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.

 

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