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

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

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

Twi: “Enfa wo were enhye nipa mu”

English: “Do not put your trust in man”

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

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

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

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

What The Phrase Means in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So What?

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

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

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

On Christian Mission Schools and Discrimination

highschool

The whole Ghanaian nation woke up these past few days to controversy when the minority Muslim community in the country complained of being discriminated against in the Christian mission schools. They spoke of being forced to attend Christian worship services and devotions in these schools. There have been many reactions, some tempered and some bordering on pure disdain. On the one extreme, the Catholic Bishops conference has categorically told Muslim students to go elsewhere to receive their education if they don’t want to conform to their “campus rules”, whiles on the other end the small but increasing band of secularists in our country have taken advantage of this wind to call for a ban of any form of religious activity in the public square, going as far as to file a Supreme Court case to boot. Whiles we await what the Supreme Court will say, I have a few thoughts to share on the subject.

The Surface Issues

I attended a Christian mission school myself, Presbyterian Boys Secondary School (PRESEC), Legon to be exact. Even whiles a student , I had the sense that the worship services and devotional meetings were more a tool for exerting control over students with a little bit of religiousness attached to it than anything else. These occasions were used to dish out discipline to students, listen to a speech by our beloved headmaster JJ Asare, listen to school announcements, conduct on the spot roll-calls, listen to sermons, conduct dressing inspections and just about everything else in between. Especially during the weekends, students attended these gatherings more out of fear for whatever the school authorities/student prefects had in store for them than for the singing or sermonizing that went on. Of course some of us Christians enjoyed singing Presbyterian hymns and occasionally hearing Mr Dompreh or “Rabbi” the chaplain, deliver a good sermon, but truth be told it could have been done without all the show of bravado that preceded it. And this is what brings me to the crux of the opposition by the mission schools.

The primary basis of pushback by these mission schools is that these devotional meetings are a means to keep discipline in the schools. Therefore allowing Muslims or non-Christians the choice not to attend these events will lead to indiscipline since they will have an excuse to miss these events.

Secondly, giving grounds for other religions to have some breathing space in these institutions meant that these schools loose some part of their identity as a “Christian school”. PRESEC liked to refer to its students as “Christian gentlemen”, although it has always had a growing population of Muslim students. Having to publicly admit that not all are “Christian gentlemen” is a bigger blow to the institution’s identity than to anything else. Homogeneity always means easier control and well defined identity. Heterogeneity means more work and the possibility of tension, and who likes more work or tension?

But the truth of the matter is that the ground has been shifting under the feet of our Christian mission schools, and a lot of things have conspired to make it impossible for these schools to keep things going the old way. I believe that the express intention of the founders of these schools was not to serve the needs of only those of their denominations or religion, but to do a “social good” by making them open to all that could attend. In fact if this was not their stated goal, most of these schools would not have been granted the lands on which they are currently sited at such concessional rates by the traditional authorities who are custodians of land in Ghana. And this openness to admit everyone who qualifies is exactly their undoing.

Today, placement of students into these schools, just like every other school in Ghana is now by a computerized system, which only uses applicable gender and marks obtained at the BECE. As a result, any student can apply to be in any institution. In fact it is theoretically possible (though impossible in real terms) that all the slots for a particular mission school could be filled up by only non-Christian students. What then does one do? Still pretend one’s student population is Christian? Go all out to convert these students to Christianity?

So if the worry is about discipline and the loss of these events as a means of keeping students in line, why can’t we split these “devotions” into 2 phases? The first part can be compulsory for everyone, devoid of religious activity and focused on the day to day things that school authorities/student leadership wants to do to keep students updated or to ensure discipline, whiles the second part is left as a voluntary attendance for the Christians who want to attend. After all Christianity has been the religion that makes the most noise about true worship coming from the heart, not being forced. One may choose to then make space for other religious bodies to meet during that time elsewhere, or simply go back to their dorms/classrooms if no such arrangement has been made for them. And given the abundance of Christian denominations now, who says that a Neo-Anabaptist like me will feel comfortable being forced to recite a few “Hail Marys” if I had attended a  Catholic funded mission school? Heck, even amongst Christians, we still reserve the right to worship with those we feel we want to worship with, how much more between Christians and other religions?

The Real Undercurrents

The reaction of the mission schools is a clear symptom of Christendom at work. Christendom assumes that everyone under it’s influence is a Christian, and attempts to treat them as such. It focuses on imposing what it thinks is “right behavior” on people (in PRESEC it’s called “Presbyterian Discipline”), instead of being the example itself. Once Christianity became the dominant religion across Western culture through its adoption as a state religion by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christians – who were beforehand a minority and had learnt to live on the fringes of society – suddenly gained power which they previously didn’t have. This launched Christendom attitudes in full swing, whose vestiges we still experience today. Instead of making sure that people were willingly and truthfully following Jesus, even if that meant a smaller following, it exerted itself in “Christianizing” the culture, imposing it’s morals on a people who still held their allegiance to Constantine, not to King Jesus. Much Ghanaian Christianity rides auto-pilot in this Christendom mode by default, and needs to be reminded on a regular basis that our Messiah showed the way not by simply talking it, but by doing it and instructing us to follow, at the cost of our cultural, ethnic and social standing, and to learn to live at peace with those who don’t share our convictions, even if it means losing our lives.

Western culture is now coming out of Christendom, with lesser and lesser people subscribing to Christianity because of a number of many factors, not least of which is the church’s failure “to be the church” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. Instead of being faithful to its mission to be the place where the disadvantaged, downtrodden, the widow, the fatherless and the stranger go to find refuge as a sign of the future kingdom to come (James 1:27), Christendom engages itself in either saving people for heaven, or engaging in “social justice” as a means to change culture, but very seldom as a means to change its own self. These mission schools represent such attempts to “change culture” through the “common good” of educational institutions, with some of these being built through taxing poor church members majority of whom will never benefit directly from these kinds of projects.

Personally it has been instrumental that this controversy has landed right in my reading of New Testament professor Scott McKnight’s book “Kingdom Conspiracy”, where he says

It is good to seek the common good, but not at the expense of personally surrendering to King Jesus. If the kingdom story is the true story, in fact, then there is no good for the common good until humans surrender to King Jesus” – Scott McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy, Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.

In so far as these mission schools were established not only for Christians, but for the “common good”, they have lost the power to be a true expression of the Christian principles, simply because not everyone who attends it is subject the King Jesus. So let’s move on, and make room for the presence of multiple religions in our mission schools. If we won’t give them space to worship, at least let’s not force them into false worship just to stroke our sensibilities and keep us happy.

Oh, So You’re A Prophet?

Russian icon of the prophet Hosea
Hosea” by 18 century icon painter .

One of the sections of the bible that used to get me all confused and riled up in my reading of the bible, especially the Old Testament, was the prophets. From the books of Kings with Elijah and Elisha, to the Major and Minor prophets, it had been very difficult for me to understand what exactly qualified these enigmatic, weird people as prophets. But with a better understanding of the history of the people of ancient Israel, I think I get them now, though they still mess up my brain in more than a few places. And with that understanding comes a certain feeling of sadness at watching people getting confused by the recent wind of “prophets” and “the prophetic yyyy” (where yyyy is any fashionable term like “encounter”, “movement” etc) that is blowing across the Ghanaian and Nigerian Christian landscapes. But let’s plow on, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I wrote a little bit about this here, but will add some additional points to that in this post.

The Three Themes

Many people are referred to as prophets in the bible. Some of these include Moses, Samuel, Eli, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth etc. I believe that there are certain key themes by which one may understand their activity and why they did what they did, before one can translate to what we should expect of prophets today. These themes are “creational monotheism, election and eschatology” of which I wrote a series based on NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” here.

You see, the people of Israel believed in Yahweh as the one and only real god and creator of the heavens and the earth (creational monotheism). They believed Yahweh had chosen the nation of ancient Israel as his “called out” people with a task to be a blessing to the rest of the world (election). As part of his covenant with them, he’d given them the Torah by which they must live so that they will sustain their status of being elect before God, and also fulfill his task of them being a blessing to the world. Also they believed that Yahweh had intentions of fixing the problems with this world, and he himself coming to dwell with amongst men in his own time (eschatology). These 3 themes can be shown to be the pillars that underlie much of the activity in the OT and NT as well.

Using these themes to evaluate the prophets of ancient Israel and those documented in the NT, we get 2 clear pictures of what prophets and prophecy was about.

  1. Ensuring that the people of ancient Israel remained faithful to Yahweh as their only god, and listening to him only.

  2. Keeping the terms of the covenant as given to them in the Torah, so that they will show their faithfulness to Yahweh and will keep Yahweh’s favor on ancient Israel.

Before the Exile

Because ancient Israel as a nation had a covenant relationship with Yahweh (a point which we’ll come to later), and the nation always had leaders amongst them (either as judges or later on as kings like David, Solomon etc), it was obviously expected that ensuring that the leaders of the nation did the right thing will lead to the nation as a whole doing the right thing. This is not rocket science, and a principle of human societies well proven over the course of history. One perceives therefore a close relationship between the earlier prophets like Eli, Samuel and Nathaniel and kings like David, Solomon etc. The point of the prophets relationship with these leaders was not as people that David could consult as to know how many slices of bread to eat in the morning, but as people who had insight from God as to the nation’s direction, as well as the leader’s choices which has an effect on the whole nation.

However, over time the relationship between these prophets and their leaders became fraught with tension, as evidenced by Ahab and Elijah/Elisha. Because as prophets they were supposed to be people who were zealously guarding the nation from going against Yahweh’s and his covenant relationship with the people, Ahab’s flirtations with Baal via his wife Jezebel would definitely not sit well with them. In addition, the more these leader’s desires departed away from faithfulness to Yahweh and the Torah, the more the nation drifted to idolatory, injustice and oppression, as worshipping these other gods always led to. Being men of insight and power from Yahweh, he did of course use them to perform some miracles to show that Yahweh was still Lord over the world, but as we will see, that is not what qualifies them as prophets.

Close To And After the Exiles

Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah continue the tradition of speaking Yahweh’s mind to the people. By this time however it would seem that the leaders surrounded themselves with only those who would tell them what they wanted to hear, so these kinds of prophets became hated and hounded. This went on till Northern Israel (Ephraim) was captured by Assyria and southern Israel (Judah) was captured by Babylon (note that Torah had spoken specifically of exile as the punishment for departing from Yahweh). Even whiles in exile, some of these prophets continued to prophecy of how Yahweh will save them from this exile if they looked back to him in faithfulness. When one looks at the career of all these prophets you will realize that

  1. they spoke vehemently against idolatory, and the danger of relying on other nations for their security instead of on Yahweh (which was further evidence of lack of faith in Yahweh and rather reposing faith in the god of the other nations). Their warnings sounded a lot like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”, spoken by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. They spoke of injustice, of the treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. They sympathised with the downtrodden, and criticised those who had the power to change things but rather defended the wicked and horded to themselves. This was again a betrayal of their election and purpose as encapsulated in the Torah. Their warnings again sounded a lot like “love your neighbour as yourself” to this same Jesus of Nazareth.

One will note that few of all of these prophets were active in performing miraculous signs. The real basis of their qualification was whether they spoke the mind of God concerning his nation Israel, especially whether they called the nation to focus on Yahweh and repent of their idolatory and wickedness towards one another or not.

In the Gospels

In the Gospels, 2 people are named as prophets – John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these had 2 things in common – they criticized the people for their lack of faith in Yahweh, especially their constant appeal to violence to remove their “enemies”, the Romans; and secondly, they identified with the downtrodden, hopeless and desperate.

John the Baptist spoke of a coming wrath if they didn’t repent and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Jn 3:7-8). And when asked specifically what to do, he advises them to pursue justice and compassion, saying “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”(v11). He encourages the tax collectors not to be corrupt, and the soldiers as well(v 12-13). John shows the 2 classic concerns – faithfulness to Yahweh and observing the Torah, including its call for justice and compassion.

Jesus is also called a prophet by many in the gospels, and for good reason. He definitely was more than just a prophet, but for the people to have considered him to be one, he must have shown traits that the people of ancient Israel already knew was common place for true prophets. In this regard, Jesus didn’t disappoint, for he showed that faithfulness to him was now equal to faithfulness to Yahweh. Also not only did he lay an emphasis on justice and compassion, he acted it out fully, identifying with the poor and oppressed, the outcast and the downtrodden, and encouraging a redefinition of who was our neighbour and how his disciples should care for one another.

As can be seen from this whole survey so far then, prophets were people who were zealous for faithfulness to Yahweh and conformity to his law. They didn’t mind how people mistreated them or hated them for speaking the truth of Yahweh’s mind about the people’s non-conformity. They did this knowing that Yahweh indeed had a special relationship with them ancient Israel, and they needed to continue to be faithful to their side of the covenant for him to be faithful to his.

Bringing these lessons to our Christian world, the following observations can be drawn.

  1. Yahweh’s people are now defined as all who are faithful to Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile aka the church. Prophecy must therefore expend itself mostly about keeping the church in faithfulness to the Messiah, by doing the one thing he asks – taking up it’s cross and following him.

  2. The same concerns of justice, peace and compassion that characterized Yahweh’s Torah continue to persist with an even more hammered stress under Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels. Prophecy must remind the elect people of God (the church) about how faithfulness to the Messiah means being busy about his task for the church as expounded in the Gospels, same as true prophets did from Moses to John the Baptist.

That is why when Paul writes about prophecy in his epistle to the Corinthians, he encourages them to desire it more than tongues speaking (1 Cor 14:1), because it was a gift meant to direct and guide the whole church as God’s elect people. As with all other gifts, this was also a gift “given for the common good”(1 Cor 12:8). This gift then could serve to guide the church to navigate the difficulties that it will face in attempting to follow the Messiah, and to keep the focus on his tasks set out for the church. This gift was beneficial to Paul when Agabus told him of what suffering he was to face, but taking on the attitude of his master, he still went ahead to face that suffering anyways.

And So …

In the midst of all this then, I find it sad to watch the “prophetic” landscape and fever that has gripped sections of Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Some prophets claim to be giving football predictions, predicting natural disasters, plane crashes, presidential illnesses and deaths, prosperity and success, marriage partners and the like. Not only have they missed the plot, they are not even acting in the play. Some are posing themselves as advisers to national presidents and governments (appealing in a flawed manner to OT prophets, not realizing that Yahweh has no covenant with the nation Ghana or Nigeria, but to his church). Others are busy gathering people to them so they can tell them what they want to hear, rubbing the bottle to reveal a genie god ready to fulfill all their desires. Our prophets are loved and celebrated as “men of God”, when they should be hated for speaking the truth and condemning the corruption, injustice and division that exists in our churches, before even talking about what exists in our societies.

With these kind of prophets, the only people who will find compassion are the rich, the only people who will have peace are those who are already soaked in violence, the only people who will receive justice are those who have the money and power to buy it. And that, my friends, is what false prophecy led to then, and will lead to now.

When Eating Together Became Dangerous

When Eating Together Became Dangerous

There are certain ways in which Christendom has conspired, mostly unintentionally, to deprive the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of their compelling power to shape the lives and activity of the Christian. It is not for nought that the NT ethicist Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” had such an impact on Christian theology with his critique of much of Christianity’s attempts to define Christian behaviour not based on the pattern that Jesus laid down in his life and times as recorded in the Gospels, but instead finding our patterns from either misconceived interpretations of Paul’s letters, or our own “experiences” of the world. One of such marginalized practices is the simple, “carnal” activity of eating together.

Mark Moore documents 36 mentions in the Gospels of Jesus either feeding people, or eating with people. This by the way is many more times than certain things that some Christians use to evaluate their fellow Christian’s “spiritual level”, but that’s a story for another day. Mark concludes with the following statement.

In a sense, Jesus’ subversive message was embodied in his table fellowship. He used meals as a fulcrum for social reconstruction. Truly, Jesus turned these tables into pulpits and used them to reconfigure his world.” – Mark Moore, The Meals of Jesus: Table Fellowship in the Gospels

And yet it’s so amazing how amongst today’s disciples of Jesus, eating together has been so diminished of it’s power. The fact that after all the numerous explanations of Jesus was advancing to his 2 friends on the road to Emmaus, sitting down and eating with them is what finally clinched it should tell us there is something about sitting and eating together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that we might be missing out on. Let me illustrate with a small experience I had at my church.

The Jesus Community in Agbogba is a small home church with a membership less than 20. We do eat together regularly as and when we have the opportunity to do so, aside of taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. In addition, we never spare the chance to have a good meal together during special occasions like Christmas, and this Christmas was no exception. The fact that I actually drove for an hour to Kpong by the Volta River from Accra to buy tilapia fish for the Ghanaian favorite “banku and tilapia with pepper sauce” should tell you that we kid not with the Christmas party.

But reflecting over this, as well as over my church’s general attitude towards eating together made me realize that we might be fulfilling in some ways Jesus’s admonition

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:12-14).

Now a disclaimer is in order here. When we have a “party”, we don’t intentionally invite the lame, the cripple, the blind etc. We simply not have much resources now to throw such a party, and we hope for a time when we can actually do so in the near future.

However, my church community is dominated by the urban poor, and especially during Christmas parties like the last one, some of our members do invite other friends, some of whom may also be in the same economic state. In the end, food and games unites us all as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ.

Eating with one another so often, without regard to each other’s social, economic or tribal status enables the creation of friendships that go beyond the surface. We develop bonds of closeness and empathy, and when we find any brother in difficulty, one can hardly look at them and harden one’s heart not to do what is within one’s power to help. Reflecting over this simple act of eating together, I have learnt many lessons and realize how subversive Jesus Christ’s agenda is if we truly take the Jesus of the Gospels seriously.

  1. Most Christians have been fed an overly romanticized idea of how one may “feed the poor” or “help the poor”. The Mother Theresas and the Jean Varniers of this world who are able to leave everything behind and dedicate their lives solely to the poor and marginalized continue to be needed to dedicate their lives to these acts of mercy. But one doesn’t have to be like them before one can help the marginalized. There are many poor people around us, if we just open our eyes we will see them. You can start from your church community, because that is the place Jesus actually desires you to start from before going elsewhere.

  2. The easiest way to start loving someone, whether rich or poor, is to start by being their friend. I live in a place with quite some big money churches around me. I do see their well-intended efforts at charity, some of it disturbingly labeled “corporate social responsibility”, and I shake my head. It is easy to make the disadvantaged into a project so that when we raise our big donations to go and donate to them and satisfy our conscience, so we can continue living our lives frolicking with those in our high class social settings without batting an eyelid. But in what way do the poor and vulnerable have a place within our day to day lives, so that they actually become friends whom we spend time with, whom we visit regularly and whose concerns (and annoyances) become ours as well? Because in so doing, they become our friends, not just a project or “a human being with a label called poor”. This is what the radical Shane Claiborne put so forcefully thus;

    I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor” – Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

  3. Our modern day love affair with individualism is so ingrained in us that we fail to realize that the tasks that Jesus gives to us in the Gospel cannot be achieved by individual Christian effort. I get the question very often “how can I help someone if I don’t have the resources”, where the questioner assumes that they alone are supposed to help the poor. But you see when the early disciples had problems with financial resources, it became a matter of importance to the church, and then individuals gave what they could to help relieve the problem. Without Christian community actually prioritizing economic justice as important in their midst and working to support it in any way or form, works of compassion becomes a “calling” that an individual person must find the will and resources to undertake on their own. Of course, this means very few people will be able to do so, and Jesus’s words in the gospel will need to be explained away with all sorts of permutations and combinations of theories. Whenever I hear another sermon from the Gospels being preached as if Jesus were giving motivational tips on individual self-help, without recognizing that the imperatives Jesus demands are meant to be lived out by the church community with one another, I shake my head in sadness.

  4. Coupled with the point about individualism above is church’s loss of identity as the agent of God’s will for renewal of this fallen earth in works of justice, compassion and peace, something they rather expect the politicians to be doing. Churches have resolved themselves to “save the souls”, and leave the bodies to the governments to devour. The current practice (at least in churches in Ghana) of taking all donations to the “headquarters” to execute a nebulous “work of God”, whiles local churches struggle to take care of the mounting needs of church members suffering under corrupt and unjust economic leadership in this country needs a total overhaul. I have lived within the town I live in now for 20 years, and used to attend a church here till I stopped attending. I have neighbours who are still members of this church whose economic fortunes have stayed the same or deteriorated in these years, even leading one person to experience mental problems. And yet some of these neighbours grumble to me about the church’s continuous plea for more donations to “do the work of God”, as if God does not care about their poverty. No matter how much an individual church member can give to these people, the community can give way more (and go beyond financial needs) if it was a priority that they could actualize. As it stands, church leaders are afraid of reprimand from the top, so the status quo stands.

  5. We live in the nation Ghana, where the large majority of our population lives below the poverty line. In the city of Accra, there are very few communities populated by only rich people. Because of the failure of our city authorities to enforce planning rules, there are “slums” in every suburb of Accra. If you find yourself running a Christian ministry full of only middle to upper class, upwardly mobile members whiles the population where your church is sited is actually dominated by poor people, one has to ask serious questions about your ministry. Are you actively excluding the poor, illiterate, socially excluded and oppressed class of people that Jesus so loved in the gospels with your ministry? Sadly, I find it ironic when some Christians wonder why so many mostly poor and illiterate Ghanaians seem to flock after pastors who these Christians consider charlatans(even if they don’t say it aloud that they are). The question I’d love to ask them is in what way is your “good church/pastor” actually working to make such people feel welcome and their voices heard? In some ways we must be thankful for these charlatans, for the conditions that existed in places like Nigeria to foster the growth of a terrorist group like Boko Haram are the same conditions that we are creating here, except that these “pastors” have not yet began to lead people to large-scale violence to solve their problems (though some do at a not-so-grand scale, like encouraging violence against one’s mother because she is the “witch” who is causing one’s poverty).

There is a subversive power in sitting down and eating together, and doing so regularly. When the rich eat the same food with the poor, when the oppressor sits, thinks and talks with the oppressed, when the depressed finds joy in cooking or serving his brethren salivating whiles waiting for the food, all in pursuit of following Jesus and his vision of an upside down kingdom, something indeed does happen that the world doesn’t understand. The Gospels and their depiction of Jesus doesn’t become just nice Sunday school stories we tell our children, but real life scenarios that we can point to.

I suspect there’s a reason why eating together has become a rarity in Christendom. It brings the real issues to the fore, it opens us up to the pain and suffering of others. It relaxes us to talk about our hurts and pains, our hopes and our disappointments. It pushes others present to want to do something about them. And that “something” can sometimes be dangerous to the empire-building desires of those at the top, be they political or church leaders. Because after all the wonderful meals together, if all you can think about is the pursuit of the next spiritual high or “prophetic” movement (interestingly it used to be “miraculous” movements a few years ago. Sigh …), the latest gadget in town, the next big car to own, the career competition between you and your contemporaries from school, or the next big church building “to the glory of God”, the next “pastor’s appreciation day”, then I have news for you. You might just not be following the way of Jesus. And following that way is all that matters.

God Worshipers, or Jesus Followers?

follow-jesus-meme

In my last post “Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives”, I made the following statement about how historical Anabaptists viewed the Reformers that surrounded them, which I quote here:

Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.”

Interestingly, the more we thought of this statement at my church, the more we realized that we in Ghana are facing the same problem

Most Ghanaians Christians are more interested in worshiping God than in following Jesus.”

Why Do I Say So?

Well, you only need to ask a few questions and take a look at both the liturgy and the music of most Ghanaian churches to realize what is going on.

Ask A Ghanaian Christian

Ghanaians are a very religious people, probably one of the most religious nations in the world. 98% of the population claim a religion, and 70% or so of them claim to be Christian according to census information. If you ask a typical Christian in Ghana why they go to church, they answer that they go to worship God. Some say that as a human being one must acknowledge that there is God in this world, so one must worship him so everything goes right for you. Some will even quote Heb 10:25, saying that even the bible says we should not stop going to church. The fact that not only that verse but the one before it speaks of encouraging one another to love and good deeds (aka following Jesus) is lost on them.

Interrogate Ghanaian Christian Music

When you listen to most Ghanaian “gospel” music, there is very little mention of Jesus. Most of the songs, (even the very old ones we used to sing when we were kids) talk about God and most people when asked will refer to the trinity, claiming talking about God is talking about Jesus anyways. However, much of the “God” songs are simply focused on praising God for putting food on the table or for saving them from their “enemies”. There are very few references to the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Songs about following Jesus are almost non-existent. Songs speaking of Christian community, about resurrection, about the new heavens and the new earth, about suffering for Jesus’s sake, about carrying each other’s burdens etc suffer the same fate. Our music is centered on a falses sense of humility and praise to “God” for not having rocked the boat, and in more recent times with the sweep of penteco-charismatism, songs about the Holy Spirit, prosperity and bare-faced individualism. The least said about songs connecting contemporary Christianity to it’s Israel heritage, the better. Whenever there is mention of Jesus, its only probably to refer to his death on the cross and the forgiveness of sins we receive. In fact I’ve seen many Ghanaian Muslims actually sing many Ghanaian gospel songs, simply because there’s very little in our “God music” that cannot fit in Islamic theology about Allah, whereas early Christian teaching about Jesus actually contradicts Islam or any other religion and so theologically sound songs about cannot be co-opted by any other religion without questioning itself.

Observe a Service doing “Worship”

As with most Christians elsewhere, the word “worship” is now associated with singing slow songs in a somber mood, mostly in an attitude of submission towards – guess who – God. The songs that accompany this activity again hardly mention Jesus, and focus on “glorifying God”. In Akan, one of the terms for this is “making God big”. The fact that “worship” as Paul mentions it in Rom 12:1-2 is about the community offering itself as a sacrifice is totally co-opted by the individualistic sense of being prostrate before God in awe of his might. It is now high fashion to have huge “Worship Concerts” with big name singers, who promise to lead us into a certain atmosphere of “worship”, making Ghanaian Christians think that worshiping God in the right way (aka via the right musical environment) is the pinnacle of Christian experience.

Observe the Life After the Service

After all this work of making sure we’ve done the right things vis-a-vis God, most Christians then go back to their week to do the same old things which is sinking the nation into the pits of corruption, poverty and injustice, and only come back on a Sunday to “give God the praise and worship”. There’s very little sense and very little intentional organization to make visible the fact that our neighbourhood and our country needs to see Jesus being displayed day in and day out in the ordinary lives of Ghanaian Christians. The cycle only repeats itself. Of course once in a while the cycle is interjected with a “mega” event with many invited guests to vim us up, but all in the same direction.

Indeed much Ghanaian Christianity is not interested in the things that make for love, justice, mercy and peace. Worshiping the right God is all that matters. Even our local languages use the same terms when speaking of being a Christian. Akans say “Nyame Som”, Ewes say “Mawu Subosubo” all meaning “worshiping God”. And when one actually does an in-depth analysis of what most Ghanaians mean by “God”, you will find that it’s more a cultural “God” than the creational monotheist Yahweh of the people of Israel.

How Did We Get Here?

In a sense I don’t blame Ghanaian Christians alone. Some of the blame lies with the missionary efforts laid down by the European missionaries who came to Ghana. These missions were supported by European churches which were themselves quite Christendom oriented in their outlook, whose secondary goal was to “civilize” the African and push them to abandon their old Akonedi, Antoa, Yewe etc gods. The focus was on changing the God they served, not necessarily leading them to question the social, economic and political structures that existed in the light of the knowledge and following of Jesus. If that wasn’t the case, we should have seen the early churches founded by these missionaries bent on following Jesus would have been quite diametrically opposed to colonialism and exploitation of the African nations. But as history shows, it was about getting Ghanaians to worship God and not challenging their fellow European, largely Christian, colonialists in their perpetuating of injustice and oppression.

As a result, Ghanaian Christianity is now much more of a syncretism of “God worship” and a host of cultural baggage, mixed with European culture. Imagine the difficulty that Ghanaian Christian young couples have to go through to get married. Most have to go through 2 wedding ceremonies with all its attendant bank breaking costs because the cultural marriage ceremony has been deemed not enough, and whether overtly or covertly, a European white wedding needs to be appended. Ghanaian Christians have to endure high costs of conducting funerals of their loved ones because we have been more worried about “worshiping God” than we are about the tragedy of spending so much money on the dead, when the living cannot afford to pay their school fees. Ghanaian Christians are caught up in building bigger churches “to the glory of God”, when the poor in their midst suffer in squalor. Who cares about questioning Ghanaian culture regarding marriage and funerals, who cares about questioning how we use our money, if “worshiping God” is all it is about?

What Was the Call of Jesus?

And yet Jesus didn’t seek people who will worship him. He sought people who will follow him. That’s why his followers are called disciples – a word which connotes apprentice, not worshiper . When he called his first disciples, he told them to follow him, so he will make them fishers of men (Mt 4:19). He told them to take up their crosses and follow him (Mk 8:34-35). When stating his manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount, he challenged his listeners to not just be people who call him “Lord, Lord”, but actually do the will of his father (Mt 7:21). When he was leaving his disciples, he gave them a task – to make more disciples who will be obedient to him, not just worship him (Mt 28:18-20). It is no surprise that his disciples, before being called Christians, were called FOLLOWERS of the way (Act 9:2;19:9;24:14).

The Time for Change Is Now!!

And so my church, The Jesus Community Agbogba, knowing that it is madness to do the same things and expect a different result, has decided that we are going to place the emphasis where it should be – on following Jesus, and doing so together. And this we intend to do not by talking, but by action with the help of the Holy Spirit. Although our small community is dominantly poor and we already do place high value on supporting each other, we’ve recommitted ourselves to “not get tired of doing good” (Gal 6:9), but rather continue to practically show love for one another. We’ve decided that music is an integral part of shaping our thinking, and therefore we will write and sing songs that reflect our desire to place Jesus, Christian community and the pursuit of his kingdom as the center of our lives. There are many other things that the Christian culture around us does as part of church practice which we believe do not innure the benefit of discipleship and community, and these practices we’ve already rejected and will continue to hold our ground on. We haven’t got it all figured out, but we know that it is only when we are intent on following Jesus he reveals himself to us and that we see where we need to improve, and we are committed to doing so with the help of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The question I’ll like to ask many Ghanaian Christians is: Are we God worshipers, or Jesus followers?

Vicit Agnus Noster, EUM SEQUAMUR – The Lamb has Conquered, LET US FOLLOW HIM

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

On Saturday my friends and I at SimplyChrist spent time with a group of young Christian leaders on a Ghanaian university campus talking about discipleship. It was indeed a refreshing moment helping to reorient the minds of these such young students on how integral discipleship was to being a Christian, and discussing the challenges they faced in trying to be disciples in their own setting as students on campus. Sadly though, I couldn’t shake off from my mind how much additional effort and time would be required to actually see true discipleship emerge in this Christian community. I felt like our efforts were a drop in the ocean, not because they were not relevant, but because a lot more teaching, re-orientation, practice and commitment was needed to see discipleship truly flourish amongst them. The fact that I was making an effort to convince professing Christian students that being a Christian and being a disciple were one and the same thing was just a jolt of reality for me. This feeling was further aggravated by my recent completion of Bruxy Cavey’s Frosh sermon series focusing on discipleship, completion of Scott McKnight’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and current engagement with Richard B. Hays’s “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”.

In consolation to myself, I tried to leave my discussion group with 2 points. The first was that discipleship meant following Jesus and doing so with others, no matter the cost. It wasn’t about knowing all the right things about Jesus, or the bible or the Holy Spirit etc. If all these didn’t lead us to doing as our master did, and doing it with others who were walking on that same path, we have failed to be disciples. The second was the true discipleship always showed up in love for others, including even our enemies. Jesus gave only one thing that the world may use to know his disciples – love (Jn 13:34-35).

Driving home Sunday afternoon after our home church meeting, where we spent considerable amounts of time thinking of a business we could engage in to alleviate the poverty amongst us if we had the money to do so, yesterday’s discipleship event came back to my mind, and with it, Stuart Murray’s “The Naked Anabaptist”. In this book Murray tries to distill the essentials of the history of Anabaptist Christianity and practice.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptists Christians throughout history (drawing inspiration from early Christianity and other “heretics” like the Waldensians et. al. who came before them) was their insistence on following Jesus no matter the cost. It is this stubbornness that lead them to disagree with the Protestant Reformers even though they had started off supporting and actively taking part in the Reformation. Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.

Hans Denck, one of the leaders of the early Anabaptists, had this to say about following Jesus

No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life”.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

According to Murray, to Anabaptists

All claims to spiritual experience or doctrinal orthodoxy were to be tested against practical discipleship. Anabaptists were charged with reverting to ‘salvation by works’, but they replied that their critics were well aware of the abysmally low standards of discipline in their own churches and should ask why their personally correct doctrine was producing so little fruit.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Anabaptists placed such high value on the Sermon on the Mount in particular and the portrait of Jesus and the church as painted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and book of Acts in general. They left the theologizing, slicing and dicing of the rest of the bible to their friends the Reformers to enjoy frothing in. Hear Murray:

It was in the area of ethics that the teachings of Jesus seemed to have been marginalized [by the reformers] in favor of Old Testament practices. Making war, executing criminals, swearing oaths, ascribing a divinely granted status to kings, and extracting tithes could all be justified from the Old Testament, but were these practices really congruent with what Jesus said and did? The reformers appeared to Anabaptists to have a flat Bible, picking out principles from anywhere without reference to the unfolding purposes of God. The Anabaptists rejected this approach and insisted that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the teachings and example of Jesus” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

The Anabaptists’ mistrust (and even ignorance) of the Old Testament was fostered by how the Protestant reformers were able to use the tool of allegory, a specific example of which I wrote about a few weeks ago here, to make the Bible support everything that these Reformers at the time wanted to find biblical basis for. As expounded by Howard Yoder in his seminal book “The Politics of Jesus”, most Protestants since the Reformation have looked everywhere else apart from the life of Jesus to find grounds for teaching and practice on political, social and economic issues, something that Anabaptists derided.

Deciding to only follow the example of Jesus as seen in the Gospels, Anabaptists paid a lot more attention to being faithful to Jesus. Being humans like everybody else, some of these attempts went too far. For example the Hutterites, even to this day, force everyone to relinquish control of their possessions, citing the example of the disciples of the book of Acts. Others like the Amish, wanting to separate themselves from the world around them in order to avoid worldly attractions, still dress and behave like 16-18th century people to this day. Thankfully though, other Anabaptists took less drastic measures, simply finding ways to make following Jesus front and center of their individual and church lives. Overall the remarkable commitment of this little known tradition of Christianity in producing committed disciples of Jesus is well documented, albeit little studied.

Nowadays though, there is a great resurgence in seeing everything about the Christian life in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Modern scholarship on both Old Testament and New Testament history and ethics is breathing a new life into and placing the spotlight on Jesus as the key to understanding and living faithful lives as his followers in every sphere of life. We have better tools for interpreting the Old and New Testament, and modern Anabaptists need not mistrust its usage again. Murray writes again:

The impact of Howard Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’ was profound, introducing Christians from many traditions to a new way of reading the Gospels. ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’ by Donald Kraybill gently but devastatingly dismantled centuries of misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Walter Wink, Shane Clairborne, Tom Wright, Steve Chalke, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are just of few of those – some more influenced by Anabaptism than others – who have directed our attention to the life of Jesus and encouraged us to take a fresh look at what he taught”(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Today many people, looking for a different kind of Christianity, are finding that they can learn a lot from the life and sacrifice engendered by Anabaptism. There is a huge resurgence of neo-Anabaptism in both Europe and North America, with the emergent and missional church movements leading the way. People who are not originally from Anabaptist churches are finding ways to infuse the Anabaptist insistence on discipleship as the purpose of calling people into Christianity into their way of life, and are finding that it was the natural way to be Christian all along. Places like The Anabaptist Network and the MissioAlliance are becoming places for others to think of different ways to be Christians, with Anabaptism playing a very important role in sharing its lessons. If an NT scholar who recently got ordained as an Anglican deacon (Scott McKnight) can openly confess to being Anabaptist at heart, then the world is paying more attention indeed.

Watch this space for much more on Neo-Anabaptism, and it’s possible appearance in Ghana as well. Suffice it to say that if the resurgence in interest in practical discipleship is anything to go by, radical Christians like the Waldensians, Anabaptists et. al. may yet sleep well in their graves, knowing that despite all their mistakes, there is something to be learnt from their self-sacrifice, martyrdom and unbending will to follow Jesus to the end.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequmur – The Lamb has Conquered, Him Let Us Follow.

Once Saved, Always Saved? Of Course!!

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

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

The Question

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

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

How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.

The Assumptions

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

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

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

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

The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These similarities should tell us 2 things.

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

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

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

The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness

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

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

The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer To The Question

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

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

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

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

James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”

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

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

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

How Beautiful Are Your Feet?

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

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

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

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

The Sermon On The Mount Angle

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

The Handel Angle (Pun Intended)

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

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

The Watchmen

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

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

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

Observe the parallel with Isaiah

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

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

Good News Indeed

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

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

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

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

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

10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far

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

Seeing as I’m not getting any younger (try as I might), I’ve been reflecting on the last 10 years of my Christian walk, and wondering what books I will recommend to a younger Christian from my library. So I thought to write down the top 10 books of the last decade of my life. Note that they are in order of when I read them, not necessarily which one is the best, a judgment that I cannot make.

1Pagan Christianity – Frank Viola

This was the book that first answered some of the doubts my church family and I already had about today’s church practices. It details how modern Christianity’s idolatrous fixation with church buildings, the history and legitimacy or otherwise of tithing for Christians, the clergy/laity divide, sermons and their origin etc. have more to do with Greco-Roman paganism than 1st century Christianity. Not safe for those who like church as it is today.

2From Eternity To Here – Frank Viola

This one unfolds God’s plan for his church which he laid out before the foundations of the earth. It discusses several images that the New Testament writers use to describe the church, including the bride, the house, the family, the temple etc. It challenges your comfort zone on why churches exist in the first place.

3The Reformers and Their Stepchildren – Leonard Verduin

A classic on the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and how those who wanted to take things further than the leaders of the Reformation would allow were hunted down, tortured and killed in all sorts of macabre ways. The beliefs that these Anabaptists aka the Radical Reformation, suffered for seem self evident now, and a lot of Christians now hold to most of them, and yet very few acknowledge those who actually died to state that these practices needed to change. Popular Christianity has a lot to learn from those who chose such narrow paths to their own detriment.

Interestingly Leonard Verduin who was a Reformed theologian made enemies in his own church tradition for drawing attention to what his spiritual forefathers had done to the Anabaptists. Sigh …

4The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder

Having read about Anabaptism, it seemed only logical that the next book be one by an Anabaptist himself. This book caused a revolution in Christian by questioning how Christianity had come to view Jesus as not caring much about the socio-political environment in which he lived, by virtue of which Christians have left social and economic justice to be the purview of the “world leaders”, when in fact Jesus tasks the church to be very busy following him in this direction of being “good news” to the poor, oppressed, sick, marginalized and downtrodden. Whether Christians who were ruffled by what he said decided to take Jesus seriously or go back to the apolitical Jesus really becomes a conscious choice.

5New Testament History – Frederic Fyvie (F. F.) Bruce

My first introduction to the world of New Testament history. FF Bruce really peaked my interest in understanding the world of the 1st Century and using that as an additional tool in understanding Jesus and early Christianity. Bruce, thanks for setting me on the right path.

6Making A Meal of It – Ben Witherington III

Ben Witherington takes a good look at the meal with many names i.e. the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist etc. He sketches out how it has been observed historically from the times of early Christianity where it was a full meal sometimes taken even before the meeting began, to the Roman Catholic and Protestant interpretations of it and how it’s observed today. He encourages us to look again at how pivotal this meal is, and yet to remove the cruft that has put so much superstition around it. A good read.

7The Bible Made Impossible – Christian Smith

Why do we have many interpretations of the same bible by different people who claim to follow the same Jesus? Could it be that the attitudes with which we come to the bible are the problem, and not the bible itself? In the light of the million and 1 divisions in Protestant Christianity, should we reconsider the notion that “a simple plain reading of the bible with the Holy Spirit’s guidance” is all we need to correctly interpret the bible? Christian Smith provides a more satisfying, balanced and humble approach to how we should approach the bible, making Jesus the centerpiece for biblical interpretation.

8Jesus and the Victory of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

This close to 700 page masterpiece on Jesus really expanded my reading of the gospels beyond the nice, safe, simplistic stories that I had been taught in Sunday school. Laying down the background of 1st century Judaism from “New Testament and the People of God“, NT Wright lays out Jesus’s ministry by mainly seeing him as a prophet like Jeremiah, Isaiah etc. No, the parable of the prodigal son meant more than you think, the cursing of the fig tree was a proper condemnation of Israel, the cleansing of the temple was a very prophetic activity. And by the way Mk 13 and Matt 24 are not talking about some “End Times” with some great tribulation as depicted to us by the Dispensationalists – they referred to concrete actions which happened in AD 67-70. For those who don’t have the time, reading “How God Became King” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

9The Resurrection of the Son of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

The 3rd in the “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series, this does a detailed survey of what resurrection meant to the cultures that surrounded 1st century Jews i.e. Greek platonism, and clearly differentiates it from resurrection as understood by Jesus and his disciples before it even happened to Jesus. I was expecting to get the arguments for why Jesus’s resurrection was historically plausible which this book has in spades (including debunking all the claims of similarity with other “resurrection myths”) but the additional content laying out the implications of Jesus’s resurrection for Christianity itself was the part I enjoyed the most. For those who don’t have the time, reading “Surprised by Hope” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

10The King Jesus Gospel – Scott McKnight

Over the centuries, the good news of Jesus has been reduced to many statements, but today almost universally the refrain is that the gospel is that “Jesus came to die for our sins”. Scott McKnight draws the difference between this the “soterian gospel” or “plan of salvation” and the gospel according to the New Testament. He expands our view of what the word means from a historical analysis of the word “evangelion” and its usage in the 1st century to an analysis of 1 Cor 15:1-11, and places the emphasis where it should be – on the declaration of Jesus as God’s anointed king who is calling people into his kingdom now and kingdom future.

 

Others interesting books that didn’t make the list include Howard Snyder’s “Salvation Means Creation Healed” , Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy”, Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Religion” (which I still haven’t finished fully but loved anyway and will reread all over someday).

 

And sorry, I don’t read “motivational” books. I simply don’t have the stomach for their fluffy feel-goodness.

According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

One of the problems that I have faced in communicating and discussing the word of God with other Christians is one finds that we have a lot of our definitions messed up. Words and phrases that meant one thing in biblical times have now come to mean different things altogether. At the least, the impact of these phrases have been reduced so we don’t see how profound they are. But at the worst, I find what I believe to be totally flawed understandings of phrases and words in the bible, upon which people are then able to construct all sorts of weird teaching.

This series of posts is my attempt to provide a clearer definition of some of these phrases that are so common in Christendom but which need to be clarified today. Some of these terms are “salvation”, “forgiveness of sins”, “new creation”, “son of God” and “kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven”, and I will discuss some of them in no particular order. One thing needs to remain clear to the Christian though – when Paul used the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:4, he was referring to the books we call the Old Testament, and mostly from the Greek translation of it (the Septuagint). The New Testament as we know it didn’t exist then, and was not where the prophecies about Jesus would be found. Note that the writers of the books of the New Testament were not Greeks, Romans, Ghanaians or Germans. They were Jews, and so the text is bound to reflect a Jewish worldview somewhat. If Christians are to understand very well where the terms and phrases we so love to use come from, we need to lay the ground work from what the writers themselves considered “scripture”, before getting ahead of ourselves.

Son of God?

Jesus calls himself (and is called by his disciples) “son of God”. Most good, devout, Sunday school taught Christians immediately understand this phrase to mean that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity i.e. he is a divine being from God and one with the Godhead. Let me state quite clearly here before I am accused of heresy that I side with a million and one Christians in the belief in Jesus’ divine nature and a belief in the Trinity. However, if we apply Paul’s litmus test aka according to the Old Testament – that is not what “son of God” means. What does it mean then?

The phrase “son of God”, “children of God” and “sons and daughters/people of God” has been used in many ways to denote a special election of God of a certain people or person. It is used to refer to the kings of this world here.

I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” (Ps 82:6-7)

It is used to refer to a particular king of the Jews called the Anointed one (the Messiah)

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14 cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah] … He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (Ps 2:2-7).

He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior. And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” (Ps 89:26-27)

And sometimes it is used to refer to the nation Israel itself, and the special kind of relationship between God and his chosen nation. The language of sonship and children vis-a-vis Israel is a language of special status, of election, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere. Note that nowhere in the OT is anyone refered to as a “son of God/sons of God/people of God/sons and daughters of God” except kings of the world, the Messiah or Israel as a nation.

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22)

I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). 2 Cor 6:18 expands this to mean “you will be my sons and daughters”.

Nowhere in all these usages are we seeing a divine, explicitly Trinitarian usage of the phrase “son of God”. The Jews of Jesus day were definitely looking forward to a Messiah descended from David who will come and restore their fortunes against their enemies, as expounded by the totality of the Psalms referenced above and a lot more, as well as the prophets. The fact that in Jesus, the king turned out to be not only human but divine was not what their understanding of Messiah was, and we can now look at the NT and see what I mean.

Son Of God in The Gospels

There are many usages of the phrase “son of God” recorded in the gospels, but the most poignant of them was at the trial of Jesus. The most important reason why the Sanhedrin council had to bring Jesus before Pilate was that the power to crucify a person was the preserve only of the Roman governor at the time. And if they simply went to the Roman governor and said “we don’t like this man’s teaching” or “he’s been criticizing us”, the best he would have done was to put him in jail for a few days and let him go (if he doesn’t end up throwing the case out of court in the first place). They needed a charge that was capital, and given the amount of rebellion that existed at the time and in previous years with the many previous “Messiahs” gone past, the only charge that will catch the attention of the governor was a charge of treason – treason because there was in fact a “King of the Jews” in the name of Herod appointed by the Romans. Any other person calling themselves “king” was attempting a coup d’etat, not only against Herod, but against his appointee – Rome. That was a crucifiable offence. Hear the Sanhedrin’s accusation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:7)

Now, Pilate obviously didn’t think they were saying Jesus was divine or the 2nd person of the trinity. Hear him.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (Jn 18:39)

Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ Shall I crucify your king?‘ Pilate asked. ”We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. (Jn 19:14-15)

It is no surprise then that Pilate had the title “King of the Jews” hang on Jesus cross. And we also note that Jesus never denied that he was king of the Jews during his trial, for that is what Christ or Messiah actually means. The above passages show clearly what Jews meant by “son of God”. A few more examples from the Gospels will suffice.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”(Jn 1:49)

Note that his disciples did clearly recognize his claim to be the Anointed one. For example Jesus commended Peter for saying that Jesus was the Christ (the title Christ was Greek whiles Messiah was Jewish for the same thing – “Anointed One”), the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-17), again referring to the title under discussion.

But, But, But …

Yes I know, Jesus DID say he was divine in may places, quite uncountable to mention. But until his death and resurrection, his disciples only understood him to be the Messiah, albeit one with some wonderful powers and gifts.

However, he was always challenging these disciples and other people (including his enemies) to see the Messiah as more than a mere human, quoting Ps 110 and saying that “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son (Mt 22:45)”? Here, Jesus is appealing to David saying “The Lord said to my Lord” signifie that whoever David was talking about was more than just his son.

But it is pretty obvious not only tracing it from the OT but in the gospels and in all Jewish understanding that although there were hints like Ps 110 that seemed to point to the Messiah being more than just a normal human being, Jews never understood “son of God” to mean a divine person, but rather God’s anointed King, just like Moses was God’s anointed prophet and Aaron God’s anointed priest.

After his death AND resurrection, his disciples now understood that Jesus was indeed divine and expressed that much throughout their words and writings in the New Testament. But they still used “son of God” in the Messianic sense of the expected descendant of David, as depicted by Paul in Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8.

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

That’s the obvious question. What’s the big deal afterall? And the answer is NO WE ARE NOT. As Jackson Wu, a Chinese missional theologian says “We must not misuse scripture to prove the truth … when we settle for what is merely true (that Jesus has a divine nature), we miss out on what the phrase [son of God] actually means.” It is obvious most Christians have confused the Trinitarian phrase “God the Son” with the Messianic phrase “Son of God”. And this is rather ironic given that the latter is explicitly written and expounded in scripture, whiles the former had to be deduced. I dare say that a misunderstanding of what “son of God” means has left room for 2 very serious errors.

The first is to seriously question the ground on which some Christians stand basing on a flawed understanding of the New Testament’s description of the church as “sons of God” to mean that Christians are somehow divine. Jews believed they were “sons of God” too, but never went as far as to consider themselves divine.

The second and even more tragic one for me is that because we have so “spiritualized” and “divinized” everything about Jesus, much of the church today has totally ignored the real human, earthy and here-and-now task that the Messiah and his followers (his church), empowered by the Spirit of God was supposed to achieve. Bringing good news to the poor, relief for the sick, hope to the fatherless, the widow and the stranger and of writing the wrongs in society – in short we have hammered on personal salvation, and left cosmic justice behind. I intend to take this up further down in the series, but when I read the Messianic Psalms, the prophets and the gospels the trend is clear – the Messiah’s task was a task of changing the world order spiritually, socially, economically and ecologically.

When all we care about is a divine Jesus, we will miss his kingly, this-worldly impact altogether.