Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is That Biblical?

Photo Credit: this photo is from the cited article

First, read this:

I live in Thailand working with The Charis Project. So I am part of some of the missionary discussions around this article and the parallel discussions about different evangelism strategies. There has been some profound backlash in some circles. Accusations of syncretism, departure from Biblical truth, etc. Here is one comment:

Very disappointing read!!!! The author's mindset would be comparable to saying the reason all the Ninevites repented is because Jonah crafted his message to fit the culture of Ninevah. Come on, I am all for contextualization but let's think a little more Biblically and Theo-centric.

Now there are many problems with this comment but I am not about to address them here. I cite it here because it is demonstrative of a particular method of assessment that I disagree with.

From the discussions I have seen, I believe that the commenter is saying that the evangelism method that the author of the article is advocating is not Bible-centered because it is not centered on the Bible as the ultimate truth to which all other cultures are opposed and so Christianity must be preached using only explicitly Bible words and images and cultural practices. Moreover, it seems that he does this entirely neglecting that the Bible is a highly encultured collection of books and that it was not written in English or to English idiom and that he has already reenculturated it from it's original context into a Protestant and western reading.

It seems to me that the Bible gives precedent for exactly the sort of evangelism the article speaks of. This is what Paul did in Athens. The difference appears to be that where Paul’s attempt failed the same style of evangelism is succeeding in Thailand. Moreover I believe that evangelism is about growing the body of Christ rather than forming people after he image of Western Christendom.

To me, a far more important point is the way we assess the method of evangelism advocated by the author of the article.

I advocate giving a priority to a reading of scripture whereby we learn from the methodologies recorded as spirit led. This means that we would look to scripture to get a grip on how those who it records as being led by the Spirit went about coming to the conclusions they came to and then treat it as a training manual for us to learn the same methodologies.

With this in mind we should look at the first council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts as a case study. Here we have in scripture a record of Spirit led assessment of mission. The issue at hand was fundamental to the young Church’s doctrine of salvation: could Gentiles be included in Jesus’ reconstitution of Israel in himself as Gentiles or did they have to become Jews in order to be included? Remember, at this time there were no Christians. The followers of Jesus were a Jewish sect and to them the following of Jesus and his whole reconstitution of Israel project was strictly a Jewish happening. And then Peter goes and preaches to Cornelius’ household. And the Spirit comes. On Gentiles. While they were still Gentiles. This presented a problem since to them this Jesus thing was Jewish. Thus the council. So what did they do? They listened to the testimony of a credible witness about the event. From this they concluded that since the Spirit came on Gentiles the same as the Spirit came on Jews God didn’t seem to hold the same doctrine that they did. Because of this they shifted their doctrine and recognized that Gentiles could very well be members of Jesus as Gentiles. Now this is very important. In technical terms they let experiential pneumatology take precedence over soteriology. The observation of the outbreaking of the Kingdom of God trumped their doctrine of salvation.

This scriptural case study seems to me to directly bear on the testimony of the author of this article. To be in keeping with apostolic methodology we should look at the testimony and be ready to have our preconceived doctrines of how God is supposed to work trumped by the outbreaking of the Kingdom. And, we in fact find exactly this outbreaking in the Thai communities the author speaks of. Our Biblical response then is to recognize the effectiveness of the method of evangelism as taking ground against the futility and chaos of this world and to accept these Thai people following Jesus in their Thai way as our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

An admittedly not so charitable question that comes up in my mind is whether those who oppose the evangelism witnessed to in the article have a sufficient working knowledge of the Spirit of the living God to be able to recognize him when he shows up where they did not expect to see him?

As a post script, I wonder how this apostolic methodology would work in the debate over the place of LGBT folks in the Kingdom? But, I will leave that question to those of you for whom this is already an active discussion.

(Side point on the article: in discussion with some of my Thai pastor friends it appears that the historical background that the author cites as the basis of the difficulty really isn't an issue as even though they are highly educated they knew nothing about that religious/political conflict. From their perspective that historical background is a non-issue.)

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