David

Two Views on Christ’s Invitation

Below are two works of Christian imagination. Both attempt to depict what it means for Christ to invite sinners to Himself, and how sinners should understand themselves. On closer examination, however, they are nearly opposite in meaning. We do not see the same Christ, the same Gospel and the same dilemma of the sinner in both.

Read both and then ask yourself the questions that follow.

1. Have You Any Room for Jesus? (Anonymous, Adapted by Daniel Whittle, 1878)

Have you any room for Jesus,
He who bore your load of sin?
As He knocks and asks admission,
Sinners, will you let Him in?

Refrain:

Room for Jesus, King of Glory!
Hasten now His Word obey;
Swing the heart’s door widely open,
Bid Him enter while you may.

Room for pleasure, room for business;
But for Christ, the Crucified,
Not a place that He can enter,
In the heart for which He died?

Refrain

***

2. The Silver Chair   (C.S. Lewis)

(Jill Pole, rasping with thirst, wants to drink from a stream, but Aslan the Lion sits on the opposite bank, watching her.)

“If you are thirsty, you may drink.”…
For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken.
Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,”…
She realised that it was the lion speaking. The voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst”, said Jill.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?”, said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?”, said Jill.
“I make no promise”, said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?”, she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms”, said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink”, said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst”, said the Lion.
“Oh dear!”, said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream”, said the Lion.

***

1. How is Christ depicted in each of the works?
2. What affections towards Christ do the writers wish to evoke with their respective pieces?
3. How does each author view the sinner with respect to Christ?
4. Which of the two has captured the biblical Christ?

Ten Mangled Words – “Equality”

Equality is one of those ideas whose basic meaning is understood, but whose presence is demanded where it cannot possibly be expected. After all, equality is a fairly simply concept: when two amounts are equal, neither is greater or lesser than the other. But while equality in mathematics is a simple matter, equality in human affairs is vastly more complex.

Understanding the difference between equal opportunity and equal ability seems lost in modern discussions. Equal treatment does not mean equal outcomes, or even equal beginnings.

When two people are equal before the law, neither has an advantage or disadvantage in the court before the case has been heard. That does not mean both are equally innocent, equally guilty, or will receive equally capable legal representation. It just means neither is prejudiced by the court because of ethnicity, sex, or economic state.

When it is said that men and women are equal, those words can be taken as a loose generalisation of the statement that husbands and wives are “co-heirs of the grace of life”. Both equally receive salvation, the promises of God, and His enablement for life. It does not mean that both are equally capable of defending the home or nurturing infants. It does not mean that the roles in the house must be exactly shared in equal halves. It does not mean that husbands and wives should do exactly what the other one does.

Unfortunately, equality has come to mean something very different from equality before the law, or equality of worth before God. It has come to mean that social planners must eliminate God-given differences, manipulate providential circumstances, and meticulously tinker with the scale of fairness, until they are sure that their idea of equality has been achieved.

Their idea of equality might be imagined thus. Imagine sprinters lining up for a race. Previously, equality meant that all start behind the same line, all begin at exactly the same moment, and all run exactly 100 metres. In its mangled form, equality would mean determining if one of the sprinters were previously advantaged by being wealthy enough to afford good training, and if so, putting his starting blocks back by a metre or so. If it turns out that another sprinter experienced poverty at some point in his life with a corresponding period of malnutrition, his starting blocks should be put ahead by a few metres. We then find out that one of the sprinters is unusually tall and powerful, and this seems to confer an unfair genetic advantage, so he is forced to run without shoes. One turns out to have had almost no coaching at all, so he is positioned a quarter of the way up the track. When another is discovered to be the grandson of a famous sprinter, and the recipient of inherited wealth, his starting blocks are removed, and he is given ear-muffs to slow his reaction to the gun. The starting line-up seems over-represented with people of African descent, and a truly representative running race should have some Asians and Caucasians. Four faster African athletes are removed, and replaced with four slower Asian and Caucasian sprinters.

When we now look at this ridiculous result, what do we see? An eclectic mix of men spread all over the track, in all kinds of states, and not even the fastest men on earth. The very last thing we would now conclude is that matters are now equal, and that now the race will be “a fair fight”. But our social planners would ignore the evidence of their eyes, and happily conclude that they have now “leveled the playing field”, “redressed the inequalities of the past”, and “assisted the previously disadvantaged”. Instead, all they have done is create a ludicrous situation that no longer even resembles a race. They have confused equality with Cosmic Justice, and the result is not equality. In fact, they have removed the very thing that makes a race interesting: how the abilities of one will triumph over the others, if all run an equal distance at the same moment. It is as if the social planners actually wish life to always result in a tie, where there are no winners or losers.

The problem with pursuing Cosmic Justice is its refusal to accept that some inequalities are not morally necessary to correct. Some are quite tolerable. Some actually stimulate great feats of competitive effort. Some are in the nature of things. Some are brought about by history and providence. Some have been developed through hard work. Some exist because of laziness, and self-destructive behaviour. Some appear accidental. Some are unfortunate results of living in a fallen world. Inequality has an innumerable number of reasons for its presence, and only someone with omniscience and omnipotence would be able to know when, why and how to perfectly “re-balance the scales”. In fact, Christians believe He does, and will.

But attempting to tinker with life to bring about Cosmic Justice in this way reveals a massive misunderstanding of what equality is, and what kind of equality can be, or should be, reasonably pursued.

Purchasing Without Paying

Websters Dictionary:

Expropriate
1: to deprive of possession or proprietary rights
2 : to transfer (the property of another) to one’s own possession

Compensation
payment, remuneration

Let’s try that definition in circumstances other than land. I enter your shop. I wish to transfer the goods you own and are selling (your property) into my own possession. I do so without compensating you. That is, I take them without paying. What is that usually called?

I wish to have your car. I demand that you sell it. You refuse, because you legally own the car and wish to keep it. I then confiscate your car, legally transfer the car into my own name without paying you. What is that called?

I want to own your house. I demand that you sell it. I can prove that three generations ago, another government expropriated (stole) the land from my family. You, however, did not receive it for free from that government, but bought it from another private seller, and so you refuse to sell. I then confiscate your house with no payment, because you did not accept my offer. What is that called?

Is the land issue more complicated that those examples? Yes, considerably so. Does the moral question of theft ever change? No.

Wayne Grudem:

The commandment “You shall not steal” implies private ownership of property, because it implies that there are some things that belong to certain people and not to others. The moral goodness of the idea of private property is reaffirmed in both the Old and New Testaments. Communism seeks to abolish private property, and is therefore horribly dehumanizing.

Richard Weaver:

Weaver vigorously defended the inviolable right to private property, naming it “the last metaphysical right.” He used this nomenclature to emphasize that the right to private property exists independently from, if not regardless of, its social utility. This metaphysical nature of private property rights derives from the natural connection between honor, responsibility, and the relationship of a person to property. Weaver also contended that work, honorable in itself, tends to result in the accumulation of property. Hence property becomes an extension of one’s labor—and of oneself. Weaver believed that property constitutes a great source for personal growth because of the inalienable bond between a person’s labor and property. Weaver also noted that the ownership of private property can serve as a check on the pressures of majority opinion, allowing anyone to think and to act as he or she chooses without having to appease the majority opinion to secure a place to live or food to eat. Another reason that Weaver labeled private property as a metaphysical right was to show that it is based not in the changing, temporal material order, but rather in the unchanging, eternal order of the spiritual. For Weaver, rights and obligations correlate with each other. To properly preserve the right to property, an obligation to engage in proper stewardship must also be recognized in order to prevent property from being spoiled from use by successive generations. Property rights then essentially promote a communal continuity between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Weaver never tired of advancing these convictions, always confident that these convictions truly reflected reality.
HT: Acton Institute

Nailing Your Isms to the Mast

If you have come across (or perhaps been) one of those people who boasts that he or she doesn’t subscribe to any –ism, refuses any denominational –ist, and is somehow above the fray of doctrinal positions, then Charles Spurgeon had some wise words in response.

“I like a doctrinal religionI do not believe in the statement of some people, that they have no creedA man says, for instance, “I am not a Calvinist, and I am not an Arminian, I am not a Baptist, I am not a Presbyterian…”  But this is only the licence he claims for his own habit of disagreeing with everyoneHe is one of that kind of people whom we generally find to be the most bigoted themselves, and least tolerant of othersHe follows himself; and so belongs to the smallest denomination in the worldI do not believe that charity consists in giving up our denominational distinctionsI think there is a “more excellent way.” Even those who do not despise faith, although they almost sacrifice it to their benevolence, will sometimes say, “Well, I do not belong to any of your sects and schisms.” There was a group of men once, who came out from all branches of the Christian Church, with the hope that everyone else of true heart would follow themThe result, however, has been, that they have only made another denomination, distinct alike in doctrine and discipline

“I believe in creeds, if they are based on ScriptureThey may not secure unity of sentiment, but on the whole they promote it, for they serve as landmarks, and show us the points at which many turn asideEvery man must have a creed if he believes anythingThe greater certainty he feels that it is true, the greater his own satisfactionIn doubts, darkness, and distrust, there can be no consolation

“The anchor we have is sure and steadfastI thank God that the faith I have received can be moulded into a creed, and can be explained with words so simple, that the common people can understand it, and be comforted by it.”

 Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 11, sermon number 659, “Simeon”.

Prayer – George Herbert

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

God My Only Happiness

God my only happiness. Psa. 73:25

My God, my portion, and my love,
My everlasting all!
I’ve none but thee in heav’n above,
Or on this earthly ball.

What empty things are all the skies,
And this inferior clod!
There’s nothing here deserves my joys,
There’s nothing like my God.

In vain the bright, the burning sun
Scatters his feeble light;
‘Tis thy sweet beams create my noon;
If thou withdraw, ’tis night.

And whilst upon my restless bed,
Amongst the shades I roll,
If my Redeemer shows his head,
‘Tis morning with my soul.

To thee we owe our wealth, and friends,
And health, and safe abode:
Thanks to thy name for meaner things,
But they are not my God.

How vain a toy is glitt’ring wealth,
If once compared to thee!
Or what’s my safety, or my health,
Or all my friends to me?

Were I possessor of the earth,
And called the stars my own,
Without thy graces and thyself
I were a wretch undone.

Let others stretch their arms like seas
And grasp in all the shore,
Grant me the visits of thy face,
And I desire no more.

– Isaac Watts

Unicultural Uniformity

Of the little pilot-fish words that swim alongside the more commonly mangled word, culture, two of the more frequently heard are multicultural and diversity. In fact, these have become unquestioned, and probably unassailable holy-words in modern culture. A competitive company will have somewhere on its Vision and Mission statement, “Our core-values include a commitment to diversity”.

Like all mangled words, these represent a vague idea associated with an undefined good. To some, they mean, “to not unfairly privilege one ethnic group over another.” To others, they mean something like, “to populate with representatives of many religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.” While everyone will agree that in a meritocracy, no one should be dismissed or favoured because of a genuinely in-born trait (such as skin-colour or gender), this is not really what multiculturalism and diversity have come to mean.

They have really come to mean that the one truth everyone must accept is that there are many truths. What everyone in secularism must bow before is the idea that no culture can be judged better than another, no religion may claim to be truer than another, no gender may be regarded as unequal in strengths and gifts to another (or even forced on one), and no sexual orientation can be claimed as normative or deviant. A commitment to multiculturalism and diversity is a commitment to religious pluralism and moral relativism.

But as is becoming clear, multiculturalism is pluralistic only with those submissive to pluralism. Those who continue to claim their religion is exclusively true, or that LGBT sexual orientations are deviant, or that males and females are just that, will soon find an aggressive response more intolerant than the most narrowly rigid ideologies. They will be excoriated in the news media, roundly abused on social media, and perhaps punished legally. It turns out that multiculturalism and diversity are quite committed to a unicultural uniformity on their view of multiculturalism and diversity. Disagree and be punished.

Furthermore, it is not enough to quietly disagree. Multicultural diversity requires you make public acts of penance for ever having held another view. These will include removing or replacing whatever sign, statement, term, practice, or object that in any way insinuates present or historical non-conformity to multicultural diversity. They will include making amends for previous non-conformity by hiring employees so as to reflect multicultural diversity, by marketing and advertising in ways that reflect multicultural diversity, and by having public relations watchdogs ready to issue apologies and offer reparations for any infringement of multicultural diversity. If they hadn’t told us of their enlightened motives, we might even think that multicultural diversity is an oppressive, tyrannical ideology. But as they remind us, it is their opponents who are Nazis. Phew.

Strangely enough, the Bible describes an altogether different kind of diversity. Revelation 7 describes a scene in heaven:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)

Amazingly, this multitude made up of representatives from every historic ethnos, tribe, people group and language group, say the same thing. This group, diverse in their ethnic origins, are united in belief in Jesus Christ, in praise for His name, and in submission to Him. Here is one culture, composed of many ethnicities. Here is one religion, composed of many nations, and men and women. Here is one Bride, composed of many tribes, given to one Bridegroom. It is taken for granted that with such a group, they were saved out of their religions, out of their deviant sexual behaviour, and out of their false views. This is a uniculture, or monoculture, with complete uniformity in loves and beliefs, composed of the greatest diversity of people groups that will ever be gathered. 

The best part is that this diverse uniculture was achieved through persuasion, not coercion. No one has to become a Christian. In obedience to Christ, we do not persecute those who disagree with us, or punish them legally (Jo 18:36). It was Christianity, and Baptists in particular, that taught the world that the church cannot be a state church, nor should the state enforce religion. The very idea of allowing free men and women to worship according to conscience is a Christian idea, not the brainchild of secular atheists.

The weird paradox is then this: in pursuit of “multicultural diversity”, secularists are actually tyrannically enforcing a de facto unicultural uniformity. And Christians, in pursuit of a unicultural uniformity (in Heaven), are tolerant of a multicultural, diverse, secular order.

Christians should be committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, which will create the scene in Revelation 7. Christians should be against partiality of all forms: racism, prejudice, and chauvinism. But Christians should not burn incense to the Caesar of multiculturalism and diversity, as the world means those words. To do so will be to deny that Jesus is Lord. 

 

Pagan Culture and Apostate Culture

In discussions of evangelising the post-modern West, something is often forgotten. Those cultures which were formed by Christianity and have since abandoned it are not reverting to paganism. They are not pagan cultures. They are apostate cultures, and an apostate culture is a much scarier animal than a pagan one.

C.S. Lewis wrote on how much easier it would be to witness to a pagan culture.

“Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

An apostate is treated very differently in Scripture to an infidel. An infidel suppresses the truth of general revelation, but has not claimed membership with the people of God. His unbelief is to be rebuked, but he is to be patiently evangelised.

Conversely, an apostate claims to be one of the people of God, while denying and opposing the fundamentals of the faith. Entire New Testament books, such as Jude, 2 John, and 2 Peter, give the bulk of their content to identifying and responding to apostates.

What then does apostasy look like on a cultural level? An apostate culture claims to be all the things Christianity brought: virtuous, tolerant of other views, loving, respectful of human freedom, interested in human dignity, peace-loving, concerned with mercy and justice, governed by sound reason, gentle to all, etc. At the same time, it now vociferously renounces the fundamentals of the faith that gave it those things: the authority of Scripture, the deity and humanity of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the depravity of man and the need for atonement, the essentiality of faith in grace. It does not want the moniker Christian, but it wants the equivalent of the title righteous: good person, tolerant, and loving. It wishes to receive all the benefits and privileges that Christianity brought, but it would disown all the responsibilities that Christianity demands: belief, submission and love of Christ. 

We should note that this phenomenon is new, as far as Christianity goes. Israel committed apostasy, too, and the books of the prophets details what a perverted and warped effect it had on post-Solomonic Israel. But since Christianity was never rooted in one land, it took many years before one could say that Christianity had permeated a culture. And only after the Enlightenment (a misnomer, if there ever was one), do we now encounter a culture apostate from Christianity. 

We are only beginning to see the terrifying effects of this. Morality without religion soon becomes a terrifying tyranny. Freedom without grace-enabled submission soon becomes the mere power to assert one’s will. Love without a holy God becomes lust in hitherto-unseen forms. Reason unhinged from Revelation and ordinate affection becomes a perverse Pied Piper, leading souls to absurd, and yet “logical”, places. Tolerance without worship becomes coercion. When the Christian God is denied, the image of God in man must steadily be abolished, and the result is a nightmarish culture. 

Most frightening of all, unlike evangelising a pagan culture, this culture has heard the Good News. They are not in darkness, needing the light of the Gospel to free them from the chains of idolatry. They have seen the light, turned from it, and are not interested in seeing it again. Denials of Christianity’s claims are taught in the classroom, the lecture hall, the TV documentary, and often funded with tax-payer money. Our kings and princes know the culture is apostate, and would have it so. 

How do we evangelise an apostate culture? I’m yet to see the evangelism and missions books take this seriously. What does “And on some have compassion, making a distinction but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh(Jude 1:22-23)” mean, on a cultural level? Should we seek to “redeem” or “transform” the cultural equivalent of a JW Kingdom Hall? 

Perhaps we had best begin weighing up what Scripture says about those who have been enlightened but have fallen. It might influence what we do and don’t do to win the lost. It might change whether we think it appropriate to make the lost feel at home in our worship. It might change how we do apologetics as a whole. 

Missionaries and Culture

Missionaries do their work in a perilous environment. Such has been the rise of ideas such as “multi-culturalism”, that many missionaries now go by a different title: aidworkers, social-workers, educators, or even consultants. Opting for different titles is understandable. In the popular imagination, missionary is increasingly synonymous with colonialist, imperialist, or patronising religious types “forcing” their fundamentalist notions of exclusive paths to God. 

For the missionaries on the ground, the bigger challenge is not how unbelievers perceive their work. The far greater challenge is communicating Christianity to a culture whose worldview, language, customs, art, and social structure has been shaped by religious beliefs different to, and often hostile to, biblical Christianity. 

Those with little experience of this underestimate the size of the task. One might think it is merely a matter of finding correspondent words, symbols and media in the target culture, and simply translating from one culture to another. Sometimes that can be done. 

But here is the real dilemma: what do you do when the target culture has no words for what you need to communicate? What do you do when it has not developed its own writing system to read God’s Word? What do you do when its musical instruments have been used mostly for shamanistic ceremonies or for war-dances? What do you do if the commonly-practiced form of marriage is unbiblical? What do you do if the form of dress is shameful to the human made in God’s image?

According to some contemporary theories, you are not to judge such things. You are there to simply give out the propositional truths of the Gospel. Indeed, some missionaries have been taught the “cellophane-wrapping” view of culture. Culture is nothing more than the wrapping or packaging around the Gospel – meaningless and amoral in itself, simply an instance of varying human preference. Give out the message, and leave the cultural customs alone.

Serious missionaries know better. They know that within every culture there will be instances of God’s common grace: customs that produced social order, delicious meals, folk tales with moral power, social differentiation, special ceremonies, existing poems, songs, crafts, and artworks that can be used to illustrate and communicate biblical truths, and Paul did with the Greeks when quoting Epimenides, Aratus and Menander.

But they also know that cultures shaped by idolatry will have artworks that communicate idolatry, social customs that reinforce idolatry, and language reflective of idolatry. There will be gaping holes in the vocabulary, musical literacy and understanding of the world that need to be filled with Christian truth. There will be existing devices, technologies, and customs that cannot be used by Christians without severe confusion or strain on the conscience, which will need to be eliminated altogether, or transformed until they are no longer recognisable. Here the missionary is not simply co-opting and adapting what he finds; he is actively adding and removing in the name of helping an infant church learn to walk. 

The ability to do this skillfully requires the missionary become expert in two sets of meaning: biblical meaning, and cultural meaning. He must know what Christian truth and affection is, which means he cannot be a novice in the faith. He must then learn the meaning of his host culture, as completely as time allows. He need not become expert in evil (Ro 16:19), but he should be familiar enough with the culture to be able to readily understand the meaning of a certain musical instrument in the target culture, and whether it is consonant with Christian affections. He must continually be comparing Christian meaning with the symbols, devices, tools, customs, technologies, artworks, and media in the target culture. If he is not competent in both systems of meaning, two errors will result. 

One, he may ignore the system of meaning present in the culture, and simply impose the forms of meaning from his home culture. As we said, the missionary needs to do this where the target culture simply lacks the forms or devices to carry the weight of Christian truth. But this error is not simply introducing what is needed, it is ignoring what is present and may helpfully communicate truth. Christianity takes on a more foreign feel than necessary, often becoming a strange outpost of 1950s Americana on another continent. Believe it or not, this is the less serious error. 

Two, and more dangerously, he may uncritically adopt the system of meaning in the culture, believing that Christianity will be far more readily received and embraced if clothed in familiar symbols. His error is not simply that he translates the truth, it is that he does not carefully discern if some cultural forms will distort the message of Christianity once adopted. He avoids the ditch of paternalism, and swerves over into syncretism.

Missionaries need to be well-versed in the meaning of two worlds, and know how to use, adopt, reject, and adapt forms in the target culture, so that Christianity may progressively transform a people from “the empty tradition (anastrophe) received from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:18) into a people with honourable conduct (anastrophe) before the world (1 Pet 2:12). He is, whether he means to or not, a culture-maker and shaper. And who is sufficient for such things?

We Don’t Want Your White Man’s Religion

In Africa, particularly where black nationalist sentiments arise, it is not uncommon to hear the title of this post thrown around in conversation. Similarly, half-formed sentiments are uttered about missionaries who replaced the harmonious earth-religion of the peaceful indigenous people with their foreign religion, so as to steal their land and subjugate them.

The saddest irony of these assertions being made is that these sentiments are not even African. They were really birthed by Europeans influenced by the Enlightenment (particularly Rousseau and his “noble savage” idea). Those most vociferously calling for a pure African religious identity purged of the infection of European missionaries are unwittingly busy borrowing from other, less honourable, Europeans.

What is more important is whether there is any truth to these accusations. First, was the missionary movement of Christianity merely a disguised land-grab? Second, didn’t missionaries simply have their own culture, which they then imposed upon the indigenous people, unnecessarily displacing perfectly healthy cultural patterns?

Land-grabs in the name of religion are a painful and evil part of history. No defence of these can be offered, except that Jesus said his servants were not to fight for an earthly kingdom (Jo 18:36). When it was done, it was certainly not an act of obedience to Christ, or a legitimate part of missions. Missionaries are to plant churches, not conquer land. Too often, opportunistic politicians piggy-backed upon the genuine mission-work of missionaries (think Cecil John Rhodes using David Livingstone’s work).

The second question suffers from misunderstanding the meaning of culture. Did the missionaries have “their own culture”? Of course they did, as do we all. But if a culture is the incarnation of a religion, a religion externalised, then to the degree that those missionaries were allegiant to biblical Christianity, and to the degree that they had been shaped and formed by healthier forms of Christianity, their culture would have been a valid expression of Christian ideas.

The fact that these particular Christian missionaries were Caucasian is besides the point. What matters is if Christianity had come to dominate the worldview of the region in which they grew up. As it turns out, Christianity, in the broadest, trinitarian sense, came to dominate Europe for 1000 years. Pagan, warlike, and superstitious people in Europe were progressively transformed into the people that produced Milton, the Chartres Cathedral, the Magna Carta, Shakespearian Sonnets, and Bach. It had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in the skin, and everything to do with what worldview came to dominate.

In God’s providence, Christianity’s centre moved through the centuries from the Middle East, to Asia Minor, to North Africa, to Western Europe and to North America. During the era of the modern missionary movement (1750s onwards), Christianity was strongest in Europe and North America. Wherever it remained, it shaped those people, and their entire culture. Not perfectly, nor completely, but significantly. When Christians left their homelands to take the Gospel somewhere else, they were necessarily bringing the Gospel and their particular Christian culture to a people largely or totally bereft of it.

The same providence that centred Christianity in certain regions during certain eras also allowed that some continents or lands experienced centuries of what Romans 1 describes: the devolution that idolatry brings. That does not mean that no common grace existed in those places: Acts 14:17 says that it did. But to the degree that cultures were formed around animism, sun-worship, or some other form of idolatry, is the degree to which we would expect the image of God in them to have been further defaced and marred. We would expect their cultures, as the missionaries found them, to be externalisations of idolatry, as pre-Christian European culture certainly was.

Were those missionaries coming to a non-Christian culture then supposed to present a “culturally-neutral” Christianity to the people they evangelised? Such a thing is difficult to even conceptualise, let alone practise. A missionary not only teaches ideas, he teaches the people to sing, to speak purely, to dress modestly, to worship, to obey God in all of life. He must, and necessarily will, shape the culture of the people he evangelises.

He must start somewhere, and present the newly converted people some cultural forms, especially if the indigenous ones he finds present are irredeemably idolatrous in meaning. (This is worth exploring further, and we’ll do so in the next post.)

As an example, we might reference Robert Moffat in southern Africa, who not only translated the Bible into Tswana, but also many hymns. He produced the first Tswana hymnbook, and the first original hymn in Tswana.

Is this imposing “white culture” upon “black culture”? No, it is presenting translated forms of a Christian culture that grew up in Europe to an infant Christian culture in another place. As these people imbibe Christianity, and it shapes them for generations, they will eventually speak in their own voice. But you must learn to walk before you can sprint, and one of the healthier things that a newborn Christian culture can do is hear the songs, histories, poems, sermons, biographies, of the church universal. Avoiding these cultural forms in the name of ethnic nationalism is simply pride, and will not produce a pure “African” or “Asian” Christianity. It will likely produce another syncretised Christianity with idolatrous ideas mixed in with Christianity. The only way to see the idolatry in your own culture is to step away from it by being exposed to the culture of historic Christianity, which has spanned five continents, and two thousand years.

It took more than a millennium of Christian ideas in Europe to produce a Bach. We may still be centuries away from an African Bach, or a Chinese Notre Dame, or a Polynesian Watts. But that is a function of time, not of skin colour. In many ways, Christianity has taken hold in Africa, South America and south-east Asia a lot faster than it did in Europe. True, often the Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. Often, pop culture is secularising the Christianity that emerges. But it remains to be seen how true Christianity will leaven the cultural lump in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Will Europeans and North Americans eventually be saying to missionaries from Africa, “We don’t want your black man’s religion”? Perhaps it will be sadly be the case. For man, ever seeking justification for his rebellion against God, finds great convenience in the excuse that the Gospel must be untrue because it was brought to him by people from a foreign nation, who had it before he did.