A tooth decays over a period of time as a result of bacteria mixing with food in the mouth. Likewise the truth decays over a period of time as a result of uncritically mixing African traditional religious practices with Christianity.
In his Warnings to the Churches, J. C. Ryle writes, “Since Satan cannot destroy the gospel, he has often neutralised its usefulness by addition, subtraction, or substitution.” A neutralised gospel is no gospel at all.
What Contributes to Truth Decay?
Sometimes we find this decay in the form of additions of extra-biblical teaching on issues concerning child birth and naming, marriage and family roles, blessings and curses, death and ancestral spirits have been added from African traditional religious beliefs. At other times there is the subtraction of essential gospel truths such as ‘grace alone through faith alone’ from the equation of salvation. There are even times that we find substitution in matters addressing God and money, the word of God with the man of God. These and many other moves like it neutralise the gospel.
The result is that while most Africans claim to be Christians, traditional beliefs and values still permeate and shape their interpretation of scripture and lifestyle. Instead of God’s gospel being preached in order for people to come to Christ that gospel is pressed into the shape of the people’s religion.
Even though Christian teaching is exclusive, the implication is that the African tendency is to accept it as co-existing with traditional beliefs. Thus Christian teachings are incorporated into the traditional beliefs and vice versa. This has led to dualism and syncretism.
Size Can Hide the Problems
The fact that Africa has a strong numerical Christian presence but a weak Christian influence, is evidence of this. One wonders why a continent that is experiencing growth in Christianity is at the same time increasingly grappling with tough issues. Take for example Uganda, a country that has a Christian presence of 84.5% (according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, in 2014) yet grapples with high levels of rape and defilement, witchcraft, a high number of teenage pregnancies, as well as drug and alcohol abuse. The country has been characterised by civil war, sectarianism, tribalism, nepotism, bribery, religious conflicts and moral degeneration.
Africa has a strong numerical Christian presence, but a weak Christian influence.
The picture is similar in Kenya, Zambia and Malawi among others. Numerically the Christian church is vast but its influence is vapid and lacking. Many in Africa profess faith in Christ but at the same time continue to practice traditional religion. Here the individual adheres to any religion as long as it will put “bread” (wealth) on the table and help them avoid death. For many this is the measure of a powerful religion.
Syncretism Undermines the Truth
Today, it is very common to find a Christian who attends a biblically sound church on Sundays and looks for “spiritual nourishment” from a diviner during the rest of the week. The individual follows two parallel, mutually exclusive paths of Christianity and traditional religion. Why would one do this? This is because they view religion in terms of power and providing good health and material wealth.
Many Africans view religion in terms of power and providing health or wealth.
What is the relationship between Christianity and African traditional practices and beliefs? At what point does a Christian in Africa embrace his or her culture? At what point does a Christian in Africa exclude culture? This is a difficult point of tension we will all face in our respective lands: where do we continue and what must we stop?
We Must Put on the God’s Truth
In Ephesians 4:17-32, Paul uses the imagery of putting off and putting on. The central theological issue is the transition from being a non-Christian to being a Christian. More narrowly, in Ephesians 4:17-24, Paul tells the Ephesians to take off their old self and put on Christ. Paul first challenges the Ephesian believers to put away the old self by not living as Gentiles (Ephesians 4:17-22, 25-31). He describes the old self as a hardened life, one that that has lost sensitivity to God, given to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity (Ephesians 4:18-20). This is a life that is corrupted or decaying, characterised by falsehood, anger, stealing, unwholesome talk and bitterness (Ephesians 4:25-29). This we should put off.
A central theological issue is the transition from being a non-Christian to being a Christian.
Paul then moves on to challenge them to put on the new nature (Ephesians 4:23-25, 32). This includes a change in the mind, speaking truthfully, kindness, being compassionate and tender hearted, forgiving and being imitators of God’s love. It is fascinating to observe that the putting off begins with “the futility of their thinking” (Ephesians 4:17). The putting on begins with “be made new in the attitude of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).
The Faith is Not Merely a Component of Our Lives
This points to the fact that the gospel needs to shape a whole new worldview, not just moral behavior. Paul demonstrates a deep need for believers to put off their imbedded cultural values and assumptions, which often remain unchallenged after conversion, and encourages them to put on a Christian way of thinking that leads to the formation of a Christian worldview.
The Christian life is one organised entirely around God.
In Africa today there are several counterfeit teachings that attempt to neutralise the gospel, ultimately causing the decay of truth. A slow and gradual process of addition, subtraction and substitution. The attempt to uncritically embrace African traditional religious practices and beliefs and at the same time fully embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. This only leads to decay and does not foster the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). The Christian life is one organised entirely around God, taking the form of Christ and bearing his character.