The apostles in the early Church had some massive cultural integration issues on their hands. With Jews and Gentiles clashing over how to do church, we expect them to react in a stern and divisive way. That’s what we would naturally do – right? Jews in this building, Gentiles down the road: divide and conquer. But that is exactly not what the apostles did.
In this sermon Conrad Mbewe looks to the example set by Paul in Romans 14-15 and applies it to our own cultural challenges in the African Church. It’s certainly no less explosive and politically charged.
Church Today vs. The Biblical Norm
“I want to deal with the challenge of African culture with respect to the Church’s worship and with respect to the Church’s discipline. And it’s really to do with the Church’s inner life: in other words how we relate to one another within the context of the Church.
The Church in Africa is by and large far removed from the biblical norm.
It is no secret that if there is one area in which we really ought to be concerned, it is precisely that. That we are fast reaching a situation where the Church in Africa is by and large far removed – and even getting further removed – from the biblical norm: the Church as it is described and painted in the New Testament.”
The Pros & Cons Of The African Church Style
In the first half of this sermon Conrad Mbewe walks us through several areas where African culture influences how we do church. And although there are clearly positive aspects, there are negative implications as well. He looks at singing, respectfulness and communal living in this way.
We cannot divorce our practice of the worship of God from our culture.
“We cannot divorce our practice of the worship of God from our culture. Remember what I said, culture is simply your view of life as a community and how you live it out. It speaks about your value system, your attitudes, that express themselves through your actions.
So there’s no way that as a people you can leave that at home locked away in your closet and then come to church and be something completely different.”
Learning From The Apostles
So what is the solution? Pastor Mbewe urges us to look to the example of the apostles in the early Church who also faced these problems. They addressed it in two ways.
1. Maintaining An Informed God-Centredness
The first thing the apostles did was to ensure that an informed God-centredness was developed in the Church.
“You see, the Christian faith is not about what I want, or what you want. For the Church is not ours. It’s God’s! It’s his household. And he has made it plain as to how he wants his Church to be in order that he may be glorified in it! So obviously, it’s not an issue of tossing a coin, it’s not an issue of voting so the majority finally win the rest of the day, it is a question of what does God think.
The Church is not ours. It’s God’s!
The Church is not about you, your comfort, what you like. And therefore, because that other person’s doing what you don’t like you’d better get out. No. It’s about God and how he sees the situation. Is he in a relationship with that brother who rubs you the wrong way in worship? Well if the Lord has accepted him, I’ve got bad news for you, you’d better accept him too.”
2. Insisting On Cultural Integration In The Church
The second step is to respond to this challenge by insisting on cultural integration in the Church, because of it’s maturing effect.
The apostles didn’t say: Jews over there, Gentiles over there. They insisted on the two co-existing for mutual benefit.
“They called for the two parties to avoid the extremes of cultural paternalism and hyper-criticism. It is this gracious disposition towards one-another as Christians, that will address the extremity that an unbridled and exploited African culture has brought into the Church.”
It’s About God, Not Us
“Of course this is not easy. But as Christ came to meet us where we were and accepted us, we need to do the same for our brothers and sisters in the faith: staying God focused, and deliberately striving to integrate with each other – no matter our up bringing or personal preferences – to the glory of God.”
African Culture Sermon Series
Conrad Mbewe looks at the challenge African culture poses to the Church in Africa in these three sermons:
3. African Culture & The Challenge of Community Impact (Forthcoming)
Text: Romans 14:1 – Romans 15:7
Date preached: 5 January 2009
Location: Grace Ministers Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa
Please turn to Romans 14. I’ll just read the first four verses to begin with. But I really want us to spend our time this evening making our way through that entire chapter and quite a bit into Romans 15.
The Bible says:
“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
The Challenges Posed By African Culture
In the last session I briefly introduced the subject that is on our hands which is the challenge which is posed by African culture to the Christian Church. I gave some kind of working definition of culture generally so that at least we are on the same page as I am dealing with it. And then we went on to spend a bit of time just looking together at some aspects of African culture so that we are able to appreciate again even there what we are dealing with.
I suggested to you that I had three sessions that I had on my hands and I was going to deal first of all with the challenge as the Church confronts the world – in terms of the non-Christian world, bringing people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And then that in this second session I will be dealing with the challenge of African culture with respect to the Church’s inner life as we are dealing with issues of worship, issues of discipline – both formative and restorative. And then the Lord willing tomorrow we are going to deal with the task of the Church now impacting its own world as salt and light.
The subject of culture is complex.
You will recall in the first session how I was very quick to say that the subject is complex. It’s not a kind of subject that one can hope to deal with exhaustively in three sessions. But then what I was hoping to do is to simply handle it in an introductory way – at least handle each of those three areas – to give us something of a sense of scope concerning the challenge that is there before us. And trust that as we deal with it from the scriptures, you are being challenged to see how to respond to this whole issue.
We Are Here On African Soil
And I did quickly squeeze in the fact that when dealing with African culture, it’s not because of any inferiority with respect to the culture itself, because we are on African soil, we’ve got the mandate to reach Africa, and consequently it’s important that we think through the challenge and implications of this entire subject.
Because we are on African soil, we’ve got the mandate to reach Africa.
And clearly what we saw by the end of the last message was the need for us to have a biblical faith – the optimism of the apostles – in going into a world with a mindset that does not readily receive the biblical gospel, but still trusting in an ever-living saviour, who’s given to the work of saving his elect people.
Key Challenges to The Church’s Inner Life
As I’ve already hinted, in this second session I want to deal with the challenge of African culture with respect to the Church’s worship and with respect to the Church’s discipline. And it’s really to do with the church’s inner life: in other words how we relate to one another within the context of the church.
The Church in Africa is by and large far removed – and even getting further removed – from the biblical norm.
It is no secret that if there is one area in which we really ought to be concerned, it is precisely that. That we are fast reaching a situation where the Church in Africa is by and large far removed – and even getting further removed – from the biblical norm: the Church as it is described and painted in the New Testament.
The Super-Hero Pastor Image
One obvious area for instance, is that of personality cults, with an untouchable, super-hero, pastor image. That is the order of the day. Basically, the image of the chief or the supreme among the chiefs, now taking a big and prominent role in the context of the Christian Church.
Storytelling & Moralising, Not Preaching The Word
Apart from that you can see that the preaching of God’s word has by and large given way to nothing more than storytelling and moralising. And so all that people do when they are either preparing messages to go to church and preach there is to think in terms of what fascinating story can be used in order to anchor on it some moral lessons for people to be able to remember as they go home.
Singing To Exhaustion Levels
And of course, one significant aspect of the African Church context is that of almost all the time being spent singing. I’ve been to one or two churches before where you spend three solid hours singing, and sining, and singing. And it’s not just congregational singing, but one form of choir after the other. The old men’s choir, the young men’s choir, the children’s choir, the quartet, the solo – I mean everything possible. And it’s just hour after hour going. And by the time I’m being asked to preach, I’m tired and I know the people are tired as well. And consequently you know that people have not really been prepared for the preaching of God’s word.
Non-Christian Culture Seeps In To Worship
Then of course there is the failure in the churches to keep the purity of God’s worship. I mean anything and everything innovative coming in! All because the capacity to judge what ought to be part of worship and what ought not be part of worship isn’t there. And that’s the door through which again syncretism comes in. So that whatever it is that’s part of ‘life out there’ in the non-Christian or pre-Christian cultural context, seeps its way into the life of the Church.
The Appointment of Powerful But Unfit Leaders
May I again add to this the untouchable, powerful individuals – either because of their connectedness with nobility in the tribe or their economic power. Such individuals, therefore, being given position in the life of the church despite the fact that they are absolutely unfit for church office as far as their spiritual or moral lives are concerned.
Inability To Discipline Leaders & Others
And what is worse is, therefore, the inability of the church to discipline them because of the power that they have within the context of the immediate community in which the church itself is. And so however immoral they might be, however scandalous their lives might be, they end up still holding sway in the life of the church.
Inevitably the failure to discipline them breeds a situation where it’s difficult to discipline anybody else. And so the only sin that is really a criminal sin in the context of the church, is speaking against those same people. Under the guise of disrespect for authority or breeding seeds of discord in the church.
This Is The Norm In Africa Today
Now, you don’t need to have been in Africa long enough for you to appreciate that what I’ve just described is not the exception to the rule – it’s by and large becoming a common phenomenon.
Churches are reduced to social clubs where the community finds itself because that’s the place to be fun to be.
The churches are being reduced to social clubs where the community finds itself because that’s the place to be fun to be in on a Sunday. Issues of the biblical picture of the New Testament Church, do not therefore even arise.
I wonder whether anybody here who has been on African soil long enough can deny that this is fast becoming the norm in the African Church today. I don’t think so. Unless you are over-sheltered in your own little corner of the world, you will know that this is painfully true.
Where Have We Gone Wrong?
Rather, we should be asking ourselves the question: “In the light of New Testament Christianity, where have we gone wrong?” Because the Church in Africa is a product of our work! The Christian faith has come through faithful men and women over the centuries. And yet we look with pain in our hearts to see that by and large, this is the kind of Christian Church that we are having to look at and to deal with here in our land.
The Church in Africa is a product of our work!
The Foundational Problem: Our Evangelistic Methods
Now, one obvious explanation is what I spoke about earlier on this morning. That the problem is at the foundational level. That our evangelistic methods – failing to come to terms with the cultural context in which we are ministering – have produced unregenerate church members. And obviously, light cannot come out of darkness.
The result is what we are seeing today.
But I want us to go further this evening. Instead of just limiting ourselves to where we started, I want to suggest to you that there is at least another explanation with respect to this. And it is beyond the foundational one. And I want to prove it to you by drawing all important principles from the text that we have just read together: Romans 14.
There Is Another Problem
The very first statement I would like to make from this passage is the fact that we cannot divorce our practice of the worship of God from our culture. Remember what I said, culture is simply your view of life as a community and how you live it out. It speaks about your value system, your attitudes, that express themselves through your actions.
We cannot divorce our practice of the worship of God from our culture.
So there’s no way that as a people you can leave that at home locked away in your closet and then come to church and be something completely different.
We Bring Our Culture With Us
Remember culture is a blind spot. You don’t even think about it. But when you come in contact with a people from a different culture, then it hits you in the face. Especially when you are perceiving that these people want to change your way of life – your view of life – your value system. You feel threatened, you dig in your heels and battle begins.
I’d like to suggest to you that this was one of the most difficult challenges that the early Church had to deal with. As Jews and Gentiles, coming from completely different, diverse backgrounds, were coming to faith in Jesus Christ and coming into a common Church. It wasn’t easy. They could not divorce themselves from their deep seated cultures, from which they had come. Those cultures had coloured their view of religion and their expression of it. And consequently, the words that we read in the passage that we looked at earlier on.
This was one of the most difficult challenges that the early Church had to deal with.
Romans 14:2-3: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”
Jews & Gentiles Had a Cultural Clash
You can see there that the apostles, and in this case the Apostle Paul, had to handle this matter. Clearly, it was an issue where one group was saying that the other group was wrong. And therefore they ought to change in order to become like them. The Jews on the one hand – being the one that perhaps would be described either with weaker faith or stronger faith – and then the Gentiles being in the other category.
How did the apostles deal with this? And I think it is in looking at this matter that we begin to learn some major lessons.
Naturally, African Culture Has Impacted The Church
However, before we look at how they dealt with it, I think it’s important for us to try and apply it to the issue on our hands. Because this is one of the major challenges that African culture has presented to the Christian Church. And all I want to do in going through this chapter is to draw out the principles so that we may see how they apply.
You see, when you look at the Christian Church, especially as seen by those who are coming from the outside, there are a number of things that immediately become clearly visible as cultural expressions of the Christian faith in the Christian Church.
Singing: The Pros & Cons
For instance, as Africans, we sing a lot. We love to sing. We sing when a baby is born, we sing when we marry, we sing when we have a funeral, we sing when we receive visitors, we sing when we harvest a crop, I mean, we sing! It’s part of our cultural context. And in many ways it is good! It’s an emotional outlet and may explain why very few of us die of heart conditions!
We sing! It’s part of our cultural context. And in many ways it is good!
However, allowed to go unchecked in the Church it has reduced worship to one unending singalong.
Respectfulness: The Pros & Cons
Similarly, African culture is very respectful. You respect elderly people, you respect people who occupy office. I remember the first time I came out of our context and into the Western world and a young person in church called me Conrad. I almost fell over! Because I was coming from a context where in church I’m always referred to as Pastor Mbewe – always – even by my own peers.
Coming into that context was obviously a great learning experience and of course in due season, as difficult as it may have been, I realised that in the context in which I was it was not disrespectful. Quite a learning curve for me.
There is an air that we attribute to somebody in such a position, that they become completely untouchable.
Now that has its positive elements with respect to the gathered church. And especially in terms of respect for leadership and respect for the elderly. However, the failure to address wrongs done by someone powerful in the church’s leadership is nothing more than a continuation of the failure to question a chief! It’s basically the same thing!
There is an air that we attribute to somebody in such a position, that they become completely untouchable. They cannot do wrong. At least, you cannot speak against them when they do wrong, otherwise you must be disciplined.
Communal Living: The Pros & Cons
Again, another area. African culture is very much a communal culture and there I’m contrasting it with Western culture which is very private. Church is out there. You go in at the right time, you go through the service, you finish, you go home, and no-one there has a right to interfere into your private life. You give them your one hour – perhaps an hour and a half at a the most – and that’s enough. Beyond that they dare no come into your life.
There is an interconnectedness: the church is part of the community, and the community is part of the church.
Well, African culture is different. Church plays a very important role in the families and in the community. It is basically the centre of gravity for all the activities that are happening around. There is an interconnectedness that makes the church part of the community, and the community part of the church. The pastor literally becomes a community leader.
Now, that has its strengths and we will deal with that tomorrow.
The Problem With Discipline In This Context
However, it also means that issues of discipline become extremely difficult to handle, because of the strong interconnectedness of individuals. It’s been a common experience for pastors in the African context particularly, and the closest I can link it to is in the Western world where you’ve got small churches out in what they call the villages, where everybody is related to everybody else and they are part of that church. And perhaps the only one who is not related to anyone else is the pastor who’s been brought in from seminary.
He belongs to us becomes stronger than he has done wrong.
When you try to discipline one individual for obvious, stubborn, scandalous sin, you’ll soon find not only the church wanting you fired, but the community wanting to run you out of town. And consequently discipline, as straight-forward as it ought to be, becomes well nigh impossible.
He belongs to us becomes stronger than he has done wrong. And of course tribalism there can become rife in the church to the point where to be a leader in the church you must belong to a certain tribe, and sometimes even to a particular level in that specific tribe.
Storytelling: The Pros & Cons
Let me touch one more area – and in a sense I’ve already touched on it. In African culture, we love to tell stories. That’s how our culture passes on from one generation to another. It is not by abstract theories, it is by stories about hunters, stories about warriors, stories about family and so on. And of course we’ve got our stories about animals as well that are larger than life.
The Lord Jesus Christ often said “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and he would give a story.
Now that certainly has its place as can be seen from the narratives in both the Old Testament and the New Testament and also from the parables that are again in both places. You’ll recall the way in which Nathan brought David to repentance by a story. And of course, our favourite preacher in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ often said “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and he would give a story.
So there’s a place for that. However, again, taken to its extreme, exposition of scripture suffers a mortal wound. Doctrine is no longer taught in the churches. And because such passages as the book of Romans and the book of Ephesians etc. etc. are not expounded passage after passage, the church, though full of people, becomes extremely weak! And any wind of heresy carries a large chunk of God’s people along with it.
The African Church Has Become Weak
The African Church therefore, if you combine all these things together, has become very weak.
Not in terms of numbers – the numbers are there as I said. It’s a focal point of community life! But anyone who has been biblically taught, going into that context, asks himself the question, “How can this be allowed to go on? To be tolerated, indeed to be applauded in the light of an opened Bible?” Because the Bibles are there! It’s not out of that kind of ignorance.
The answer, basically, lies in the culture. It’s the background from which the people are coming.
But How Do You Tackle This Challenge?
You cannot say to them, “Leave your culture out there, and when you enter through the pale of the door, you must be Westernised”. It won’t happen, and it can’t happen.
You cannot say, “Leave your culture out there…” It won’t happen, and it can’t happen.
Instead therefore, it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. It’s a challenge that we need to take seriously! Because at the end of the day God is to be glorified in his household – and that’s what the church is! It’s the Church of the living God; the household of faith. And therefore we cannot turn a blind eye to the state of the churches – we must be concerned about it.
And to simply go in and start saying, “That’s wrong, you need to cut down on that, and so on, you know. Instead of singing for three hours just have two songs, that’s what the synod has decided”, and start making rules like that… that won’t get you anywhere. Because all they’ll say is, “Well that’s them – imposing their culture on us”.
Two Things The Apostles Did
And isn’t that the issue in Romans 14? Isn’t it one expression of religious belief and worship versus another expression? And of course you would have thought that the apostles in dealing with this were going to come in and say, “Well this is very simple. Jews, have your church down that corner there. Gentiles, put up your building on the other side. No more squabbling.”
1. Maintaining An Informed God-Centredness
That’s not what the apostles did. What they did do is essentially two things. The first was to ensure that an informed God-centredness was developed in the Church. Let me say that again, it’s a pregnant statement. That an informed God-centredness was maintained in the Church.
You see, the Christian faith is not about what I want, or what you want. I’ve already said, the Church is not ours. It’s God’s! It’s his household. And he has made it plain as to how he wants his Church to be in order that he may be glorified in it! So obviously, it’s not an issue of tossing a coin, it’s not an issue of voting so the majority finally win the rest of the day, it is a question of what does God think. And look at the way in which the apostles bring this issue out, beginning with Romans 14:3 downwards.
For God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?
The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does” Why? Well here’s the answer. “For God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Had you noticed the emphasis on God there?
Church Is About God, Not You
The Church is not about you, your comfort, what you like. And therefore, because that other person’s doing what you don’t like you’d better get out. No. It’s about God and how he sees the situation. Is he in a relationship with that brother who rubs you the wrong way in worship? Well if the Lord has accepted him, I’ve got bad news for you, you’d better accept him too.
If the Lord has accepted him, I’ve got bad news for you, you’d better accept him too.
That’s basically what he’s saying. You must ensure that the Church is about God, and not about ourselves. He develops it further. And again, I’m just bringing out the principle here. In Romans 14:5-12. Again, I want you to specifically centre your thoughts on the way he is bringing this God-centredness out.
“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord. He who eats meat eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for himself alone, and none of us dies for himself alone. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
You can’t miss the God-centredness. The emphasis being on God himself.
Does It Glorify God? That’s The Question
When we lose sight of that, our capacity to handle the challenge of culture has completely been lost. Because then it becomes an issue of me versus you. But when it is about God, then that becomes the primary question. “Is this person, with whom I am seeing things differently with respect to the worship of God, with respect to the ordering of his Church, can I honestly say that he is a sincere servant of God? As I mingle with him, as we argue over issues, am I seeing somebody who clearly, jealously, wants to uphold the glory of God? Though I disagree with him in the way in which he is finally carrying it out?”
An unregenerate soul cannot be primarily concerned about the glory of God in his Church. Never! It’s all about a power play.
now that brings us right back to where I was this morning. And it is this: This presupposes regeneration. Because an unregenerate soul cannot be primarily concerned about the glory of God in his Church. Never! It’s all about a power play. “This is our church! It belongs to our tribe! My family started this Church!” And on and on and on the circus goes.
We Still Need A Bible-Centred Foundation
It is when there is genuine evangelism, bearing fruit in true conversion, that we can even begin to hope for this God-centredness. And so please, do not forget my last message as we are dealing with this one. It presupposes an appropriate foundation. Where that is missing, that’s where we need to begin from. Ensuring that there is Bible-centred evangelism.
We need to begin with ensuring that there is Bible-centred evangelism.
But may I also quickly say, that notice that I called it an informed God-centredness. What did I mean by that?
The Debate Is About Disputable (Not Essential) Issues
You see the basics of the teaching of God’s word must surely be there. You see the difficulties in the church here in Rome, was over disputable matters. Listen to Romans 14:1: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters”. Now that’s important. Because you see the issue there is not about whether we should worship one God or squeeze in a few idols in the process. That’s not disputable. We are to worship but one God.
It’s not about whether we should worship one God or squeeze in a few idols in the process. That’s not disputable: we are to worship but one God.
But it’s dealing with those areas where yes, we feel strongly about it, but you see to arrive at that we have to go from stage, to stage, to stage, to finally prove that this is the way we ought to be going about either worship or discipline or whatever else it might be.
And if we are to be really, really, honest, it’s about our upbringing: the way in which we have be brought up to deal with issues of religion.
And that’s the issue that we must be dealing with here. It’s where we can see in one another a sincere desire to serve the master, though we cannot agree with the expression of that service.
We Fear The Accusation of Being Westernised
Now, as I come back to dealing with African culture, I need to quickly say that sadly what we have allowed to happen in the African context is a move away from this informed God-centredness that is being taught by the Apostle Paul. And we are actually justifying what is clearly man-centred in the name of being African. Hence, we are not addressing it at all for fear that we will be accused of having become Westernised.
We are justifying what is clearly man-centred in the name of being African.
For instance, when the Church is now singing songs that say nothing more than “We are going”, over, and over, and over again: “We are going, we are going, we are going, we are going, we are going” and dancing throughout – we are going! Is that God-centred? Let’s just be honest! You are not even saying where you are going!
Obviously, it’s nothing more than mindless emotionalism.
Or when powerful individuals are allowed to get away with gross immorality, theft of church funds, while anyone who raises questions is kicked out. Is that God-centred? Is that really a jealousy over the glory of God in his Church? Again, obviously, the answer is no.
Similarly, when the family or the tribe that a person belongs to overshadows any disciplinary action or fitness for church office, is that biblical, God-centredness?
One more example, and I’m sure that should suffice.
The Moral Of The Story…?
Last week, I was on leave for the last two weeks so I had the opportunity to visit some church somewhere. And the sermon, virtually the whole sermon, was about a mouse that was going around the village trying to convince the pigs, the goats, the cows, to help the mouse to undo the mousetrap that had been laid for it. And they all refused.
Finally, the mouse, disheartened, just kept away from the zone where the mousetrap was, until it heart a snapping sound – biaw! The mouse wondered who on earth had gone there? And found it was the dreaded snake that had ben causing chaos in the village.
The villagers came out to see whether it was the mouse, and found the snake writhing to death. Wanting to celebrate, they decided to slaughter the goat, the pig, and the cow.
The moral of the story is your friend’s problem, is also yours. Help him.
I can’t remember the verse that was used to begin that sermon, but obviously it would take a bit of time to forget the story and the lesson behind it.
Surely, The Church Must Be God-Centred
But you see this is what we are allowing, because we are advised that this is the way African worship ought to be. That’s the only way that ‘these people who really understand God’s truth’ – so says the Anthropologist. But you see while all this is going on, the church is moving further and further and further away from these New Testament norms of being God-centred, while we are watching! For fear of being labelled ‘judgemental’.
Surely, that’s not a point of compromise. The Church must be God-centred: in it’s worship, in it’s church order, in it’s discipline.
Whatever we may disagree on in terms of the final details of it’s outworking, I must go to church, mingle with the people of God, and be able to say with truth: God was among us! That’s a non-negotiable. And when it becomes very clear that worldly men and women have hijacked the Church in the name of everything else that is African or cultural, there is a challenge that needs to be addressed and redressed.
And so clearly, in this passage, that’s the first thing that the apostles wanted to ensure: God-centredness as a non-negotiable. Where we see it, let us agree to disagree on many things and respect one another.
2. Insisting On Cultural Integration In The Church
What is the second? It is to respond to this challenge by insisting on cultural integration in the Church, because of it’s maturing effect.
The apostles didn’t say: Jews over there, Gentiles over there. They insisted on the two co-existing for mutual benefit.
I’ve already said that the apostles would have simply said, “Well look, you people are squabbling too much, you are hurting one-another, it’s very simple – Jews over there, Gentiles over there”. They didn’t. Instead, they insisted on the two co-existing for mutual benefit.
The apostles could have also said, since most of them were Jews, that it’s the Gentiles who have to change and come in on our terms, so that our expression of religion – even with the removal of the Old Testament cult – should still be the expression of the Christian faith. They would have easily done that. But they didn’t.
They did not want the Gentiles to submit to Jewish qualms and reservations. Instead, they called for the two parties to avoid the extremes of cultural paternalism and hyper-criticism. It is this gracious disposition towards one-another as Christians, that will address the extremity that an unbridled and exploited African culture has brought into the Church.
Accept One Another – Like Jesus Did
First of all, there must be acceptance of one another. And in the acceptance of one another, begin to deal with those aspects in African culture that are militating against a biblical expression of the Christian faith.
I’ll jump quite a bit ahead of what we have in Romans 14 and quickly go to Romans 15:7.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
Now, how did Jesus accept us? Well I’ll tell you how he did – he forgave us our sins, changed our hearts, and without waiting until we are perfect, he came and started having fellowship with us. And the journey of sanctification is undertaken, having been accepted by him.
Jesus is not at the finishing line saying, “Until you become perfect, sorry, I dare not be seen with you”.
Jesus is not at the finishing line saying, “Until you become perfect, sorry, I dare not be seen with you”. And the Apostle Paul is saying the same thing to this church that is squabbling over so many things to do with their cultural baggage. Begin with accepting one another the way Christ accepted you!
Now, it won’t be easy, but that should be the starting point.
Rockets One Way, Bombs The Other
Sadly, that’s not what is happening today. Instead, we are very comfortable with a huge reinforced concrete wall between ourselves. And all we do is to throw stones across that wall – sort of Palestine, Israel type of situation in the Gaza strip. Rockets flying one way, bombs flying the other. Hoping that at least one side will be finally defeated.
And in the meantime we are seeing the Christian Church going from bad to worse among the vast majority of African churches across the continent.
It’s obviously easier for us to be in our nice, well-packaged churches. Where nobody is doing anything that’s going to rub us the wrong way. And then be able to hear what’s happening on the other side and just shake our heads. “How can they accept that? Hah!” And get on with life.
Integration Can Be Addressed
Now, I don’t want to be too simplistic brethren. I recognise that there are issues of language, there are issues of the recent Apartheid past (especially for South Africa), there are economic and social differences that inevitably make integration not a straight-forward matter. However, there are other issues that can surely be addressed, and that’s my point of contention.
Accept People Where They Are
For instance, with respect to singing, do you honestly expect African Christians to be integrated into your Western churches in the white suburbs in which they have moved, with the kind of singing – or lack of singing – that is there?
Brother Hannan is a friend of mine so I can crack a joke about him. When he was leading earlier on he forgot the item on the program about singing. Where I come from, they forget the sermon. You’ve got the point!
The point is simple. I’ve said it already. We love to sing! So to get an African in a context where you sort of struggle through one song and then it’s the sermon and that’s about it, he goes home thinking, “No, no, no, next Sunday, the search continues”.
But what’s happening? Here are educated Africans who can play with nuclear physics like a child enjoying a milkshake. But come Sunday, they end up in churches where they have to leave their brains behind in order to – as it were – enjoy worship! And surely, we need to redress that to be realistic to it! The most they can do by way of compromise perhaps is to find a charismatic church somewhere where there is what they call ‘lively singing’. I’m sure you’ve heard all those things.
People will not accept a glass of cold water from us… because we’ve not accepted them first
That’s just an example where a failure to take a deliberate step to integrate is leaving us in a situation where the very people to whom we ought to be ministering will not accept a glass of cold water from us, because of that hand that’s holding it. Because we have not accepted them first, as they are.
Remove Stumbling Blocks
There are real cultural issues, that those who are in the non-African situations, may also need to address in a give and take manner. Because once the acceptance has taken place, then in the midst of fellowship, you can begin to challenge on another as iron sharpens iron.
For instance, issues of modesty in dressing and the physical expression of affection in public, is not a secret to say that those from an African cultural background stumble, genuinely stumble. Therefore, those from a non-African cultural background may have to make up their minds not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of believers with African cultural baggage, in order to facilitate that fellowship in which iron can sharpen iron.
I’d like to suggest that that’s the chief argument of the Apostle Paul from Romans 14:13-21. Listen to this:
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God”, again notice the God-centredness there, “is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way”, again notice the God-centredness, “is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and”, notice, “to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.”
In other words, the challenge that the whole issue of African culture and the extremity that it’s exploitation has caused, the challenge which it brings upon the rest of us is that of saying to ourselves, “We need to integrate. We need to deal with some issues about ourselves, that keep these people at arm’s length from us. We need to – as it were – connect, as the Lord Jesus Christ did”.
He came into our world, he became one of us, and yet in being one of us we are not the ones who changed him – ultimately – he’s the one who has changed us.
That’s the challenge. And brethren you’ll agree with me, history bears witness to the fact that those who’ve had the greatest impact on the Christian Church in another culture, are those who have entered into that culture. Who’ve had sufficient love to say, “I will pay the price to try and understand these people. And I don’t like this, and I don’t like that, but hey – where are we going? Because I want to help them”.
And it is as a people in a cultural context notice that respect, that love, that willingness to learn, that they also open up with a willingness to learn.
You earn the right to ask questions. You earn the right to question things. And because of your life, which is there – they can mingle with it, they can see – they can’t just throw you off. They can’t. That’s the challenge that is being brought to us, and it will demand a lot of endurance.
I’ll deal with that as I come to an end.
So what I am asking is, do we seriously want to address the negative extremes of African culture that are strangling true spirituality out of the African Church? Do we? Then we need to pay a price for it. We do. By assuring those two elements.
First of all, an informed God-centredness. We shouldn’t compromise on it. But also, by a movement towards the cultural integration in our churches. Simply trying to shoot down the extremities mentioned earlier using sniper fire won’t work. You can send them books if you want. But remember, culture is a blind spot. They will read those books, but it won’t strike home.
May I also add that a few days of seminar is also not enough. We need to integrate so that while they are holding up this super-apostle pastor, they find this other pastor helping to prepare the chairs, to clean the floor that’s been messed up, to be an usher at the door – a steward helping people in. And they say, “Oh look! How can this be?” It’s bringing a cultural shock into the system. It’s not simply a book that’s been thrown there, it’s not simply a lecture in a seminar that’s there. It’s a real living being they are dealing with. They can’t deny him!
Thank you very much for your patience.
I must give you my final verse and it is this. Romans 15:5-6
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth”, notice the God-centredness, “you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
As long as we remain within our comfort zones, Africa will continue going from bad to worse while we watch.
May we be an answer to that prayer by doing everything in our power to bring this about. It’s a real challenge. And as long as we remain within the comfort zone of our well-protected church contexts, Africa will continue going from bad to worse while we watch.
Let us pray.
Eternal and gracious God in heaven, I’ll be the first to confess that this is a complex subject. That one dare not over-simplify. But thank you for some pointers that we find in the scriptures, and the challenge that they bring to us. Oh father, help us to respond to your word – even if it means paying a great price for it – that tomorrow’s Church may be better than today’s because we lived.
Lord, in the light of what we are seeing, the devastation in the churches of Christ, the loss of the basics of New Testament Christianity, help us to be relevant to those situations. For the sake of the glory of your name.