Potted Plants in Rice Paddies

The following quote comes from Harvie Conn (Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trilogue, Academie Books, 1984, pp. 245-246)planty_the_potted_plant

…these Western creeds emasculate confessionally what is existentially the great task of Third World minority churches in non-Christian cultures: a missionary passion to disciple and heal the world’s ‘ethne.’ The church in Asia, observes one writer, has tended toward a ghetto mentality. The Christian  community has been more like glue than leaven. The churches are preoccupied with their own existence and organization. What will break the evangelical churches free from their minority consciousness in Muslim and Hindu lands to pursue vigorously the evangelistic mandate of the  gospel?

… Christianity, someone has said, has been largely a “potted plant” in Asia. It was transported without being transplanted. ‘It is still viewed by Asians as a foreign importation and imposition’ (Gerald Anderson). The adoption of Western creeds by the Asian church affirms that misperception. The fact that Christianity began in Asia does not matter. It has traveled to Asia for the most part in confessional carts and wagons made in the West for a Western context. The challenge remains for the churches to relate themselves more fully to the soil of Asia, to get down to the rice-roots level of Asia’s diverse cultures. Creeds and confessions fashioned in a Western corpus Christianum and minimizing the evangelistic dimension of theologizing cannot dig deeply enough to do the job.

To be honest, as a Southern Baptist, I have to contextualize this quote myself. Baptists are OFFICIALLY non-creedal. That is we base our beliefs on God’s word and illumination of the Spirit of God. Yet, I see the potted plant concern due to creedalism among SB churches here in the Philippines, as well. Much of the SB churches feel really American and often sound pretty American. Many of the concerns drift around what is known as the “Baptist Faith and Message” or BFM. This is a document (series of documents) that describe generally the beliefs of Southern Baptists. They were written by Americans… for Americans. My home church adheres to the 1967 version of the BFM, while the Southern Baptist Convention in the US as a whole sort of supports the 2001.

So what? Well, it wouldn’t really matter except that some groups, such as the main mission board of the Southern Baptists have used the BFM (2001) as a litmus test for doctrinal soundness. And a lot of those concerns get dragged into the Philippines. We get speakers from the US who come here, or teachers, who come here and dredge up these concerns in the Philippines… concerns that ultimately are more Southern than Baptist.

Are there things that matter?  Sure. And many attempts by Southern Baptists in the Philippines to break from from American SB dogma has often not been based on sound contextualization, but rather embracing a different set of foreign novelties. In other cases, there has been the tendency to embrace clear heterodoxy under the guise of contextualization. Some things do matter, But a lot of it is not that based on the setting of the Philippines.  A few examples:

  1.  The classic “bad boy” item in the 2001 BFM is the statement that only men can be pastors. Let’s be deeply honest for a moment. The Bible does not actually say this. The argument for this is based on pulling together a number of inferences, while ignoring some (perhaps) equally strong counter-inferences. And even that makes the questionable assumption that the results of taking the inferences (while ignoring the counter-inferences) gives a teaching from the heart of God that is supracultural. Ultimately, the statement in the BFM draws more from Baptist (and Catholic) tradition, and from the American context of reaction to the (possible) excesses of the Womens Rights Movement. <Frankly, the arguments from the other side that women MUST be accepted as pastors also has a doubtful foundation Biblically. But I will leave that for others to hash out within their own contexts.> But the Philippine context is different. We have a friend, a young Filipina lady, who is a churchplanter (a Bible woman in traditional Baptist lingo). She does not describe herself as a pastor, or pastora, but certainly assumes some roles that would commonly be described as those of a pastor. A Filipino pastor of an unrelated church came by her parents house to tell them that this young lady was going to hell because she was “pastoring” a church. Did this pastor draw this conclusion and judgment on the Bible? Of course not… on any level, this was horrible theologizing. In fact, he was taking some “creedal” thoughts from the American context and messing them up further in a different context.
  2. Worship. The BFM notes that Southern Baptists worship on Sunday. Is that true? Generally, but as a document that is supposed to be drawn from Scripture, it is horrible exegesis. But that is because it is not exegesis, but rather a reaction to the Seventh-Day Baptists and other Sabbatarians who believe that one must worship on Saturday. The BFM was reacting to a specific concern of the American church. Frankly, I wish they had worded it different. For example it could have read, “It is the tradition of most Southern Baptists churches to gather together as bodies of believers on the first day of the week, in commemoration of the Lord’s Day (day of Christ’s resurrection) joining in unity with most churches throughout history. However, we recognize that this is a matter of freedom both for churches and individuals, and that in Christ every day is holy unto the Lord.”
  3. Peace and War. I won’t try to describe the BFM in this area except that it clearly is struggling with the fact that they know as Christians they are supposed to be peacemakers, but as Americans, they tend to find war a rather valuable and perhaps necessary tool. Again, this weird section kind of makes sense when one understands the specific context in which it was written. But does it make sense in the Philippines, a country that only has known war (on the big-scale at least) in terms of fighting for survival from oppressors? Does it make sense in similar places like the tribal groups in Myanmar or India? What about Christian enclaves in countries that are officially “Islamic”?

Creeds have their place, and they provide some insight, commonality, and continuity. Perhaps even those of us who are non-creedal may find value in occasionally reciting the Nicene Creed (technically an Asian document). But creeds should not be used to prevent the indiginization of the church in Asia. The church needs to have Asian roots.


Skandalon and Good Contextual Theology

skandalonPreviously, I had done a presentation on Contextual Theology (it is on Slideshare) where I had followed Stephen Bevan’s 11 benchmarks of good contextual theology. My own consolidation of Bevan’s benchmarks is HERE. He noted that the list was tentative and most certainly incomplete.

I like the list, but would like to add one more.

Good Contextual Theology should serve a parabolic or prophetic role in the community.

This draws upon the idea that while a theology should connect to the culture… it should also challenge it.  From my book Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture,” chapter 9:

David Tracy (“Plurality and Ambiguity.: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope“) notes that religion is supposed to be rebellious, in conflict with the culture it is in. The reason is that religion (personifying it for a moment) is supposed to see the culture around it with clear eyes. It is then supposed to say to that culture that there is an Ultimate Reality that is above and beyond what one experiences within the culture. A religion claims access, on some level, to that Ultimate Reality, and points out its clear superiority to the flawed and failed reality around. When a religion stops seeking to challenge that culture and instead simply encourages and maintains that culture (indeed becoming an “opiate of the masses” and a maintainer of the existing power structure) it has failed in a profound way.

Darrell Whiteman (Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge) has noted that contextualization seeks to offend for the right reasons, and not for the wrong reasons.

This ties to the concept in the New Testament of “Offense” or the Greek term “Skandalon.  Paul uses the term both positively and negatively. One should not create an unnecessary offense. However, the Gospel will always, in every culture, be offensive on some important level.

Recall Paul in Athens. Paul used Athenian legends to express the concept of God (much like John used “Logos”) rather than drawing from Jewish writings and imagery. However, after expressing the nature of God in a way that fits in many ways with the sub-culture of the Areopagus, Paul then begins talking of Jesus in terms of bodily resurrection… a scandalous concept to Greek philosophers steeped in Platonist thought.

Jesus fit into the culture of Judea so well that Judas had to single Him out with a kiss so that the local authorities could arrest Him. He also told stories and provided ethical guidance very much in line with Jewish culture and thought. Yet, in key ways, such as describing God as Father, and Himself as the “Son of Man” were scandalous… to say nothing of a Messiah who was more a Suffering Servant than a Conquering Hero, and describing the Kingdom of God having a universal quality that may well include the enemies of the Jewish people.

Harvie Conn quotes Harvey Smit (Conn’s book “Eternal Word and Changing Worlds” p. 237, Smit’s article “An Approach to Practical Apologetics, with Specific Reference to the Japanese Scene,” in”The Christian Faith in the Modern World“, p 6.)

“Dr. Harvey Smit outlines two features of this approach to the idea of offense that have relevance for our questions. He calls them ‘two lines which are in tension”: (1) All unnecessary offense must be avoided as something that endangers another’s faith; (2) there is an essential offense that must never be avoided, for it is only be overcoming this skandalon that a person comes to faith.”

I have been reflecting on race and culture, class and caste in recent weeks. I have come to the tentative conclusion that the Bible’s message of spiritual union and communion is an “essential offense.” That does not mean, that being divisive based on these things damns a person. Rather, it means that Christian unity and communion needs to be offensive regardless of the context it is in. Thus, I believe that the Bible’s declaration that we are fellow brothers and sisters via creation, as well as through redemption, should take priority over cultural norms. Therefore, churches should never discriminate based on race or caste. I understand this not a universal conclusion and some would argue otherwise. However, it seems reasonable to say that if a church believes it has a cultural imperative to discriminate based on caste or race, it should recognize, at best, this particular state as not ideal and transitional.

Offending for the right reasons is good. Ultimately, the chief offense in Christ. When I was in Taiwan, I was visiting a church in which a visiting minister was speaking. He teaches in Taiwan and in Indonesia. He notes that when his comparative religions class gets to Christian doctrine… especially about the death, resurrection, and atonement of Christ… the most common response from Muslim and Buddhist students comes down to something like “This is the craziest thing I have ever heard.” Now, if one wanted to, these challenging concepts could be contextualized to make them more palatable to Muslim and Buddhist thought. Islam does have a role for sacrifice, and Buddhism sees a sort of redemption passing through a path of suffering. However, the offense on some level should always be there. When Christ ceases to offend on some profound level… we are following the wrong Christ.

…For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.   -I Corinthians 1:21-23

but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,  just as it is written,

                                               -Romans 9:31-33




Race and Faith

The following are some items from the Address by South African Allan Boesak, cleric and anti-apartheid activist, at the 1981 World Alliance of Reformed Churches.  I am just picking up a few bits and pieces of it. 1477025

First of all, racism is an ideology of racial domination that incorporates beliefs in a particular race’s cultural and/or inherent biological inferiority. It uses such beliefs to justify and prescribe unequal treatment  of that group. In other words, racism is not merely attitudinal, it is structural. It is not merely a vague feeling of racial superiority, it is a system of domination, with structures of domination– social, political, and economic.   …

Secondly, racism has not always been with us. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that has become an essential part of an historical process of cultural, economic, political and psychological domination. … I note this to make the point that racism cannot be understood in individual, personal terms only. It must be understood in its historical perspective and in its structural manifestations.

But, thirdly, however important these observations may be, the Christian must say more. Racism is sin. It denies the creatureliness of others. It denies the truth that all human beings are made in the image of the Father of Jesus Christ. As a result, it not only denies the unity of all humankind, it also refuses to acknowledge that being in the image of God means having ‘dominion over all the earth.’   …  The whole story of Genesis I and II is an attempt to give expression to this creaturely relatedness to God. …

Racism is a form of idolatry in which the dominant group assumes for itself a status higher than the other, and through its political, military, and economic power seeks to play God in the lives of others.

…Racism has brought dehumanization, … destroyed the human-beingness of those who are called to be the children of God.   …

Most of all, racism denies the liberating, humanizing, reconciling work of Christ, the Promised One who has taken on human form, thereby reaffirming human worth in the sight of God. Through his life as a human being he has given flesh and blood to the words of the psalmist concerning the life of God’s weak and needy people:  “From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” (Ps. 72:14)

…Racism has not only contaminated human society, it has also defiled the body of Christ. And Christians and the Church have provided the moral and theological justification for racism and human degradation.

As noted before, this is but a small section of the address by Allan Boesak. Not only did I quote only parts of it, but I removed all references to “white,” “black,” apartheid, and South Africa. This is not to hide its context, but recognize on a larger scale the fact that the concern is supracultural.

I presently live in the Philippines, a nation in which racism is not huge (compared to some places) but its effects are still felt indirectly. Much of the problems show itself in post-colonial mindset where the prejudices of the colonizers are still embedded deep even after independence. Looking further afield, one sees it more strongly. Just across the water is Malaysia, a country whose tourist board pumps out commercials emphasizing its multicultural peace and harmony, while the government maintains laws to ensure the power of the Malay to the detriment of the other “minority” groups. And of course, Malaysia is not alone… Myanmar has a similar situation with the Burmese as compared to the minority groups. And they are not the worst examples in the world. In the United States, systematic racism is officially opposed (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) but classism is actively promoted. If you doubt this, check the rhetoric of politicians who will freely admit that they intend to make decisions or promote laws to help “the middle class.”

But there is a difference between class (as well as caste) and race. Class and Caste exist, while race really does not. Now you might be tempted to suggest the opposite. After all, class and caste are human constructs that have not objective reality… but since they are, normally, recognized as human constructs, they exist to the level they are recognized to exist. But what about race? We often think of race as being objective, based on appearance. As such, it seems objective… real. But it is not.

Race draws from the “racial science” of the colonial and enslaving ages.   It draws from the theory of biological evolution. A race is a sub-group within a species that has sizable differences from others within the species, and is, in fact, believed probably enroute to being a whole new species. In the 1800s and early 1900s a lot of effort was made to link intelligence, moral intelligence, and behavioral characteristics to this thing called race. The move has ultimately been a failure. There are reasons for this:

  1.  There is no real agreement on how many races there are. At one time, people spoke of Caucasoid (“white”), Negroid (“black”), and Mongoloid (“yellow”). In the early 1900s there were five races commonly, “white, black, yellow, brown, and red.” Of course, the color designations made no real sense (except maybe brown). In Germany, of course, Jews were identified as a separate race, as well as the “Aryans.” In more recent times, some have created a very different list of five races based on the “out of Africa” theory of human development and dispersal.
  2. The differences between so called races are less than skin deep. Race has classically been determined by color of skin, color of eyes, and color and texture of hair. However, ultimately, color relates primarily to melanin… and melanin is distributed across mankind over a spectral range, not distinct groupings. Below the skin, the differences are very slight and only of statistical value. Race (from an evolutionary viewpoint) exists due to partial genetic incompatibility across races or a lack of interest in breeding across race. However, no such situation exists with humans. There is no genetic incompatibility, and any issues regarding “interracial” interest appears to be culturally driven, rather than innate.

Ultimately, racism should not exist in the church.

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body— whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free– and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.”  -I Cor. 12:12-14

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”    -Gal. 3:26-28

The church should not perpetuate, support, or allow divisiveness or power structures based on “race”, class/caste, or gender. It should model unity, and act subversively within the broader society to challenge its biased power structures.

In missions circles, for the sake of contextualization and pragmatism with regard to evangelism methodology, there has been a greater focus on separating people based on culture, class, caste, and social setting. It can be argued whether this focus on diversity has a negative effect on the unity of the church or not. But I hope that pragmatism and contextualization has not reached a point that division based on “race” can be used to justified. Frankly, I hope that culture, class, caste and social setting take on a less theologized role. Culture should be respected and uniformity is not a Christian virtue… but we also need to be trained for the Kingdom of God where diversity NEVER negates the true unity that all have in Christ.







New Evangelism?

A new evangelism, expressed in terms of contemporary experience, must begin with finding a new motive for mission. The imperatives of earlier centuries, particularly of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, are no longer valid or compelling.devil

Dr. Michael Green states (“Evangelism in the Early Church”, 1970) there was a three-fold motive for mission in the early church. First, there was a sense of gratitude for what Christ had done. Second, early Christians were conscious of their responsibility to God to communicate the message they had received. Third, there was a concern, a passion for people.

… Over the years since the first century, the motive for mission has varied. Let us look for a moment at the evangelism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. … The driving motive of Christians in these years was a passion for souls. With the vivid belief in the reality of heaven and hell, Christians sought to rescue people from eternal punishment and to open the door to heaven for them before it was too late.

Perhaps the most vivid expression of this type of motive can be heard throbbing in the ministry of Dr. Jonathan Edwards. It is powerfully expressed in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Dr. Edwards apparently produced a tremendous impact on the eastern coast of America as he thundered: “God holds you over the pit of hell. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it. Now harken to the loud call of God’s word and providence. Therefore let everyone who is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

Nineteenth century motives for mission are no longer viable or credible. Enticement of heaven or the dread of hell no longer possess the power they once did. There are several reasons for this decline. (Alan Walker, “The New Evangelism” (Abingdon Press, 1975), 8-11)

Alan Walker suggest a few reasons:

-Reduction of early morality rates makes death seem less real or pressing. While this feeling is essentially inaccurate (death is still inevitable), death and post-death experience doesn’t connect as viscerally as it may have in the past. I have heard a study that 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. Some perhaps lack fear because they are convinced that they are heaven-bound. Others lack fear because they don’t believe in hell. However, others may be uncertain about the future, and believe in hell… but they don’t feel the fear because there is a perception of “distance” between now and death. This would be pretty similar to a 20 year old eating junk food and being asked to think about its effect on his heart… possibly, eventually, a long time from now.

-Hope of Reward and Fear of Punishment seem like inadequate motives for salvation. Many are uncomfortable with using this methodology to inspire conversion. James Fowler’s faith development stages does point out that doing right because of fear of punishment is a much lower (and not wholly desirable) stage of faith growth. Those who use only fear of hell as their argument to convert can come off more as fire insurance salesmen… rather than bearer’s of good news and Christ’s kingdom.

-Focusing on hell does tend to portray God poorly. The God portrayed by Jonathan Edward seems to have made cultural sense in the time of Jonathan Edward, as well as John Tetzel, but today such a God does not appear to be worthy of worship. Frankly, the God of the Bible generally seems much more compassionate than many more recent evangelistic portrayals.

I would probably add at least one more. Modernism brought doubt about old answers, a faith in certain new answers, and a pluralism based on greater interaction of people of different cultural viewpoints. It also inspired Post-modernism which has doubts regarding modernism, as well as the new answers, but without necessarily embracing the older answers.

Of course, not believing in hell does not make it go away. But over reliance on it as an evangelism strategy seems out of sorts with many modern or post-modern cultures. I have mentioned before the controversy as to whether accepting the Lordship of Christ is necessary for salvation.  We often say that we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord… but some suggest that only one is necessary. I am not competent necessarily to determine if both are necessary, but the bigger question, I believe, is on the other side. It seems pretty obvious from Scripture that calling on the name of the Lord implies a decision to follow Christ… as Lord. The bigger question is whether salvation necessitates recognizing Jesus as Savior. Can a person be saved who accepts Jesus as Lord… before understanding that He is also Savior? Or if a person accepts Jesus as Savior, must he be absolutely aware of what exactly he has been saved from?

I think the note in the quote about the three motivations of the early church for evangelizing is important. The three motivations:

  • Gratitude for the work of Christ in their lives
  • Responsibility before God to share the Good News.
  • Concern or passion for people

These seem like appropriate motives. When I interviewed medical evangelistic ministry workers/organizers, I asked what are their motives for doing the ministry. The top three were:

  • Love of God
  • Love/concern for people
  • Obedience  to the Great Commission

These three are about the same. Unfortunately the motive, “a passion for souls,” has proven inadequate. One might surmise that passion for souls would necessitate love or concern for people. But that has not proven true. We find many who tirelessly share the word of God seeking conversion, who show little to no concern for the social, economic, psycho-emotional, plights of the people they share with. To ignore these other areas may be consistent with a passion for souls, but outrageously dissonant with genuine love or concern for people.




The “Foul Lines” of Contextual Theology

All Theology is Contextual. So when I speak of the “foul lines” of contextual theology, I mean the “foul lines” of ALL theology. The use of the term “foul lines” as it pertains to contextual theology, comes from Stephen Bevans, who in turn draws it from Justo Gonzales.  I will be returning to Bevans later. It implies that there is a wide range of theologies that may be acceptable, or fair, or orthodox. But there are also some that are not. All theology isorthodoxy either well-contextualized or poorly contextualized. However, that also means that both orthodox theology and heterodox theology can be well-contextualized or poorly contextualized.

Ultimately, this means that there are two challenges.

  1.  The test of contextualization.
  2. The test of orthodoxy

The two tests are muddy and inter-related. They are muddy in that it is hard to determine definitively the lines (the “foul lines”) between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. and between well-or-poorly contextualized. Additionally, contextualization has an effect on orthodoxy. In fact, being too well contextualized leads to heterodoxy. This is because good theology ALWAYS challenges, in some way, the culture it is in.

Ignoring the question of contextualization in this post, how does one test orthodoxy? In the past, the answer was often answered in terms of alignment of the theology to creeds. Even for non-creedal groups, (such as I am part of) statements or articles of faith tend to be seen as orthodox (good doctrine) and divergence from such statements evidence heterodoxy (or bad doctrine).

But as soon as one acknowledges that all theology, along with all creeds and articles of faith are culturally embedded, things get more complicated. Divergence from a creed may not really mean that it is heterodox, but it could be orthodox in a different context. It is hard to be sure. So how does one test a contextualized theology for orthodoxy?

Stephen Bevans has given some tests for this. He draws from Schreiter, de Mesa, and some others, along with his own reflection.  A quick summary of some of these tests is found in a presentation he gave a Boston University, seen in THIS VIDEO.

He notes the inadequacy of each individual test (he gives 11 tests) but suggests a principle of “converging probabilities.” In fact, it is the reasoning associated with historical or legal analysis, where the focus is not on  PROOF, but on how the preponderance of the evidence becomes COMPELLING, leading to CONSENSUS.

I would like to keep these 11 tests, but reorganize them, grouping them into five (5) general tests.

Test #1.  The Test of Revelation.  Christianity is founded on Divine Revelation, in the form of the words of the apostles, prophets, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As such a theology is challenged to be both coherent and harmonious with that revelation. Coherent, means that it does not contradict the word or essence of that revelation. But a caution here, since, one can always find “contradictions” if one goes in lacking grace or humility. Harmony means that it aligns with revelation in a way that may be novel, yet appears to go well with the revelation as a harmonic line in music works with the melody.

Test #2.  Test of God. Any contextual theology is tested by God’s uniqueness and transcendance. Therefore, any theology should be consistent in its prayer and worship. (For example, any theology that makes Jesus less worthy of prayer and worship than God, places itself out of line with orthodox faith). Additionally, any theology that encourages or justifies behavior of believers that is inconsistent with God’s character (love, justice, holiness, for example) is highly suspect.

Test #3.  Test of the Universal Church. The church is founded on Christ and the apostles and maintains a spiritual unity regardless of how often the church drifts from  diversity (a good thing) to divisiveness (not such a good thing).  A contextual theology should be open to critique from groups and theologies outside of its context. It should also have the value and robustness to challenge and inspire those both inside and outside of its context. To fail to do those things suggests that it lacks that unity with the universal body of Christ.  <Note:  The universal church does not simply exist in place, it also exists in time. So the challenge of church includes the church throughout history. For example, restorationist theologies that presume that historic church was totally apostate for centuries or millenia, must be suspect.>

Test #4. Test of the Local Community.  A contextualized theology is for a certain context or faith community. Therefore, it should, ideally, come from the community (rather than an outsider or from one specific person). It should be intelligible to people in the community in simple language, and should, over time, be valued and accepted by the community.

Test #5.  Creation.  A contextualized theology should honor creation, as the good design and handiwork of God. A theology that lessens or devalues God’s creation is suspect. This also includes mankind. A theology that treats humans, or any subset of humans, as less than God’s creation, Imago Dei, or less worthy of honor than other humans, is less than orthodox.

These tests will not eradicate all disagreements, but they, hopefully, will provide a starting point for a potential future consensus.

Manatees, Mermaids, and “Pante ta Ethne”

When I was a small child back in the late 60s/early 70s, I saw a nature show on manatees. In that show, the speculation was brought forth that mythological beings, mermaids, might have been inspired by sailors seeing manatees. When I was in college, I saw another special on manatees and dugongs and it said that these animals were PROBABLY the inspiration behind the stories of mermaids. Years later, in my mid-20s I went to Blue Springs State Park in Florida. They have manatees that reside there and I was told that “These manatees are the mermaids of old.”  What changed? In a 20 year period, did solid scholarship occur that demonstrated the probability and then the certainty of the connection between manatees and mermaids?  Probably not. Rather, an interesting, and curious theory got passed around enough that it gained a critical mass of support to be seen as “pravda” (offical truth).

But is this theory true? Probably not. I was in the Navy for a few years. Lookout watches are manned by people with very good eyesight. With the fact that sailing ships move relatively slowly, if an unusually myopic lookout saw a manatee in the water and thought it was a woman/fish hybrid, they would almost certainly have taken the time to test this theory, and disprove it. A far more likely scenario is that lonely male sailors create fantastic stories to vicariously satisfy their libido. Since woman are almost exclusively on land, a woman who can exist where they are would quite naturally lead to stories of mermaids (as well as sirens). That the stories seem to be dominated by mermaids not mermen would then be hardly surprising. Mermen were a logical and biological necessity, not the subject of interest.

It seems like a similar transformation has happened with “Pante ta Ethne.” This Greek phrase found in the Bible with a number of variations, has become a subject of interest. Most famously, it is in the Matthew version of the Great Commission where Jesus said to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” All nations is “pante ta ethne.”

<WARNING!!!  A non-student of Greek is trying to sound like an expert.  My apologies in advance. WARNING!!!>

The term ethnos, ethnoun, or ethne (plural) is used in a number of ways in the Bible. Often it is used generically to describe the Gentiles. Greek at that time had a number of ways of dividing up people. A few ways are seen in Revelation 7:9. There we see:

ethnoun    (nations)

phylon (tribes)

laon (peoples)

glosson (tongues/languages)

ochlos (crowd/multitude… more of a description rather than a taxonomic designation)

Additionally, one could add   genos   (family or kind)

You may wonder if these tend to overlap, and you would be correct. For example, Aristides described Greek divisions of people in terms of four groups (or three depending on the version you are using) based on the term genos (family or kind):    Greek, Chaldean (barbarian), Jew, Christian.  Aristotle centuries earlier divided up people into three groups (ethnos) based on climate: warm climate people, cold climate people, and temperate climate people. Actually, the use of the term ethne or ethnos is quite broad. As noted before, in many passages in the New Testament, and in the Septuagint, the term is essentially a generic designation for Gentiles (everyone who is not a Jew). It is doubtful that a concept or word today would capture the locus meanings of this term..

But things changed in interpretation.

Gustav Warneck, the Father of Modern Missiology in the early 1900s (in Evangelische Missionlehre) noted that “pante ta ethne” is best understood as a religious term not an anthropological term. In other words, Gentiles. Despite this, Warneck tended to use the term, on a practical level, to describe ethnic units of people.

Pulling ahead to the 1960s, we have the systemization of the Church Growth Movement, started by Donald MacGavran. From here comes the developing of the Homogeneous Unit Principle. This is the idea that people prefer to respond to the Gospel and participate in worship when it does not require them to cross ethnic or cultural boundaries. For MacGavran the focus was primarily on description than prescription. In other words he was more saying the way things are than the way things should be.

As we move into the 1970s, things change further. C. Peter Wagner is the new voice in the Church Growth Movement, and he is now expressing that homogeneous groups are not only descriptive, but prescriptive… and Biblical. Acts 6, then, is not describing an ethnic problem in the church that was dealt with in such a way to share power and maintain unity, but a move to separate house churches along ethnic lines. Up to this point the tendency of seeing “pante ta ethne” as referring to specific people groups was related to ministry, not due to Biblical scholarship. However, I don’t think anyone would rely on Wagner, for example, for Biblical scholarship.

Into the 1980s this thinking in the Church Growth Movement continues, and with the growth of focus on “unreached people groups” (UPGs) in missions, there was a greater tendency to see the Great Commission as centered around people groups or ethnic groups. David Bosch in his article “Church Unity Amidst Cultural Diversity: A Protestant Problem.” (Missionalia 10, no. 1 (April 1982): 16-28) noted that no Biblical scholar, then at least, would define “pante ta ethne” as referring to people groups. Frankly, people groups is a missiological construct based, generally, on principles from cultural anthropology. The term can not accurately be linked to Greek thought and designations. According to Bosch, Biblical scholars were united in the understanding that “panta ta ethne” was describing the universality of the mandate, not the diversity of the mandate. Consider, for example, the parallel passage in Acts 1 where the same conversation led to a geographic rather than a sociological description. The disciples would be witnesses ” in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This geographic description certainly is describing the ultimate geographic universality of the call to witness, rather than a focus on individual places on the earth. In the early 1980s the argument among Biblical scholars was not about the focus on discrete units versus universality, but rather the level of universality.  That is, did the phrase mean all Gentiles, or all people including both Gentile and Jews? Bosch noted that the principle of homogeneous groups and a people group interpretation of the Great Commission became part of the basis for Theological Apartheid.

Since the 1980s, the growth of a theology built people groups has grown. Websearch “pante ta ethne” (I will wait for you). You will note that the pages are dominated with an anthropological/missiological interpretation. One is hard-pressed to find interpretation by Greek Scholars. Part of this may be that missiologists are more interested in the phrase. Or maybe Greek scholars have trouble using the Internet.

Jim Slack  (“A ‘Ta Ethne ‘ Ethnolinguistic People Group Focus As Seen In The Scriptures”) states that “ta ethne” are ethnolinguistic people groups that are defined by “a stable, historically developed community of people with a territory, economic life, distinctive culture and language in common”.  This is probably a pretty good definition for practical missions, but seems to go way beyond the rather loose way the term was used by the Greeks (remembering of course my complete lack of scholarship in Greek. You do remember, correct?). But of even greater question would be whether Jesus in Matthew 28 was saying “Make disciples of all stable, historically developed communities of people with territory, economic life, distinctive culture and language in common…”

More recently, some missiologists gathered together to seek to determine whether “ta ethne” could also refer to castes?  Obviously if “pante ta ethne” means everyone, then it certainly includes people who are in castes. I am from America where there were traditionally castes based on racial lines.  If “pante ta ethne” applies to me, and I am part of a caste, then it certainly applies to castes. By the same logic, it can also include classes, races, gangs, sub-cultures, and micro-cultures. I suppose, however, this was not the real question. For them, I am guessing, the real question was whether it was okay to create and support churches that intentionally discriminate based on caste. They may as well simply go ahead with the logical stream and say that ta ethne also refers to socio-economic classes as well. This all to me seems a true bastardization of both the phrase and its broader context.

Additionally, others have come along and used a similar logic for Matthew 24:14… “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” The phrase to all nations, “pasin tois ethnesin” is grammatically different from “pante ta ethne”
but essentially works out the same. If it is translated ‘everyone” or ‘the Gentiles” it becomes a fairly straightforward thing. God’s message will be proclaimed all over the world… and then Christ returns. However, by taking a people group interpretation from Matthew 28, this passage morphed into a theologically aberrant view.  It comes out as “The gospel will be proclaimed to each and every people group, and when that happens, Christ will return.” This really doesn’t make a lot of sense exegetically or even logically. But you get mission groups that talk about speeding up Jesus by reaching every people group. Other organizations come up with “official” lists of how many people groups there are (at the moment at least) and how many are defined as unreached or at least unengaged.

For me, a fairly simple message of Jesus to share the gospel everywhere to everyone became weirdly misinterpreted into a call to homogeneous groups and caste churches, and to speeding up the return of Christ.  This is not a necessary result of this interpretation, but it is where it has gone by some. Personally, I find value in the missiological concept of people groups, and the importance to contextualize. But when a slight interpretational error (not even an error, more an interpretational shading of meaning) starts to grow from practical guide to theological dogma, bad things begin to happen. I think we see some of that now. We are called to share the Gospel to everyone everywhere. People groups may be a useful concept for proclamation, contextualization, and indiginization, But it is a missiological concept that is to be guided by interpretation of Scripture, rather than a hermeneutical lens through which Scripture is to be interpreted.

Everyone is not the same as “People Groups” any more than “Manatees” are “Mermaids.”