When the Gospel is Present “in” and Yet Absent “from” a Particular Culture

Is it possible for the gospel to be present “in” a culture and yet absent “from” that particular culture? The answer is, “Absolutely yes!!!” In a recent visit to my village of Kom, West Africa, I had to face the reality of this answer. First, some background. My father is a respected man in the village, considered to be a strong believer (judged by his involvement in the church, which by itself is an indication that the gospel has not penetrated the hearts of the people). Many years ago, as required by tradition, he inherited the compound of his uncle (in this case, the compound is composed of two buildings; one for the man and the other for his wife, including the coffee farm and all that belonged to the man). As the inheritor, he is required by tradition to carry on the activities of his uncle who is now dead, belongs to the league of the ancestors, and is watching to see that things are done properly. In this inheritance, my father also inherited his uncle’s wife and children. Part of the requirement for inheritance laws includes having children with the wife of the deceased. In the case of my father, fortunately, the wife was too old to have children. So, he inherited her, the compound and the children.

At present, the inherited wife has died. Given the significant role that her husband played in the village when he was alive, there are certain expectations for my father to fulfill during her burial, and subsequent customs surrounding her death. As I sat talking with my dad just this past week, it became clear to me that although the gospel is present in the tribe of Kom, it is still absent from its cultural practices and expectations. Believers are left in the dark when it comes to what the Bible says about certain cultural expectations.

Here is the situation with my dad in which I tried to apply the truth of the gospel and found that he was at a loss concerning what I was trying to communicate. According to tradition, as the successor of all that belonged to his uncle, including his wife and children, it is expected that at the death of the wife, my father will fulfill all that his uncle would have done if he were alive. The duties include providing all the goats and chickens and palm oil to the traditional elders to appease the spirits of the dead. Failure to do so would bring judgment both on my dad and his entire family. So, he listed to me all that will be required of him and proceeded to ask me for financial assistance to meet those needs. I told my own dad that my faith prohibits me from giving him money to provide for the needs of the elders in a supposed attempt to appease the spirits. He was shocked that I showed no concern at all for the dead and the danger for the living. It was a long conversation in which I tried to explain to him why I could not, as a Christian, give him the money to provide for such requirements. For my dad, I was not honoring him as my father. As for me, I only wanted to obey my father “in the Lord.”

After a long time of discussion, I asked my father what he thought was the teaching of Scripture concerning what he was intending to do and asking me to assist him in doing. His answer? Scripture has its place and tradition has its place. Both are authoritative and must be obeyed. That is where we differ and that is exactly where I came to the conclusion that although the gospel is present in the tribe of the Kom people, it is totally absent in its traditional expectations and practices. My father could not give me an answer as to what Scripture says about what he wants to do. On further discussion, he pointed out that the church has never addressed the concerns he is raising, and how dare I make any judgment about it. He was at a loss, but I could see that he was wondering what the matter was with me for not understanding.

In this case, my dad has been a believer for more than the 48 years that I have been alive, but never been taught in the church about how the gospel relates to matters of culture. As he pointed out, everyone “knows” that church is one thing and cultural demands is another thing. Both are to be obeyed.

So, my question: Is the gospel present and yet absent from the Kom cultural practices? I believe the answer is “yes!” If so, where does this leave the people of Kom? In a situation of confusion in which they claim to have the gospel and to believe it. As a result, they are clueless as to how faith in God speaks to the requirements of the culture.

Conclusion? We cannot say that a tribe has been reached with the gospel when it is present but yet absent. The work needs to be redone and properly so. People need to have a conversion of not just their soul but also of their way of life. The gospel does not only promise eternal life for the soul. It requires a certain way of life within the culture into which it is proclaimed.

My dad, having been a believer for over 70 years, still needs to learn how to be a Christian in his own culture.

The Scales Are Falling Off Our Eyes

On a recent TLI training trip to Douala, Cameroon, I had the joy of teaching pastors from different denominations in Cameroon and Central African Republic. It was a humbling, joyful and yet sad experience. Humbling, in that I saw pastors of over 20 years in churches confessing to ignorance of their knowledge of Scripture and to their having taught the people wrong doctrine in that ignorance. Humbled at their desire to know more and be corrected and seeking help on how to move forward from here. Humbled by their zeal for more learning and their plea that we not forget them. It was a joyful experience in that these students, mostly from Central African Republic, are key leaders in their various denominations and pastors of churches that can take the lead in any reformation that needs to take place. Our teaching will have an immediate impact on their nation. As they say, “We can assure you that your work here has not been in vain. We will make sure that the rest of our people benefit from what we have learned. Indeed, we will work to see that more come in January to learn what we have learned.” Joyful in that some of these pastors are also government workers, people with high positions in government and yet loving the church and wanting to be teachers in their different congregations. The impact of their training will not only impact their churches, but also their work places.

The experience was also sad in that while these men have been in ministry for years, they have labored “in ignorance” as they said. In every teaching session, they said, “Thank God, the scales are falling off our eyes.” They are frightened at the damage done to the church from lack of proper teaching. Their questions show some of the desperate need for training of pastors in this part of the world. Below is a sample of the kinds of questions raised in my classes on Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology.

The questions that our students ask are telling of their struggle in ministry as well as their struggles to make sense of their culture in relation to the gospel. Often in my class, students will raise questions and push me to linger on them until they are happy that it has been fully addressed. What I am realizing is that they are taking situations they are facing in their various churches and wanting me to help them process them biblically. Here are just a few examples:

“Do you believe in predestination?” This question came up several times in my class and at first I avoided answering it to keep from being sidetracked. Then by the second day of teaching, I realized that they were very concerned to have me address the question. The question came up as a result of a passage that I read. Once I started addressing the question of predestination, it became clear that their world-views and theology were being challenged. Instead of arguing, they simply said, “We are glad to know this. We have always believed that it is up to us whether one comes to faith in Christ or not.” As one pastor said, “How can I deny this? I see it in the text.”

“If there are indeed guidelines for interpreting the Bible, how is it that many people look at the same text and come out with different conclusions?”  They wanted to understand why so many claim to be speaking from the text of Scripture, but teach things that are not true. Their struggle has been that once a man claims to be speaking from the Word of God, he is to be listened to. Now, they are learning to deal with the fact that that their conclusions must be judged from what the text actually says.

“Should a woman be pastor of a local church?” I do not think that a woman should be the pastor of a local church. Yet, sitting in my class was a lady who introduced herself on the first day as a pastor. So I explained my position on the subject and then asked her to offer a response and defend why she believes she should be a pastor. Instead of defending herself, she shyly said, “There are too many pastors here for me to answer that.” Talking with her afterwards, I realized that she only needed to understand what the Bible says on the matter, and is willing to submit. Related to this question was a discussion on the place of women in the African church.

Here are some others:

“What should I do when I know that there are clearly people in my church who are not believers and who always object to what I preach?” “When you say that ‘All Scripture is inspired’ what do you mean by ‘all scripture’”? Does that mean the scripture of the witch doctor is inspired?” “As a woman in my church (which I joined because I got married to my husband) where the pastor says that a woman should not speak in church at all, not lead in any singing, not teach in any area, what should be my response?” “If a man dies while committing a particular sin, will he not go straight to hell?” etc.

Even though we were teaching Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology, we must give an answer to these questions that are pressing in the minds of our students. Our answers help them know how to begin to bring needed changes in their churches.

Praying for our students in Africa as they seek to rightly divide the word of God.

Communicating Christ in the African Context/Cross Culturally

In past posts, I have wrestled with the topic of Christ as ancestor in African theology. As I pointed out in those posts, African theologians want to portray Christ as one who is an ancestor in line with the African view of ancestors. In the last post, I asked the question, “Having pointed out the ways ancestor Christology is deficient, what then should be our approach in communicating Christ in a relevant way within the African context?” Here I want to answer that question. The issue is not whether we should create an African Christology, but rather, how can we teach Christ in the African context (and cross culturally)?

Systematic theologies on the doctrine of Christ give categories such as “the person of Christ” (how he is fully God and fully man, yet one person), “the atonement of Christ” (was it necessary for Christ to die? What did his death accomplish? For whom did Christ die? etc.), “his resurrection and ascension”, and “his offices.” These are good categories to show what the whole Bible says about the person of Christ. At the same time, teaching systematic theology in the African context, I found that these categories are often easy for students to grasp, but not always helpful in helping them know Christ better.

Portraying Christ as an ancestor is an attempt to communicate the person of Christ in the African context in a way that makes sense to the African people and helps them relate to Christ intimately. Though this approach is unbiblical, its aim is worth considering. So, how do we communicate Christ in the African context and cross culturally without subjecting him to the title of ancestor?

Jesus is at the center of the overarching story line of the Bible. The OT points to the person of Christ, and the NT is all about Christ in fulfillment of the OT. As the story develops it culminates in the person of Jesus. The doctrine of Christ in a context such as Africa ought to be approached from this story line of the Bible. The African context is one in which stories are a powerful way to communicate in society. People remember stories better than abstractions, and telling the story of Jesus as it unfolds in the Bible will go a long way to helping people embrace and identify with him.

My conclusion, then, is that to effectively communicate Christ in the African context as well as cross culturally, we need to focus on telling the story of Christ from Genesis to Revelation. All aspects of his being, his person (how he is fully God and fully man), his atonement (why he had to die, whether his death paid for the sins of all people or not, the cause of his death), his resurrection and ascension, and his offices can all be communicated through telling his story as it unfolds in the whole Bible.

The Bible remains our source for truth about the person of Christ. How we communicate that truth matters. I suggest that rather than depending on the concept of ancestor to communicate Christ, (an approach that pushes the Bible to the side), we need to tell the story of Christ as it unfolds throughout Scripture. In other words, communicating Christ in the African context should take a biblical theology approach.

Ancestor Christology? A Christ Who Cannot Save!

It is unfortunate that these portrayals of Jesus as ancestor by liberal African theologians go unchallenged in most African settings. Yet, there are various reasons to be concerned.

Unbiblical Starting Point

The starting point of ancestor Christology by African theologians is not the Bible. Orobator, for example, denies the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus and argues that they were concerned with “faith” and not “facts.” Therefore, any talk about Jesus must be from the point of view of faith (68). Thus, African Christology must be concerned with how to bring about faith or encourage the African’s faith, and not about objective facts about Jesus.

Anything African that communicates Christ and results in faith is acceptable. What this means, then, is that the faith of the African determines how one talks about Jesus Christ. Why so? Because each Gospel account of Jesus is an interpretation of who Jesus is from their faith community. We can speak of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Orobator, 69). Following the example of the Gospel writers, Africans are to work out their own answers to the “fundamental question of Jesus in Matthew 16:13-16: ‘Who do you say that I am?” (Orobator, 72).

Rejection of the Jesus of the Missionaries

Christ as presented by the missionaries in the advent of Christianity in Africa is foreign to the African person (they assume). It is argued that Africans do not understand the name or the person. So, there needs to be a recast of the person of Jesus in authentic African categories for him to make sense. One of the categories for recasting Jesus in the African context is that of ancestor, which is authentically African. Only then will the African man cease from embracing a foreign Jesus of the missionary whom he does not know.

The problem here is that the focus is on the agents (those who preached Christ) and therefore a rejection of Jesus as the missionary Jesus. Is the quest for an African Jesus the answer? Rather than searching Scripture to understand Jesus as preached by the early missionaries, these theologians assume that he was a Jesus created in the image of the missionary’s culture and must be replaced by a Jesus of the African culture.

Authority of the Bible is Missing in this Debate

It is obvious that those who argue for ancestor Christology do not hold the Bible as the revealed Word of God with authority. They easily set it aside as reflecting cultural experiences of people who were trying to make sense of Jesus. Yet, a proper reading of Scripture gives us a solid biblical Christology that transcends cultures.

Christology Built on Myth? 

Ancestor Christology is built on a belief system that even Africans cannot objectively argue for. This Christology requires one to believe that the cult of ancestors, as Africans understand it, is real.  Is it? It requires accepting that the dead (ancestors) are playing the role of life giver, mediator, and should be appeased through rituals and sacrifices. Is this really a good starting point for understanding Jesus?

Jesus Christ is no Longer Exclusive

In this system, Jesus is only unique in the sense that he is the Son of God and therefore his role transcends that of the ancestors. In other words, he is better than they, but they play essentially the same role. The truth is that Christ alone saves. Ancestors are dead people and cannot be the source of life.

Ancestor Christology Does Not Save

Nothing is said about our sin against God (instead, sin is against the community as they argue), judgment, or the role of Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World. He is only looked at in the role of ancestor. Yet, the Bible is clear on the centrality of Christ in our salvation. The liberal African Jesus is not difficult to embrace, yet he does not save.

All Man, Not God

A careful reading of ancestor Christology gives us Jesus only as a man and not as God himself. That is the only way this kind of theology can work.

Having pointed out the ways ancestor Christology is deficient, what then should be our approach in communicating Christ in a relevant way within the African context?