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.

The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

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 … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!

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

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

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

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

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

My Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racial and Ethnic Tension: Letting the NPP School Us

reconciliationWe live in a big world, but indeed we live in a small one. Today, news is available to us all at the touch of our fingertips and via our TV screens, and one’s serene life somewhere can be brutally disrupted by news of happenings thousands of miles away. This was the case last month with the series of news reports concerning racial violence in the US, focused on killings by white police officers of black men, and retaliatory killings by aggrieved black men of innocent police officers. Being a Ghanaian “sitting my somewhere”, its all too easy to ignore this phenomenon and go on with my life, but that innocent, mind-my-own-business side of mine died a few years ago, courtesy of certain shifts in my perspective on the human problem of racial and ethnic tension driven by changes in my reading of the New Testament.

Let me be straightforward here. I believe that the church is the only tool designed by God to actually show the world how racial tensions can be overcome. Not the government, not politics. But to do that the church has to confront some of it’s own flawed theology which has rather seen it buying into the racial hatred instead of standing against it. And it is here that I wish that the church worldwide, especially Protestant churches in America (but also critically, in Ghana) will take seriously the tremendous work over the last few decades of the school of thought about the NT called the New Perspective on Paul (heretofore referred to as NPP). I’ve written quite a bit about the NPP, and my latest take on reading the bible with that perspective can be found here. Coming away a few weeks ago from Scott McKnight and Joe Modica’s “The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical And Missional Implications of the New Perspective”, a compilation of essays by a number of scholars on the implication of taking the New Perspective seriously, I looked again at what was happening in America, and it was obvious to me why Protestant Christianity hasn’t done much to help resolve this problem, but may have rather participated in worsening it, knowingly or unknowingly.

The NPP’s Paul: The Bearer of Yahweh’s Reconciliation

Although there are many well known scholars associated with the NPP and they all don’t agree with each other on every detail, I’ll be presenting mostly the thoughts of Nicholas Thomas Wright, seeing as he’s the one I’ve read the most from, though these points are not unique to him.

  1. Paul wrote his letters in reaction to issues that arose as a result of his unique ministry amongst the apostles – being one who had dedicated himself solely to ministry to the Gentile world. He was dealing with problems, not writing a rule book.

  2. The primary problem was that of how Jews and Gentiles are all now acceptable before Yahweh without the requirement for the Gentiles to keep the Law.

  3. Paul poses Jesus’s death as a means by which Yahweh reconciles himself not just to his unfaithful wife Israel (and by extension, Jews), but to the rest of the world, to the nations, who have not known him but who are his anyway. Paul uses the language of “peace” to describe this in many of his letters.

  4. This reconciliation was not only between Yahweh and his creation, but also meant a breaking down of the barriers of hostility between Jews and Gentile. Paul’s letters are full of guidance on how his churches should navigate this new reality, primarily by laying down one’s rights for the benefit of the other.

  5. The cross is the means of God breaking the powers that hold us in chains to the devil, and setting all his creation free from the captivity of sin. God himself being willing to die on the cross to reconcile himself with his people is described by Paul in 1 Cor as “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18) or “the demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor 2:2-4) .

  6. By this means of reconciliation, nobody has the upper hand anymore to be considered part off the people of God. Yahweh requires all to receive the gift of his forgiveness so to be considered a part of his people. This is what Paul’s language of adoption is all about. There are no more any natural born children – both Jew and Gentile are adopted children “in Christ”.

  7. Being “in Christ” means one participates in his righteousness. Jew and Gentile become considered righteous/justified by being participants in Christ. There’s a long debate within the NPP on how to interpret 2 Cor 5:21, but I think Michael Gorman’s interpretation using the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis is much better than NT Wright’s on this matter.

  8. Yahweh now desires that all his people learn to live as one people, via his own power – via his own Spirit. The only means by which life together for people of different cultures, backgrounds and social standing is possible is via the same the cross as the example of God in Jesus – via self-sacrifice and the laying down of personal “rights” in favour of the other. Love within and without the body of Christ is the goal, and the power to love is given in living by the Spirit, not living by the flesh.

  9. The Spirit then, is not given as a genie in a bottle to be rubbed up to fulfill personal desires and egos of those amongst and within whom it dwells, which is exactly Paul critique of the Corinthians. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people in order that those gifts may be used in service to the united people of God that gather together – to be used in service and in love.

  10. The church is a sign to the world that Yahweh’s desire to be known as God over all the world, and hence to abolish ALL DIVISIONS so there is only one people of God has been launched. Therefore when the church fails at the task of integrating the rich and poor, the slave and free, the black man and the white man, the Jew and Gentile, male and female, the church has lost sight of it’s calling, and is still living in this age, when the age to come has already been inaugurated by the death of Jesus.

Reconciliation: The Center of Paul’s Teaching

It becomes obvious the impact that taking the NPP seriously about Paul’s mission, and reading the bible as a narrative of how God desires to choose a people for himself and dwell with them has on our practice of Christianity and church. Building our understand of Jesus and Paul beginning from Yahweh’s choice of Israel to his choice of the whole world via inclusion “in Christ”, yields a church that is not just interested in “saving souls” for heaven, but in revolting against the divisive structures of this world whiles in this world. And it will have to do this by taking up it’s cross and actively working towards ethnic, racial, gender and socio-economic integration within its own walls by the power of the Spirit, before it can have something to tell the world about these issues.

Rather, within most Protestant circles, Paul (and hence the whole bible) is read as focusing on justification of individual sinners before God, making one’s personal salvation the beginning and end of the matter, and leaving churches confused about their purpose after they have actually “won the souls”. No matter how hard classical Protestant leaders have tried, it’s been impossible to defend the accusation that a) the Protestant Reformers read back their own experiences of battling Roman Catholicism into Paul’s letters and therefore distorted its meaning and that b) their reading of the bible, and the propagation of such a reading within Protestant Christianity has led to individualism on the one hand, and complicity in or inertia in the face of divisive evil like slavery, racism, segregation, sexism, colonialism and violence on the other. Even when reconciliation is mentioned in most Protestant teaching, it is limited to God reconciling himself to the sinful individual, and has very little with people groups being reconciled to one another (whereas Paul’s language is of God reconciling himself to humanity, not just individuals, as well as bringing reconciliation amongst people groups). The most Protestant of all European nations in the early 20th century, Germany, was also the worst culprit when push came to shove.

In Africa, our Protestant churches, still bearing the individualist fruits of their Western torchbearers , continue to be totally incapable of any real social transformation. The systemic evils of tribalism, classism, corruption, poverty, unemployment and destitution continues to abound, whiles they spend all their energies raising “harvest” upon “harvest” to build the next big church building. Charity is practiced as one-off events meant to placate consciences, typically in far off, romantic locations. The needs of church members, or neigbhourhoods within which local churches are situated are marginalized in favour of grandiose investments in infrastructure projects on a national scale so these churches can put their name on it and claim they are working for the common good – what I call “empire building”.

And yet given the realities of the time in which we live, it is frustrating to watch Protestant Christian leaders, especially within the Reformed tradition in the West, focus on defending their heroes instead of being true to scripture and to the mission of Christ in the world – to the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, to the hope of all races and tribes singing together before the throne, which age has already been launched by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So I have little hope for both the American and African church when it comes to racial reconciliation if it continues down it’s good old individualistic trajectories. This trajectory is the main reason why 40 years after segragation laws were revoked in the US, American churches are still segregated into churches dominated by whites and churches dominated by blacks etc. In this light, I wish the American Reformed churches will realize that the New Perspective is not it’s enemy. The Spirit which is at work in the Reformed churches, though they somehow failed to listen to Him when the cry for freedom from slavery, segregation and inequality rang out in times past, and which today all Reformed churches acknowledge was a mistake, is the same Spirit which is at work to bring Black, White, Asian, Arab, Jewish Christians of all classes, gender and economic standing together in post 9/11 America. The Sprit’s work didn’t come to an end  after Reformation, and it certainly will not be kept in that bottle forever. It is better to listen to the Spirit and to truth, than to be engaged in defense of tradition.

And I have little hope for African Protestantism when it comes to reconciliation at all levels, if it continues down its good old Christendom trajectory. For African Protestant Christianity is so comfortable in its Christendom mode, there is very little introspection and questioning going on. It took our brothers in the Western world two World Wars to cause Christians to ask serious questions about the individualistic teaching that allowed such evils to happen. Today, Europe has virtually abandoned Christianity, and faith in Jesus is declining in the US as well. Do we need some cataclysmic events here before we wake up and smell the coffee that is brewing – the coffee of ethnic, social and economic reconciliation that the Spirit of God has been brewing for the world since Jesus’s resurrection?

Wake up, and smell the coffee!!

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has Conquered, Let us Follow Him.

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.

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 Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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