innocence).

So, being an Anabaptist in a sea of Christendom, I have a few lessons to share with my friends and readers who actually yearn for a better Christianity in Africa. Some of these lessons come from Anabaptist history and some from more recent, academic and critically acclaimed Christian thinkers on this crisis.

1The Problem Starts From Flawed Theology

I’m sorry to say this, but the first and foremost reason why we are in this situation is because of the long dormant flaws in Protestant theology, especially as practiced in Ghana. The prosperity gospelers have simply built on these flaws.

  1. A flawed understanding of the kingdom of God – For centuries, Protestant Christianity has associated anything Jesus said about the kingdom of God with the future of going to heaven. This has affected our understanding of the gospel, and hence our understanding of salvation. The fullness of biblical salvation involves past salvation (salvation from sins and spiritual slavery), ongoing salvation (salvation from personal, social, economic and political structures) and future salvation (life in the new heaven and the new earth).

  2. Sola Scriptura – The teaching that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Bible in their language can properly interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit has lead to abuse of scripture driven by ignorance and anti-intellectualism. I wince everyday as TV evangelists massacre the bible to support their “prosperity gospelling”, but Protestant friends are loathe to address this dogma which actually gives these people their lease of life.

  3. A fixation on heaven and hell – Due to the influence of Greek paganism on Christianity after the early apostles, Christians moved from the original Jewish and early Christian hope of New Heaven and New Earth and the need to care about what is happening on this earth, to caring only about saving souls from hell to heaven. This was further aggravated by the Protestant Reformation because it was rebelling against the Catholics for insisting that one needed to make indulgences to be guaranteed forgiveness of sins and a move from purgatory to heaven. This has left Protestant churches unable to take practical steps to make their local churches actually care for needs of members in the here and now, because after all “its all about going to heaven”.

  4. “Me” instead of “We” – As a result of these 3 defects above, the bible is read with an eye to personal benefit only. Embedded within centuries of Protestant teaching has been a focus on the individual. That, together with the obvious lack of care of our “orthodox” churches to the bread and butter issues of life on this earth, is what the prosperity gospelers have exploited to this day. They preach that God actually cares about your here and now, but the means to get it is via your individualist effort of “faith” (according to their own definition of it), abundance of prayer and church activities, and of course abundance of giving to them. Brilliant combination, don’t you think? According to Forbes, the richest clergy is actually in Nigeria, despite it’s monumental poverty rates. Which reminds me of a time in history when a Catholic bishop in France had more money than the state. And yet we claim to be children of a Reformation.

Sadly, the leading Christian thinkers who are pointing out these flaws embedded within Protestant Christianity itself are being attacked for pointing them out, especially by the gatekeepers of Reformed theology in America (Anabaptists have been saying that the Protestant Reformation wasn’t far reaching enough for the last 500 years, so we call dibs on this one and watch the Protestants duke it out). One of them, NT Wright, repeats some of the accusations against him below.

Any mud will do: you can suggest that some of us do not believe in Jesus’ atoning death; you can insinuate that we have no gospel to preach, nothing to say to a dying ‘enquirer’; you can declare that we are false shepherds leading the flock astray; you can accuse us of crypto-Catholicism or quasi-Platonic moral Idealism; anything rather than pay attention to the actual arguments, the refraining of debates, and above all to the texts themselves” (NT Wright – Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

2Leading to Flawed Community

Having sorted the theological problems out, here is one lesson that Anabaptism will like our fellow Protestant Christians to freely learn from them. After all, Anabaptists died the most for insisting that church should be separate from state, and should be a community of commitment and sharing with one another long before the modern separation between state and church became established norm. Until we learn to recognize local churches as the place to show in every locality, God’s ideal for the world of different people coming together despite class, social, cultural and economic differences and actively working to undermine those differences by caring and sharing with one another, individualism will reign, and prosperity gospelling, thriving on individualism, will continue to infect good Christianity.

This means some serious structural changes, from the way money goes to the bottomless pit at the top and never descends to the bottom, to what we do when we are gathered as a church. One of the ways in which Anabaptism was able to resist the death (both as threats and actual martyrdom) of their fellow Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century was the practice of caring for one another, which was sorely missing in the camp of their oppressors and was pointed out by Menno Simmons even when he was being tried by his opponents. Same as the early Christians. If our Ghanaian Protestant churches had been up and doing in this direction, people would have clearly seen through the deception of the prosperity gospellers from a mile away.

3Ending in Flawed Discipleship

The other lesson that Anabaptism will like to freely teach our Protestant brothers in Ghana is that the Christian life is one of following in the way of the master. A life spent in “worship” but not in following is a life that leads to exile, an exile that looks suspiciously like Judah’s captivity in Babylon. I see plenty declarations of “I want more of you, Jesus”, plenty “gospel” concerts and shows, plenty “all-night services”, plenty taxing of poor church members to build universities, majority of whose children stand no chance of even getting into Senior High School. Sadly, I see very little of serving one another, being good news to the poor in our midst (not some romantic far away location), treating the widows/widowers and unmarried amongst us like the fully human beings they are, making our homes open to people who are lower on the social ladder, eating with the “wrong” crowd on a regular basis, placing other’s needs above ours daily, being friends with the illiterate so the literate can teach them the bible instead of letting the charlatans twist it and abuse them and then wonder why they go to those churches.

Conclusion

As Anabaptists, we are also learning some ways in which we need to improve, after all till Jesus comes, the job will never be finished and no church is perfect. But it’s very hard to throw some accusations against Anabaptistim for good reason – Anabaptist strove to keep discipleship and community at the forefront, sometimes to the extreme. Things haven’t always been rosy, and we’ve also made our own mistakes. But what we also need is to be strengthened by this renewal in understanding Jesus not as defined by the 16th century European Christianity, but as a 1st century Jewish Messiah, yet a Messiah who is actually God himself.

So if Ghanaian “orthodox” Christianity and other church traditions (be they Pentecostal or Charismatic) have any chance of repelling the onslaught of prosperity gospelling that has so distorted the Christian witness here, then they really need to dig deep and radically reform. Because until then, the prosperity gospellers will continue to have their way, and to survive, they will end up having to join them.

I was glad I met for the first time some members of the Mennonite church in Ghana at the Good News Theological Seminary here in Accra 3 weeks ago. It was indeed a meeting of kindred spirits and I look forward to our further engagement with them as we seek to work towards a different kind of Ghanaian Christianity – a more Jesus looking one. And it reminds me of Stuart Murray.

Anabaptist writers, and others, have rejected the domestication of Jesus’ teaching. They have demonstrated how it applies to political, social and economic issues and that it is much more radical than Christendom’s commentators allowed.” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

It is for these “others” that I thank God for these days. The likes of NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hayes, Howard Snyder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, Donald Kraybill, Christopher J. H. Wright, Greg Boyd and other evangelical theologians who are pushing the envelope in challenging Protestant Christianity to be more faithful to its own New Testament.

I don’t need to talk about Anabaptism much nowadays. These guys, simply focusing on better exegesis of both the Old and New Testament itself, do the job quite well, though they are not Anabaptists themselves. And that can only be a good thing. That can only mean there is indeed hope for the church worldwide, Ghana included. For the Anabaptist hope is that the church worldwide will become more faithful to Jesus, whatever kind of church they are.

The Politics of Jesus and His Church Pt 2 – On Ghanaian Politics

If you have read my first post on this topic, you would realize that I’m on a mission to explain to some friends of mine why I seem not to be interested in Ghanaian politics, seeing as I hardly say anything on events in our political sphere. What they don’t know is that I consider myself to be quite political, but not in the way they are used to. And to explain myself, I needed to undermine one of the de facto assumptions that dominate Ghanaian Christendom (either implicitly or explicitly) – that Jesus sole purpose was for the salvation of men from sin, and therefore Jesus was apolitical. As I have tried to point out in the previous post, Jesus cannot be called the Messiah or the Christ if he wasn’t political. A Jewish Messiah is through and through a political animal.

One of the proof-texts for saying Jesus didn’t care much about the politics of this world is his statement “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Sadly those who make this argument ignore the rest of that verse, which shows what Jesus meant by that statement – “But now my kingdom is from another place”. The issue for Jesus was not whether Jesus’s kingdom affects our world today – the question is where its origins are. It’s certainly not from this world, but it is for this world.

So the question is not if Jesus is political, but in what way is he political? And I posit he is political in 2 distinctive ways – his kind of politics is not the same kind as the world does it (“let it not be so amongst you”, Mk 10:42) and his kind of politics involves suffering for making hard choices that the world and it’s politics will not make (“let him take up his cross and follow me”, Mk 8:34).

The early church understood this different nature of the politics of Jesus. They understood that the political, social and religious powers that hold the world in it’s control have been defeated by Jesus life, death and resurrection. Therefore their task as the church was to both show and declare by their lives as distinct communities the truth that the world’s political powers have been defeated – political powers who knowingly or unknowingly were being controlled by the prince of this world, the devil. Paul speaks of this mission below.

Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:8-11)

But since the days of Emperor Constantine, the church has told itself that Jesus is irrelevant to the subject of politics. Here’s John Howard Yoder

When then in the fourth century Christians found themselves in positions of social responsibility, so the argument continues, they had to go for their ethical insights to other sources than Jesus … Th real reason we should not be surprised that the church at the age of Constantine had to resort to other models for the construction of a social ethic in Christendom was that, quite simply and logically, Jesus had nothing much to say on the subject” – The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder.

And therefore the church made choices which to this day have continued to wreck havoc on our God-given task as the witnesses of a different kind of kingdom which had already been launched, not just waiting for the future and having nothing to do with the present. In all of these, we ignored the 2 key injunctions of Jesus, having already decided that he was irrelevant to world politics.

Top-down Instead of Bottom-up

Today, the Ghanaian church has a love affair with hierarchy, just as the world does it. This means our church leaders are more worried about keeping their jobs and pleasing their superiors than they are about serving their local church communities. In any large church structure, hierarchies may be needed. But they should serve a purpose of coordination, not of command and control, which is the way of the world. This top-down attitude also shows itself up in the classical division between the clergy and the laity. Let’s not forget Jesus was very explicit about this one – You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you(Mk 10:42).

Ineffective Local Churches

Because of the assumption of an apolitical Jesus, and hence the swallowing of command-and-control leadership, our local churches have become extremely ineffective at meeting the needs of its congregants, not to talk of affecting change in the neighbourhoods in which they are. They have become simply an extension of the brains and agenda of their General Overseers/Moderators/Presidents/Founders etc. I’m surrounded by many Christians who complain of the grave needs within their local churches and neighbourhoods. But since Jesus is only in the business of saving souls for heaven, every other non-heaven related decision must be sanctioned by the hierarchy, and the needs of “headquarters” must always come first to the needs of the mere mortals warming the pews. In fact in most churches if there needs to be funds raised for a need within that local church, it has to be collected separately from the regular “tithes and offerings” (which by fiat is reserved for HQ). This is usually achieved with further cajoling, stroking of egos and a fair amount of abuse of scripture to strip members of their last pesewa before they leave the service.

Lack of Accountability

Once we adopted command-and-control mode of leadership of our denominations, the next step has been that our local churches have not developed any strong muscles of accountability. The omnibus term “Nyame Adwuma” aka “God’s work” has become a nebulous term that allows churches to collect so much money from its members and ship it off to HQ, but no account is ever rendered back to the local churches of how these monies are used. Even if any such accounts are rendered, they are at the HQ level, and most ordinary members do not even know about them. What this breeds then is abuse – even for funds collected for the local church’s own needs.

“Cursed Are the Poor”

All the above choices then mean that local churches have no real solutions to tackle poverty in their midst. Given that the needs of HQ comes first, local churches have very little patience for the needs of the poor amongst them, and will rather invest in prayer/breakthrough/all night sessions disturbing the public peace for God to intervene in each person’s individual lives. Whereas Jesus took concrete actions to tackle poverty and hunger in his ministry, and the early church did the same, that has become the least of the priorities of local churches today. This nation swelters in poverty and unemployment, and yet the church, by already deciding to follow an apolitical Jesus and adopting as substitute the ways of the world, has no solution to this other than to behave like the ostriches described by James the Just in his letter to the church – by telling the poor to Go in peace; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about their physical needs” (Jam 2:16).

Segregation and Favouritism

Not realizing that the kingdom of God calls for actively undermining earthly divisions that exist in our cultures and societies, our local churches are swallowing divisions by social class, economic standing, ethnic and language divisions by the hook, line and sinker. It has come up in conversation a few times why an educated, self-employed young man like me doesn’t attend a certain church in my neighbourhood, because apparently every middle to upper class, educated person in the neighbourhood is assumed to be a member of that church. The illiterate and poor amongst us are falling prey day in and day out to the charlatans and thieves parading themselves as “prophets” and “men of God”, simply because they will not feel comfortable in a church like the one I described. This is of course not to talk about the favouritism and discrimination that is exhibited INSIDE our local churches themselves, based again on perceived and actual social, economic and ethnic standing. And all of this, Jesus has nothing to say about of course.

The Deception of Charity

To appease their consciences about the obvious lack of love and care for one another as the New Testament seems to paint, some churches engage – in a somewhat sporadic fashion – in works of charity. I’ve even heard some churches call it “corporate social responsibility”, just like the business world does. Many times they don’t miss the opportunity for such “good works” to be publicly broadcasted via the media one way or the other, typically going to some far-off orphanage/shelter in some village or town. And yet some of these churches are situated right within or next to neighbourhoods (especially in urban areas) where poverty is crushing. But apparently they are saving souls for heaven, and doing some charity, so it’s all good.

Conclusion

Given the above attitudes of lording it over one another, no accountability, lack of care for the disadvantaged, segragation and favouritism, and giving to good causes for public fame which exist in our churches, I wonder why we expect any different from our politicians, when Christians make up 70% of the Ghanaian population (according to 2010 census). And these issues are just a tip of the iceberg.

Our public and civil service is obviously made of a large number of Christians who fill the pews every Sunday and may even be church leaders, who gladly divert the attention from themselves when it comes to corruption onto the “politicians”, wheres everyone knows that corruption at these levels is legendary. The current judicial scandal is a case in point. Given that 90% of most Ghanaians who have a “European” or “Christian” first name tend to be professing Christians, its sad the number of possible “Christians” who were amongst the 37 judges caught on tape taking bribes.

This week, Professor Stephen Adei was on radio blaming the poor work attitude and corruption – he calls it “legendary stealing” – on the “culture” of Ghanaians. What many well meaning Christians like him who comment publicly about the state of corruption and political dystopia that characterizes this country have failed to realize is this. If a country claims to be 70% Christian and has these levels of corruption, it can only mean one thing – Christianity has failed to change the culture of Ghanaians in this country, and is now part of the problem. The earlier we accept that verdict, the better we can start doing something about it. The attitude of telling government what is wrong – which I often find well meaning Christians and organisations like the Christian Council of Ghana doing every day is the same old thing that Christendom has been doing since the 4th century – moral advice, not ethical action and example.

The more Ghanaian Christians assume that changing governments will solve this disease of ours, the more we would have bought into the devil’s deception of the “Messiah Complex” – the idea that we have another messiah called the “Right President of Ghana” who will solve all these problems – and not Jesus the king. This Constantinian temptation goes deep, and any attempts at solutions must go even deeper. The truth of the matter is that the church is both God’s solution to the world AND the proper training grounds for engaging in service to the world as God desires it. If the church is sick, the nation will be sicker. There can be no glossing over of that fact.

This my friends, is the reason why I write, talk and share more about church and Christianity than I do about Ghanaian politics. God’s hope for this world is Jesus and his body, not the NDC, PPP or NPP (or any other) political parties, and I believe we must be driven by his hope, not ours. Not democracy, autocracy, monarchy, communism or any other political systems of the world. When the church was under the most oppressive regime of the world – the Roman empire – it grew and challenged and changed so much in it’s surroundings by the simple act of taking Jesus seriously as its king and following in his ways, despite the heavy cost that it bore for doing so.

May we find courage where none exists to go to the root of our malaise, so we learn to understand what it means to pray “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”.

The Politics of Jesus and His Church – Part 1

I have been accused of hardly bothering about Ghanaian politics (just kidding. It wasn’t an accusation but just innocent questions from some friends). They observe that I seem to share and write a lot on the church, Jesus and Christianity in general, and only sparingly on Ghanaian politics. I want to explain why, but I’ll do that in the next post. That explanation however is dependent on making sure my readers understand where I’m coming from theologically, and one such theological angle is what I want to address here. And this is the summary of what I’m abut to say – that I believe that for centuries, many Christians have missed a vital clue to understanding Jesus and his kingdom, and as a result do not see when they are letting their nationality win over their faith (by the way the word nationality here can be replaced by many others like political ideology, political party, tribe, language, race, social status, economic status etc. They suffer the same fate). What results is what Peter Enns calls “The Messiah Complex”. I’ll use a particular discussion we had at our house church lately to illustrate the point.

Who Do People Say I Am?

Recently we wrote a song from Psalm 2, and in the process our thoughts went to Matth 16:13-17. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v 13), and among many answers, Peter responded that Jesus is “The Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v 16). Jesus blesses Peter, and says he could only have known that through revelation by Yahweh himself. Now in other bibles, the word “Christ” is used instead of “Messiah” in v 16, but I’m glad for the choice of words of the NIV 2012. Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which both mean “The Anointed One”. At the time of Jesus however, the dominant language in Galilee and Judea was Aramaic and some Hebrew, but not Greek. Therefore logically the word used there would not have been the Greek version. But I digress.

I have heard many sermons on this, including one a few months ago from a friend, including sadly from some Christian apologists. Time and time again, most people simply assume that Jesus was commending Peter for realizing that he was divine – aka he was the second person of the Trinity or “God the Son”, when that could not have been what he meant. I have written elsewhere on why the NT usage of “Son of God” originally did not mean Jesus was divine, so I will not go into details here. Note that I do believe that Jesus is divine, but I also realize that this continuous association of “Son of God” with the divine Jesus displays a wider problem within Christendom – for too long many Christians haven’t taken the political implications of calling Jesus “Lord” and “King” seriously. Many Christians have divinized and spiritualized away everything about Jesus, and therefore have left their political passions to be dictated by our worldly leaders today. The early church fought against the heresy of docetism – the belief that Jesus was either not really human or that his divine nature superseded his human nature – and yet somehow many have come full circle when they focus on only the divine Jesus and ignore (albeit giving it some lip service), the human king – the Messiah. As the learned NT Wright puts it

It is only recently that it has been widely acknowledged, for instance, that the phrase “son of God” in many New Testament writings does not automatically mean “the second person of the Trinity”, but is a title which, to a first-century Jew, would have carried messianic rather than “divine” overtones” – NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

Fundamentalism normally jumps from the word “Christ” not to first-century meanings of “Messiah” but to the divinity of Jesus, which the New Testament establishes on quite other grounds”- NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

So even though every bible translation has it’s own foibles, I’ll say kudos to the scholars behind the 2012 NIV for such a translation choice. But the question is what does it matter if son of God has “messianic rather than divine overtones”? How does that affect us politically?

A Messiah is a Political Animal

My father introduced me to Handel’s Messiah when I was young, but my love for it has grown in leaps and bounds in recent times, more due to the scriptural groundings of the songs than simply their melodic value. I’m sure my wife must be getting tired of hearing Handel’s Messiah playing in the car repeatedly. Well, too bad for her.

I’m enthralled by how Charles Jennens came up with the words and George Frederic Handel put them to music to create such a wonderful oratorio to tell the story of the kingship of Jesus so beautifully. Listening to “Why do the nations” led me back to Ps 2.

Reflecting on it again, I notice many things.

  1. It speaks of “The Lord” aka Yahweh and “His Anointed” aka Messiah. Two distinct people – one empowering the other.

  2. Both Yahweh and his Messiah speak. Yahweh declares his unfettered support for the king he has installed in Zion. (v 4-6)

  3. The Messiah recounts Yahweh adopting him as his son (v 7)

  4. He mentions Yahweh having given him the nations as his inheritance and power and dominion over all the kings (v 8-11). That reminds me of a certain Jewish Messiah who told his disciples “All power and authority has been given to me, therefore …” blah blah blah. Hmm…

  5. Everyone is required to submit to him (“Kiss his son, or he will be angry”), and those who seek refuge in him will be blessed (v 12). Apparently that Jewish Messiah told his disciples to make more people like themselves who will “obey” him. Hmm…

Short, but poignant psalm. This Psalm is the clearest indication that calling Jesus Messiah is not equal to calling him God, again not because Jesus is not God, but because that’s not what Messiah or Christ meant.

But if all power has been given to this Messiah, what is he supposed to do with this power? Care only about our spiritual destiny by carrying us all off to heaven and leave this world behind, or do what an earthly king is supposed to do – administer the world rightly? Let’s look at a Messiah’s raison d’etre – his goal, his manifesto from another psalm.

In Ps 72, the Psalmist prays that God strengthen his royal son so he may achieve his tasks – his tasks of maintaining justice and speaking on behalf of the disadvantaged, including the poor, fatherless and afflicted, of rewarding righteous behaviour and punishing wrong. These are the same things that one will expect of any political world leader, not so? Interestingly v 17 links the task of the Messiah to the call of Abraham, showing that it is in him that God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants will be fulfilled. Obviously here we see a Messiah who must be involved in the earthly issues of how to put food on the table, how to work against inequity, greed, abuse and violence. This is a very earthy Messiah. This is a very political one.

And how does this the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth achieve his manifesto? By calling unto himself a people who are washed and cleansed and set apart for him, and giving them the task to show the world what his kingdom is like – to be with the lost, the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and to make them know and experience the difference between his kingdom and he kingdoms of this world. This people he calls his “church” – the elect (1 Pe 1:1; 2:9). This is not surprising, because Yahweh did the same – calling a nation called Israel to be the light to the nations and calling them his elect (Ex 19:5-6). And in both ways it’s the same – the people are called not just to tell the world what to do, but to show the world through living it out.

And yet, walk the streets of Accra, in a country with about 70% Christian population, and ask people if Jesus was a political figure, or cared about politics in any way, shape or form, and the answer you will get 90% of the time is NO. Instead you will receive the standard answer – Jesus came to die for our sins, and he said “his kingdom is not of this world”, so his only usefulness is to the spiritual salvation of man.

You can see why in Ghanaian Christendom circles then, Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit” is interpreted as blessings on those who know the depravity of their sin. As Christopher J.H. Wright puts it, it seems that somehow between the pages of Malachi (OT) and Matthew (NT), Yahweh who was so particular in his injunctions on how to care for the poor, oppressed, fatherless and widow in the OT, has totally forgotten that these people exist in the NT, and now only cares about the destiny of their souls.

How Did We Get Here?

The early church however, was very intentional in upholding and working to actualize Jesus’s kingship over the world in their times, not just in a future disembodied reality. They took his injunctions like the sermon on the mount and other such places quite seriously, whiles also acknowledging that he was more than just a king, but was also in some way equal to God. It is primarily this stance – that there is no king but Jesus – which caused them so much suffering and death at the hands of the brutal Roman empire. If it was a simple question of going to heaven, why would that ruffle the political figures?

And although there were temptations to budge (and some Christians did give in to some of these temptations), the floodgates burst open when a certain Emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as his religion and force it on everybody else in the 4th century. Suddenly there was very little suffering for listening to Jesus instead of Caesar. The leaders of the church, to keep from critiquing the usually greedy, violent and abusive behaviour of the Emperors and their governments (to different degrees, traits of every human government this day), adopted one of the most easily abused methods of reading the bible – allegorical readings aka finding spiritual symbolism even in plain, simple commands.

This meant that clear statements of Jesus regarding how his church must carry forward his vision of a kingdom NOW in waiting for a kingdom FUTURE, were allegorized away into spiritual meanings of how Jesus would reign in the future whiles the political powers could do what they wanted in the present. The church relaxed both in its loyalty to Jesus and in living out his example by itself, and became consultant to the state on morality. The Gospels were robbed of their power, and over the years have been treated as toothless documents whose purpose is to serve as a mine for moral platitudes, children’s stories, guidance on how to go to heaven and in modern times, motivational statements. Allegorization and Greco-Roman philosophy led the church to depart from the Old Testament vision of a new heaven and a new earth reiterated in the New Testament, to a focus on heaven and hell. And the effects of giving our political allegiance to worldly kings whiles we concentrate on worshiping the divine Jesus are obvious through the tracks of history.

  • In loyalty to political, social and economic interests, Christians have engaged in 400 years of slavery, justifying it by appealing to the bible, ignoring king Jesus’s manifesto on justice and respect for fellow human. Even the slavery of the Old Testament could in no way be compared to this one. American Christians had a full-scale civil war between the north and the south over the right to keep slaves. Not only was the country divided, even Christian denominations were divided because of support for or against slavery. Ironically all this happened while there was a “Great Awakening” even amongst soldiers on the battlefield, believing they have received “salvation” and a ticket to heaven when they die.

  • In loyalty to their political leaders, Christians have participated in war and violence against their fellow being, including burning millions of Jews in the holocaust, in spite of king Jesus’s commands to love our enemies.

  • In loyalty to their nations, Christians have participated in abusive exploitation and colonization of countries to further the egos of worldly Emperors and kings, and have left continents like Africa divided and confused about their identities.

  • In loyalty to tribe, religious and ethnic identity, Christians are busy today hacking their fellow Moslem brothers up in the Central African Republic, ignoring the king who would rather die for his enemy.

  • The last straw has been loyalty to self. The influence of revivalism, with a message of “salvation” focused on one’s individual self without any clear sense of community, has spawned the prosperity Gospel, and today is wrecking havoc on already poor African Christians to the enrichment of a few “men of God”. Instead of the church community becoming the people we lay down our lives for (Mark 10:29-30), our personal goals and ambitions is now king.

History has shown it to be more than obvious – nature hates a vacuum. Whenever Christians have devoted themselves to an apolitical Jesus, they get quickly co-opted by the agenda of the powers – be they tribal, political, cultural, socio-economic or personal. Additionally, whenever Christians assume that Jesus’s political methods are like those of this world, there’s compromise and self-deception. This lopsided vision of Jesus only as “God the Son” is the vision that continues to drive much of African Christianity. The missionaries, with all their good intent, have left us with a Christianity that has succeeded in changing the god we worship, but not in changing our attitudes to follow in his ways. And not knowing and following in Yahweh’s ways is tantamount to not knowing him at all (Heb 3:10; Ps 103:7).

Conclusion

So let me wrap up by asking you to do a test on yourself.

  1. If you think “salvation” is all about forgiveness of sins – you’ve lost sight of the political Messiah.

  2. If you think the endgame is either heaven or hell – you have questions to answer about why your New Testament speaks of a resurrected body for a place that doesn’t need a body.

  3. If the term “Jesus is Lord” simply leads you to think of Jesus only as a divine being sitting on a throne instead of the real President or Prime Minister of your country or the world – you’re still in the divine-Jesus-only mode.

  4. If whiles reading the Gospels, the term “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” leads you to think only of angels in the sky playing harps – you need to re-examine your eschatology.

Now that I’ve “cleared my throat” on who a Messiah truly is and what we might be missing in looking at Jesus only with divine glasses on, I can delve into Ghanaian politics in the next post. Suffice it to say that I won’t be pulling any punches on my observations on Ghanaian politics and what Jesus would make of the church’s attitude to politics today.

The Holy Spirit – Are We Missing the Point?

The Holy Spirit

One of the side-effects of reading leading OT and NT scholars is that the former rearranges your childish mental furniture which trivialized the Old Testament and the latter build on that for a much more expanded view of the goal of Jesus Christ’s ministry. The second side-effect is that they set you on a path of exploration for yourself that haunts you even in the shower, and today’s post is a result of one of those brain-on-thinking-spree-whiles-in-the-shower moments. And here was the question I was dealing with: why does Peter link forgiveness of sins with the gift of the Holy Spirit in Ac 2:38? Let’s see where my rearranged furniture lead me in that shower on Sunday morning.

The Failure and Hope Of Ancient Israel

Thanks to the above mentioned phenomenon, in recent times I’m beginning to see much better the key role that the Exodus and the Exile played in the history and faith of the people of Israel before Jesus’s arrival. No wonder Jesus used the Law and the Prophets to explain to his two bewildered and despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus why the Messiah had to die (Lk 24:13-33) .

You see the people of ancient Israel believed that Yahweh was their protector, and that so far as they remained faithful to him, his presence will continue to be with them and protect them (signified first by the tabernacle, then by his descent into the Temple during it’s dedication by Solomon). This state of God’s continuous goodwill towards the nation is what is described in Deuteronomy 28:1-12 as Yahweh’s “blessings”. Conversely if they acted unfaithfully, then he will abandon them to their enemies and he will have them exiled, described as the “curses” in Deut 28:15-64. Having been a people who boasted so much of Yahweh’s salvation in the form of him having saved them from slavery to Egypt to give them their own inheritance of the land of Canaan, obviously the worst punishment that Yahweh would give them was they losing that land and going back into slavery – which is exactly what is contained in the “curses part. Sadly in my previous life, I used to read these blessings and curses in the usual way that many Christians are taught to read the bible – individualistically looking for portions I could “claim” for myself. Whether I as an individual could experience exile as described here is another question, but I digress.

So when exile did eventually come and worst of all the temple – where Yahweh himself was taught to dwell – was destroyed, it was a day of great disaster, anguish and reflection. The only conclusion that they could come to was that 1) Israel had disobeyed Torah – the law, 2) as a result Yahweh had used first Assyria and then Babylon to punish them. Note that previous attempts had been made to conquer them before this, but by virtue of having leaders and kings like Gideon (Judges 7) and Hezekiah (2 Ki 18) who lead the nation in faithfulness to Yahweh, he protected them from these enemies.

But there was hope – Yahweh had already stated that when they disobey him and exile comes upon them, and yet they do return to seek him faithfully he will come back to them (Deut 30). The prophets picked up on this hope, and explained further ways in which Yahweh was going to act differently now when he returns, some of which were also mentioned in Deut 30.

Deut 30:1-8 When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you …, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes … The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today.

This hope is now expressed by the Jeremiah thus

Jer 31:31-34 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors … I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God … For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”

Jeremiah then is picking up the theme of God’s return to Israel in Deut 30, and showing that it will indeed be a new covenant in which God will himself enable the people to obey his laws – something which they failed to do which lead to “the curse” aka exile.

The exile is pictured by Ezekiel as the famous “valley of dry bones”, and at the end of it God promises the ff:

Ezek 37:12-14 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says … I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land”

The New Variable In The Equation

Aside God restoring their fortunes, giving them a new heart, circumcising it and putting the law in their heart, he has introduced something new in the equation via the prophets, especially Ezekiel above – he will put his own Spirit in them so they will live. There are a few things we need to note from the above then.

  1. The exile was caused by sin – Israel’s failure to keep to their side of the covenant. Therefore if Yahweh will return to them, he will obviously have to forgive their unfaithfulness (i.e. their “sins”).

  2. He will then have to either renew the old covenant he had with them, or vary the terms of the covenant or introduce a totally new one.

  3. He himself desires that they be faithful to this new covenant he will give, so he himself will do a work that enables them to be faithful via introducing a new variable in the equation – his own Spirit.

  4. The primary purpose of the Spirit is to make sure that Israel will be obedient to Yahweh’s new covenant he will launch.

Enter Jesus, and he goes about launching “the kingdom of God”. When asked what the most important command is, he says there are 2 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind”, and “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39), which NT scholar Scott McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. He even gives his disciples a new command – to “love one another as I’ve loved you” (Jn 13:34). And to be even more specific, Jesus himself says self-sacrifice for the other is the real gold standard of love (Jn 15:13).To crown it all when he’s leaving, he informs his disciples that the Spirit will come and be with them and give them power to be his witnesses – witnesses to the way of life he has shown them and the commands he has given them.

It is not surprising then that when Paul speaks of the spirit, he says the ff:

  1. He refers to Deut 30 when he says the Spirit circumcises our hearts – so we can be a people who live in obedience to Jesus (Romans 2:28).

  2. In the book of Romans he always compares slavery to sin or to the flesh with freedom in the Spirit – because sin is disobedience. Let’s not forget in Ro 1:5 he says his God given mission is to call men to obedience that comes from faith.

  3. He is frustrated with the Corinthian church because instead of the presence of the Spirit leading them to be a people of love just as Jesus commanded, it has made them a people who use their gifts to abuse one another and destroy the unity of and love within the body of Christ. I’m saddened that in modern times, 1 Cor 13 has been reduced of all its power to a passage about love in marriage because it is constantly read during wedding ceremonies. In context it rather speaks of love that must exist in the body of Christ, and its constant association with weddings is blinding us to who the message is really for and what its about – the church.

  4. He speaks of the fruit of the spirit as demonstrations of whether the Galatian church are a people who are actually being lead by the God’s own spirit or not (Gal 5:22-23).

Conclusion

All of this then makes me see why Peter associates the forgiveness of sins with the gift of the Spirit. Because the expected new covenant had been launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the primary means by which we can be faithfully obedient to that new covenant is by God himself giving us his Spirit – as he himself spoke of it in the OT.

It also leads me to ask questions of the churches and church traditions that make the most noise about the Holy Spirit. How has the abundance of “Holy Spiritism” lead to better obedience of Jesus? How has it lead to love for God and love for neighbour? Do you care if those watching from the outside hardly see your obedience, your love for one another, and the increasing absence of any of the fruits of the spirit? Has it occurred to you that you might be behaving like the Corinthian church, who loved signs and wonders, but lacked love and obedience? How much of your “prophetic meetings” is leading people towards forgiveness of one another, self-sacrifice and dyeing for your enemies, all these being Jesus’s own commands? Has it occurred to you that the reward for unfaithfulness to God’s commands is exile, and the God who punished Israel with exile is the same God we worship today? Are you sure you are not missing the point about why the Holy Spirit is given in the first place?

I’ll end with a quote from a friend.

The mark of a person who is truly Spirit lead is that they always talk about Jesus and follow his example – because the Spirit is supposed to point us to Jesus” – Bruxy Cavey

Once Saved, Always Saved? Of Course!!

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

A few days ago someone asked me a question that I’d been asked quite a few times before, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to give him a direct answer to his question. This is because over the years, my own understanding of the issue had grown beyond “is it this or that” to questioning the assumptions behind that question. Since my alarm deceived me and made me wake up at 3 am instead of 5am this morning, I thought to make good use of the time and share here the question and how I now approach it.

The Question

Is it possible to lose one’s salvation or is it ‘once saved always saved’?”

This is typically asked by someone who tends to be worried that a fellow brother or sister may be taking their “salvation” for granted and not living according to what the questioner expects them to live as a Christian. The legalist in us then seeks to warn the “sinner” that they may loose their salvation as the New Testament would seem to suggest in different places, whiles the “sinner” will also strongly hold to the libertine stance of “there is no condemnation for me” also found in so many other places in the NT.

How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.

The Assumptions

One of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to put grace front and center of the Christian life and doctrine, and we can all be thankful for that. However, this achievement was not without a fair amount of “demonization” of 1st century Judaism by interpreting the letters of Paul in a certain angle.

The Roman Catholic church had taken up the payment of penances and indulgences as a means of giving one’s favourite dead grandmother a quick passport to heaven instead of her spending a few hundred years in purgatory (after all who doesn’t love their adoring grandmother). This practice became an issue of concern to Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other leaders of the protest movement, and to buttress their arguments against an obviously wrong practice, they harnessed Paul’s writings on grace against law to finally break away from the Catholic church. In this scheme of things, the Roman Catholic church were cast as Paul’s 1st century “Judaizers” who thrived by “works” aka penances and indulgences, whiles they the reformers represented Paul, wielding one thing only – grace. The rest as they say is history.

Unfortunately this has coloured the way a lot of us read the Old but especially the New Testament, and even the gospel itself has been reduced to a question of grace as opposed to what it is about – that Jesus is Lord of the world.

What the past century is teaching us though is that Judaism was not quite the “works” religion that we thought it was (or at least not as defined by the Reformation). And in fact if we are to pay better attention, we might realize that Christianity and 1st century Judaism have a lot more in common, and maybe we have been asking the wrong question about salvation being lost or not for quite a while.

The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament

A closer attention to the Torah seems to yield the fact that Israel was a chosen nation by grace. They didn’t work for it, they didn’t have to pay any penances or indulgences to be a chosen people of God. They were chosen because their forefather Abraham had shown faith in God’s promise to remake the world through him. Simple and short.

In fact, Moses had to remind them how they become a chosen people: because he loved their ancestors.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Deut 10:14-15 “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.”

Do you realize the similarities between this and Paul’s statements about being chosen, being saved, grace etc not because of our “works” but BECAUSE GOD LOVES JESUS and Christians who are in Christ are also loved and saved?

Rom 8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

Eph 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”

Eph 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

These similarities should tell us 2 things.

  1. There is very little doubt that the principle of favouring a people because of someone else’s status before God is what runs through both the Old and New covenants and these 2 people are Abraham and Jesus Christ. In the case of the Old covenant, being born an Israelite was all it took, in the case of the New covenant, being born of Christ is all it takes.

  2. The point about grace is about election – who are the chosen people of God. An individual may be added to the people of God (aka saved by grace), but the covenant is not just about their individual selves but about God’s intent for the corporate entity called “the people of God”. In the latter, it is Israel, in the former it is the church.

Therefore if the old covenant only required being born an Israelite, then one needed to somehow declare oneself not an Israelite anymore for one to be outside the grace of God. I believe the same applies to a Christian. Once saved, they are indeed “under grace” forever unless they choose not to be.

The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness

But the point of being the chosen people of God was always meant to achieve something beyond themselves. The point of being a chosen people was so they could point the rest of the world to Yahweh. To enable them do this, Yahweh gives them a set of laws to obey which if they obeyed, it will be well with they themselves as well as draw others to be attracted to this god called Yahweh.

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham

Gen 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; … and all peoples on earth will be blessed THROUGH you.”

What was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness? Not that they will no longer be considered God’s chosen people (people of grace), but even whiles still being considered so, will suffer judgment, great loss and ultimately exile, as documented in Deut 28-30. Of course we know that these judgments did come upon them with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the evidence for that is well documented in the stories of the kings and prophets.

What do we find in the New covenant? Jesus launches his ministry and calls many to follow him. He tells people that being children of Abraham is no longer enough, but rather following him is. Behaving strikingly like Moses giving the law to Israel, he also takes his place on a mountain and delivers what most scholars refer to as his Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. Even while delivering it he places down his warnings as well, just like Moses.

Mt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Elsewhere in John 15 he says he is the vine, and his followers are the branches. But they will be judged if they don’t bear fruit.

John 15:5;16 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”

The Answer To The Question

It would seem then that although the covenants may be different, the intended goal was and has always been the same. God chooses a people out of his love (grace) and not because of what they’ve done (works), and sets them on a journey beyond themselves to do WORKS because of his redemptive plan for the whole world. The same Ephesian letter says it quite succinctly.

Eph 2:10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”

Grace always goes with covenant faithfulness, and the disciples being normal 1st century Jews (and not 16th century Europeans) didn’t pretend about this at all even in the new covenant.

Its sad to note then that Martin Luther in his unfortunate attempt to demonize works, was actually in favour of removing the book of James from the Protestant bible because James said things like this

James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”

That would have been a grave loss to the Protestant church if the other Reformation leaders had agreed to this proposal.

Salvation then (as put in the original question. Salvation means much more but we’re sticking to the above usage) is about inclusion into the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ. God has no intention of taking that inclusion away from you if you don’t exclude yourself. After all what shall separate you from the love of God (Rom 8:35)?

However, it is a recruitment call of those who are glad to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Non-participation, or false participation, will always go with severe judgment. The old covenant had it, the new is not getting rid of it anytime soon. Not even if Martin Luther wants to.

How Beautiful Are Your Feet?

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

There are days when you are staring a totally earth moving concept in the face, but don’t realize it. Sometimes its because this concept doesn’t come in one nicely labeled package, but as an assimilation of multiple thoughts and events put together over any length of time. Maybe it’s Scott McKnight’s commentary on the “Sermon on the Mount”. Maybe its listening to Handel’s Messiah and pondering the root of his compositions in the prophets and Psalms. Maybe its hearing from my brother Michael at our church meeting on how many Christians have a limited view of what repentance means. But all of these only added many more dimensions to something I was already convinced about.

“Christians truly get the picture wrong when we say that The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sins so we can escape the judgment of hell and go to heaven when we die”.

Just listen to a lot of evangelistic sermons aimed at “winning souls” and you will realise that it’s LARGELY about telling people to believe in Jesus so their sins will be forgiven and they go to heaven instead of hell. But not only was this not what the gospel of Jesus was about, going to heaven was not primarily what Jews were hoping for. In fact there is very little mention of what happens after a righteous Jew dies in the Old Testament and the little that is mentioned is seriously unlike our modern day picture of heaven. So the question is what would have been good news to the Jew of Jesus’s day, and by extension for us today?

The Sermon On The Mount Angle

I’ve been reading New Testament scholar Scott McKnight’s (SMcK) commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and I’d finished digesting his thoughts on “blessed are the poor in spirit”(Mt 5:3). From his exposition of the Jewish background of people who were considered “poor in spirit” (anawim) in Jesus’ day, he gave 2 classical examples of such candidates right from the gospels – Simeon and Anna both in Lk 2. He cites the fact that there were certain characteristics of the anawim – mostly that they were indeed poor (as in real poverty), and were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah to right the injustices of their age. To this end they were very devout observers of the Torah (which is evident in constant attendance at the temple by the above 2 people).

The Handel Angle (Pun Intended)

So I’d grown tired of listening to music from Incognito, an acid-jazz band, and had switched to listening to George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. I’m always amazed at Mr Handel’s adeptness with the Psalms and the Prophets in this great baroque composition, and this time I found myself pondering a bit more over “How Beautiful Are the Feet”. But it didn’t quite hit me the linkage to what I was reading on the Sermon on the Mount yet until Sunday morning, whiles getting ready to go for our church meeting. I stopped and read Isaiah 52:7-10 again, and things began to fall into place better.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’. Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”(Is 52:7-8)

The Watchmen

So where’s the link, you ask? Well it seems to me that people like Simeon and Anna were a clear example of the watchmen spoken of in Isaiah 52 above. If you pay better attention not only to Simeon and Anna’s behaviour but what they said, you will get the joke.

Simeon, a classical anawim, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). What would a Jew like Simeon have considered the consolation of Israel? The good news for Israel? To see Yahweh’s return to his people, and the revelation and of his Messiah, as Isaiah above clearly points out. Thankfully, Simeon had been assured by the holy spirit that his life’s desire will indeed be granted i.e. “he will not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (v 26). Having seen the baby Jesus, his life’s goal is achieved. He prays to Yahweh thus:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation …” (v 29-30)

Observe the parallel with Isaiah

When the Lord returns to Zion, they [the watchmen] will see it with their own eyes” (Is 52:9)

Again, the other watchman Anna also having seen the child begins to do what is expected of a watchman – telling all the people who were looking forward to going to heaven when they die the redemption of Jerusalem that their hope had indeed arrived.

Good News Indeed

From Isaiah above, the good news itself is the fact that Yahweh has returned to his people. And as a result of that he is bringing peace, he is bringing salvation, he is bringing good tidings. Having been decimated by Assyrians and then Babylonians into exile, and after returning from exile still being under the thumb of first Syria (Greece) and then Rome, the people of Israel knew that Yahweh had abandoned them. After all if Yahweh was still with them, he would not allow his temple of all places where he dwelt, to be destroyed by these enemies of God. See why Ezekiel devotes 8 chapters to talking about Yahweh rebuilding and returning to the temple?

Yet the hope that the prophets had always held out to them was that Yahweh will return, and appoint a new, more faithful king – the Messiah, sometimes referred to as the Servant, the son of God in the prophets. And this time Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, that all nations (including Gentiles like you and I) will be blessed through the nation Israel and its faithful Messiah (Ps 72) will indeed come to pass.

The gospel or good news then (and now) is that Yahweh had returned, and he had declared Jesus to be his Messiah. The surprising twist was that this Messiah was indeed Yahweh himself. This is why Mark begins his record of Jesus’s life with the statement “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

I’ve read it, and have recommended it. But I now get why NT Wright chose the title “How God became King” for his book. The Gospel is the declaration that Jesus is God’s Messiah and King of the world, and that surprisingly that Messiah was God himself.

To the evangelist, how beautiful are your feet? Are are you still busy telling people to come to Jesus so they go to heaven? Are you frightening them with hell? Are you sure you are preaching The Gospel, or you are preaching an effect of The Gospel? Because frankly the two are not the same, and most definitely do not produce the same result.