The Kingdom of Jesus and National Politics

Ghana is approaching elections again, and guaranteed the airwaves and all other forms of media will be filled with campaign activities, as well as propaganda everywhere in a bid to win the populace’s vote. Of course in Ghana the campaigning and politicking seemed to have started right from the end of the last election, and we seem to be in a perpetual campaigning mode. But just before we everything swings into full gear again, I’d like to share a few thoughts with fellow Ghanaian Christians who will be participating in this election. And my thoughts stem from a phrase I intentionally introduce in my last sentence – “Ghanaian Christians” – because that is the pivot of what I believe to be a problem.

 

Questions of Allegiance

And the problem is the placing of the word “Ghanaian” before the word “Christian”. If Jesus Christ is truly our king by virtue of being saved from the kingdom of darkness into his light (Act 26:20), then we owe our allegiance first to Jesus before we do to Ghana. I do hear many Christian friends of mine engage passionately in political debate and express such disappointment to the point of heartbreak when the politicians fail to live up to our ideals of them.

To some of us Christians, we take our political party affiliation to the point where these parties can do no wrong. Our standard of judgment is not by the standards of the one to whom we owe our primary allegiance to, which is Jesus Christ, but to our political party. Whatever our party leaders say is sacrosanct, and we must always defend them, whether we know what they say to be wrong or right.

Unfortunately matters are made worse when Christian leadership jumps into the fray and refuses to state the king of the world’s stance concerning these issues, but rather let their tribal, political lineages and sentimental attachments drive the witness of the Christian body in addressing topical issues.

 

Learning from World History

And yet this kind of posture – of letting “kingdom of the world” lead instead of the “kingdom of Jesus” – is not new. The German Christians (again putting nationality before faith to emphasize the point) did it in the Second World War, supporting Hitler in his quest to “clean out the misfits”, either by keeping quiet, or by actively supporting the political structure of the day in their quest. Of course we can all pretend that the 1 million Jews that died in the Holocaust subsequently were never arrested by the church and handed over to be persecuted, but when the hue and cry arose against the Jews, they never said a word. Alas how could they, when even some of the high ranking Nazi party members were also prominent church members and leaders? And they even gave up some of their own congregants who were Jews to show how “German” they were in their loyalty. Christian Germans (change in my emphasis) like Dietrich Bonheoffer stood no chance in drawing the attention of the church to the simple maxim of Jesus – love your neighbor as yourself, whether Jew or Gentile, Chinese or German. To this day Bonheoffer and those who followed him have become identified with peace churches, preferring to die for the Kingdom of Jesus, than to live to fulfill party or nationalistic desires.

 

And so we ask ourselves whether we are Christian Ghanaians, or Ghanaian Christians? As we have in the case of American Christians who see no wrong in anything their nation does in the name of policing the world, and who have no qualms when Israelis attack Palestinians but will shout on the rooftops how demonic the Palestinians are when they retaliate, how different are we when we value party loyalty more than loyalty to Jesus Christ? Do not a large number of our political leaders claim to be Christian? Ah, I forget. They must be NDC or NPP or CPP Christians.

I find the rhetoric about “peace” in this country quite boring, and the organization of abundant prayers “To avert impending disasters” as a lot of window dressing, to be charitable. Because if we took our king and his kingdom – which is in this world but not of this world – seriously, then with over 50% of the population laying claim to Christianity, this should be a no-brainer. There will be no need to foul our airwaves with all this attempts at preaching non-violence, because our King has demonstrated his non-violent stance in more ways than one. There will be no need to preach against hate speech, because we know that by calling a person “Raca” i.e. fool (Mt 5:22) we are already condemning ourselves.

 

Living out our Loyalty

So, refuse to be co-opted into the insults, acrimony, name-calling, herd mentality and the like. You are a Christian, before being a Ghanaian, Ga, Ewe, Dagomba or Akan. Judge the politicians by the standards of Jesus Christ, and not by the political ones of the day, whether they belong to a party you identify with or not. Remember, democracy is a good system, but only as good as man can make it. When we substitute the kingdom of God for democracy, it will become our new idol. And trust me; contrary to what your mother told you, the voice of the people is NOT the voice of God.

Oh and by the way, if the church were busier spending its money on its members than it was collecting it to build universities that most members will never be able to afford to send their children to; we will complain less about poverty and unemployment in our nation. The church will indeed have less and less a reliance on the governments of the day, if we took Jesus Christ’s maxims of caring for one another in community seriously, instead of giving to our churches to build inaccessible and unaccountable empires. This should be our pursuit if we are to make the future kingdom of Christ visible in the current age, whiles we wait for the final and full revelation of that glorious New Jerusalem coming down from above. The simple truth is that the more a people care about the kingdom of God being made manifest amongst men, the less they will care about political systems and who is at the helm of affairs. The last time I checked, Christians were supposed to live above the law (by the Spirit), not by the law (including the laws of the nation).

Indeed, we need to question our loyalties.

Of Theologies, Songs and Mantras

Last  Sunday at our meeting, we found ourselves questioning another song that we Ghanaian Christians sing and take for granted every day, and also reflects a general trend which we believe is worrying. The song is recorded below, with its English translation alongside it. Please forgive my translation if it’s not too exact, but I think we all get the drift of this song.

Ye beyi Yesu aye (We will Praise Jesus)

Wo odo a odi ado yen (For the love he has for us)

W’ama ade pa akye yen biom (For he has made us wake up in health again)

Ye beyi n’aye daa (We will praise him forever).

 

Our beef was with that third passage which talked about Jesus waking us up in good health (or something to that effect). I know most people have not given much thought to that sentence in the song, but I believe it reflects the general malaise that has eaten into the Christian message and witness in our times, especially in the Ghanaian context. So please stick with me a while and you’ll get the point I’m driving at.

 

Thinking Globally

There are 7 billion citizens of this world. The Indians hold 1 billion of that, and the Chinese close to 1.5 billion. Statistically then, these 2 countries alone constitute 28% of the world’s population. Yet the majority of these people are either Hindu or Buddhist in one form or the other. In fact according to Wikipedia, 82% of Indians are Hindu, so that makes that 820 million Hindus in India alone. And these are people who may have not even heard about Jesus Christ, or may have but don’t believe in him. And yet, China’s economy is the fastest growing economy in the world, and we in Africa are importing their products by droves. India is coming along just nicely after China economically. I have not even begun to talk about the Buddhists/Hindus outside of Asia, much more the abundance of Muslims all over the world.

All of these huge masses of people have something in common – the live and breathe and have their being as Paul put it, but it’s not because they believe in Jesus Christ. It’s simply because God has allowed it to be so.

 

 

Marriage

The Indians, with all their Hinduism, have the lowest divorce rates in the world. Contrast that to America with all its “Christianity”, where according to the pollster George Bana, 50% of specifically Christian marriages (not American marriages in general) have led to divorce. Again, this figure is not general American marriages, but Christian American marriages. And yet we kid ourselves with the notion that “If Jesus is in our marriages, they will be successful”. Of course, nobody actually stops to think that the standards that Jesus sets for our marriages are far higher than those of the general public. Jesus himself is not the guarantee of a successful marriage – learning to live a life of love, respect, humility and self-sacrifice for one another in marriage is the guarantee, and Jesus gave no other standards.

 

Wealth

The wealthiest people of this world are not Christians. And I don’t mean people who have Christian names or believe in the existence of God (we seem to confuse a belief in God with a belief in Jesus), neither do I mean Jews. I mean people who believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of the world and who are part of a community of saints, spending their time and lives with them. It is universally self-evident that if a Christian wants to be the most prosperous man in the world, he probably is in the wrong religion. Just go make your money and spend it, and forget about being a Christian. Alternatively start up a church, and find ways to justify collecting money from the members in the name of “God blessing a cheerful giver” and “doing God’s work”. Obviously not all of us Christians can be “pastors”, so this wealth is even segregated. Hmm, remind me if we are still running a priesthood of all believers.

 

Long Life

The oldest living human beings in the Guinness book of records are not in Christian dominated countries, but in Asia, specifically Japan. Yet most Japanese are either Buddhist or Shintoist. Again, both the Bible and science have shown us the keys to long life. When we are busy NOT living a healthy life, but rather damaging ourselves and expecting God to miraculously give us good health, we have none to blame but ourselves. And even when through no fault of ours we are struck down by disease and are not healed by God, we do not see how our sickness may be a means to an end, and either point fingers claiming “you don’t have faith”, “there is sin in your life” or some other judgmental mantra.

 

In Short

Afterall God gives everybody life, and takes as he pleases. The bible says God supplies rain to both the good and the wicked as well. Waking up to a good day has got nothing to do with believing in Jesus Christ. The 820 million Indian Hindus woke up this morning, and some of them have 1 million dollar weddings to attend this weekend, if my Indian friend Himanshu’s statements are anything to go by. Being wealthy has got nothing to do with believing in Jesus. In spite of our plenty Christianity, we are borrowing a paltry 3 billion from the Chinese with plenty political hoopla and I don’t need to remind you what they believe in.

 

Surprised By Hope, Ignited by His Kingdom

And so I wonder why we do not sing and shout about what makes us unique in this world. I wonder why we sing “God has been good”; when it should be “God is good”. Was there ever a time when God was not good, or are we only talking about when times were good for us? Has our theology become so warped that we uncritically accept any song labeled “Christian/gospel”? I wonder why our “Double Doubles” and confused gospels are all about how me and my family have woken up to good health, how God is going to “change my destiny” (wonder where that is in the bible?), how what God has said about my life he will fulfill (when He has said all He will say about his church already, and we are only part of that communal vision), how God is going to “butter my bread” and “sugar my koko”, giving me double houses and double cars? What about the days when we wake up with malaria and can’t go to church on Sunday? Or when because of persecution, our brother is killed for their faith in Jesus (as is happening in Asia & Middle East)? Can we still sing “W’ama ade pa akye yen biom” sincerely? Can we still sing “Your house na double double” when by no fault of ours the house we’ve sweated to build is burnt down in a fire? Or is it because we’ve believed Jesus Christ because of what we think we will get from him in this material world, and not his mission for us on this earth?

 

Because if that weren’t the case, our songs will be more about Jesus and his call to us as a people to be the expression of his nature – a nature of love. Our songs will express eternal truths about his coming to die to bring us cleansing and salvation. Our songs will galvanize us to build his kingdom on this earth, through love and devotion to one another, and through a dedication to see the destitute, hopeless and lost feel and see that the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ “go be keke”. Our songs will reflect that joy is found in Christ and his community, even when the world is pressing us on every side. Our mantras will be about how through our faith in Christ we are able to galvanize our resources towards meeting our own needs, as well as those less fortunate around us; that we are the bearers of good news, bringing hope to both the rich and the poor, the lonely and the famous; that there is something unique about us as a people of Jesus, something that neither sword, nor persecution nor riches nor poverty can take away from us.

Let us leave the songs about daily bread to them that have not the hope of Jesus, and let our songs tell what kind of people we are that the rest of the world isn’t. If not, let’s stop kidding ourselves, become Japanese so we may live long, marry an Indian so we have blissful marriages and become American Wall Street brokers, so we can become wealthy.

In the end, we changed the words from “W’ama adepa akye yen” to “W’aba be wu agye yenkwa” (He has died to bring us salvation). So don’t be surprised if you hear me sing it differently then.

We have a kingdom to build, and we cannot waste time.

Vicit Angus Noster Eum Sequamur – Our Lamb has Conquered, Him Let us Follow 

Of Double Doubles, and Confused Gospels

As I grow in life and grow in Christ, it seems that I keep rediscovering the Jesus I believe in. And I’m more excited each day discovering his wondrous worth as the risen Messiah, the one spoken of by Israel’s prophets of old. However, when I turn round to what I see and hear of we who follow him, my heart sometimes fills with such sorrow. And one of those instances is when I heard the words of the “gospel” song “Double Double”, because nothing can be farther from the truth when it comes to the reality of what the New Testament determines to be God’s blessings.

The Background to the NT & Jesus’ Times

I strongly believe that one of the problems of Christian teaching and teachers down the centuries is a very severe ignorance of the background and times that Jesus and his apostles lived in, and this ignorance allows us to continuously misappropriate scripture to our own purposes, ignoring totally the theme that drives the use of certain words in the NT. We don’t realize that Jesus’ work is part of a narrative of historical events in which Jesus participated as a very important figure, and in which we are participating after he has left. We therefore just pick out as we please, and the resulting Christianity we get tends not be pretty, to say the least. Let us examine some of these backgrounds, and then we’ll look at what we mean when we talk about God’s blessing vis-à-vis the Christian in the NT. For those interested in details, delving into “New Testament History” by FF Bruce, “New Testament History” by Ben Witherington III and other NT historians will be helpful.

About 400 years before Jesus birth, Israel had just returned from exile. Whiles in exile, they’d been encouraged by the words of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel to continue to be faithful to God and that they will see God’s faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham when they are delivered. This deliverance finally came through the Persian king Cyrus who allowed the likes of Ezra and Nehemiah to return and rebuild the Jewish nation. It is believed that it is within this period of exile that institutions like the synagogues sprang up because they did not have a temple like in Jerusalem to concentrate their worship around anymore. When they returned, they were led by their leader Zerubabbel to build a new temple in Jerusalem (recorded in Ezra 3-6), and this second temple named after Zerubabbel is the temple that existed at the time of Jesus Christ. The Judaism that was practiced after this second temple was built is what scholars refer to as Second Temple Judaism. One of the important things to note at that time was that because of the problems created by having to live in exile for so long, a whole new batch of religious laws had crept into the Jewish society aside of the Old Testament (Torah) that we Christians know, and these laws were called the Talmud, sometimes referred to as “the tradition of the elders”. In fact, in some places, they overrode the Torah given by Moses which was directly from God. These Talmudic laws are what Jesus condemns when he says to the Pharisees that they break the command of God for the sake of their traditions (Matt 15:1-3).

In addition to these, the institution of Pharisees and Pharisaism arose during and after the exile. These were men learned in the Torah and Talmud, and who guided the religious lives of the ordinary people. Though the Jews looked to the council of priests (The Sanhedrin) for ultimate leadership of the whole country during this period, the Pharisees were more respected because they seemed to follow the laws more devoutly and spent more time directly amongst the ordinary people than the priests, who were busy politicking and doing their rituals in the temple. Of the two popular Pharisaic factions, Paul the apostle was originally of the Hillel faction, having studied under Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel (Ac 22:3).

The Hope of the Jews

Despite their return, all was not well with the Jews. They knew that they had a special covenant with God as the children of Abraham, and that their prophets had prophesied to them that God will bring his promised kingdom to pass through the “Son of David” – the “Son of Man”, the Messiah – after their exile. Despite all the prophecies about God restoring them from exile and bringing everlasting peace to them, here they were under occupation – first by Ptolemy (one of the generals of Alexander the Great) and his descendants, and then by Caesar and his Roman empire thereafter. To the 2nd temple Jew therefore, salvation was not centered on a personal redemption from sin and its effects, but God entering into the present and changing the world order by virtue of His anointed one (Christ means “anointed one”), that they the Jews may be vindicated as the true nation of God.

One of the expectations of the coming of that kingdom is the gift of the Spirit of God to his people, enabling them to be able to obey God’s commands without a written law. This was because they believed their own efforts at being obedient to the law were insufficient in pleasing God, but then he would give them the means to please him himself if his spirit dwelt in them. As Ezekiel 36:25-27 records God’s intent:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Jesus & the New Testament

400 years after the exile and whiles the 2nd temple Jew is seriously contemplating why God hasn’t brought his kingdom into fulfillment, Jesus enters the scene and begins to talk about this same kingdom whose coming he says is very near. In some places he actually says that the kingdom has arrived in the present. The “kingdom of God”/”kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned in the gospels about 84 times, many times more than the word “salvation” in the entire NT. And yet it is very odd that the current Christian discourse has very little mention of the kingdom. Jesus’ mission of creating a people in every location who are expressing his nature and his kingdom in the now has been totally subsumed by our own self-defined missions of “winning souls” to sit in pews and wait for heaven to come, doing nothing but clinging onto “faith alone”. In fact waiting in pews has become tiring, and therefore we’ve moved on to claiming material property in the name of “God’s blessings”. Two millennia of Christianity has managed to emasculate the Gospel from its Judaic background, and has lead and is still leading us down a path where every theology can be easily supported by stringing together any number of proof-texts from the bible in the name of “God’s word”. The least said about the “motivational speakers” the better, for that genre of preaching does not even need a Christian to do.

Blessing

One of such proof-texting comes from the typical use of the word “blessing” with regards to Gal 3.

A lot of Christians have thought of the “blessings of Abraham” to connote being blessed with material wealth like Abraham was blessed by God. And yet it is very obvious from the context of Gal 3 that Paul is talking about how the Galatians received the Holy Spirit – which is exactly what God promised in Ezek 36 above. Oh, by the way, a promise is not a wish – it is expected that a promise will be fulfilled, given that all conditions for its fulfillment is met. This is important as we’ll see later.

“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? … The scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:2;8-9).

Which blessing is Paul talking about here, except in direct reference to the blessing of receiving the Spirit of God? The argument is sufficiently ended when we look at v14.

“He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:14)

 

Riches

Another of such usage is with regards to “riches”. The typical proof-text is 2 Cor 8 and 9

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

As usual, in the haste to claim things for ourselves whether legitimate or not, we have totally ignored the context of this passage. We notice first that Corinthians is an epistle not to a person, but to a congregation. Even v 1 says “And now brothers”, meaning he’s not referring to one person becoming rich, but the congregation’s collective increase, whether through one person or through many. In addition, the English language does not help us here because the language uses “you” to refer to both singular and plural numbers. However the “you” and “your” used here are different forms of “humei” in Greek which denotes a plural, not singular. This fact is even supported by “for your sakes” as properly translated by the NIV.

Given the foregoing, how can we come to the conclusion that 2 Cor 8:9 says that every Christian must be rich, or there’s something wrong with their Christianity? And yet we’ve lost sight of the really important thing that Paul was saying – that even in extreme poverty, the Macedonian churches gave to help their Jerusalem brethren. I know many Christians who claim they are willing to help their less fortunate brethren, but they are waiting to be rich before they can do so. I wonder if they’ve read 2 Cor 8 properly.

Prosper

Oh, and the favourite proof-text:

“I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 Jn 2).

There is no doubt that John the apostle is wishing his brother Gaius well, and as any Christian will wish his brother a happy birthday – there is no guarantee that his brother will indeed have a happy birthday. This is not a promise of God, recorded in the Law, Prophets or Gospels that we must at all times prosper and have good health. So I ask a simple question: if I pray that my friend’s marriage is successful as we always do when we go to our friend’s weddings, does that automatically mean that their marriage will be successful? Is logic not allowed to prevail anymore when reading the scriptures?

Again, the real problem that John the apostle sought to address (which is what is happening everyday in our churches today – authoritarian self-imposed leadership in the name of “serving” the church) is nicely glossed over? Do we not have an abundance of Diotrepheses in our churches? In fact, haven’t we institutionalized “Diotrephesism”? In fact, New Covenant theologian Dr Jon Zens is challenging us to rethink the institution of the clergy today in his book “The Pastor Has No Clothes” in an attempt to deal with such problems, and we probably need to pay more attention to men like him.

When Jesus was praying for his disciples in Jn 17, I believe his focus was that God give them the strength to fulfill the commandment he’d given them and to be united as a people in doing so, not in making sure they “prospered and had good health”.

Conclusion

I know that songs like “Double Double” are very nice to dance to and get all worked up on. But if there’s any theological strength to such songs, I’m obviously not getting the message. In fact, it actually is getting depressing listening to “gospel” music of today, whether it comes from the polished American singers of the day or the not-so-polished Ghanaian ones. The value is the same, and we need to get back to talking about Jesus, his kingdom and how we can make him and his kingdom real in the community of the brethren.

Oh, So Were We Not Raptured? Or Should We Have Been?

Apparently there was supposed to be rapture on the 21st May 2011, as predicted by Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network. So if you are reading this piece, two things must have happened. Possibly, your sins were too many to warrant you a passport to partake of the rapture, or the more obvious thing happened – the rapture predictions of Mr. Camping were simply what they were; a failed weather forecast.

However in my interactions with most Christians, the generality of Ghanaian Christians do believe that there will be a Rapture of some sorts indeed. Their only beef is the attempt by the venerable [sic] Mr. Camping to put a date to something that Christ did not know and said we could not know.  Well, I do not only question the predictive skills of Mr. Camping, I want to go beyond that and question the premise of biblical support for something called “The Rapture” in the first place. So let’s try and push the envelope of eschatology and see what we get.

I will admit before I go on that there is so much that needs to be answered that I cannot answer in this post alone, and some which I (and many other Christians) don’t even know the answer to, given the symbolic nature of how apocalyptic hopes are described in the NT and other non-biblical but related documents. I will focus solely on the concept of Rapture, and leave the rest to our own personal research.

The Jewish Hope of Yahweh’s Coming

Again, as I’ve been doing in my previous posts, we cannot fail to overlook the fact that Christianity is the junior brother of Judaism. Therefore any attempt to understand Christianity on its own without a reference to the root from which it originated will be an attempt to create a caricature of our own idea of Jesus and his purpose for his people.

The Jews have always had a hope of God coming to transform this earth and set it aright, where he himself dwells amongst man and as a result Jerusalem will be the light to the rest of the world. Because of their special ideas about God establishing his kingdom and ruling from Jerusalem, they always considered themselves the royal people, and there was no shortage of boasting about this status. Take a look at Isaiah 65 and see how “different” it is from Rev 21.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” (Isaiah 65:17-18 NIV).

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’” (Rev 21:1-3 NIV).

From the above (and a host of other prophecies as well as a proper study of Judaism), their mindset of the earth was quite different from ours. The earth was not some damned place that we need to escape from and go to heaven – the earth is where the action is, because God’s intent is to dwell with men in a renewed heaven and earth. The Jewish mind understands that God is in charge of both the heaven and the earth and he created a good earth, but sin had blighted this earth. Therefore their hope and expectation was that God will come and renew this earth, and bring the wonders of that heaven in which he lives to bear fully on this earth, causing a fusion of the two. Unlike Greco-Roman paganism’s thoughts of the spirit leaving this corrupt world for the world of the gods (heaven), Jews believed that we will walk on a renewed earth in a renewed body (the resurrection body) and experience the joys of this earth with God himself. Unfortunately Greco-Roman paganism seems to have carried the day even in Christian teachings about heaven and earth. As Paul taught, our spirits only go to be with the Lord in heaven to wait for our other brethren and for the time when we’ll return to reign on this earth and God will clothe us with immortal bodies. The earth is indeed where the action is.

This hope of a new and renewed earth also went along not only with joy for them, but judgment for those they esteemed in their mind are “sinners” – Gentiles and those Israelites who were not “faithful” to the law as they interpreted it. This judgment was to be brought by the one whom God will give authority over the kingdom to – the one whom Daniel calls the Son of Man in Daniel 7:14 – the Messiah. Interestingly most Jews viewed it as a day of God vindicating Israel and judging its enemies, but the prophets Amos and Zephaniah were not so charitable to them in their claims of superiority.

“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:18; 23-24 NIV).

“The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there … I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zeph. 1:14; 17)

In fact Isaiah 61 captures the spirit of what that day entails and what the Messiah will do – both on the positive – renewing the earth and bringing joy to “them that love his appearance” – and the negative – bringing “vengeance” to those that do not.

The Christian Hope of Jesus’ Coming

In a lot of ways there is very little difference between the Jewish hope and the early Christian hope of the return of Christ. To us Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore all the prophecy relating to the kingdom will be fulfilled in him. However, because this Messiah had already appeared amongst men and expounded specifically that his kingdom had begun; the early Christians did not only wait for the eschatological appearance of their king, but preached his current reign over all the earth.  Those of you who have read my previous post on “The Gospel of the Kingdom – Resurrection Perspectives” would be familiar with the point made by many contemporary NT scholars that Christ’s kingdom is both now and in the future. Therefore our responsibility on this earth as we wait for that future kingdom is to manifest the King and his kingdom’s character today on this earth.

The Origins of Rapture Theology

It will surprise you to note that the ideas around the Rapture event are very recent in history. Even a Wikipedia entry will educate us that there is very little mention of this idea of Jesus coming in two phases until the 17th century. Unfortunately this theology has been picked up and drummed up by a group of theologians called Dispensational Theologians. It’s wide spread began with John Nelson Darby, who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren in England and went over to evangelize in America as well between 1859 and 1877. According to Ben Witherington III in “The Problem with Evangelical Theology”

“Darby showed up on the brink of the [American] Civil War, during the war, and after the war, right when many Americans were quite vulnerable to an escapist theology that promised they would not have to go through the great tribulation. The timing could not have been better for promulgating such a theology”.

This teaching was further spread by the popular evangelist D.L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute and John Scoffield with his Scofield Bible. To promote this theology, the Dallas Theological Seminary was established in 1924, and there is no question why most of the popular Dispensationalists all went to, are associated with or claim influence from people who went there. In contemporary days, this teaching has led to popular “Left Behind” books and movies, picturing Christ coming to take the Christians away from this earth and leaving everyone else behind. From the preceding historical discourse, it’s not surprising that Mr. Camping is an American.

The Theology Backing It

This whole theology hangs on the somewhat misunderstood interpretation of Paul’s description of the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 and 5:1-11. In particular, this theology has hang it’s boots on two phrases or words i) parousia – which means “coming” or more correctly “presence” and ii) haparzo – which means “caught up” and is the root word for rapture. As usual because of our penchant for creating theologies without recourse to context and history, we have presented Paul as saying in the above passages that there is coming a time when Christ will come and take us up to heaven, before he subsequently comes a second time to judge the world. Let us see if a little contextual background and further probing will not help clear up this confusion.

In the times of the Caesars – Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar and his lineage – when the emperor visited any of his subject cities/states, this was announced beforehand by the sounding of trumpets (just like 1 Thess. 4:16 (KJV) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God). Those who are the leaders of the city and all Roman citizens living in the city were mandated to form a welcoming party and meet the king outside the gates of the city (Just like Ps 24:7 (KJV) Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in).They then escort this king through the city gates into the city, singing his praises and declaring “peace and security” in the name of that emperor (Just like 1 Thess. 5:3 KJV –For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape”).

Those with a keen eye will also notice that this sequence of events is very similar to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on his colt. It will be noted also that the book of Psalms is full of such imagery related to the Messianic King. In fact, these practices of subjects welcoming their kings were very common in ancient times, and the Roman emperor was no exception. Of course, the emperors probably demanded even more courtesy, pomp and pageantry for the emperors actually declared themselves gods in every right.

Most people do not take into account the fact that at some point, Thessalonica was historically quite a respected city in Greco-Roman times. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was indeed a dangerous one, for already in Act 17:7, Paul had been accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus”. Therefore there was no doubt that the Christians in Thessalonica were under a lot of persecution for their defiance of Caesar and declaration of Jesus as king. Therefore it is natural that having lost some of their members to persecution, they’d be worried if their dead brethren will be able to partake of the “parousia” of Christ and therefore wrote to Paul to find out the fate of those who’d died.

The Thessalonians may have been Greeks and didn’t know that the OT had the same concepts, but they definitely understood “parousia” of Jesus not in “rapture to heaven”, but welcoming king Jesus into the city – in this case onto this earth. Hear the New Testament writer Ben Witherington III:

“ Paul’s Thessalonian audience may have missed some of the allusions to the OT, but they would not have missed the language used here about a royal visit, indeed an imperial visit. They would remember the visit of Pompey and later Octavian and others in the days when Thessalonike could even be talked about by Pompey as the capital in exile.”

It is instructive to note that although v 17 says Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” – it does not say that we will then go on to heaven. It only says that we will be with him. Are we just going to be hanging with him in the skies, or as a kingly visit denotes and as the context clearly shows, we will come down with him to show the rest of the world this King we’ve been making a big fuss about all along? This king whose kingdom we’ve been building on this earth through love and self-sacrifice for one another?

Conclusion

“The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines, and I don’t deny that I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account.” –  NT Wright, Eminent NT scholar in “Farewell to the Rapture”

I don’t want to go beyond 4 pages on my word processor, so I’m forced to cut short the discourse. However, is our gullibility in respect of “rapture” not a reflection of the fact that we haven’t understood what the Kingdom of God/Heaven – which appears more than 50 times in the Gospels – truly means? And if we haven’t understood it, then whose kingdom are we building – ours?

The Gospel of The Kingdom: Resurrection Perspectives

Easter has just passed us and gone, and it definitely afforded us the time to reflect on the impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So I want to share my reflections on this period, with particular emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the eminent NT scholars of our time, Nicholas Thomas Wright, has been challenging my notions of the implications of Christ’s resurrection in his book Surprised by Hope, and I cannot but share them with us all.

We have all read and re-read some of the recorded instances of public preaching in the book of Acts. However, a little bit more attention to detail will show that one of the continuous themes that most Christians have missed (simply because most of the preaching of the gospel we hear misses it too) was the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we already know, the word “gospel” means “good news”. Now look at how the “good news” always included the resurrection in the ff passages.

“Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, the he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Ac 2:31-32 NIV) – Peter preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost

“We tell you the good news; What God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus …” (Ac 13:32 NIV) – Paul preaching to the Jews & God-fearers of Psidian Antioch

“A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Ac 17:18 NIV) – Paul preaching in Athens.

Before we go on, it is important to note that most Jews of the time of Jesus and the apostles sided with the Pharisees on the belief that one day there will be a general resurrection of the dead. This belief is echoed by Martha when Jesus said her brother Lazarus will rise again in Jn 11:24. And by resurrection they don’t mean the spirit rising and the body being left behind, as Greco-Roman influences have changed the Christian message over the years. Resurrection was meant to be just like Christ’s own – a resurrected body being a fusion of the spirit and a transformed body that can be recognised, seen, and touched, but can also enter rooms without opening doors (1 Co 15:35-44). The idea that the body is a corrupt thing which must be left behind for the purified soul/spirit to go to heaven is totally pagan Greco-Roman philosophy which has been imported into Christianity, and works against everything that Judaism and it’s younger brother early Christianity taught about resurrection.

We are familiar with the Jewish belief in a Messiah who was supposed to come and rescue Israel from it’s assailants (Is 40) – at the time of Jesus their political assailant was the Roman Empire. According to Ps 72 (especially v 8), Ps 47 and other OT passages, this Messiah will not only rule over Israel, but also over the whole world. In the light of all of this, why is Jesus’ Christ’s resurrection so important that the delivery of the apostle’s gospel to unbelievers always included mention of the fact that Jesus Christ was resurrected?

Christ’s Resurrection Was a Repudiation of the Earthly Powers

At the time of Jesus Christ and the apostles, the Roman Empire revered it’s dead emperors as gods that needed to be worshipped. Overtime however, the living ones coveted this honour, and declared themselves gods as well. These emperors had their images placed in temples of all the cities they’d conquered, forcing everyone to worship them. However none of the emperors in all their vanity, ever died and resurrected. However, Jesus had resurrected. That is why Paul says God has given the world proof that Jesus will judge the world by “raising him from among the dead” when he was talking to the Athenians.

To therefore declare Jesus as the king of the world was not a simple matter, because Paul was definitely challenging the Roman emperor. With this background then, it is very easy why Paul will be accused of treason whiles in Thessalonica in the ff:

These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here … They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Ac 17:6-7)

According to the German historian, Ethelber Stauffer, the religious principle of the Roman Empire, from the days of Augustus on, was salvation by Caesar: “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved”. Now, tell me how different this is from what Peter said in Ac 4:12? In the same way, tell me how different this is from our blindness to the political systems of the day including democracy, which claim to be the solution to men’s problems? The resurrection of Jesus was truly a political statement (not just a spiritual one), and a treasonous one at that.

If Christ is indeed the king of this world, shouldn’t Christians be reconsidering their die-hard following of earthly political powers, since salvation is indeed to be found only in Christ?

Christ’s Resurrection Commissions Us to Build His Kingdom on Earth

To most Christians, our idea of the kingdom of God/heaven is a kingdom that will only come in the future. For now, all we need to do is to believe in Jesus Christ and go to church and “worship” him, all in waiting for the time when we “go to heaven”. But if this king’s kingship was all about a future kingdom, then there was no need for the people of Thessalonica to feel threatened by the declaration that Jesus is Lord (not “Jesus will be Lord”).

What has worsened this erroneous idea of “worship until he comes” is a misunderstanding of passages like Phil 3:20-21 where Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven”. Most people have miscronstrued it to mean that we are meant for heaven, so we have no role on this earth except waiting for Christ (and thereby the purpose of church is to save more people for heaven, and that the church is just an association of the saved). However, the Philippian recipients would have understood what Paul said quite differently. Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 BC) and Actium (31 BC). This was done to spread the rule of the Roman empire, as well as to prevent overcrowding of Rome with old veteran soldiers. Therefore most of these people were Roman citizens by default. Paul is only using the same imagery of Roman citizenship that they are very familiar with to show them who they were to God and what their purpose was – God is using them, citizens of heaven, to establish and extend his kingdom over this earth until he comes, just like Augustus was using them to spread the Roman empire.

Paul spent the longest chapter he’d ever written of his epistles on the topic of resurrection in 1 Cor 15, yet he did not conclude that because we are going to be resurrected, we should cross our legs and go to sleep – he rather says that we should stand firm and not be moved, because our labour is not in vain (v 54). What labour could that be? Believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven? I think you’ll agree that there’s very little “labour” involved in that.

Christ’s Resurrection & Kingship Shows Us the Way of His Kingdom

But if we are to build his kingdom, we are to build it as he wills it and with the methods and means he has shown us – with love and self-sacrifice. Many people have sought to “establish the kingdom of Christ” by using the same tools and methods that the world uses in establishing itself – violence, laws, discrimination, nationalism, political systems, bureaucracy and abuse of authority etc. But the author of the gospel of John spent chapters 13 to 17 laying down the true markers of Jesus’ kingdom (some scholars say the Gospel of John was indeed written by Lazarus, being likely to be the “disciple Christ loved”, and the evidence is rather interesting, see Jn 21:22-24) . He begins with Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet and the call to self-sacrifice for one another (Jn 13:13-17), to love for one another (Jn 13:34), to laying down our lives for one another (Jn 15:13), to the work of the Holy Spirit in showing us the will of the Father, to praying to the father that they may be one in community with each other (Jn 17) just as he is in community with the Father in the Trinity.
These standards are standards that the earthly political systems will never be able to live by, being driven by greed, power, pride and divided interests. This is why it is amongst them that claim to be part of this kingdom inaugurated by the King who is superior to Caesar (here referring to all socio-cultural and political ideologies) that we are supposed to see these virtues alive. If our king is truly alive now (and not just in the future), then we have a responsibility to make his kingdom’s impact felt through his way, not our way. And yet there is much to be desired amongst us believers, for predominantly we prefer the means of the world in achieving the purposes of our king. Any other way apart from his, and we are simply building our personal kingdoms and not his eternal one.

It Shows Christ’s Victory Over Death and the Coming Judgement

Then as now, the number one tool that can be used to threaten a people into submission is the fear of death. Just look right now at what Ghadaffi is doing in Libya, and you’ll know why that is. However, when a people see death as only an inconvenience because they will rise again (not just their spirits alone), they are not afraid to stand before those who do evil and condemn them. Unfortunately Christians have been trained to think that death is a good thing, because it is the means by which we “go to heaven from this evil world” anyway. Hear NT Wright

A piety that sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ the time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace,’ has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends.”

And this state of affairs is clearly played out in the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees on the one hand and the Sadducees on the other. Though Jesus seems to be quite critical of the Pharisees, he tended to agree more with them than with the Sadducees for good reason. According to NT historian FF Bruce’s “New Testament History”, the Sadducees were the council of priests who run the temple. At the time of Jesus the high priest was no longer appointed from the family of Zadok, descendant of Aaron, but chosen by the Roman authorities dependent on ones political connections and or how much bribe one could pay. They were therefore more interested in oppressing the people, the upshot of which was their resistance to the idea of resurrection, because resurrection was tied to judgement. This is very similar to the reaction of the Athenians regarding the ideas of resurrection and judgement in Act 17:31-32.

How different is this reaction against the idea of resurrection from those of world leaders from communists to democrats who abhor the idea of resurrection and judgement – simply because what they do with their political leadership tenures today has implications?

Conclusion

There are so many implications of Jesus’ resurrection  that NT Wright talks about in arguably his most popular book, “Surprised by Hope”, which I can’t cover for lack of space. But one of the points which I cannot conclude without mentioning is what resurrection means to our concept of salvation. If Christ’s resurrection is about declaring him king of now and in the future, then the purpose of my salvation is not just my personal deliverance from sin, but my inclusion into that community of people who are making his kingdom felt on this earth until he comes. I have written elsewhere about the problem with our individualistic eyeglasses through which we read and practice the NT, so I couldn’t help resonating with NT Wright on this point. To the early Christian, salvation was not only about them being saved, but them being added to the Lord (as correctly translated by the KJV in Ac 5:14) and to his community. Christianity is not centered on “my relationship with God”, but “my membership in the family of God”. This is why there are 58 references to “one another” in the NT. This is why Paul talks about “Christ in you (plural “you”) – (Col 1:27)” and “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27). One thing I’ve noticed is that when a person is the center of attention, their focus is on projecting themselves. If the center of attention is on the group that he belongs to, then their focus is on projecting that group. As the Americans say, we pick our poison, and contemporary Christianity has obviously picked the former, so today we are bearing the fruits in individualisim and personal prosperity/breakthrough seeking over communal advancement and sacrifice for one another. But the problem started long ago, and today’s fruits are only latter day manifestations.

The implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his claim to kingship of the world both now and the future are seriously challenging on multiple fronts. We have a lot of restating of our message and purpose to do because the resurrected king and his kingdom is already amongst us.

Vicit Angus Noster Eum Sequamur – Our Lamb has Conquered, Him Let us Follow

The Revolutionary Christ

My attention was drawn recently to a very profound truth which I’d ignored so often, but which for some reason made a lot of sense to me now. I’ve been studying Jesus Christ’s ministry in recent time in the context of the times in which he was on earth, and I can’t cease to be amazed. There is no doubt that Christ was a revolutionary, but in a way that borders on the “other” way, a way which most reasonable men in their comfort zones will not accept, or can only accept at some cost to them. But let’s press on to the issue at hand and it will become more apparent.

It is often mistakenly held that the key concept of Jesus’ ethic is the “Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. This is stated by Jesus, however, not as the sum of his own teaching but as the center of the law [i.e. – “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”]. Jesus’ own “fulfillment” of this thrust of the law, which thereby becomes through his own work a “new commandment” (Jn 13:34-35) is different, “Do as I have done to you”. It is striking how great the mass of writings on religious ethics … which still fails to note this very evident structural change.” (The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder).

I have had conversations with many people, some who are not Christian. Out of the many things I have learnt, two of them are of immediate relevance to the above statement, and they are

  1. A lot of people choose the Jesus of dogma, and leave the Jesus of history.
  2. A second batch of people prefer Jesus the wise teacher, but not his claim to being divine.

In the light of Jn 13:34 and Mt 5:43-45( “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father I heaven.”) – none of these stances are true to Christ, and we will examine why.

Choosing the Jesus of Dogma over the Jesus of History

Much of Protestant Christianity has made a strong emphasis on the metaphysical benefits that Jesus’s life and death brought to we who believe in him. They’ve emphasized the grace of God in bringing his Son to bring forgiveness of sins, redemption, justification, sanctification etc. As it stands today, Christians are claiming their “in-Christness” now more than ever, relishing who Christ has made them. However, this emphasis has in effect abandoned the fact that Jesus Christ lived in a certain historical, socio-cultural background. Whether out of ignorance or intentionally, we have de-emphasized the context within which he did what he did and said what he said for the three years of his ministry. In effect, if all Jesus Christ came to do for us was to die for our sins, he might as well have died when he was born – when he was an innocent baby and knew no sin. He still would have achieved the purpose, wouldn’t he? Or some would say that he had to fulfill some of the things written about him by the prophets, and so he stayed on for thirty three years to fulfill them and then die. This being the case then, everything that he said and did within those years were not important to his mission, only to provide a source of evidence of his claim to being the Messiah.

I don’t believe that is the case, however, this is the impression that much of Christendom seeks to portray. Because the moment that I confront most Christians with the evidence of the Gospels and Christ’s demands on us his followers, the impression I get is that those are not important, they are too utopian. They were meant to be personal guidelines by which we can choose to live our lives, but they are not important to our foundation as a group of people called the church. In effect, Christ has become too “personal” a saviour.

However, there is no doubt that Christ’s life was a thorn in the flesh to the establishment. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in creating a million and one laws that everyone was supposed to obey but for which they never lifted a finger to practice. They placed more emphasis on sacrifice, than they did on mercy. His demand? “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees”. But of course, that is too difficult to achieve. Again Christ denounced the power of the rulers of the earth to truly dispense justice, by forcing the government of the day to release a treasonous criminal Barabbas for an innocent man, showing how governments of the day are fallen for their pandering to the whims of the popular vote.

So to most of us, the only reason that Jesus Christ came was to transform us to be like him, and then being made like him, all we have to do then is now use that gift he has given us to pursue our own agenda – seeking miracles, financial success, successful marriages, political power etc. We’ve provided a blank cheque, and we expect Jesus to sign so we can write any amount we want. Because we have refused to accept the community forming actions and attributes of Christ as the norm in our corporate lives – which should make us a people free from the prejudices and trappings of tribe, social standing, class distinctions and personal resources to a self-sacrificing, always loving, non-discriminating society – we have ignored the fact that the reason Christ lives in us is so that we can now live a life of love for one another, without fear of tomorrow. And this alternative society is what Christ calls his body, the church and as Paul states in Eph 3:10, the manifold wisdom of God is not to be made know in “me”, but in “us”, the church. It is part of this wisdom, that Paul again speaks of in 1 Co 1:20-25.

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … for the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

To the Greek Corinthian, Stocism taught him that man’s pursuit of their own happiness was their highest purpose. To the Jew, man’s obedience to the written down laws of God was man’s highest purpose. But Paul, following in the footsteps of Christ, shows us that the nature of God is given to us so that we can now turn our life and love towards each other, and not rather for our personal gain. It is this wisdom that was the stumbling-block, and is still the stumbling-block to most of Christianity today.

Choosing Jesus The Wise Teacher, But Not Divine Son of God

The other end of the scale relates mostly to those who don’t believe in the existence of God and/or of Christ being a divine person sent from God. When I have a deeper chat with such people however, they see a lot of wisdom in what Christ taught, especially his values on how we relate to each other. They also fall into the same error that the church has fallen into – that Christ’s most important teaching was to “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. However there is no way that without accepting Jesus Christ’s claim to being the Son of God, one could fully understand the message of Christ.

There are many reasons why Christ died and resurrected for us, but one that I’ve come to fully understand and whose dimensions affect this discourse is the fact that Christ gives us victory over death. By virtue of his victory, we are free from the fear of death. The end of this is to make us bold to take the actions that a world which is saturated in self-preservation cannot take – a decision to love no matter the cost. Christ tells us that we are supposed to be on earth to show how communities of love can exist amongst all the fallenness that surrounds us. That’s why he says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, because we are that city, we are the light that cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14-16). A light does not have to do anything else but shine – it will draw men unto itself.

By we being true to ourselves as the church of Christ – the community within which we exhibit the traits of Christ – we automatically become a society that is counter-cultural. When we move from a people who are always pursuing our own agendas to be come a people who are watching over each other, we become different. We become a people living on a higher set of laws, who do not need a “constitution” or “bye-law” of their country, town or cities to tell them how to live with each other. We do not need homosexuality to be “criminalized” in the constitution for us not to tolerate it in our community. We do not need abortion to be “criminalized” to enforce that our members do not participate in it. We do not need to go fund-raising from the world, because what we have is enough to meet our essential needs. We do not need divorce to be “criminalized” before our Archbishops know that they have to love their wives with all their faults, just like Christ loved us even before we acknowledged him. We do not need to follow the model of leadership model of the world, where all our leaders fight for is how to please their superiors, not how to meet the needs of their brethren. In effect, nobody teaches us to know God, for we will all know him.

In becoming a counter-cultural society, we will definitely make enemies, most likely enemies with power, and their attempts to frustrate us is what Christ and the NT apostles calls our “suffering”. Without a hope that we have a better place to go when we are persecuted, we cannot be empowered to live like Christ expects us to. That’s why Christ encourages us not to fear for losing our lives, for we will gain it in the end. His resurrection is our hope of the same.

Let me give an example. Imagine a country in which slavery is the norm. However, the Christian communities in this country do not recognize amongst themselves this man-made class distinction. As a result, a slave has full rights of participation and activity in this alternate community. To Christ, the important thing is not gaining your freedom from slavery in the general society, but having those distinctions blurred when you come into the Christian community, granted all the full rights of membership. They do not need to fight for the laws in that country to be changed, because to them in their communities, their slave status makes no difference. In any case, Christ does not care about who you are in the general society whether slave, free, circumcised, woman or man, but rather what you have become in the Christian community. Does this sound familiar? Well, this was exactly the state of affairs in Corinth, and is the premise of Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 7:17-19.

Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him … Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised …Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s command is what counts. Each one should remain in the situation in which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”

This passage has been used before in the history of Protestant Christianity to support all sorts of abuses by the political elite in telling everyone else to “stay in their situation” – but that is another topic for another day. If early Christianity did not spend it’s effort fighting slavery, racial and gender discrimination publicly using political means, it’s not because they supported it. It was because what you are in the body of Christ is what counts. And once you begin to take your part in the body of Christ as a full citizen, you are denying the power that the society’s laws have over you. You are telling the society that even though you are a slave in your midst, yet when you come to Christ and his community, you’re treasured. And that is all that matters. If I can gain my freedom, I will. But that’s not what’s important. Something else (or rather Someone else) matters more, something for which you are ready to die.

By means of the cross, Christ and his church declare their victory over sin, the world and all it’s prejudices. “And disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Not by political intrigue, not by violent machination, but by the cross. The Corinthian church was ready to bear the cross of being “slave lovers” and by so doing, declare the victory of God over the politico-socioeconomic conditions of their time. This again, is wisdom that the world cannot understand.

Observations

Interestingly, even though the second issue is something which should be addressed more to the unbeliever or realist, I find that increasingly Christians themselves have lost this understanding. And therefore we continuously fight battles which Christ himself never fought. We continue to not only support but actually propagate religious intolerance and xenophobia, and use Christianity to set an agenda of binding our societies with our religious laws. We forget that when the law is applied, it has no room for forgiveness. It’s punishment will have to be exacted, even when the criminal shows remorse. So first and foremost, when we agitate for what we consider to be a sin to be criminalized, and we fall into it ourselves (And I tell you, we are not perfect. Some of us will by all means fall), two things happen.

  1. We are shown to be hypocrites who cannot obey our own laws.
  2. The sinner (in this case now a “criminal”), even if they repent of their sin as a result of the abundant mercy of Christ to always forgive, will still have to face the penalty of the legal system.

However if it’s only a sin amongst us and not a criminal offense, we have recourse to the hope of Christ’s mercy for such a person, and will only have to cast them out after continuous unrepentant behavior. We also don’t need to make a public fuss of it, but can help our fallen brother on the quiet.

As for the first, it’s a problem that 500 years of Protestant Christianity from Evangelical to Pentecostal and Charismatic has not addressed itself to adequately. The focus has been so much on “spiritualizing” and “personalizing” the faith – on “salvation”, “Holy Spirit” and more recently “in-Christ” –  that the community forming purposes for all these things that Christ has made us or given us have paled in comparison to what we personally will gain from him or how we can use Christ to achieve some other agenda.

With the advancements of technology, the 20th century has given birth to an enormous amount of research on the New Testament contexts of Jesus’s and the early apostle’s times and ministry, which should help us to correct these impressions. Unfortunately, this is also the age in which most Christians are acting with much abundant zeal and very little knowledge, with ears ready only to listen to what suits our agenda, and a penchant only for more deception. Are we going anywhere fast?

In the World, But Not Of the World

Today, we will take a detour down history lane, to learn of how Protestant Christianity has fared over the last 500 years, since it burst unto the scene in the 16th century. You might wonder why you should be interested in this historical discourse, but I’ll encourage you to hold your horses. It seems that human beings never learn from their mistakes, so if we’ll do any better then it’s imperative that we also learn from our own history, rich as it is. Most people find history boring, but if we don’t learn from the past, we are bound to commit the same mistakes of our forefathers. I will plead with you to have patience and analyze most of the concepts raised carefully, as to help you see where I’m headed towards.

When the Ephesians were confronted with a preaching of Christ by Paul in Ac 19, the silversmiths’ reaction to it was quite interesting. They did not seek to challenge this new teaching that Paul was bringing and show how their worship of the Greek goddess Artemis (Romans call her Diana) was superior to the one whom Paul preached – Jesus Christ. No, their attack was based more on their loss of economic livelihood as a result of people abandoning their shrines which they the silversmiths used to make for them. Why is it interesting, you ask? We’ll get to that soon enough.

By way of background and not to bog you down with the details, the Protestant Reformation is deemed to have began in 1517 thereabouts, when the German Martin Luther posted his “Nintey-Five Thesis” on the doors of the “All Saints Church” in Wittenberg, Saxony, where he criticized a lot of the Roman Catholic church’s practices. Some of these included the fusion of the church and the state, clerical celibacy, devotion to saints and the authority of the Pope amongst numerous others. Others like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin both of Switzerland, joined the crusade. It must be said that a lot of Europeans joined this effort of rebellion from Germany, France, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, Netherlands and so on. However, most historians note Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin as the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation. This rebellion led to a lot of wars in Europe, until finally some compromise was reached which virtually was a victory for the Protestants. As a result a lot of European nations subsequently adopted the ideals of the Protestant Reformers (whom I’ll heretofore refer to as the “Reformers”).

But then, another group of people began to voice out discontent with the Reformers. They felt that the Reformers had not gone far enough in their reforms, to the extent that some of them accused the reformers of replacing the papacy with their own papacy. Paramount among the leadership of this counter accusers is Conrad Grebel, Menno Simmons and Felix Manz. It is the relationship between the reformers and these second group, mostly known as the Anabaptists, that is of interest to us today. The rallying cry of these Anabaptists was this reminder from Christ – “we are in this world, but not of this world”. Let us now look at the accusations of the stepchildren against the reformers, and whether history has vindicated them or not. We will do so with the help of a Christian classic by Leonard Verduin titled “The Reformers and their Stepchildren”. And before you accuse Verduin of bias, know that he himself is of the Reformed tradition, not of Anabaptism. His choice of the word “Stepchildren” to refer to the Anabaptists is quite appropriate in my opinion.

Separation of Church & State

In medieval times (as we see in the OT), societies were very mono-religious. Every country was bound together by only one religion, and this religion was essentially determined by whatever choice of religion that the ruler of the land preferred. Therefore, it was important in the days of Israel to ensure that the king served Jehovah God alone, so as to ensure that the whole nation also followed. There was very little room for serving a different god than the one the king of your land served, because there was the fear that this could lead to disunity and chaos in the land. This was why the prophets of old directed a lot of their attention at criticizing the kings of Israel. Remember the relationship between kings like Saul, David, Ahab, Hezekiah, Zedekiah and prophets like Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah? It is important make a brief note here that because we don’t understand this background, contemporary Christianity still views the ministries of these prophets only in the light of personal ministry towards these leaders, not in the fact that it was more to safeguard the nation from departing from God through their king.

However, when Christ came, he didn’t concern himself with trying to change the people at the top. Au contraire, he focused on anyone and everyone he met in the street, and sought to create an alternative society of people who existed in their current societies, but lived a different kind of life from everyone else around them. This however, was a threat to the comfort of the ruling elite, who felt that this must be stopped. As a result, we see all the persecution that first Christ, then his apostles and the church encountered as a result of they wanting to be in the world, but live differently from the rest of the world. In fact, the treatment meted out to them is worth many volumes, and we are all familiar with some of them one way or the other.

However, when the Roman Emperor Constantine finally decided to join the church (seeing that the Romans themselves were joining Christianity and living lives which were quite well commended by others), he did what every king of their time knew how to do – nationalize Christianity. To a large school of thought, this was the beginning of the end to simple, Christ centered Christianity, an assertion that I personally agree with. The church now had the powers of the state to coerce everyone to become Christians, and in effect the whole society was assumed (and forced) to be Christian. If you ever come across the term “Christendom”, this effect is what is being referred to. In addition, the attempt to align Christianity with political power is what is mostly termed “Constantinianism” or sacralism, All sorts of people with all sorts of leanings, with totally heathen mindsets and unrepentant lifestyles entered into Christianity, simply because they were under pain of death to do so. Those who believed this was wrong stood with their leader Donatus against it, but with the power of a whole Roman Emperor behind them, the Roman Catholic church persecuted and chased out any strains of Donatism remaining in the empire.

Fast forward to 1517 and the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers aligned themselves with certain political leaders to be able to either gain support against the Roman Catholic church or to even be considered a religion in their own right. In the end, Protestantism was again made the religion of certain geographical locations or even countries. These political powers are what is referred to as “magistrates”. Even though Luther, Zwingli and others had stood against the fusion of church and state, saying that the state had no right to determine the affairs of religion and church, they turned round having formed these alliances, to now say that they were a necessary part of the church and were even God-ordained. In effect, the church needed the “arm of flesh” to survive. Hear John Calvin:

As the magistrates have the duty of purging the Church of offences by bodily punishments and coercions, so do the ministers have the duty of assisting the magistrates by reducing the number of those who offend”

To the reformers, the only way for Christ to triumph was for Christianity to be the religion of everyone. John Calvin states here that if the Church sets upon itself the task of making itself open to the world :

Then he [Christ] will convert the hearts of Princes and their lieutenants, to the casting down of idolatries and the restoration of the true service and worship of God”

This the Anabaptists did not agree with and knew that even the leader of the Reformers Martin Luther himself did not agree with that in the beginning, but now had turned his back to it. From an Anabaptist:

In 1519 Martin Luther began to write against the frightful abominations of the Babylonian Harlot and to disclose her wickedness … but as soon as he joined himself to the secular rule, seeking protection there against the cross … then it went with him as with a man who in mending an old kettle only makes the hole bigger, and he raised up a people altogether callous in sin”.

Against this backdrop, people who refused to submit to this were labeled “heretics” and burnt (“under small fire” which took 2-3 hours before one died. Just imagine that!!). Property was seized and people were banished, repeating the same evils of the Roman Catholics.

Fast forward to today, and the stepchildren have been proven right. Now, we believe in freedom of religion and a separation between the State and Religion in our democracies, even the Ghanaian one. Though most Americans do not want to admit it, their First Amendment which guarantees this freedom came about because of the background of those who first drafted their constitution. They were mostly made up of descendants of Puritans and people with Anabaptist leanings, people who had suffered religious persecution in their European countries before migrating to the New World. They knew by experience what religious freedom was worth and did not want any sacralism of any shade in this new land. It must be noted that sacralism was the root of a lot of other issues raised by the stepchildren against the Reformers, and we’ll see why as we continue.

Leaving Church Discipline to the Church

Because Church and State were now one, there was very little room for discipline, and therefore very uncomplimentary Christianity. How? Well, the Reformers themselves knew that there was the need to insist on discipline in the church, but according to the New Testament, the most severe form of discipline that could be exacted is being sacked/excommunicated from the church. Here was the case however, that they had bound themselves to the state and made it compulsory for everyone to be a Christian, therefore the only other option left to discipline a person was to either banish them from that geographical jurisdiction or to kill them. And because this was such a drastic option, the Reformers were reluctant to do this (especially because there were very few committed Christians amongst them. Most church members were just there for being there sake). This lead to all sorts of vile and sinful lifestyles, and the stepchildren used to point out how hopeless the Christianity of the Reformers were. Interestingly, the Reformers did not hesitate to exact the aforementioned punishments on their critics, and many were persecuted, killed or banished for this. Such double standards.

And yet all the Anabaptists were asking for is that the Church be made up of people who voluntarily wanted to follow Jesus. That way, if they continuously (emphasis please) practiced some sinful behaviour and were not ready to repent, they could just be excluded from amongst them, just like the NT envisages. This was very effective amongst the Anabaptists. Just look at what even a Roman Catholic priest (who we can consider unbiased because they hated the Reformers anyway) wrote about the Anabaptists:

Among the existing heretical sects there is none that in appearance leads a more modest or pious life than do the Anabaptists. As to their outward life they are without reproach – no lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating or drinking, no outward personal display; but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straight-forwardness, in such a measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God.”

And yet, Martin Luther could see these defects in the churches of the Reformers, but was helpless to take any action and rather thinks that God will excuse and forgive them. Below he writes

When they look at us and see the offensive defects with which Satan distorts our churches they deny that we are a Church and they are unable to lift themselves over this … whatever remains of sin this verily offends those spiritual Donatists .. but it does not offend God, seeing that for the sake of faith in Christ He excuses it and forgives it”.

In fact, he know full well that the Reformed Churches were full of unbelievers, and yet didn’t support bringing any discipline in churches as captured below in a letter he wrote to a church in Zwickau:

Such reprimanding of specified persons is not in place except in the gathering of the Christians …, in a public preaching where Christians and non-Christians alike sit together, as in the case in our churches, there the rebuke is to be general”

Interestingly in another breath he planned on how to fix this problem. He wished to create a church within the general church, one made of people who truly want to follow Christ voluntarily. This is where the term “visible and invisible church” came from. He penned this in one of his writings in 1526:

They who seriously want to be Christians and want to confess the Gospel in word and deed, these ought to inscribe their names in a book and assemble in a house by themselves for purposes of prayer, the reading of Scripture, the administration of baptism, the reception the sacrament and to engage in other Christian activities … but I neither can nor may as yet set up such a congregation; for I do not as yet have the people for it. If however the time comes that I must do it, so that I cannot with a good conscience refrain from it then I am ready to do my part.”

It is needless to say that this never came to pass. For how will the State Church now permit a church within a church? Therefore the Anabaptists always accused Martin Luther of turning coat, reminding him of the times when he used to preach these things, yet has now turned around against his own words. Of course most Protestants today now believe in individual decision to be a Christian, but have forgotten or are blissfully unaware that they owe it to the Anabaptists who their forefathers persecuted for advocating such a state of affairs.

The Mindset about The Sacraments & The Priesthood

One of the accusations that was laid at the feet of the Roman Catholic church by the Reformers was their notion of sacrifice attached to the taking of the Lord’s Supper. There is a reason why Roman Catholicism calls their service “a celebration of the Mass” – it was centered on the taking of the Lord’s Supper as some sort of re-sacrificing of Christ. You’ll notice there’s very little emphasis on the word of God in their service.

Because of the pagan backgrounds of most of those who had come into Christianity by force and their familiarity with sacrifices, the Catholic church had placed the whole emphasis of the meeting into focusing on the performance of the ritual of sacrificing Christ and offering him to the congregation in the form of the blood and the body that is offered at such a mass. In fact, the word “hocus pocus” which magicians chant whiles performing their magic acts comes from the priests speaking the words “hoc est enim corpus meum” (“for this is my body”) in Latin. Worse still most of the service was always conducted in Latin, not in the native German, Swede, French etc, probably to maintain that aura of authority and “magic”. And instead of it being something that was shared, it became the right of the Priest to put it into the receiver’s mouth. All these things elevated priests to a certain unwarranted mystical status. Interestingly enough, because people didn’t really need to be true Christians to become members of the church, it also follows that people didn’t need to show any spiritual maturity to be made priests in the church, contrary to the provisions of the epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus. It is no wonder then that such priests were well versed in the rituals than they were in the word, and attaining to priesthood was more a political than a spiritual exercise.

The Anabaptist of course held no such view, and placed no emphasis on the ability of the sacraments to bring salvation to men. They rather held to a personal voluntary acceptance of Jesus, and a strong emphasis on the word of God. They followed the pattern of their dissenting “ancestors” the Waldensians as described below by someone sent to arrest Waldensians.

They know the apostles creed excellently in the vulgar tongue; they learn by heart the Gospels and the New Testament … and repeat them aloud to one another … I have seen some lay-folk so steeped in their doctrine that they could repeat by heart great portions of the Evangelists, such as Mathew and Luke .. so that they could repeat them without a halt and with hardly a word wrong here or there.”.

Interesting complement from one’s enemy, I’ll surmise. And in addition as specified above, they denounced the separation of the lay and the clergy, claiming that everyone was a priest and had every right to carry out all the functions of one. There were frequent occurrences of lay administration of the Lord’s Supper, lay preaching, lay marriages, lay burials etc. Because they believed in people hearing the word and believing, their focus was not on learning how to perform the sacraments, but how to preach the word to convince a non-believer. It is striking to note that the leading Reformer Ulrich Zwingli himself said the Anabaptists were so knowledgeable in the word that it was dangerous to meet them in any debate. This is very obvious because most of the Reformed and Catholic priests just weren’t men of the word. They were politically appointed men, men of the ritual and human tradition. Obviously the only other means to beat someone who wielded the sword of the word skillfully is to use some incongruous human argument, which the Reformers excelled in doing. Even an Anabaptist layman was likely to floor them.

The Reformers did not seem to take a clear stand on the sacrificial mindset attached to the Lord’s Supper, and actually seemed to gravitate more towards it. However, their main point of divergence with the Anabaptist even till this day, is the denial of the authority of a lay member of the church to perform any of the functions of the priest. And to be a priest, you had to be a Reformed priest, not an Anabaptist one. So in effect, they banned all preaching that didn’t originate from a Reformed church’s pulpit, at the pain of death. This unfortunately is one of the traditions left to Protestants by their forefathers which we can’t seem to get our heads around – that we are all priests and have equal rights to every activity that a priest has a right to. Just maybe, we’ll come around to opening our eyes on that sometime soon, as is a lot that the Anabaptists taught.

The Meetings

Because of this continuous fear that if all people do not conform to one practice of serving God then there will be confusion in the society, the Reformers were very wary of meetings held outside the church. In fact, laws were made about having any form of meetings related to religion, failing which one will be put to death. All sorts of ideas were formed about what these men do when they have their secret meetings, to the extent that the precursors to the Anabaptists, the Waldenses, were accused of witchcraft in the ff:

When the Waldenses wish to go to their conventicle they first rub an ointment on their palms .. as well as on their stick, an ointment supplied them by the devil. Then they straddle the stick and fly to whatever place they wish to go … they congregate about tables decked with wine and bread. Devils in the form of billy goats, or dogs … are present; … they worship these. They then present their buttocks to the sky in derision of God”.

All of this simply because they met in the forests and houses in darkness, which made it difficult for their pursuers to find them. But of course they had no other choice, for they met at the peril of their lives. When however a Catholic Priest visited one of their meetings and came back saying that he’d been preaching the wrong thing all along, he was made to publicly denounce what he said.

It is said that 19 men of Anabaptist leanings were ordered to appear at a Reformed church to hear preaching intended to “correct their error”. Of course, they didn’t show up. Their excuse? “God does not dwell in temples made by the hands of men”. Stephen the martyr would definitely stand with them for this response, for it’s the last thing he said which infuriated the Jews to stone him to death. When others were asked why they gather in “fields, forests or private homes”, they shot back “One of your own prophets, Martin Luther, wrote about that kind of meeting (in a booklet entitled Deutsche Messe), saying that men ought to gather behind closed doors to treat of the word and ordinances of God – but added ‘I am not courageous enough to make a beginning, lest it be looked upon as a faction-fomenting business.’”. Martin Luther’s own words were now being used to attack him. Instead of acknowledging that he’d gone back on his own word, Luther wrote in 1530 that such men should be condemned to the punishment of hanging:

Winckelpredigten [lay preachers] are in no case to be tolerated … These are the thieves and murderers of whom Christ spoke in John 7 … And a citizen is obliged, if and when such a Winckelshleiser comes to him, before he listens to him or lets him teach, to inform his civil magistrate as well as the pastor whose parishioner he is … Therefore let everyone ponder this, … if he wants to preach or teach let him exhibit the call or commission that drives him to it or else let him keep his mouth shut. If he refutes this then let magistrate consign the scamp into the hands of his proper master – whose name is Meister Hans [or the hangman]”

Today, Protestants do not forbid their followers meeting anywhere and in some measure encourage others to also share their faith with those not Christian. However, the mindset that a church is only legally gathered when its meeting in the church building is still very much alive in the Protestant mindset. Though most will deny this in theory, in practice it is very easy to prove. To this day, anyone who purports to be having any Christian meeting without the presence of a pastor and some formalized building is looked at with disdain.

Rebaptism

Perhaps the most definitive mark of Anabaptism is what their name stands for – people who believe in conscientious baptism, not child baptism. Why was this such a problem? The argument against infant baptism was not so much the act of baptizing a child as it is the act of forcing Christianity upon people, culminating in sacralism. Just like we mentioned the facts about the fusion of the Church and State, if every child were baptized, then everyone will by definition be a Christian, whether of their own choice or not. This would again “ensure” a homogenous society according to the medieval mindset, since everyone subscribed to that one religion. In fact, the Reformers actually believed at the onset that infant baptism was wrong, as described by Zwingli in the ff:

Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptize children., for I know it ought not to be done.

At another point, he said the ff:

I leave baptism untouched. I call it neither right nor wrong; if we were to baptize as Christ instituted it then we would not baptize any person until he has reached the years of discretion; for I find it no where written that infant baptism is to be practiced”

But then he gives us the dreaded end result if he tries to do it “as Christ instituted it”.

If I however were to terminate the practice then I fear that I would lose my prebend [daily bread]”

Why would this happen? Because it would mean then that people now would have the right to decide if and when they wanted to get baptized, which would mean creating a society of choice. This the Reformers and especially their magistrate supporters could not allow, coming from their mindset that “choice is bad”.

And so the Reformers did what they knew how to do best at the time – persecute the Anabaptists who didn’t practice infant baptism. In fact, Felix Manz, the earliest Anabaptist leader and martyr was tied up and dumped in a river, to “have his fill” of all the baptism that he wanted. Here is Luther’s rash about face, condemning the Anabaptists for rebaptising adult believers only:

How can baptism be more grievously reviled and disgraced than when we say that baptism given to an unbelieving man is not good and genuine baptism! … What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach?”

Today however, most Protestants have accepted the stance of the Anabaptist as the right stance, with the exception of Lutheran and Orthodox Protestants (mostly Presbyterian). The latter now continue to justify this practice of “christening”, appending to it some other attachment called “confirmation” which has no New Testament basis or example. There are many attempts by these traditions to use the Scripture to justify their continuous hold on these traditions, an activity even their forefathers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli could not defend using the New Testament, but only by appealing to sacralist arguments.

Caring For Each Other

We cannot conclude this short discourse of Protestant history without looking into the accusation thrown at the Reformers by the Anabaptists concerning the hording of wealth by the church and mostly the clergy, when the rest of the church folk were living squalid lives. This again was one of the things that the early Reformers had spoken against the Roman Catholic church of. Just like Mobutu of Zaire who had more money than his country, certain priests had amassed such obscene wealth it was amazing. A case in point is presented below:

when Pope John XXII died in 1334 he had amassed a fortune of 25,000,000 florins. For purposes of comparison we may observe that at about the same time, the ransom demanded by the ruffians who had abducted the King of France was set at 800,000 florins, a sum which his subjects had difficulty raising”

The Anabaptists however, believed in members of their congregations helping each other as and when the need arises and the ability is there. Felix Manz, epitomized this when he said – “A good Christian shares with his neighbour when the latter is in need”. This however was misconstrued as everybody being forced to submit all their property to the church. This charge can only be laid at the descendants of the Anabaptists called the Hutterites, but the vast majority of Anabaptists never practiced this. Their idea was simply giving to your brother as he had need and as you had capacity. Menno Simmons was charged by the Reformers with practicing this “community of goods”, to which he responded:

This charge is false and without truth”, he said. He went on by quoting Scripture, as follows: “If there be among you a poor man, one of your brethren, within your gates … thou shalt not harden thine heart or shut thy hand from thy poor brother.” Then he added … that although his people had an abnormally large number of indigent ones, thanks to the prosecutions and confiscations, ‘yet not one of the devout who have joined themselves to us, nor any of their orphaned children, have been left to beg their way … If this is not Christian practice then we might as well abandon the whole Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ..”

If this was our practice of Christianity today, wouldn’t poverty be a thing of the past wherever Christ is named? He then turns round and accuses the Reformers thus:

Shame on you … you who have been unable with your Gospel and sacraments to remove your needy ones from the streets, even though the Scriptures say plainly enough: ‘whosoever hath this world’s goods and seeth his brother in need and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’”

Unfortunately, as in the days of Jesus and the Pharisees, the eyes of the Reformers were too blind to see their own hypocrisy being pointed out to them by the accused. They only heard what they wanted to hear, and after listening to such scripturally sound arguments, still went ahead to kill Menno Simmons.

“ … he was stretched; he prays God to give him grace to bear the torture. He is told to confess in plain language why he has left the pure teachings as taught by Martin Luther and others … And even though you say that this community of goods is meant for you and your people only, yet your heart and ambition are far different, in actuality to have the goods of all men in common.”

In fact, it is quite shocking the following contradiction recorded below by a committee of clergymen in Bavaria in 1528, when they said of the Anabaptists:

That they have their goods in common and bring them together, each member voluntarily, without constraining any to bring all or even a specified portion of it, this we do not consider an intolerable thing or worthy of punishment. Nor are we able to quote Scripture that militates against it. And yet it is to be feared that where such a small beginning is allowed to go on, permitted and tolerated, then it might with the passing of time increase and attain to greater and more inclusive evil. Therefore our opinion is that also such a confessedly trivial and not very culpable plan should be met and obviated with suitable counter-measures, in view of what is likely to develop out of it”

Since when did being charitable to your brother become something dangerous in Christianity? Note again, the lack of scriptural arguments to back their opposition to this practice of the Anabaptists.

Today, this is arguably the point at which the Protestant (and in fact most of Christianity) is failing the most. We are busily enriching the clergy in the name of “doing God’s work”, and the members are left to beg in society. Today the church is everybody for himself, God for us all. We have not so learned Christ, neither have we learnt from history.

Ending This Discourse

It is obvious from above how easily a people who trample over each other in their claim to be following after Christ can be so blinded to him but rather be pursuing some other agenda. It is even more interesting to observe that the arguments raised by the Anabaptists were countered not with New Testament evidence, but either some heathen practices or Old Testament based sacralism. Therefore there is no difference between the Reformers attitude to the Anabaptists and that of the Ephesian silversmiths to Paul. This attitude wasn’t in defense of Christ and his will, but rather about their own will and benefit.

You will note especially that the Reformers started off well with the vision to change Christianity for the better. But all these problems that they themselves fell into was motivated by one thing – not relying on God to achieve his purpose with us. We are a people who are set apart. Any time we kowtow to the world’s demands or try to align ourselves with the world to be able to achieve God’s purpose, we’ll bankrupt our faith. And when it gets to that stage, our blindness tends to be very monumental. We’ll find every reason other than a scriptural one to justify our actions. If the reformers had stuck to scripture, they’ll have definitely suffered a lot of persecution, torture and death, but they’d have left us their children with a purer faith, one that is worth contending for.

As it stands today, many in the Western world have lost faith in Christianity, not because they don’t like Christ, but because they don’t like Christianity, as Ghandi put it. One of the things that stoked this fire of disbelief in Christianity in the last century can again be traced to the sacralist mindset of always being influenced by or seeking to gain the hand of the government in its affairs. The whole world is still reeling from the shock of Adolf Hitler and how the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Germany stood by (and in a lot of cases gave support – to the extent of banning Jewish pastors) whiles 1 million Jews (some even their church members) were tortured and exterminated during World War II. The likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer couldn’t fathom how Christ who wouldn’t countenance Peter drawing a sword to strike someone support such a thing, tried with others to organize some resistance but got himself executed in a German concentration camp.

As Africans get more educated, I can already see a lot of people who are seeing through our hypocrisy and denying Christianity. In fact, a lot of young adults today only attend church because there’s not much to do on a Sunday, or because they’re parents drag them to go to church on Sunday. They only attend church “to fulfill all righteousness”. And I can guarantee you that the next generation of Africans will see less faithful adherents to religious Christianity, much like we see in the Western world.

As for the Anabaptists, I salute them. They are testimony to the fact that a pearl can only be created through suffering. Oh, and I’m not talking about suffering because you have malaria. That’s not suffering, because both Christians and non-Christians alike are all targets of the mosquito. I’m talking about suffering because we believe in doing the will of Christ. There’s a lot to learn more from them.

Refocusing the Spotlight

Recently there was quite a theological furore on my friend Kwame Antwi-Boasiako’s facebook wall, owning from a statement he made to the effect that the world is yet to see our Christianity in action. Some of us shared our thoughts on these, and the session was quite a useful dialogue aimed at further deepening our shared faith in Christ. Having descended from a month of reading the two classics in Robert Banks’ “Paul’s Idea of Community” and John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”, I’m left with no choice but to expand my point of view on that topic, at the pain of sounding repetitive.

Many preachers have labeled their ministry and preaching as “Christ centered” and have tried to bring to the fore the unique relationship that exists between Christ and us. It is a commendable effort, one which sets forth the finished work of Christ as the premise of everything that we are and will be. There’s talk of “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.

In fact, there can be no understating the importance of Christ’s work in bringing us to freedom. Galatians clearly states these in the following.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29)

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do no let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1).

It is not for fun that Paul mentions these categories of people to explain the freedom that these Galatians (and for that matter all Christians) have now attained. This was basically because slavery, marginalization of women and Judaic pride was a real threat in their age. Let me give an example. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, men of Jesus’ time used to pray thanking God that he didn’t make them a woman. Why? Well, women were so marginalized in their culture, that even rabbis and teachers of the law were not allowed to teach women. In fact, women were not even allowed to sit amongst men when they were having a discussion, even if it was in the living rooms of their own houses. In this respect then, Jesus Christ was revolutionary, for he broke the above mentioned inhibitions by talking to the woman at the well, and secondly by allowing and encouraging Mary to sit with him and his disciples whiles her sister Martha was busy in the kitchen, unlike most women of the their time would have been permitted to do.

In the same way, Paul, just like Christ, didn’t find it necessary to condemn slavery and fight against it. This practice wasn’t just a personal but societal and national problem. His notion of freedom for these people was not centered in trying to change their status physically through the changing of the Israelite (or Gentile) laws, but by showing them that through Christ they had now come into a different kind of freedom which made they and their masters the same, and therefore were together with everyone else, heirs now of the promise of Abraham. They were therefore to take their stand in that freedom and the resultant community of people who believe in that freedom that Christ had given them, and to actively contribute to the building up of that community, whether slave, free, man or woman. However, in contravention of Christ’s ideals, Christianity’s subsequent support for slavery is a sore point in our history which deserves it’s own separate uncomfortable discourse.

Freedom? But For What Purpose?

What made Paul’s teaching on freedom so different from the Stoic philosophy of the Greeks (from the Platos, Aristotles etc) and the legalistic worldview of the Jews was the notion that this freedom was attainable in and through Christ, and was to be directed towards service to one another. The Stoics believed that man was free to know the difference between good and evil, and to use his own skills, talents and resources to achieve the greatest potential that they could achieve. In the course of achieving this, they can then change the course of history. Stoic philosophy therefore focused itself on the human ability to achieve, and therefore its main proponents were educated and middle to upper class citizens of the society, who had the resources and the seeming potential to achieve such greatness. The Jews on the other hand believed that God had written down a certain set of Laws that man must follow, and that man’s purpose was to know and follow those laws and then all will go well with them in life. Although Paul’s teaching was closer to the Stoics in the concept of freedom, the fundamental purpose of that freedom is to use it in service of one another, even to the point of death. This is summed up by Paul as follows:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13).

To the Stoics, this was foolishness, for how can a man use his freedom to serve another man? That was not freedom, they said. Refuting the stoic mindset which some of the Corinthian Greeks still held was what influenced Paul’s writings in 1 Cor 1:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:20-23).

Looking at the Christian landscape today however, I’m of the opinion that we have now set ourselves squarely back into slavery, of both the Greek and the Jewish kind i.e. slavery to self and slavery to the institutions. Before you disagree with me, let me share my point of view then. Let me start from slavery to self, which was the bane of the Greek.

Slavery To Self

Five hundred years of Protestantism has ingrained in the Christian mind the notion that we as individuals are the center of God’s purpose. We preach forgiveness of sins as something personal that we’ve received from God, which we aren’t worthy of in our own rights (which is not wrong, just not properly focused). We continuously focus our teaching on how Christ came to solve our individual need for God. Our songs talk not about “us” or “we”, but “I”. We speak of Jesus as a “Personal Saviour”, something which is found nowhere in the NT, whether in the Gospels or the Epistles. Christ has come to give us freedom and to bring us into the family of God, but our pursuit of Christ has not been a corporate one, but an individual one. We are busy celebrating individual brilliance, making super stars out of our leaders (who inevitably let us down, and then we turn around and criticize them for not being “super starrish” enough i.e. forgetting they are human). We go to church, sing, dance, hear some “word”, pay the fee for the show and pack up our bags and go home, without knowing the next person sitting beside us on the pew. We are quick to spend our time talking about how God has blessed a brother or sister (most often than not with some material things), but there is very little concern for making a change in the lives of those who do not have any. To help us further pursue our focus on individualism, we only associate ourselves with those who are “upwardly mobile” so that they can help us achieve our own upward mobility. Just walk into your everyday church filled with the educated elite, and see how many poor and uneducated members exist amongst them and even more importantly how many of the richer ones amongst them actually have a meaningful relationship with such less privileged members. I’m talking about a relationship that goes beyond saying “Praise the Lord” when we meet at church.

What has fueled most of these misconceptions?

  1. The problem of Sola Fide. In Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation’s haste to fight against the hegemony of Roman Catholicism, they posited all their arguments on “faith only”, to the detriment of everything else. Faith has been defined as something abstract, so much so that there’s very little emphasis on the practical expression of this faith. In addition, it’s been so personalized that it’s all that “you” as an individual believe, and everything else is relative to that. Worse still, we are focused on how to use faith to get what we want from God, not what he wants for himself. For us, the heroes of faith in Heb 11 who in spite of all their faith didn’t get obtain what God had promised but are waiting for the future fulfillment of their faith is not a good enough example. We’ve gotta have it now.
  2. Most of us have been thought to read the New Testament as if it was a love letter written to us individually. We have forgotten that with the exception of 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, most of the Epistles were addressed to a group of people, a church. We do not attempt to reconstruct what exactly was the problem that Paul, Peter and other Epistle writers were trying to address by writing each letter. We have translated all the “you” and “us” and “we” into “I”, and apply everything to ourselves individually.
  3. We are more interested in hearing the word, not in knowing Christ. There is a world of difference between knowing the word, and knowing Christ and if we don’t let it sink that “Christ is the word”, we’ll only be marking time. As John said in 1 Jn, it is not only that which they’ve heard but “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life” (1 Jn 1:1). Christ can be known only through his cross, but unfortunately many of us prefer to be enemies of the cross (Phil 3:17-19), than learn to carry our own cross. And even our understanding of carrying our own cross seems to be about our own personal trials, when Christ’s focus is on what we suffer for the sake of each other and for him.
  4. We read back our own practices and prejudices into the NT. For example, because our men of God today found churches and sit on them for life, we don’t realize (and can’t seem to grasp how it is possible) that Paul founded churches and left them to be on their own. He only wrote to them when they told him of issues going on in their churches. Another example is the collection of offerings in church meetings. Most NT scholars now agree that this was a one time thing that was done for the distraught Jerusalem church and not a regular practice, but we are not yet ready to rock the financial boat of our pastors. Over the past century there has been a lot of research into the life and times of the early church which has been published and available, but there is very little attempt to find out what underpinned the things they did in the early church. In fact, Christians are the most confident in their practices. We just can’t see how it is possible that we could have got it wrong somewhere along the line, which unfortunately is just what the Pharisees felt when Jesus confronted them with the truth.
  5. We are interested in the Holy Spirit only for what he can do in our lives. However, it is clear from 1 Cor 12 that the Spirit is given for the benefit of the body, not for the individual. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) and that all these gifts must be used for the “strengthening of the church” (14:26). In fact not only the Holy Spirit is given for the common good, but all other gifts (including our riches) is to be used for the benefit of the body of brethren (Ro 12:8; 2 Cor 9:8;1 Pe 4:9-11:), not by force, but freely.
  6. There is also a very interesting assumption which bedevils our conception of Christ. We do not realize that the Bible as we know it was put together in the 5th century, and only began to be widely spread in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press by Gothenburg. When the authors of the NT were writing them, they didn’t think they were writing the Bible. They were just writing letters and books to each other, albeit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our interest in knowing the “word” therefore should be juxtaposed against the fact that Paul and Peter and the others of their time did not have a “Bible” as we do, but were more fruitful than we are now. Again, it’s not about knowing the word, it’s about knowing Christ.

And all of this is in spite of 58 “one another” verses in the NT which connote laying down our priorities for the pursuit of each other’s advancement. In this and many respects, what we teach and practice today is not very different from Greek humanism. To sum up this section, I’ll quote Howard Yoder

“The idea of Jesus as an individualist or a teacher of radical personalism could arise only in the (Protestant, post-Pietiest, rationalist) context that it did; that is, in a context which, if not intentionally anti-Semitic, was at least sweepingly a-Semitic, stranger to the Jewish Jesus.” (The Politics of Jesus).

Slavery To The Institution

The second form of slavery is slavery to the institution and to ritual, from which the Jew needs to be freed to fully participate in the freedom that Christ gives. We have banished the OT law, but replaced them with our own.

  1. A separation of clergy from laity, with an appeal to OT Levitical priesthood, in spite of Christ making us all a royal priesthood. Clearly a class system, from which only the clergy continues to benefit.
  2. Next is the focus on investing in buildings in the name of building a “temple” of God, when it’s more than evident from the NT that the people are the temple and that “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by men” (Ac 7:48). We are now slaves to that building, and we can’t see ourselves freely worshiping Christ without being in that building.
  3. Next is the enactment of laws surrounding marriages, including compulsary “marriage counseling”and “if you don’t ‘bless’ the marriage in a church, then it’s not a marriage”. Even the choice of whom to marry must be approved by the pastor. And yet, there’s no NT basis for such law. There’s even no NT basis for marriage being officiated by the church.
  4. Then there is the Sunday order of service, which is set in stone. You can’t intervene with your own innovation, unless you are the pastor. Then there’s the sermon, in which the pastor (and/or basically the same old set of people) give us some “word”. In fact, there is no room to ask a question in church after the speaker’s sermon. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it affair. When will they want to hear from you too?
  5. As for the music, you not only have to be a member of the choir but be the “Music Director” or the “worship leader” to be able to sing out a song that you feel like sharing with all of us. Interestingly there’s no mention of a choir in the NT and only a few mention of hymns and songs, and therefore the only way to defend it is using the OT.
  6. Then there’s the abundance of all-night services and “30 day fasting” to “Deal with Stubborn Situations”, when Isaiah 58 is so clear on the important things we should pursue.
  7. For day after day they seek me out, they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right … ‘Why have we fasted’ they say, ‘and you have not see it?’ … Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke … is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? … Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (Is 58:2,6-8)

  8. To fulfill the need to look like we are doing something, we put together some clothes and some money and make donations to the needy, making sure we appear in the newspapers. Well, the corporate bodies and institutions also do the same. The last time I checked, it was called “Corporate Social Responsibility”, and interestingly even churches are adopting that title for their charity work. If that is the measure of our righteousness, then we haven’t as yet exceeded the Pharisees. When are the hopeless and destitute actually going to make it beyond our donations and start making it into our homes?

Like I said before, I only do this at the cost of being repetitive and annoying, but there’s no other way to say it. As the Americans say, “Pick your poison”. Are we going to be enslaved by the individualistic leanings of Greek humanism, or be proselytized by the Jewish appeal to obedience to tradition? Interesting as it stands today, we’ve managed to fuse the two together in our practice of what Christianity is about. But maybe there is a third way. In the Epistles of Paul, he addresses 3 kinds of people as exemplified by 1 Cor 10:32 “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God”. Are we ready to stand as the church of God, where there is freedom from self as well as all these laws and restraints, where the spotlight is not on our freedom from the aforementioned, but our ability to lay down our freedom to be used in serving one another in love? The spotlight has always and should always be on Christ, not on us. He has a purpose, to bring together a people who are a display of who he really is to the world; the Lamb who is the King, the Servant who is the Lord, the one who loves his enemy, even to the point of death. Are we ready to seek Christ, who has given us only one commandment by which we are measured?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34).

I end with a quote from “The Politics of Jesus”.

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamurOur Lamb has conquered: him let us follow.

The Gospel – Is It About Salvation From Sin?

I’ve felt the urge to share my thoughts on the gospel that we preach for a while, but having spent the last few weeks reading T. Austin-Sparks “Prophetic Ministry” (which is freely available here), I came across a passage that reminded me of the need to put these thoughts down. There are few recognized books on prophecy, and Austin-Sparks’ is definitely a must read for those who are interested in what the prophetic gift is supposed to be all about. Suffice it to say that from Austin-Sparks’ perspective, our “prophets” of today have quite a ways to go to reach the purpose that God defined prophecy for. But I digress.

You do not find anything concerning Israel that suggests or indicates that they came out of Egypt, and were in the wilderness and later in the land, to declare as their gospel that God brought them out of the land of Egypt. That was not their message. Of course, it is recounted many times, but that was not their message, not what they were proclaiming. What was it that was always in their view? It was what they were brought out for. It was God’s vision in bringing them out. So many of us have settled down to preach just the ‘coming out’ side – salvation from sin, from the world. It goes just so far, but the Church does not get very far with that. It is good, it is right, of course; it is a part of the whole; but it is only a part. It is the full vision that is needed to go right through … They come to a standstill, in a realm of limited life and power and influence, because their vision is so small” (T. Austin-Sparks, Prophetic Ministry, pg 39-40).

The Mindset

This passage captures exactly the mindset of Israel after their salvation from Egypt to the time of Christ’s coming. The people left Egypt behind to reach where God had intended them to be and to build what God had intended to build – the land of Canaan. Although they recognized the wonderful and marvelous deeds of God in redeeming them from Egypt, God’s interaction with them was focused on making them a nation through whom his plan of redemption of mankind will be fulfilled. As a result, Jesus Christ came to meet a people who were very proud not of their salvation from the grips of Egypt, but of their heritage as children of the promises of God to Abraham. Indeed Christ had a lot of altercations with the people discussing this particular heritage they felt they’d acquired simply by being born Israelites and being circumcised. There’s very little reference by Christ himself (and in all the Gospels) to the Israelite salvation from Egypt. Fast forward to today, and compare the Israelite message focusing on God’s intended vision and purpose for them to our focus on Christ coming for salvation of mankind from sin, and you’ll see that there is something very deficient in our gospel.

In fact, I’ll encourage you to take a look at the three instances in the book of Acts where the speeches of people preaching the gospel are recordrd (the other is Stephen’s statements when he was about to be stoned which again follows the pattern, but we’ll skip that for now). Take a deeper look at Ac 2:14-39 (Peter’s gospel at Pentecost), Ac 10:34-43 (Peter, speaking to Cornelius and his household) and Ac 13:16-41 (Paul speaking at Pisidian Antioch). In the first two, sin and it’s forgiveness are mentioned somewhere at the end of the message. In the case of the third, there’s actually not even a mention of forgiveness of sins in over 25 verses of a gospel message. How intriguing! However, their focus was on how Christ was the fulfillment of all the promises that God had made to the people of Israel through their fathers Abraham, David and co. Look at what Paul calls the “good news”.

We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Ac 13:32).

Again, Paul states why exactly he was being persecuted by his fellow Jews in Ac 28:20 when he was speaking to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome after being put under house arrest there.

For this reason, I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Ac 28:20)

Obviously from the above, their message was more about something that transcended forgiveness of sin, to something which God had laid down a long time ago, and which was now being fulfilled amongst them. And therefore, the gospel must be preached with these perspective in mind and with the appropriate emphasis, and then we can begin to see a true transformation of the lives of men in their relationship with God, Christ and his body.

Christ, The Center Of God’s Eternal Purpose

One of the questions which I’d never asked myself before until recently (and I bet many Christians also never have) is what would have happened if man had not eaten the forbidden fruit – if man had passed the test? In fact, if our God is an omniscient God and knows everything, why did he not foresee that man will fall to the devil? Had his omniscience somehow been outwitted by the devil? Or maybe he’d gone to sleep, like the gods of Baal in the days of Elijah.

In answering these questions, let us not forget that in the same garden of Eden where there was the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, there was also the fruit of the tree of life. As we see later, when man failed the test, God cut off access to the tree of life. Interestingly, Christ has told us in Rev 2:7 that he will give overcomers the right to eat of the fruit of life in the paradise of God. Add to that the fact that Christ as part of the Godhead, existed before the creation of the world, and the facts stated in Eph 1:4 and we have some sort of picture forming up.

For he chose us in him (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph 1:4)

It is safe to conclude then that God had intended our holiness, righteousness, salvation, divinity etc to come through Christ even before the foundation of the earth and the creation of man, whether sin came in or not. Christ was still the one to give us to eat of the fruit of life, and sin coming into the picture is only one of the possible paths that things could have gone to still reach that destination. We still had and have to go through Christ. This is why Paul says such wonderful things about who Christ is in Col 1:15-23, such as the fact that in him the fulness of God dwells. The Ephesian epistle describes God’s intended role for Christ as ff:

… to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph 1:10).

This is what Paul calls the mystery that God had revealed to people like him to go out and call others into. It’s very clear from the NT that Paul was not a harbinger of “forgiveness of sins”, but rather of the glorious gospel of an eternal Christ.

Confronting the Israelite Mentality

Christ immediately came into confrontation with the Israelite mindset concerning their selection as the only sons of Abraham and therefore as the heirs of all the promises of God. God had already determined that all mankind, not just Israel, will be partakers of the nature of God (2 Pe 1:3-4) i.e. become an extension of the Godhead, and he spoke these through Abraham that many nations will be blessed through him. These promises of God superseded the giving of the Law, but the Israelites only held on to obedience to the Law as a means to be partakers of this promise. In the same way, they expected a descendant of David to come and save them from their enemies and establish an everlasting kingdom. They’d forgotten that God had always intended to be their king (1 Sa 8), and he himself through Christ, will be the fulfillment of that promise.

These and other issues were the mentalities that Christ faced in his ministry, and to these he commanded “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. The people had to repent from their mindset that they could somehow be considered worthy of sharing in that kingdom simply by means of being descendants of Abraham, though indeed it is a kingdom with a king – Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom which transcends both heaven and earth. It is a kingdom which belongs to God the father, whose king is Christ and whose nobles and heirs are sons (not just children) of God by virtue of adoption through Christ and maturity through suffering (Heb 2:10;5:8:12:7). This maturity was to be achieved through active engagement with and within the body of Christ – the church. As a matter of fact, Paul was not accused of preaching “forgiveness of sins” in Thessalonica when the people brought Jason with whom he stayed before the city officials. He was accused of preaching about a king called Christ (Ac 17:1-9).

Confronting the Contemporary Mentality

Like Austin-Sparks said above, it was not that Christ coming to die for our sins was a trivial and unimportant event. Au contraire, it is one of the important issues that has to be dealt with in the process that Christ is using to bring us back to the divine purpose. Therefore, a gospel that is centered around salvation from sin and from the world’s troubles tends to get the people into the pews, but they stay there and never move on into the real purpose of their being called.

It’s just like the Israelites on their way to the promised land. Whenever they lost sight of the ultimate intention of God to take them to Canaan and got sidetracked into focusing on their everyday troubles, they easily gravitated towards dissatisfaction with and lack of absolute faith in God. It is not therefore surprising that after having seen all the miraculous handiwork of God in the desert including the parting of the Red Sea, they still couldn’t realize that it wasn’t they who were taking themselves to the promised land, but God who was taking them there and that he was entirely capable of doing so in the face of any giants that they will meet there.

To those interested in Christian history, the focus of the gospel on redemption from sin can be attributed to the work of Christian leaders in the 1800s, from the years following the Great Awakening. These include Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon and most importantly, D. L. Moody. These men were deemed to be great preachers by virtue of their fervent preaching in hammering on sin, and driving people to Christ by means of guilt. For them the driving force was to “show the sinner their sins”, and then they would repent. There is probably more reference to the word “sinner” in each of their sermons than you will find in all the books of the NT put together, and it is their influence that has made evangelical Christianity today see the church gathering as the station to win souls in, not as a gathering predominantly of those who already believe and are supposed to be engaging one another in building up the body of Christ.

I’ll try to illustrate what the problem is using a recent occurrence with a cousin of mine who is a part of our church. He asked me how he would preach the word to a friend who he felt was living a bad life i.e. involved in drinking, smoking etc. I responded by reminding him that Cornelius was probably one of the most pious men of his time, but needed to become a part of Christ. Therefore his interaction with this friend should not focus on the particular “sin” which they were engaged in. He should rather present him with the wonderful purpose of God in calling us into his kingdom – that we may be co-heirs with Christ in that kingdom. As that person comes to understand Christ’s purpose and to be involved in a certain body of believers who meet somewhere close, he will begin to see the need and also through engagement with them, find the strength and help to overcome those sins without a hostile judgmental environment which will not even listen to him but assume that a Christian cannot be engaged in these sins.

People say that “Come and listen to the word of God and you’ll never be the same again”. I say that “Come and be part of the purpose of God, and you will never be the same again”. Transformation is best achieved in engagement with others, not with magically “hearing” the word of God.

Maybe it’s time we updated our gospel to the world. Christ is light years more than just about redemption from sin.

My Church

Some people have asked me about the church I attend. They wonder how I can be so critical of the church, and yet claim to be a Christian. Therefore, the logical question to ask then is what church am I in, and how are we “practicing what I/we preach”? Like we used to do in primary school, instead of writing a “Myself”, I’ve decided to write a “My church”. In that direction, I’ll first talk about the ABCs of measuring a contemporary Christian ministry, and then we’ll pick it up from there.

Attendance

My church is made up of about 10 people, so judging by mega church standards, we’d not be considered a church. However, being small allows us to be more focused on each other than most other churches will allow. It has enabled us to build relationships of open questioning, encouragement, criticism and in some circumstances, severe heartbreak. As someone said, “Everybody is fine until you get to know them”. One of the important lessons that such relationships force you to develop is trust. You have to begin to learn to trust your brother, even though he is very capable of hurting that trust that you have reposed in them. Being small can be very intensive, and if you are not ready to lay down your pride, your social and tribal prejudices and your own self interest, then I’ll suggest that such close relationships are not good for you. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Christ meant by “carrying our cross” and “laying down our lives” for each other.

The membership is quite varied, from a management consultant (my dad) to a software developer (me) to final year university student (my sis) to trotro & taxi drivers, to masons and the unemployed. Interestingly you will hear Ewe, Akan, Krobo and English being spoken freely with attempts to explain to each other what we are saying when we ever do get into our local languages. But we tend to stick with English & Twi.

We believe that God will through our lives and our interaction with people we meet, draw others who are willing to walk with us the walk of discovering Christ together, and we keep encouraging ourselves in this direction. However, we are mindful of the fact that we are not doing it FOR Christ, we are doing it WITH him. When we grow beyond our current number, I believe we’ll have to define some limit in which case another meeting will be started in a different location, probably the house of a member which will be suitable enough. The idea is to keep our gatherings small and people focused, and we believe this can be done.

Buildings

Our church meets in my dad’s house. It has quite a big lot with plenty trees, and a lot of shade. Therefore we meet under one of the bigger trees, and in the case of rain or bad weather, we meet in our living room. I guess by the standard of a mega church, we do not exist if we do not have a church building of our own like the million and one that surround us. Well, my only answer to that is that it enables us to focus our little financial resources on the needs of the members of the church, and not on the hustles of buying land, getting a loan (or squeezing out the last drop of money from the church members) to build the church and dealing with the maintenance costs of running such a building, in the name of building a “temple” for the living God. The NT is abundantly clear that the people are the temple, and the money we have is better spent on them.

Cash

Obviously, we find ourselves in a community where there is a lot of unemployment (which is not surprising in a nation of endemic unemployment), and therefore our financial affairs are nothing to write home about by mega church standards. Although we have a bowl in which people may put in donations from what they have, very few of us do so, basically because very few of us can actually afford to do so without starving for the rest of the week. And actually no one is under compulsion to do so. When a member is in need of something, they let us know and we begin to plan together how we may be able to meet that need. Most times, those working amongst us have to actually dedicate some of their monthly salary to meeting some of these needs, and we try as much as possible to look for solutions to problems that involve getting these people a job so they can sustain themselves. However, demand is more than supply, so we have to be wise about what we spend our monies on (and in effect, it also affects how we as individuals also spend our own monies because we are to be people who work to sustain ourselves and others who are incapable of doing so at any given point in time. See Eph 4:28; 2 Th 3:6-10 for a better understanding of this.) In the same direction, those who receive such help have a responsibility enforced by the other members to make sure that they use it wisely. The end is always that they too should be a source of funding to meet someone else’s need in the future.

In the face of this, it is obvious then that nobody is a “paid” minister, although we are all actively engaged in what most people consider “full time ministry”. For us the principle of a priesthood of all believers is not mere talk, it’s a reality. Oh, and we do not have a headquarters on this earth, and neither are we ever going to have one. So we are free to focus on ourselves and in the future on the needs of other sister churches that may develop as we grow bigger, without feeling the breathing on our back that we have some higher human authority to appease.

The Meeting

Ours is not a service, nor a performance. It’s a meeting (because the “ecclesia” – the assembly, has met), and we strive to make it quite an open one. The chairs are arranged in a semi-circular shape, with a whiteboard if you want to write something (like teach a song). There’s no choir (not that we ever intend to have a standing one), so everybody brings up a song they want us to sing. As the Ewes say “If your corn flour is not in the bowl, then you don’t participate in eating the akple”, so our singing is only as good as we contribute to making it, and it can go in any direction that the Holy Spirit so leads us. There are some amongst us who do not have that good a musical voice or ear, and sometimes introduce a song out of beat or tune. But we correct the tune or beat and along we go. Whether your voice is the sweetest soprano or the croakiest tenor, no one stops you from singing. That is the beauty of being a part of Christ. Whoever you are, you are accepted.

And we also have people writing their own songs and teaching them to us, or teaching some songs that they feel are helpful to our meeting. We do have one person accompanying the singing with the guitar, but they are not the choir master or anything like that, so that no one is stifled from bringing in their song.

We have an open time of sharing, in which testimonies, songs, hymns, teaching, exhortation etc is allowed just like in 1 Cor 14:26. This is basically the center of our gathering. There is not going to be a sermon, so the focus is on allowing and encouraging everyone to share what they have to contribute to the brethren. And trust me, the stuff we talk about may be directly from scripture, or from someone’s experience of life as they went through the week, to discussions on how to help a brother fix his taxi to go back to work, to some business ventures that some of us want to engage in to bring employment to others, to querying and if applicable rebuking a brother for some behaviour someone has noticed over time and so on. So far as it helps bring build each other up in our spiritual and physical lives as we live together for Christ, it is encouraged. Your contribution can be disrupted with a question, correction or additional perspective, and yet there is absolute order. Like I said, there’s no sermon, neither is there an abundance of announcements, so we have all the time to spend engaging each other in these.

We typically pray together over certain topics that we ourselves feel are important to pray together for, and we also chip in our individual needs if you feel like you need help. We end up having a meal, and then taking the Lord’s supper as it should be taken – like supper. Not in some sombre religious attitude, but in one of even further engagement and discussion with one another. In fact, I wonder why I didn’t realize all this while that it was “supper” we were supposed to be taking. When taking lunch or supper with your friends, you don’t keep mute – you have a conversation, right? It’s interesting why to most evangelicals, the Lord’s supper is some supernatural event which cannot be taken in an informal, non-religious manner. Oh, and anyone is chosen on the spur of the moment to share the bread and wine, so it’s not some particular person’s duty to do so – the idea is to put more of the priesthood of all believers into practice.

Name

I guess the final point that most people reading this will have a bated breath waiting for me to talk about is the name of our church. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no name. Or better still, it’s such a long one that I prefer not to talk of it. The reason you ask for a name is because you see churches with names all around, but let me draw an analogy, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

I threw this challenge the last time that we in Africa can easily understand the idea of extended families, because we still practice it. In fact, I drew and will draw again similarities between these two for us to understand the perspective from which to approach it. When you have an extended family meeting, what do you call yourselves? Probably by your surname i.e. maybe the surname of your great-grandfather, in my case the Morny family meeting. In the same way, we are named after our ancestor, God. Our family head is Jesus Christ, a position which he will not share with anyone else. And it is by his permission that we belong to this family. Therefore, we could possibly also be named after the one who has given us to belong to this family – Christ. The only other thing is that maybe some of our family members meet in Ashongman, whiles others meet in Godenu, and others still in Agbogba. So we say then that we are the “ecclesia” (assembly) or family of God/Christ which meets regularly in Mr Morny’s house in Agbogba. Does that make sense to you? Do you see why Paul addressed his letters to the “ecclesia” of Christ in Colosse, Corinth, etc?

Paul didn’t build bureaucratic organizations with high hierarchies interested in dominating the world. Paul went to homes, and picked people from disparate families to form a totally different family that loved each other with the same love that Christ loved them. So try thinking from this perspective. In the meantime, if you are interested in carrying your cross for the sake of a brother (and by extension, Christ) you are always welcome to my church. I’ll encourage you to ask as many questions as you can of my description so far.

We are not perfect, but our focus is on showing Christ to the world through our lives lived together – to display the manifold wisdom of God through Christ’s body, his church. It’s a most challenging, exciting, difficult, maturing and fun road, with very little religiousness and yet very deep characters being formed. You are welcome to join us.