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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
“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)
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 sequamur – Our Lamb has conquered: him let us follow.”