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.