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

Podcast On The Mount Launched!!

Podcast On The Mount
Podcast On The Mount

So if you haven’t heard already, this is to announce the first episode of a podcast I launched with my friend Jonathan Amos called the Podcast On The Mount. Don’t you love the name? Jonathan came up with it, so if you need to blame someone, you know who to direct your questions to 🙂 . The podcast is hosted here

Appropriately, this first episode talks about the Sermon On The Mount, where we look at what is unique about this section of the Gospel according to Matthew, and how Christians should appropriate this important part of Jesus’ ministry.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with exciting episodes, as we delve deeply into Jesus, discipleship and community from a totally different perspective. Do not hesitate to send your comments and questions via these social media outlets. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

A Journey To More Open Table Fellowship

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI will like to tell you a short story about a change that happened recently at my house church as a result of a shift to a more community centered theology, coupled with a deeper understanding and application of the history and background of Jesus and his disciples. What is even more interesting to me is how we came to be questioning our former practice of Communion, though the new decisions are themselves exciting as well.

Over the past year, we’ve been paying better attention to what discipleship entails, and how critical Christian community is to the nurturing and growth of discipleship. This focus is not only changing our understanding of the gospel, of Jesus’s mission and the life of the church, but surprisingly it has now lead us to ask questions about a central, vital part of Christian community in following Jesus – Communion.

Our practice of Communion is already a bit unusual when measured against what is common in most Ghanaian churches. We have Communion every Sunday, and on the first Sunday we actually have a proper meal alongside it. Everyone was welcome to be part of the normal meal, but the bread and wine was only open to those who were baptized by water immersion. This meant of course that children and non-Christians guests or visitors to our meetings whose baptism status we weren’t sure about were excluded. This seemed to be fine to us, until a few weeks ago when a member began to apply the New Testament image of the church as a new family of people to Communion. Comparing that to the Ghanaian external family, he began to ask questions about why we should exclude the children amongst us from participating in it.

What made this whole thing even more striking was the fact that I’d read Ben Witherington’s “Making A Meal of It” a few years ago and was quite enamored about his portrayal of what a 1st century Christian meeting would have been like in terms of it’s practice of open table fellowship. It’s actually listed amongst my “10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far”. In addition, I’d just finished James D.G. Dunn’s “Jesus’s Call To Discipleship” a week before this, which laid quite some emphasis on the same issue of Jesus’s open table fellowship. I’d even been listening to a podcast discussion as well on how Communion actually transformed the dynamics of gatherings of Christians on Thursday or so before the Sunday of our meeting, and already questions had been brewing in my mind about our current practice. So surprised was I when our brother raised the issue at our meeting, I just kept nodding my head and smiling as I listened to the serious questions he had about our current practice of Communion on Sunday. I knew something was afoot.

In the end, after much discussion of the issue amongst us, consulting with some people in Anabaptist circles whose opinion we respect and researching a bit more about the Jewish antecedents of the Seder (the Passover meal) which Jesus celebrated with his disciples and co-opted into The Communion, we came to the conclusion over a number of meetings that it was time to let go of the restrictions placed on the Communion. Part of the reason was that we came to the realization that the dominant interpretation of Paul’s admonitions regarding communion in 1 Cor 11:17-33 are based on an individualistic reading of the obviously communal problem that Paul was trying to solve. But paying even more attention to the radical nature of Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship, and including the Jewish background of the Seder from which Communion is derived meant that it was time to lay that restriction down. We simply decided that whether one was a child or a non-Christian/non-baptized Christian, baptism will still be emphasized as the means of showing that one accepted to be a part of this community, but Communion will be open to all.

Of course that presented a slight problem of how to enable the children participate in this, since our wine is proper alcoholic red wine. The solution was to water it down for them, a practice that has existed even before Christianity came along.

But this story reminds me of something I’m learning from the majority of theologians and teachers that I listen to. There’s a difference between knowing theology, and living theology. And when one hasn’t learnt to live it, reflect on it and critique one’s theology in the process of living it, it will stay at the level of knowledge, and will not challenge any of one’s paradigms or traditions. The result is simply arm-chair theologians, who dispenses plenty words with little power to cause actual change.

Reorienting our minds on the communal nature of not just the gospel, but even salvation and church has had drastic effects on our thinking and behavior in our small community. This story I described above above makes me hope that others will wake up to the damage that individualistic readings of scripture has done and continues to do to our churches.  I’m reminded of the individualistic nature not only of the small piece of flat “bread” that one receives and along with it’s small cup, but of the songs that we used to sing back in those days at my former church whiles taking communion with others – “Me Ne Jesus Beto Nsa Edidi” i.e. “Jesus and I will eat supper together”. The fact that this was being done in a church with others partaking of the same activity was not only lost on the song writer, but even on the congregation, because according to the words of this song, everyone was having their own private supper with Jesus. I’m further reminded of a very devout Christian man I respected a lot in this church, who was excluded from Communion because he had more than one wife (and who obviously couldn’t shirk his responsibility by divorcing any of them as polygamy has been a normal practice in Ghana for a very long time, and so he will never experience communion with fellow Christians in that church and many others like it). It is these kinds of misunderstanding of God’s total mission of dealing with all the spheres of humanity’s problem – social, economic, political and spiritual – that break my heart.

May the erection of these kinds of barriers that Jesus actively worked to break down, break your heart too. May we learn to see the table for what it is – a foretaste of what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in Is 25 – God’s invitation to all peoples to come and dine with him.

Why Small Group Gatherings ≠ Bible Studies

Bible Study

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

The Assumptions

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

There are many reasons why this has become the standard expectation

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

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

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

What’s Wrong With These Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

What Should It Be About Then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity II – “Touch Not My Anointed”

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

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

But are we sure we understand this verse?

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

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

What The Phrase Means in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

(This article is also published on the SimplyChrist website)