Christmas Musings

Living in the Philippines, Christmas is a big event. It has at least as much noise, food, gifts, parties, songs, and fellowship as the United States.

But there are two major groups here (groups that draw from a common Christian heritage) that do not celebrate Christmas. One of these is “Jehovah’s Witness” while the other is a locally grown group “Iglesia ni Cristo”. Within Evangelical circles they would be considered cultic groups… or more precisely “Christian-based religious groups with heterodox Christologies”. The arguments: we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, that Christmas has, in part, “pagan” roots.

I personally believe that Christmas is a good thing. The fact that Jesus was almost certainly born at a different time (perhaps in April) shouldn’t be overly important to anyone except those that believe that tying a celebration to an exact birth day is important (astrologers perhaps?)  But the second issue is important missiologically on a much broader scale than simply about whether to celebrate Christmas. The question is whether non-Christian elements make a Christian celebration impure or whether Christ purifies non-Christian elements.

Consider a few examples:

1.  Christmas is “Christianization” of a pagan event, Saturnalia. When Romans became Christians, the question was whether one had to reject the festivities of Saturnalia. The result was that the celebration of Christ’s birth was used as a replacement.

2.  In India, a very big celebration is “The Festival of Lights” or Diwali. Houses are decorated and it is very festive. One way of knowing that a family is Christian is that they have the undecorated houses. Some have suggested that a good Indian and Christian can find a way of joining his culture in celebration without falling into a paganistic trap.

3.  In the United States, there has been a resurgence in the Native American “Pow-wows”. At one time a pow-wow, or native dance was clearly and only tied to paganistic beliefs. Now, however, some groups do it as a way to connect to their culture, but do it as a celebration to Christ. Some pow-wows are even evangelistic in being used to share the Christian faith.

4.  Philippines Example #1. In the Cordillera Mountains (where I live) there are animistic groups and a number of tribes. One of the biggest cultural activities is the canao (pronounce it kan-YAO). It is a festival with dancing and other activities. Some local Christians join in. Many refuse. Some Christian groups have even used the canao as part of their celebration to God. A large church near us uses traditional instruments and dances to worship God. Curiously, many “American-style” local churches complain that they are using the devil’s instruments and dances. What is double curious is that those same churches that are complaining use electric guitars, drums, and rock-style music to worship. Why is that curious? Because 50 years ago, those instruments and style were considered devilish by many if not most Christians.  <Cultural bigotries are a funny, funny thing.>

5.  Philippines Example 2.  Most towns and barangays here have fiestas. They are often Catholic in origin (often with animistic roots) and have icons, a patron saint, and other aspects that are extremely uncomfortable to Protestants. Some feel they can find a way as Evangelical Christians to celebrate fiestas as part of community solidarity, while others do not.

6.  Pope Gregory (in 601) recommended that missionaries to the Britons accommodate as much as possible the local celebrations of the people. However, they should steer them to replace pagan gods with saints and other Christian elements. This concept of “accommodation” has been a fairly common element in Catholic missions to this day. Is this healthy or syncretistic?

I don’t plan to give an answer here. Obviously, the extremes in this area are problematic. Simply “blessing” the behaviors of all cultures is often to bless evil. William Carey, the “father of modern Protestant missions” often sought to find the best in Indian culture and literature. Yet he strenuously fought “suti” or widow-burning. One must oppose aspects of a culture that undeniably violate God’s will.

On the other hand, even those groups who are most vociferous in fighting the celebration of Christmas or other things with “pagan” elements, cannot and do not apply this consistently. The use of wheat or rice is not attacked because it has been used in pagan celebrations and practices for millenia. Few would say that the Greeks of the first century church would have to cease to be Greek (a clearly pagan culture) and become Jews. That was answered in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council.

Paul provides a more nuanced approach in the Bible when he speaks of meats sacrificed to idols. He said:

-Meat sacrificed to idols is no better or worse than other meats since the idols have no power. So don’t ask… it has no power for evil over you. You are safe to eat.

-If you are with someone who is weaker in the faith, don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols since that person may become confused and be led astray. The power is not in the idols, but in the confusion of the other person.

Taking this into account… (1)  one does not need to reject celebrations with pagan roots. Such roots has no power over a Christian. Christ can redeem all things. However, (2) there are some things that must always be rejected. And (3) there are always some people of weak faith who may need to be carefully nurtured.

The balance of these three truths will always make the contextualization of Christianity to other cultures a challenging and controversial thing.

Church Acculturation in Missions

J.W. Berry (1980) described 4 modes of acculturation.

  • Assimilation.    One’s cultural identity is lost in the dominant culture
  • Integration.   One Seeks to integrate one’s cultural identity with the dominant culture.
  • Separation.    One maintains one’s unique cultural identity, rejecting the dominant culture.
  • Marginalization.    One loses important parts of own cultural identity, while having those parts inadequately replaced with parts from the dominant culture.

While these 4 options are not equally good, probably the only one that is clearly broken is the fourth one— marginalization.

Consider the Three Culture Model for Mission Communication. Missionaries (from Culture A) need to do proper exegesis/interpretation to carry the message of the Bible (set in Culture B) to recipients (in Culture C).

Acculturation can occur at all three cultural interactions.

Three Culture Model

Missionary Culture (A) can interact with Biblical Culture B via assimilation, integration, separation, or marginalization.

Biblical Culture (B) can interact with the Recipient Culture C in these 4 same ways.

Missionary Culture A can interact with the Recipient Culture (C) also in these same 4 ways.

However, Biblical culture is static since the message of God was transmitted to man in history.  The culture of the Bible does not presently exist, so it can’t be affected by present cultures (although its interpretation can be affected by the present.) The result is that the viable interactions are:

B affecting A   (Bible culture affecting Missionary culture)

B affecting C   (Bible culture affecting Recipient culture)

C affecting A   (Recipient culture affecting Missionary culture)

A affecting C   (Missionary culture affecting Recipient culture)

Suppose we focus on the Recipient Culture C as the affected culture. Then we are dealing with A affecting C  and B affecting C. It is generally (NOW) felt that culture A (culture of the missionary) should not affect culture C (culture of the recipient) if possible. Often the argument is that it should not because that is a form of cultural imperialism or diffusion. That may be true, but that is not necessarily the biggest problem.

The bigger problem is when A and B both affect C, but the recipient (C) is unable to distinguish which is which…. which comes from A and which comes from B. So another affect can be described as

(A + B) affecting C     Two affect recipients but unable to distinguish them.

It is dangerous to confuse people as to what is God’s truth, and what is the missionary’s cultural novelties.When the message of God reaches the recipient via the missionary culture, the message goes through marginalization and assimilation. Aspects of the message of God gets removed and/or replaced by the filtering process of the missionary culture. The result is that for the message of God to reach the recipient culture, some assimilation and marginalization between cultures A and C must occur. The message of God is damaged in the process.

Culture C should not be destroyed, replaced, torn, spindled, or mutilated by another culture. Acts 15 provides the model for God’s ability to transform a culture and create a church within that culture. Culture C (recipient) is not to be changed by Culture A (missionary).

This is well-known and well-documented. Here in the Philippines, marginalization and assimilation degradation of the message of God is rampant, both within “orthodox” and “heterodox” bodies. It is understandable, but not acceptable.

But consider the next possibility. Is it possible that there is also a problem of degradation of the message in the interaction between the Biblical Culture B and the Recipient Culture C?  Absolutely. The message of God was given to people in a Jewish/Greek/Roman/ Persian/Egyptian mix of cultures. The message was given within this cultural context, but the message is NOT this culture. Some Messianic movements seem to spring from the assumption that the culture of the Bible must be transplanted into recipient cultures, replacing many neutral or even positive aspects of the recipient cultures.

Not only can missionaries err by trying to bring their own culture along into the recipient culture as part of God’s message, they can also err by bringing the Biblical culture (cultural aspects that are over 2 millenia or more out of date) into the recipient culture as if it is part of God’s message as well.

This is common. We see it in the “search for the New Testament church.” We should not seek to create the New Testament (1st century) church in the 21st century. Some look to the churches of Timothy and Titus as the ideal. Some look to Corinth.  Some look to the church of Jerusalem. None of these churches are 21st century churches. We should seek to create God’s church in the 21st century. Such a church can and should be quite different from the 1st century church because the culture is so different.

We can also see it with attempts to define eating rules of ancient Israel as timeless patterns for today. We see it in attempting to define relationships between individuals and other social entities by cultural standards of the Hellenized world. The result of bringing cultures along with the Gospel tends to create marginalization and assimilation of cultures which degrades and confuses the Gospel message.

In short, bringing the message of God into a Recipient culture C needs to be done where Separation is maintained not only with the Missionary culture, but also with the Biblical culture.

Can Integration (the healthy interaction and combining of cultures) ever be healthy. Of course… and in some way it is nearly inevitable. Cultures will always change due to interaction with other cultures. But the message of God should be carried out with cultural separation. Otherwise the recipient will have difficulty knowing what is culture (and thus variable) and what is God’s message (and thus eternal).

Missionaries and Apostles? (Part 2)

(See Part 1 first)  …    A church-based model for missionaries and missions appears to avoid a lot of confusion in other ways as well. If missionaries are those who leave the local church to work outside the local church, then they are simply “apostles”… and “apostle” is simply another term for missionary. This of course is not universally accepted. C. Peter Wagner (a church-growth and missions

Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most...
Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most notable of early Christian missionaries, who called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, was very influential on the shift of Christianity to Gentile dominated movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

specialist) believes that there are two different calls, an apostolic call and a missionary call. He suggests that all apostles have an apostolic call (no surprises there), but only some of them have a missionary call. Likewise, all missionaries have a missionary call, but only some have an apostolic call. There are two parts of this stance that appear to be highly questionable.

1.  An apostolic call that is not missional appears to be based more based on traditions within the modern apostolic movement than on Biblical scholarship. Wagner believes that accomplishing miracles and acting in ecclesiastical authority over the church are defining and necessary qualities of an apostle. This fits better with the theology of the modern “Apostolic Movement” than with the term as it was used in the 1st Century. This does not appear to be sound basis for saying that miraculous powers or special authority are the defining characteristics of apostles. While some did clearly utilize miraculous powers at times, there is no mention of others utilizing them, and some people who were not apostles displayed miraculous powers. Likewise, although the original apostles were told that they had authority, that authority appeared to be more spiritual than ecclesiastical in nature. They certainly did not appear to exercise authority over the church except to exhort others with God’s message. Paul exhorted but did not order. The other apostles did not exercise a high level of control over the church of Jerusalem. If anything, it is interesting to the extent that the Apostles in the New Testament did NOT exercise authority in the local churches. While the Twelve were part of the church of Jerusalem, James the half-brother Jesus served as the senior elder. Paul and John both used persuasion to get change within the local churches rather than exercising some form of “apostolic authority.”

2. The other aspect of Wagner’s view is interesting. Not only does he take the apostolic call as something different from the missionary call, but suggested that some apostles (such as Peter) did not have the missionary call. In light of the Great Commission, this, at first, appears to be ludicrous. However, it is at least understandable within the context of how some people define the term “missionary” today. It is consistent with a cross-cultural definition of missionary (described in Part 1 of this article). Since some apostles did not appear to work outside of their own culture, people who utilize a cross-cultural definition for missions are forced to separate “missionary” and “apostle” into separate categories. Unfortunately, by doing this, bad things result. Missionaries lack a good Biblical model for their role if apostles were not missionaries. (I have read blogs arguing against the role of missionary because it has no basis in the Bible… an idea that makes no sense unless one tries uses a revisionist understanding of the NT apostle.) And if apostles were not missionaries/churchplanters… what were they? This confusion has led to setting up hierarchies within the church to allow for a church leadership role for apostles.

I believe that the New Testament and the Didache show that apostles are missionaries. They plant churches but hand over power to others who will serve as pastors/presbyters and deacons within it. And if apostles and missionaries are two terms for the same position, then apostles provide a good model for the role of missionary.

(It should be noted that I am not suggesting that missionaries take on every role that every apostles does in the Bible. The original 12 had unique qualities being eyewitnesses of Christ. Their uniqueness does not result in having the designation “apostle” (others also had the same designation). Rather, one of the roles of the original 12 was apostle (going into all the world to preach the gospel). Additionally, I am not suggesting that missionaries today start using the title “apostle.” Unfortunately, the term has changed considerably over the centuries, starting in the 2nd century with it being used strictly for the original Twelve, and up into recent decades the so-called Apostolic movement. With language, it is hard to go back.)

Closing the loop, our understanding of the role of the missionary can be enhanced by understanding the role of apostles in the early church. And the role of apostles, having a role in the “universal” church and a connection with local church, while having a formal role outside of any one local church, hopefully can provide a balance for missionaries today.

Missionaries and Apostles? (Part I)

Good scholarship of the term “apostolos” shows that the term appears to best fit what we now call missionaries. It should not be thought of as strictly position of the distant past. However, it also should not be viewed as a church office in any period of time, as the term is now used in the “Apostolic Movement” . (Instead of going through that, readers are encouraged to read the article on “apostle” in the ISBE (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). )

English: Manuscript of Didache
English: Manuscript of Didache (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It is popular to define missionaries based on culture these days. Perspectives in the World Christian Movement describes missions and missionaries in terms of being cross-cultural. If one uses Ralph Winter’s “E” model for cultures, then missionaries are limited to working in (perhaps) E-2 and (certainly) E-3 situations. (E-0 is ministry within the local church, E-1 is ministry in the local community but outside the local church, E-2 is a similar or neighboring culture… maybe similar culture but different language, E-3 has considerable differences).

Should people be considered missionaries only if serving cross-culturally?  Consider Paul and Barnabbas, who we almost without exception consider to be early and successful missionaries. After their call to missions, Paul and Barnabbas started on what we describe as their 1st Missionary journey. Up to the time of the journey, they were serving in the church of Antioch. There they ministered within the church (E-0 evangelism) and presumably the local community (E-1). Upon leaving on their voyage, they first went to Cyprus, and began ministering to Hellenized Jews there. Since Barnabbas was a Hellenized Jew and was originally from Cyprus, this part of the journey would involve E-1 ministry. This then would not be considered missionary work by some. Then they reached out to Gentiles. These would probably be viewed as E-2, but only barely, since they shared the same language and broader culture with Barnabbas. Effectively, they were ministering from one sub-culture to another within the same culture. After this, the two apostles traveled to southern Asia Minor. This is the region that Paul was from. The same situation existed as in Cyprus, but with Paul reaching out to his own sub-culture and then to a different sub-culture within the same local culture. One could certainly argue that the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabbas was less missional than evangelistic outreaches to Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Samaritans described earlier in the book of Acts.

The trouble seems to be in a faulty understanding of what is a missionary.

It seems to me that the problem lies in a culture-centered definition of missions. If one moved to a church-centered understanding of missions, the problem goes away. If missions (and apostleship) describes ministry that is focused outside the church (rather than church member care or church growth ministries), it is understandable why Paul and Barnabbas were missionaries. Paul and Barnabbas ministered within the church of Antioch. Then they were called and sent out (apostolos and missio) from the church to minister to those outside of the church. This also appears to agree with the Didache (perhaps the oldest non-canonical Christian book) that describes apostles as one of four groups of ministers (bishops, deacons, prophets, and apostles). Of the four groups, two were part of the local church (bishops and deacons) while the other two were outside the local church. Of those outside, prophets appear to primarily visit different churches and encourage and strengthen them, while apostles would do their ministry outside the church.

The Didache should not be seen as providing some aberrant understanding of the term apostle that contradicts its use in the Bible. Consider the many people in the New Testament who were called apostles (apostolos).

  • -Jesus Hebrews 3:1
  • The 12 disciples Luke 6:13
  • Matthias Acts 1:24-26
  • Paul I Corinthians 9:1
  • Barnabbas (and Paul) Acts 14:3-4
  • Andronicus Romans 16:7
  • Junias Romans 16:7
  • Epaphroditus Philippians 2 :25
  • Unnamed brethren II Corinthians 8 :23-24
  • Silas and Timothy (and Paul) II Thesalonians 2:6

Clearly, others beyond the narrow understanding of apostle were called apostles. Jesus, for example, clearly did not have the formal office of apostle, but did take on the role of missionary, from the Father. This and the fact that the apostles listed in the Bible appeared to have little authority within the church once the church is established suggests more of the role of a missionary/churchplanter than an authoritative officeholder within church. (Note that Timothy was called an apostle in Thessalonians when he was still a traveling missionary. However, Paul does not use that term for him when he is acting as the spiritual leader of a church in I and II Timothy.)

Phatic Communion and Missions

According to Bronislav Malinowski, “Phatic communion serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.” This is sometimes call “small talk”, chit-chat, and terms and expressions of courtesy and social convention. In some ways phatic communion (or phatic communication) is the most important part of communication since it deals with belongingness and relationship.

In the West, some have decried “small talk” as a hindrance to communication… a failure to deal with the proper transfer of facts. In the Philippines, small talk (a form of phatic communication) is a necessary part of any business meeting. In fact, it may take up the larger part of the meeting.  If we accept that relationships are more important than information, than one should value phatic communication. Clearly, there are some people who use small talk as a way to avoid communication of facts and feelings, but any extreme has its problems. Ideally, it should open doors to further communication/communion.

An interesting thing I have found is in the communication (by email or texts) fromphatic missionaries working in countries where religious freedom and religious communication is restricted. One would expect these people to follow the advice of others to communicate in ways that do not put them at risk. So they would not talk missions… would not use Christian terminology, or “Christianese.” Yet, almost without exception, this is not followed. Pretty much all of them put in little catch-phrases that Christians are supposed to recognize and that non-Christians should not. I doubt if anyone is fooled. Some go further and go into a full sort of “church-speak” or the slinging together of Christian-ish jargon. (It is true that most of these missionaries I communicate with are newer on the mission field. I do not know as much about those who have been on the field longer.)

Being one who is not fond of “church-speak”, I tend to see this tendency of missionaries as problematic… sometimes (“shhhhhhh”) even annoying. Of course, I serve in a country where religious freedom and freedom of thought is actively permitted and practiced. Part of my concern is that I fear that the person trying to communicate with me is putting him or herself at risk (making me a passive part of the problem).

But I am sympathetic because I have a theory. These missionaries are in somewhat hostile (religiously) and alien environments. When they communicate with people of like faith back home they feel the need to say, “I am one of you. I may be in a far off, exotic, and difficult place, but we are still of one faith and one people.” This desire overcomes their desire to protect their work.

At least that is my theory. If phatic language is so important for missionaries… it must be also so important for respondents. We often focus on contextualizing the message of the Gospel. But we need to go further. To communicate with people of a different culture (or sub-culture or micro-culture)… we must go beyond finding the right word for “God” and “faith”. We must communicate in such a way as to show that we belong there, and Christ is just as at home among them as among us.

How can we help establish phatic communion between people and Christ?

See also:

The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication



Missions and “Time-setting”

It has been a hobby of Christians to set a date for the return of Christ. Even non-Christian groups such as “Jehovah’s Witness” fall prey to this lure. There is a long history of this. The church of Thessalonica in the New Testament had members who were so sure of the imminent return of Christ (not sure if they set an exact date) that they quit their jobs and relied on the working members of the church to provide for them. Paul told them that if they don’t work they shouldn’t eat (this passage has, unfortunately, been misused to justify being uncharitable).  1000 AD, 1848, 1914, and more have been used. Here in the Philippines, a group out of South Korea is using the movie 2012 as if it is a Biblically-based description of the end of the world. The group is using it, not surprisingly, to draw people to their own faith group. May 21, 2011 is being spread now by a group that uses the tagline “Noah knew. We can know.”  Technically speaking, it does not appear that Noah knew. He just did what he was told. But I suppose the point is not hugely relevant here.

Consider a personal experience I had. I was on an airplane returning from a business trip in the late 1990s. I sat down next to an Arab-American. He was a very nice individual, and I discovered that not only was he a Christian, but that he had a Christian radio program. After ascertaining that I was also  “born again”, thus not needing the plan of salvation, he asked me to open my Bible. He took me to several passages (I remember one was in Hosea). Using these passages, he attempted to convince me that Jesus was absolutely returning between 1999 and 2002 (he did not feel he could be more dogmatic than that). It is 2010 now, and it certainly appears that his conviction, and interpretation, was wrong. I wonder what affect this error has had on his ministry.

The question is whether date-setting is missiologically useful. I believe the Bible teaches that we won’t know and shouldn’t try to know… but I am aware that some verses in the Bible could be read as if some might recognize the signs of His approach. The question here I am bring us is pragmatic, rather than theoretical.

There seem to be two obvious justifications for date-setting from a missions standpoint.   <A> Setting a near date may cause some people to repent, believing that they have only a little time left. One need only look at the story of Jonah to see justification for this argument.  <B> Setting a near date may cause some Christians to be motivated to be involved in missions and outreach sooner… believing that answering the call is “now or never.”

But let’s consider the down-side.

1.  Many groups have been hurt by date-setting. The Millerites were hurt greatly when Jesus did not return in 1848. the “Jehovah’s Witness” religion has been hurt by date setting (1914 is their most famous one but they have set several dates). Their attempt to describe their literal failure as a metaphysical success has been less than convincing.  A nice little webpage listing some of these dates is

2.  It draws into question the human source. The Bible describes a false prophet as one who claims a truth from God that is later demonstrated to be wrong.  Edgar Whisenaunt came out with the book “88 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1988” that lost interest after September 13, 1988 for obvious reasons. His sequel “89 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1989” did not draw much interest… again for obvious reasons. Should one, who confidently sets a date of Jesus’ return (and is then demonstrated wrong) be considered a false prophet?

3.  It often draws on questionable, even occultic sources for determining or confirming. Harold Camping uses numerology as his basis (back in 1994, and now for 2011). Some like to use ghosts or ghostly images for confirmation of a mystical return.

4.  It seems to lead to bad behavior. If Jesus was returning next week, why would you be selling your house, dressing up in white clothes, or stand on a mountain? But some did this, while others like the Thessalonians, abused the hospitality of others while waiting. Jesus said to be watchful, ready, and faithful to the end.

5.  It leads to sloppy missions. If Jesus was returning next year, perhaps it makes sense to simply spread the gospel thin and wide and pressure people to mumble “the sinner’s prayer”. <Perhaps> But if Jesus is coming in 200 years, what would be more effective? Developing reproducing, discipled Christians, planting 4-self churches, and perhaps transforming communities wholistically. If we don’t know when Jesus is coming, which path should we go? I believe the shallowness of short-term methods hurts the long-term growth of God’s kingdom. Sloppy, short-sighted methods should not be justified by date-setting.

6.  It makes us question our role here. Some say that we should spread the gospel to every people group so that Jesus will come sooner (based on a poor understanding of Matthew 24). It seems pretty doubtful that we can make Jesus come sooner by our own actions. But suppose we could. Is that a worthy goal? Quickly spread the gospel to the last “unreached people group”, thus ensuring that many billions in “reached groups” will be doomed? There seems to be a flawed thinking here. This thinking tends to make us “more heavenly minded” and “less earthly good”. If we are convinced that Jesus is coming soon, and so soon that what is going on here does not matter, then we shouldn’t care about poverty, the environment, disease, social injustice and such. But if we are faithful stewards doing what Jesus has called us to do every day (regardless of when the Master returns) we should care about our neighbor, our community, our country, and our world.

I believe that date-setting for Jesus return (whatever one says about whether it is possible) is missiologically unwise… at best. At worst, it is a destructive obsession.

“Missio” Theology?

There is disunity in theology. Pannenberg, Ebeling, Farley, and others have pointed this out. In some sense, this is obvious, but I would like to discuss this from the point of missions.

Traditionally, the 4-fold model of theology is accepted. The four are:

1.  Biblical Theology.     2.  Historical Theology.

3.  Systematic Theology.   4.  Practical Theology.

Biblical and Historical theologies provide the basis for systematic theology, and systematic theology provides the foundation for practical theology. (Some would add philosophical theology as another source for systematic theology).

Systematic theology can be broken down a number of ways. Here is one:      –Theology Proper (study of God)    -Anthropology (study of man)    -Christology (study of Jesus)     -Pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit)     -Soteriology (study of salvation)    -Bibliology (study of the Bible)    -Angeology (study of angels, demons, etc.)    -Ecclesiology (study of the church)    –Hamartiology (or theodicy… study of sin and suffering)     -Eschatology  (study of the last days).

From the foundation of these areas of systematic theology one comes up with Practical theology (which covers various areas of ministry such as homiletics, pastoral care, and liturgy). This would include missions.

What is the problem?  As stated earlier… there is disunity in theology. From the standpoint of missions, part of this comes from the fact that those involved in missions are poorly grounded in theology, and tend to develop theology to justify what they are doing, rather than the other way around.

To be fair… this is understandable. After all, what branch of systematic theology clearly covers missions?  None all that well. Clearly, soteriology and ecclesiology have some bearing on missions. Perhaps hamartiology and eschatology as well. Perhaps all of the branches have something to say. Yet in practice, often none of them deal with missions or missio deo (God’s Mission) in a systematic and integrated manner. Commonly, the Bible is brought in to justify missions or justify some specific methodology. This, of course, not theology. It is barely more than “proof-texting”. Missiologists (practical theologians in the area of missions) don’t have good material from systematic theology to draw from (as is often noted, John Calvin‘s magnum opus, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” did not have a section on missions. Things have not improved much since then).

Perhaps, Missions should not simply be an area of practical theological study. Perhaps missions should not be simply scattered topics within the broader topics within systematic theology. Perhaps Missiology should be a topic within systematic theology itself. Missiology should integrate biblical and historical (and perhaps philosophical) theologies.

Would this result in “better” mission methods?  I am not sure… but I believe so. I believe the rather short-sighted methods utilized often draw from completely unsupportable theological stances. Still “good missions” (orthopraxy in missions) needs both sound theology and sound social sciences, so theology whose roots are limited to systematic theology would be too limited. But it is a start. We, I think, need to do both sides (theology and sociology) well and bring them together into dialogue.

For example, many missiologists encourage focus on quick conversions and spiritualistic methods targeting “unreached people groups.” Perhaps they are correct. Perhaps quick conversions is more important than discipleship. Perhaps spiritualistic methods should be the focus over development or social work. Perhaps unreached people groups should be the main focus. However, the justification for this is often Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”  Regardless of whether the methods described above our sound or not… there is NO justification for interpreting that verse that way. In fact, a systematic theological method would not not attempt to justify methods by prooftexting anyway.

I believe it is possible that a sound theological grounding for missions will make Christian missions more successful (successful in the eyes of God at least).

Hard Soil

Jesus (in Matthew 13) described “hard soil”– hearts that are unreceptive to God’s message.  But one can’t assume that those hearts that are “hard soil” are all the same. Commonly those in this category can be looked as those who are invested in a different faith to the point that they reject a new faith.

Brian McLaren (“Finding Faith”, 1999, page 31) defined faith as “… a state of relative certainty about matters of ultimate concern sufficient to promote action.” This definition makes clear that atheism and other “non-religious” beliefs can still involve faith.  But faith can be divided into at least four categories.

-True versus False faith. One can have faith in something that is untrue. Strong faith does not necessarily make that faith true any more than a rejection of a belief makes it false.

-Good versus Bad faith. This designation is also from Brian McLaren… and has to do with how faith manifests itself. After all, if faith is a belief strong enough to promote action, faith is demonstrated by how it manifests itself through actions.  McLaren describes some characteristics of “good” faith and of “bad” faith. (The terms “good” and “bad” are to be interpreted on a human, practical level… not on a theological level.)

Bad Faith (some characteristics):   arrogant, unteachable, dishonest, apathetic, regressive.  In other words, faith that creates a bad, unloving, destructive individual is bad faith… even if the faith is true.

Good Faith (some characteristics):  humble, teachable, inquisitive, grateful, honest, active, tough, and relational.  Faith that generates a kind, loving, constructive individual is “good” faith… even if the faith is false.

The result is the development of 4 possible combinations.

The four choices are:

A.  True and Good Faith. This is the goal for a Christian. One hopes and should expect that the Christian faith should manifest itself in goodness (salt and light to the world).

B.  True and Bad Faith. Sometimes one has a strong Christian faith, but carnality has resulted in a Christian with a hateful, bitter, even violent behavior. This is very difficult to deal with. Jesus had more trouble from religious leaders who had true but bad faith than any other group.

C.  False and Bad Faith.  This is easy for Christians to understand. If one accepts a false faith, it is very easy for Christians to expect these individuals behaving in a recognizably bad way.

D.  True and Good Faith.  This is difficult for Christians. Because we recognize that we are unable to please God in our own ability, we tend to have trouble with those of a false faith who behave good. Yet, the term “good” here is defined in human, not divine terms.

Group A (good and true faith) is certainly the goal.  However, the other groups can be described as hard soils. How do we disciple those who have a true faith but demonstrates it in bad action?  How do we share true faith with those of false and bad faith. Do we attack the bad faith? Do we act surprised that a false faith leads to bad behavior?  And what about those people who (at least on a human level) are good as the outworking of a false faith? How do we share faith?

Much of our methods for evangelism target “good soil” or receptive people of weak faith. But Jesus targeted, at times, hard soil… particularly those of true but bad faith. Only God can change a heart, but God has made us part of his plan for change. What do we need to learn to work with hard soil?

Christ and Government?

Richard Niebuhr is well-known for his 5 possible relationships between Christ and Culture (from the book “Christ and Culture” (1951)). While these may not be a complete set of choices, but they do provide a good list of options.

Christ against Culture

-Christ above Culture

-Christ transforming Culture

-Christ and Culture in Paradox

-Christ of Culture

Culture is important, but we also need to think hard about the role of Christ and Government. It was easy in the second century to see Christ against Government. It may have been easy in the fourth century to see Christ of Government. With the growth of the concept of “Christendom”, and state (Christian) religions, the blurring of Christ and Government increased.

The faith group I am in tends to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal of a “high wall of separation” between religion and government. Not seeking to disagree with my group, but there are obvious problems. First, religion and Christ are not the same thing. Even if one holds to this ideal, it does not answer the question of the government’s relationship with Christ. Second, in many cultures, faith is integrated with all aspects of life, including governance. Is it appropriate to tell a culture that a foundational aspect of their way of life is flawed?  Third, secularism is a religion (although an unorganized religion) in that it provides answers for the key questions of life and guidance as to how to evaluate experiences and make life decisions. Therefore, removing (a) religion from governance simply replaces it with another (for practical purposes).

Some would suggest a smaller wall of separation. This would be a religiously neutral governance. Religion is not anathema within government, but no religion is placed above another. This is almost impossible to practice consistently. Secularism tends to still become the “favored religion”. This may work better than some choices (or not), but it still does provide little answer to the question of the relationship between Christ and Government for Christians. With the big wall and the small wall, there still tends to be a compartmentalization of faith in the lives of Christians.

On the other hand, some Christians aggressively believe in a theocratic ideal. Christ rules a “Christian nation”. This has been promoted by many Christians. It certainly removes the issue of compartmentalization of faith. However, it seems to seek more of an Islamic ideal for the relationship between faith and governance than a Christian ideal. This ideal has problems when Christianity is the minority faith (as it is in Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist dominant countries). Even in countries such as the United States or Philippines where Christianity is dominant, there can be communities where other religions are dominant, such as Mormonism, Islam, or Secularism. It is easy to love the power of being the dominant religion in a community. But is one willing to accept the active or passive persecution associated with being a minority faith? Many Christians in the US want to see public prayer restored to schools, but are they willing to accept public prayers in schools where the prayers are directed to the local dominant deity (such as the Mormon Elohim or the Islamic Allah)?

Why is this important? In missions, people come from one government system into another government system. When Christ is brought over, so are attitudes about government (for good or for ill). If a missionary comes from a democratic system, should one assume that Christ loves democracy and wants to change all governments to democracy?  On the other hand, is Christ only interested in spiritual change? Does He lack concern about social injustices and corruption that are allowed (or even encouraged) by the local government. Should missionaries be active in governmental change, or just be quiet and happy as a “guest” of the host country?

How should churches relate to government. Can they love their country while opposing their nation? Should they risk losing registration or tax benefits by challenging the government?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his entire adult life mulling over this question. His denomination attached itself, for the most part, to the local governance of Nazi Germany. Shouldn’t their allegiance to Christ take preeminance over their allegiance to Hitler?  But if so, how should they have demonstrated that?  American churches often closely link faith and patriotism.  Are their problems with that? Here in the Philippines, there is a fairly low wall of separation between church and state. Many evangelicals here assume that by voting evangelical Christians into political office that government will improve. But would improvement be the result? And what is the real agenda… is it seeking to improve government or to take the power away from other religious groups for themselves?

This is a rambling post. But this is something we as Christians, and ambassadors to the world must think about. What is the relationship between Christ and Government, and how should that affect what we do as individuals and as people of God?