Reproducing Western Christianity or Following the Sunna of Jesus?
Graduated from Penn State in 1974 with a degree in History. Graduate work at Penn State in Public Administration 1976-7 Staff of the USCWM since 1981. Regional director of Northeast Regional office of USCWM since 1988. Church elder 1992-2004. Leadership for church planting teams 1998-2004. Training cross-cultural workers 2003 to the present.
Abstract: Over the last twenty years there has been a rising tide of dissatisfaction with what has been known as Western Christendom. Some of this has been a rejection of traditional religious forms, some abandonment has been simply from boredom and some have left looking for the Jesus of the Gospels that is rarely taught and even more infrequently modeled inside the western church. What message do we send with men and women preparing for cross-cultural service? What are they going to take with them to the peoples of the world, Christianity or Jesus?
For the better part of thirty years my wife and I have been working to recruit and train men and women for cross-cultural service. In the process of this Sue and I have made friends with hundreds of Muslims, and Hindus from all over the world. We have never tried to overtly “evangelize” these friends. Instead, we have tried to love them and live the values of Jesus and his Kingdom in front of them. What has most often been their response is to notice how different we are from the other “Christians” they have known. More specifically, they notice how different we are from their cultures stereotype of “Christians.” The factors that continues to surface are that the history, politics and cultural interactions of the western Christian world with them and their culture have been violent, negative and in their words, “so unlike Jesus!”
One of our friends, Dr. David Shenk, quoted a Muslim friend.
“David, why don’t Christians follow the way of Jesus? a Muslim asked. I was dining with a close friend, a Muslim, in the Blue Nile Restaurant in Washington, D.C., when he leaned close and asked that disturbing question. He continued slowly, pensively, “When I read the Gospel, I am overjoyed. The life and teachings of Jesus are wonderful, wonderful, really, truly wonderful. But, please show me Christians who are willing to follow in the sunna (way) of Jesus.”
I read this quote almost thirty years ago at the beginning of my ministry and when I was an obviously much younger man. I can tell you that this Muslim’s question haunted me through those years and his Diogenes like search for a Christian that looked like Jesus was a quest that I resonated with. Being a slow learner, it took me almost twenty years to come to the conclusion that this Muslim was not just issuing an idle, baseless complaint. He was speaking the truth. I had been looking through the Christian world for Jesus in the life of other Christians and while I found many examples, the reality was that those men and women who really were trying to live like Jesus were a very small minority. But the hardest reality to address was that, in spite of our Muslim friend’s perceptions, I was not one of them and I needed to face the fact. I had become a Christian leader, but I did not know what it meant to live, walk and love like my savior.
I had to answer the questions connected to why this would be the case. Why could so many people across so many cultures say they were followers of Jesus, Christians, but have so little of the life of Jesus showing through them? I am first and foremost a historian. Whenever I am dealing with a significant problem like this, my propensity is to go digging through history to look for answers. Knowing that the complaints of so many non-Christian cultures have historic roots I felt this was the place to start.
So now I am writing this article to try to explain why being Christian is not something I try to emphasize, nor do I encourage others who are headed into cross-cultural ministry to try to reproduce the “Christian” experience they have had. I am a trainer and a coach.
My pattern for training originates in the realities of the missionary tradition set against the backdrop of the historic development of the Church (with the Bible as the final arbiter when an issue is in question). The position of the Protestant mission’s movement in my lifetime has been to transmit as culturally neutral and uncolored an understanding of the Good News as possible, and to avoid adding our own cultural baggage to the development of the Church in other cultures. That being said, the analysis of many missiologists throughout the years has been that we have not done a very good job of this. In his book, “Transforming Culture,” Sherwood Lingenfelter, a well known missiologist of the late 20th century writes,
“Why is it that in the process of establishing churches in non-western nations we transfer our culture of the church? Can we find a Biblical basis for this practice? Are missionaries planting biblically founded indigenous churches, or are they transferring their culture of Christianity to every nation of the world?”
My answer to you is exactly as Lingenfelter suggests, in spite of our best efforts, Christians have been propagating far too much that is extra-Biblical as they attempt to communicate truth and Good News. As a result, it is often the culture of the missionary and the practices of the western Church that are rejected by adherents of other religious traditions. The truth is the peoples of the world have the irresistible need to connect with God within their spiritual DNA, and God has ordained that this should happen through a life-altering change of allegiance. The world was made to fall on its knees in front of Jesus, not western Christianity. When we present a Gospel that is either encumbered with western cultural barnacles, or one that omits Him, the peoples of the world do not see Jesus, so there is nothing worth a change of allegiance. The Scriptures do not demand that the peoples of the world become western Christians, or for that matter, Christians of any sort. The Scriptures demand a change of allegiance, and that change turns a follower of darkness toward the brilliant light of the Kingdom of God. The change of allegiance demands the peoples of the world become followers of Jesus.
As I have studied Church history, I believe the western Church has overlooked some very important events. These events amount to a total reversal of the direction the earliest Followers of Jesus had taken. The problems Lingenfelter highlights are not simply a result of overly western missionaries. I believe the problem is more systemic and pernicious. Because so much time has elapsed and so little information about the early church survived, it has been easy for us to assume that the way the Church developed was the way it was supposed to develop. My belief is that within the first two centuries, the Church fathers made horrendously flawed decisions, which led the development of the Church in directions that would work against its ability to accurately and Biblically represent Jesus to the world. The Reformation did not ferret out these inaccuracies and so when we attempt to communicate a Gospel through our Protestant lens, in spite of our best efforts and humanly pure intentions, we miss the mark disastrously.
The significant change was in process within a generation of the death of the last of the Apostles. The change was about two things, the headship of Christ and power, the understanding of it, those who should have it, and how it was to be used. The leadership of the early Church revolved around the use of the charismata and eldership. The charismata were about Jesus empowerment of the Church and his headship over the Church. In Ephesians 4, Paul explains how the charismata influenced the development of the Church and its leadership. Paul said,
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13, NAS)
Those who were gifted with these five leadership gifts were so gifted to train and equip the rest for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Having leadership was not an entitlement. It was a labor of love as a servant. It was not a position to hold power over others
Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-8, NAS)
The role of the elders was to guard, serve and protect and to form an accountability system for the church. So then, the day-to-day operation of the church would have been around the connection of the believer to Jesus, as his mentor through the gifts, and the elders would have exercised watchful care over the flock to keep it from deviating from the truth. Within this system of leadership, the headship of Jesus, servanthood, and accountability would have been emphasized. The Church needed to remember the headship of Christ over it. The role of the Church was to serve the world, and there needed to be accountability horizontally and vertically. The Church needed to maintain accountability for the way the gifts were used, and for how they lived their lives in the world as a testimony to the presence of Jesus as their head, and it was the role of both the Ephesians leadership gifts and the elders to make certain this happened.
But by the middle of the second century, individual elders in various cities were coming to believe that there should be one elder in each city that was more privileged than all the others. One super elder would rule over the other elders in the city. This belief changed the idea of elder from its Biblical roots and morphed into the role of bishop. This same process at work in the Church undermined the headship of Christ and the use of the charismata. Within the second century it is likely that the practice of charismata as a leadership function in the church, as a connecting force to Christ, and as a part of the maturation of the believer, ceased. The gifts were replaced by a growing list of church offices and sub-offices which became artificial constructs, like wax fruit mimicking the real thing. When the Church fathers replaced the charismata with church offices, they effectively obliterated vertical and horizontal accountability as well. The Church no longer had a systemic connection to Christ. Where character development and orthopraxy had been the rule, orthodoxy took its place. It became very difficult to hold power seeking men to the constraints of the Bible. So, since virtue and Christ-like character were not practical or possible, the Church would settle for right thinking. You didn’t have to live right, you just had to acknowledge that you knew what was the right way to live, even if you had no intentions of doing it. This was a system that even the demons of hell could sign on with. The power system of the Church was now about a manmade echelon system that ruled itself.
This change of headship led the Church to continual failures in their understanding and use of power and of their understanding of the Kingdom and what the Gospel was. When the leaders of the Church and the government could no longer be held to account for sanctified patterns of behavior, the church lost any idea of discipleship as well. The entire understanding of discipleship is based on patterning attitudes and actions around those of a more mature mentor who was also struggling to become more like Jesus. The focus of their understanding of Gospel became a static event, revolving around a salvation “decision” rather than a dynamic relationship with Christ and the Kingdom of God.
The Church Fathers eventually associated the Kingdom of God with a worldly Kingdom and made the logic leap; if someone was opposed to the “Kingdom of the Church,” they were opposed to God. Much of the historic development of western Christendom is mired in the misuse of power and the continual diminishing of the teachings of Jesus as the guidance for the Church. You cannot set out to dominate and conquer the world and at the same time be a servant and slave as Jesus said. It became impossible to anticipate or expect Christ-like character from the leadership of the Church. Even after the Reformation, distortions in the understanding of power remained an active distraction for the Church. Much of the colonial period had at least the passive compliance of much of the western Church.
To sum up my concerns, the problems in western Christendom are that we have abandoned the Headship of Christ. We have overlaid our understanding of being the Church and doing church with a cultural set of values and constructs that diminish the place of Jesus, elevate the role of the clergy, one set of gifts at the expense of both larger Body, and our understanding of the nature of God. Since the Reformation did not correct these issues, we have significant problems with our ecclesiology and a dwarfed understanding of Jesus, and the Godhead in general. No matter how hard a missionary tries, if he cannot imagine a formulation of what it means to be the Church beyond anything he or she has experienced, whatever is created will retain a dominant cultural identity that distorts the church and the Gospel. Therefore, I would suggest that the problems Lingenfelter observed across Africa were virtually unavoidable.
At the present time, I believe the world is witnessing the beginnings of a movement of the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit has moved, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the spiritual status quo. In the western world, this dissatisfaction has been evidenced by a growing antipathy for institutional religion. This dissatisfaction has pushed and pulled adherents in a number of directions; some of these are good and some are not. Paramount within this movement is an underlying theme that Jesus should be the focus of our spiritual lives. In Alan Jamieson’s book, “Churchless Faith,” Jamieson recounts his research in Britain around church goers leaving organized religion. He discovered that they were leaving not because they were falling away from God, but they left in a conscious effort to deepen their faith. They could see no way to remain inside “church” and develop their relationship with Christ.
There is also a movement around the historically non-Christian world that has been called by some, the “insider movements.” This is an incredibly diverse movement but one of the themes is a rejection of western Christendom and a focus on Jesus. One of the streams within this movement suggests that Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus can remain Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu and still be a follower of Jesus. While I resonate with their antipathy toward being identified with being Christian, and their desire to remain culturally connected to their birth culture, the idea of remaining Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim would seem to avoid resolving the allegiance issue which belongs to the Kingdom of God. It appears to me that Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist identifications are cultural constructs that are no different than being called a Christian. Jesus does not ask anyone from any culture to completely give up who they are. There is good and bad in all cultures and the Kingdom of God affirms the God and judges the evil. But ultimately Jesus asks us to choose between who we were and who we will become as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. In a very real sense the decision to give allegiance to the Kingdom of God creates a new reality, a new person and a new culture. The followers of Jesus become a totally new creation.
My interest in these movements is whether these movements, and what is going on inside of the western Church, are all a part of a larger movement of the Holy Spirit that is not interested or dedicated to any cultural or religious manifestation, but intent on bringing the discussion and focus back to Jesus. In the process of training people for cross-cultural ministry I do not train them to go to the ends of the earth to promote the tarnished reputation and replicate the defective spiritual DNA of western Christianity. Western Christianity is at its heart a sub-Biblical construct that has absorbed more from various cultures and traditions than from the teachings of Jesus. So this writer does not believe the construct, historic decisions or name associated with “western Christendom” is worth reproducing. Jesus, on the other hand, imitating him and being his follower, is, and always must be the message. If the peoples of the world who do not follow Jesus are ever to see him, hear Good News and give their allegiance to Jesus, those of us who are the emissaries of the Kingdom must learn to “follow the sunna of Jesus.”