Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.

Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.

But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.

Now, let me explain myself.

Retributive Justice in the Old Testament

Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .

  • The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.

  • The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.

This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.

However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.

The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)

Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)

Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism

Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .

Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?

The Effects of this Syncretism

Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.

  1. It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.

  2. Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.

  3. Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.

  4. Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.

  5. Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.

  6. These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?

  7. Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.

The Seeds Have Always Been There

The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.

In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.

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Why Penteco-charismtism Is Shooting Itself In The Foot

The Holy SpiritAs is always the case with any human institution, there comes a time when Christian churches and church traditions lose their way, and instead of being a means of salvation and a display of the coming kingdom, rather become a means of oppression and abuse, looking nothing like the Jesus it claims to follow.

Take for instance the Protestant Reformation, which was prompted by certain Roman Catholic priests abusing indulgences by charging money for prayers for dead relatives to be moved from purgatory to heaven. By the time the time the dust settled, the Reformation had lead to the division of the Western church into the modern day Protestant churches on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic church on the other. And although the Roman Catholic church condemned its own priests for such behaviour during and after the Reformation, the harm of division had already been done. Now even in modern times, I watch how Protestants refuse to learn from Catholicism or Catholic scholars, because they assume that the battles of the Reformation are still raging. The reverse also continues to remain true in many Roman Catholic circles.

Or take for instance my own church tradition the Anabaptists, who stuck together to survive death and torture by both Protestant and Catholic Christians. Running away and settling in the US, all sorts of division now blossomed amongst them, with denominations breaking away from each other over many debates, including about whether Christians watching TV or driving motor cars is a sin or not. Arminian scholar Roger Olsen recently did an interesting post on the Beachy Amish, driving the point home further.

But I have never seen division on the scale on which I’m seeing it being perpetuated today in Ghana, particularly amongst the Penteco-Charismatic tradition here. And that’s why I write this post to plead with my fellow Christians in this pond of Christianity, in light of not only recent events but observations and conversations I’ve had with people directly involved in this movement in Ghana.

I hear many Christians appeal to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity amongst his people, and I get the feeling we may not realize the enormity of that task if we continue to stand in the same old place looking at Scripture, Jesus and the church from the same old perspectives. So here are some things that I think need serious re-evaluation if this tradition and others wants to realize unity even within itself (including at their own local church levels) much less unity with other Christians. Some Penteco-charismatics may express these problems to different degrees, but my aim is to simply state them for evaluation, and let the chips fall where they may.

Re-evaluate The Attachment to 1 Cor 2:4

When I was a Pentecostal, one of the basic proof-texts that was used to justify the need for us to display “signs and wonders” was 1 Cor 2:4. The NIV says

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4 NIV)

I remember reading Derek Prince (a well known Pentecostal voice), who stated that the main criteria for determining who was an apostle was that they needed to be a person that demonstrates signs and wonders, and used this text to back it up. I didn’t know how powerful this interpretation of scripture had a hold on Penteco-Charismatism until I met two different leaders in this tradition, who expressed their frustration at being sidelined within their own tradition because they didn’t exhibit the usual penchant for miracles and signs in their ministries. In fact I just saw a book on Monday by one of the leading voices of this movement in Ghana, which is specifically titled “Power Demonstration”, with pictures of him having healed cripple people on the cover.

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This interpretation has meant that anyone who displays some “signs and wonders” in this movement, no matter how flawed their theology or practice of Christianity is, cannot be questioned because – and here is the standard answer – “If God was not with him, he won’t be able to display such ‘power’ as Paul says”. And therein lies the problem.

Not only is this a pivotal text in this movement, it has become a source of division – a source of gauging one Christian’s “spirituality” over the other, even amongst themselves. Pastors appeal to their ability to perform these “signs and wonders as a demonstration of power” to quench any criticism, and now have a free rein to do as they please. And this teaching is so ingrained in their followers that one can even be labelled “satanic” for being critical of any such preacher.

The sad thing though is that this interpretation of “demonstration of the Spirit and of power = signs and wonders” is not a legitimate interpretation of this scripture. Many scholars have drawn attention to the fact that in context, 1 Corinthians is a letter Paul wrote to rebuke the Corinthian church for adopting the exact behaviour that we see today – the elevation of some Christians and Christian leaders over the other based on their exhibition of one “spiritual” characteristic over another. They point out that v 2 of that 1 Cor 2 contains an essential pointer, which Paul had already elaborated in 1 Cor 1:18 . In v 2 Paul says For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, which should point out to us that what is central to Paul is the cross of Jesus. And in 1 Cor 1:18 (and many other parts of Paul’s epistles) points to the self-sacrificial nature of the cross as God’s power, which should show us that Paul is not talking about signs and wonders in 1 Cor 2:4.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 NIV).

It is at this point that I will point us to no less a person than a Roman Catholic – Michael J. Gorman – whose thoughts on the paradox of the power of weakness as a display of the power of God come highly recommended. Unless of course we are still in the “Catholics are heretics” mode of Christianity. But I trust we are wiser than that.

Maybe, just maybe, we all may recover the Pauline sense of weakness for the sake of others being strength, so that real unity can be achieved like he actually pleaded with the Corinthian church to seek and work towards.

Re-evaluate the Elevation of “Revelation” over Scripture

The second such attachment which needs re-evaluation is the tendency to claim a personal position as “revelation” by the Spirit, which can then not be critiqued by anyone else. This flows from a flawed understanding of Paul’s statements about his gospel having been revealed to him (Gal 1:12; Ro 16:25-27; Eph 6:18-20)

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:11-12 NIV)

The above passage has been used within this tradition to justify insulating oneself from being challenged for a theological position, claiming that whatever a person was saying they received it “by revelation, not by human origins”. The colloquial term for this is “revi”. As a result, even when clear heresy is being taught, most Penteco-charismatics feel bound by passages as above to shut up their mouths and receive it as teaching from God’s own Holy Spirit which must be obeyed.

But this could not be farther from the truth. The easiest place to grasp what Paul is talking about when he talks about his gospel being a revelation that is unique is in Ro 16:25-26, with the key in v 26.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith” – (Ro 16:25-26 NIV)

Here, the tendency for Christians to read the New Testament on its own without realizing its linkage with the Old Testament (especially in the Protestant tradition, which forgets that Paul is not a 16th century German but a 1st century Jew) has greatly inhibited our ability to get what Paul is talking about. In the Old Testament God had desired that the Gentiles (referred to as “the nations”) will be part of God’s chosen people in the age to come. Paul therefore realized that the return of Yahweh in the person of Jesus signaled the opening of the door to Gentiles. God’s grace of previously choosing only the people of Israel had now reached to the Gentiles through Jesus’s death on the cross, and it was time for them to also become part of God’s people. This opening of the doorway to Gentiles is what Paul considers distinctive about his ministry, as something that has been hidden (and continues to be hidden) to some of the other apostles, but which had been revealed to him. This is what motivated Paul to dedicate himself solely to mission amongst the Gentiles, as compared to his fellow apostles. His “revelation” was not outside the purview of scripture – his revelation was already within scripture, but needed a dedicated person to execute. Jesus Christ simply commissioned him Paul to be such a person. To assume therefore that Paul was somehow teaching us that God could reveal anything outside of scripture and the rest of us mere mortals should just shut up and swallow it hook, line and sinker is to totally misunderstand Paul and simply use him for our personal benefit.

Interestingly after Paul’s great claim of “independence of revelation”, he still “sought the approval of men” after 14 years of ministry by going back to Jerusalem and in his own words presenting “to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Gal 2:2). And he did receive that approval, simply because it was obvious to the Jerusalem leaders (again being 1st century Jews familiar with the OT) that God was using Paul to actualize what God had already spoken about concerning the coming in of the Gentiles.

Re-evaluate A Contract View of Faith

On this subject I’m grateful to Greg Boyd’s book “Benefit of the Doubt” for articulating something which had been on my mind for a while now – the issue of how Christians of many stripes, not just Penteco-charismatics, understand and use the word “faith”. It seems though the the problem shows itself up in extreme forms in the Penteco-charismatic tradition due to the influence of the “Word of Faith” stream in its midstt, but its been around in Protestantism for a long while.

Many people have a view of the word “faith” as mental certainty which works according how much of it one has. As a result, people are taught that once they have mental certainty about something and pray to God about it, they will receive whatever they pray for. This has been key even to evangelistic efforts in most Protestant traditions for centuries. People are even taught that doubt is a sin. Hebrews 11:1 has become the proof-text for this mentality. And yet the same Heb 11 says the people of old who had faith did NOT receive the things promised (v 13). That should clue us in that the idea that God will act according to the measure of your faith is not only bogus, its not what faith is actually about. The idea of faith as the means by which one exercises one’s side of a contract that binds God to fulfill his side is not only unbiblical, it is actually delusional.

The faith that the New Testament talks about needs to be understood again in light of the Old Testament, which pictures it in terms of a relationship. God’s relationship with the people of Israel is pictured in terms of a marriage covenant, not a legal contract. God calls Israel his bride in many OT passages (Jer 3:1,8,14;Hos 2:2,7), and calls her a harlot when she’s proven unfaithful. In marriages we enter into a relationship of trust (not a contract), and we learn to walk with each other, in sickness, in health, till death do us part. The marriage survives not because of faith in the marriage certificate that one receives, but because of constant work by both parties to keep the relationship alive. When one’s trust is in the certificate and not in the character and action of both parties, that is the beginning of the end – and that is exactly what happened to Israel in the exile. The were so certain God’s choice of them as his people was irrevocable, they got comfortable and chased after other gods, and were exiled by Babylon.

Thinking of faith this way may help not only Penteco-charismatics but a large swathe of Christianity to get away from the inevitable sickness that “faith as a contract” produces – individualism, the number one tool against unity. Because we will wake up to the fact that God desires a relationship with his bride – the church – of which we each are individually constituted. Faith then becomes our trust as individuals and as a community in the one who we are in a relationship with, whether we “get” what we want when we pray or not. That’s how a marriage works, not so? Whether we get what we want or not, we stick to our spouse. That’s how the people of old listed in Hebrews 11 viewed faith, which is the reason why even though they didn’t receive the promises, they were faithful to the end.

For me it also begins to make sense why certain New Testament scholars (especially of the New Perspective camp) point out that in many places of Paul’s letters, the Greek word “pistis” should be translated as faithfulness, not as faith. Ah well, what can a mere mortal like me contribute to that debate?

Conclusion

Well, enough of the advise. As they say, a word to the wise is in the north (or is it “enough” rather? I forget). One simple question that Penteco-charismatics must ask themselves is that why does it seem to be that almost every preacher that most people consider chalatans claim a Penteco-charismatic background? Is it because this tradition gifts them the tools for such abuse, and limits their ability to be questioned?

There’s a Ghanaian proverb that says “when your brother’s beard is on fire, keep water close to yours” – obviously in case the flame jumps from his to yours. It’s a simple reminder that we all need to learn from history, and not just our history, but the history of others not like us.

Unity does not come on a silver platter, its hard work and demands listening and learning and repenting sometimes. Let those who are called by their king to unity learn to major on that which is major. That Jesus is Lord. That he has called us to make known his self-sacrificial kind of kingship both in the church, and beyond it. And that the only means by which the world will know if we are truly his disciples is not in the abundance of signs and wonders, not in some unique “revi”, not in our abundance of “faith” we can exercise, but rather “if ye love one another”.

PS: For more on reading the New Testament with the Old Testament in mind, join us on Emmaus Road Moments on 7th March, 2016 and let’s dig in deeper. See ya.