The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Short Lessons on the Church’s Mission 2: The Great Commission in Luke’s Writings

As David Pao has pointed out, Luke brings a particular Old Testament text into great prominence by placing it at the beginning and end of each of his two books, Luke and Acts, and by referencing it at several other times.[1]  The text is Isaiah 49.6, one of the ‘servant songs’ found in Isaiah 40-53 that has to do with God sending his servant to restore his people after their being exiled because of their sins:

Isaiah 49:6  It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

The highlighted words should be noted as they are likely indications that this verse is in mind when they appear in various places in Luke and Acts.  Note that ‘Gentiles’ and ‘nations’ are equivalent, and Isaiah 49.6’s idea of a salvation to Israel and then to the Gentiles/nations is something found in several texts in Luke and Acts and is really the basic message that Luke tells of the Church in Acts.  

The passage first appears as part of Simeon the prophet’s witness to the baby, Jesus:[2]

Luke 2:30-32 … for my eyes have seen your salvation  31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

At the end of Luke, Lk. 24.45-49, the risen Christ appears to his disciples in Jerusalem and commits them to the mission of Isaiah 49:6.

Luke 24:45-49 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,  46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."[3]

The same text of Isaiah is alluded to at the beginning and end of the book of Acts:

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."

Acts 28:28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen."

Within Acts are two further references to Isaiah 49.6 in reference to the mission being extended from Jews rejecting it to Gentiles accepting it.  In Paul’s and Barnabas’s speech to Jews in Antioch we find the first of these:

Acts 13:46-47 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.  47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "' I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'"

The language of ‘a light to the Gentiles’ not only appears in the servant passage of Isaiah 49 but also in the first servant passage of Isaiah 42:

Isaiah 42:6 "I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations….

As Pao says with reference to Acts 13.46-47’s use of Isaiah 49.6, the mission of Jesus, who was taken by the Church to be the ‘servant’ in Isaiah, is transferred to Paul and Barnabas.[4]  We might add that this mission is further transferred to the Church at large as it, too, fulfills Jesus’ mission.  There are, to be sure, differences between what Jesus accomplishes through the cross and faith in him and what Paul and Barnabas and other apostles accomplish in their missionary witness to the nations of Jesus and what the Church at large does in its participation in this mission.  But it is the same mission—a mission of the servant restoring the exiles and including the Gentiles to God’s reign.

The second reference within Acts comes in Paul’s speech to the Gentile governor of Israel, Festus, and King Agrippa:

Acts 26:22-23 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass:  23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles."

Several important points might be made in regard to Luke’s use of Isaiah 49:6.

1.     Mission as a Fulfillment of Isaiah’s Prophecies of the Return from Exile: As with Matthew 28:16-20, Luke’s story of Jesus’ commission of his disciples for mission is a fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah of a mission to restore the exiles of Israel and include the Gentiles.  While Matthew seems to allude to Isaiah 66.18-23, Luke alludes to Isaiah 49.6.  Yet both texts have the story of Israel’s redemption or restoration from exile in view.

2.     The Story of Mission: Both the story of Jesus and the story of the Church are missional and part of the same story of mission.

3.     The Servant’s Mission: As Jesus fulfills the role of the servant of Isaiah, so, too, the apostles and the Church pick up this role in their mission to the ends of the earth.  The disciples are witnesses to the salvation of Jesus sent out to the ends of the earth.  The Church is the ‘city on a hill’ (Isaiah 2.1-5; cf. Micah 4) where the exiles return and Gentiles come to learn righteousness.

4.     Salvation: Jesus accomplishes the salvation offered to both Israel exiled for her sins and the sinful Gentiles through his death on the cross.  The mission is a mission that addresses the problem of sin in the world.  Israel was exiled for her sins and the Gentiles were peoples living outside God’s covenant and therefore in their sins.  One cannot interpret the Church’s mission in terms of ‘liberation’ apart from seeing this liberation in terms of being set free from one’s own sinfulness.

5.     The Nations: Given the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile among the nations and some Gentiles joining them to learn righteousness, the mission of God is conceived not merely in terms of personal salvation but also in terms of the obedience of the nations to God.  This theme brings in a dimension to missions of (a) going (b) cross-culturally (c) to make disciples.  Yet this international and cross-cultural mission is more a matter of transforming people and cultures by teaching them God’s ways and teaching them to walk in his paths (Micha 4.2).[5]

6.     The Holy Spirit: The importance of the Holy Spirit to accomplish this mission is highlighted by Luke.  Jesus accomplished his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3.21-22; 4.1).  Similarly, the Church is told to wait in its mission until it has received power from on high, the Holy Spirit.

[1] David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002; originally published by J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 2000) as volume 130 in Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament Series 2.
[2] Note the term ‘consolation’ in regard to Simeon: Luke 2:25 says, ‘Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation [parakl─ôsis] of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him’.  The related verbal form of the word, ‘to comfort’ (parakale┼Ź), is used consistently in Isaiah for Israel’s salvation, as Pao (p. 46) says (see Is. 35.4; 40.1, 11; 49.10, 13; 51.3, 12; 57.18; 61.2; 66.10-13).  Note that two texts in this list are from Isaiah 49 in reference to God’s servant.  The theme of Israel’s ‘comfort’ or restoration from captivity is established at the beginning of the section of Isaiah devoted to Israel’s restoration from captivity—Isaiah 40-66—as Is. 40.1 says, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.’  Israel’s ‘salvation’ is her ‘consolation’ in captivity—her restoration from exile.
[3] The ‘pouring out’ on ‘us’ of the ‘Spirit from on high’ is, in Isaiah 32.15, stated in reference to the time when a righteous king who would establish Israel after her destruction.  God’s giving of the Spirit occurs with the comfort/consolation of Israel, the return from exile.  Thus, while the disciples hoped for a restoration of Israel more literally (Acts 1.6), the promises of the restoration of Israel from exile were being fulfilled in the mission of the Church.
[4] Pao, p. 100.
[5] Here I am pushing back against a century of literature about the enculturation of the Gospel.  There is some truth in this: the Gospel can be ‘translated’ into other cultures and languages.  That is a highly significant point.  However, the force of this argument in missional literature and theology has all too often undermined the more significant point in the Scriptures that peoples are included into God’s people, cultures are transformed by the Gospel, and people learn to walk in God’s ways.  If colonial theologies are to be criticized as encasing the Gospel in Western theology, post-colonial theologies have not fared any better.  They have not liberated the Gospel from culture but simply replaced Western culture with other cultures.  The Scriptures perceive all cultures—Israel’s and the cultures of the Gentiles—as forces that can and often do undermine the ‘ways of the Lord’.  There is no absolute celebration of culture; rather, God’s mission intends to transform cultures where they run contrary to God’s ways.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Short Lessons on the Church’s Mission 1: Matthew 28.16-20

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, meets his disciples and commissions them on a mission to the nations. 

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in1 the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

This amazing passage makes several important points about the Church’s mission.

The Old Testament Allusion

I have argued for years now that the great commission passage in Matthew 28.16-20 alludes to what I will call the great commission passage in Isaiah.  Both texts come at the end of a book.  Both texts speak of a mission carried out by a small group: the ‘survivors’ (Isaiah) or ‘disciples’ (Matthew).  Both texts speak of a mission to the nations.  Both texts understand this mission to involve a gathering together of a people for God: Isaiah sees this as a mission to bring in the diaspora from the nations to the holy mountain, Jerusalem, along with those Gentiles who will also come; Matthew sees this as a mission to bring together all from the nations who will be baptized and obey the commandments of Jesus.  With Isaiah 2.1-5 in the background, Isaiah’s great commission in ch. 66 must also envision this as a ‘moral mission’—the nations’ coming to the holy hill of Jerusalem is to learn God’s ways and how to walk in his paths (2.3).

Sin, Exile, and Restoration

Matthew highlights the narrative of Israel’s sin, exile (both in Egypt and in Babylon), and restoration from captivity (or sins) in his Gospel, tying Jesus’ ministry of fulfillment to the prophetic promises of Isaiah.  Jesus picks up the role of Israel and fulfills it.  He does not reenact Israel’s story in the sense of falling into sin but in the sense of accomplishing what Israel failed to do: instead of sin, Jesus brings righteousness.  Instead of an exiled people, Jesus restores Israel from exile.  The parallels between Israel and Jesus are drawn out at several points.
  •  Jesus’ genealogy is broken into three parts, with each transition a significant dimension reflected in Jesus’ own life.  The genealogy moves from Abraham (the father of a people) to David (the king of a people) to the exile/return from exile to Jesus. 
  •  Like the Gentiles bringing gifts to Israel upon their restoration from captivity (Isaiah 60; cf. Ps. 72), the magi bring Jesus gifts (Mt. 2.11). 
  •  Like Israel who was in captivity in Egypt and then in exile (Hosea 11.1), Jesus and his parents go to Egypt and return. 
  • Like Israel tempted in the wilderness—and failing (Deut. 8.3; 6.16; 8.19)—Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days—and succeeds (Mt. 4.1-11). 
  •  As Moses establishes the people of God by delivering the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-20), Jesus establishes his disciples with his commandments with a sermon on a mount (Mt. 5-7). 
In such ways, Matthew draws a tight parallel between Israel’s being established as God’s people, being exiled, and then being restored from captivity.  This message of Israel’s sin, exile, and restoration is the narrative substructure of Isaiah and of Isaiah 40-66 in particular.  It is equally that of Matthew’s Gospel.  And both books conclude with the ongoing task of restoration in the mission of the remnant—the survivors or disciples—to the nations.

Having noted these parallels between Isaiah’s and Matthew’s narrative substructure and great commissions at the end of each book, what can be said about missions?

1.     Matthew views the promise of mission in Isaiah to be fulfilled in the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection and his second coming (‘the end of the age’).
2.     Matthew views his ‘twelve’ disciples as representative of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the ‘eleven’ surviving disciples are sent out on a mission to the nations to gather in other disciples.  Thus, the missionary disciples represent the Church, and so Mt. 28.16-20 is not limited to the original disciples but extends to the whole Church until the end of the age.
3.     As in Isaiah, Matthew’s understanding of the disciples’ mission is not an exclusion of the Jews and a turning to a mission to the Gentiles.  Rather, it is a mission to the nations to restore the other Jews still living in captivity and to include the Gentile converts who join in the restoration of God’s people.
4.     Mission involves the formation of a people of God—as in the exodus from Egypt or the restoration from Babylon or in Jesus’ and the Church’s mission.
5.     Mission further involves ethics, the formation of a righteous people: the people of God formed through missionary work are those who (a) repent and are forgiven their sins (baptism), (b) belong to the Triune God (baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and (c) live according to God’s commandments (teaching to obey all that Jesus has commanded).  The purpose and result of mission is a holy people of God—not simply believing individuals—a restored people who, as it were, are redeemed from exile in their sins and formed in and through Jesus Christ.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Issues Facing Missions Today 63: Being God's Missional Church

These notes are offered for churches that wish to reflect together on what it might mean for them to be God's missional people.  The main point seems to be that, while God does send out individual missionaries, the people of God--the church or Church--are meant to be God's missional people as well.  The four key Old Testament texts bring this emphasis to the New Testament missional texts: as God's people, we engage in the work of God's mission in the world.  Note how strongly the themes of holiness and righteousness are present: mission is not just a message of God's salvation in Jesus Christ--which it is--but it is also the presentation to the world of a transformed, holy, and righteous life of God's people, a community of God.

The Missional Church: Four Old Testament Mission Texts


Mission is the unfolding of God’s OT promises, a story unfolding in Jesus and through the people of God

I.               Matthew 28.16-20
A.    Isaiah 66.18-23 (story of sin, exile, and restoration: survivors going to the nations to bring back the exiles, declare God’s glory, include the nations, establish worship)
B.    Isaiah 2.1-5 (nations coming to God’s people to learn righteousness)
C.    Matthew:
1.     Disciples go to the nations (Mt. 24.14)
2.     Make disciples
a.     Baptizing (repentance, forgiveness, Trinity)
b.     Teaching (Jesus’ commandments)
3.     Jesus’ presence

II.             Luke 2.32; 24.47; Acts 1.8; 28.28 (beginning and end of each volume)
A.    Isaiah 49.6 (God’s servant to restore exiled Israel and be a light to the Gentiles)
B.    Luke:
1.     Repentance and forgiveness of sins
2.     Mission in the power of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus)
3.     Witnesses (of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension)
4.     From Jerusalem to Samaria to ends of the earth

III.            John 20.21-23
A.    Ezekiel 37.9 (with Genesis 2.7)
B.    John:
1.     Peace
2.     Mission as representing Jesus, who represents the Father, to the world
3.     Sent
4.     Made alive by the Holy Spirit
5.     Offer forgiveness of sins 

IV.           1 Peter 2.9-10; Revelation 5.9-10
A.    Exodus 19.5-6
B.    1 Peter:
1.     Chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people for God’s possession
2.     So that you might proclaim the excellencies of Him
3.     Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light
C.    Revelation:
1.     Witnesses to Jesus’ ransom of all the nations. 
2.   Kingdom and priests to reign on the earth
Mission is a task of the ‘people of God’—not just missionaries—the c/Church is God’s missionary people to the world

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Parable of the Disobedient Boy's Freedom

[continuing modern parables relevant to the Anglican Church in the west and others facing similar issues]

‘You have to hear this one,’ said one of the disciples to the rest.  He picked up his copy of the ‘Daily Mail’.  Above an article entitled ‘Never Wear a Kilt in a Hurricane’ there was another that had caught his attention: ‘WikiLeaks Dumps E-Mails Written by Serpent in Eden’.

‘Here’s what it says’ said the disciple, ignoring the shoe that someone threw at him amidst howls of laughter from the others.  ‘It’s true,’ continued the disciple.  ‘Listen.  “In new revelations this week by the WikiLeaks founder, e-mail correspondence originally thought deleted between the serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden has come to light.  Apparently, Eve kept the correspondence on her private server, but a team of computer archaeologists from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts on an expedition this past summer just outside of Baghdad has discovered the server and, amazingly, deciphered the data.  Just who leaked the information to WikiLeaks, the president of the college’s computer science club refused to say.  What is clear is that there was much more to the serpent’s communications with Eve than was previously assumed from Genesis.”’

The disciple looked up from his reading at the other disciples.  They all had faces of disbelief, so he held up the paper and pointed to the article.  ‘Alright,’ said one of them, ‘read on.’

‘Apparently the first exchange was about clarifying exactly what the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was.  “This is a tree that bears delicious fruit,” the serpent writes in his e-mail. “It will give you the authority to decide for yourself what is morally right.  You will not have to live according to God’s commandments but will have the freedom to make your own moral determinations.  This is why it is said that in the day you eat of it you shall become like God, knowing good and evil.”

‘In another of the e-mail exchanges, Eve asks what sorts of moral decisions she will be free to make, apparently not quite grasping what life could be like when pursued without God’s commandments.  The serpent replies, “Eve, try to imagine a world in which your own freedom to choose is the highest good instead of submitting yourself to God’s commandments.  God says that he made you female, but what if you want to be a male?  God says that marriage is between a male and a female, but what if you want to marry another female?  What if you just want to have sex and not get married, or have sex with someone other than Adam—an angel, perhaps?  And God says that you should be fruitful and multiply, but that sounds a bit limiting to me.  What if you get pregnant but do not want another baby? Well, it would be your choice whether to have or abort your baby.  If God calls taking the life of another human being ‘murder’, you can tell him that you call it ‘terminating a pregnancy’.  Don’t you think you have the right to make your own decisions?  God is only trying to keep you under His thumb rather than give you freedom to be an autonomous person capable of your own moral choices.  Try the fruit, it will set you free.”

‘A third e-mail from the serpent expands on the question of whether Eve would die if she ate or touched the fruit.  “You will not die,” writes the serpent.  “How could you?  This garden also has the tree of life in it.  These two trees together will make you like God: you will have freedom to determine good and evil, and you will have eternal life.  Think of it!  You will be your own god.  Give some of the fruit to Adam, too, and he can also be free.  The two of you can have shared conversations about what is moral or not moral.  Freedom is delicious!  It is the best tree in the garden, but God has told you not to eat of it.  I say, Go for it!”’  The disciple stopped reading, and the disciples sat in silence for awhile.

Finally, the master said, ‘There was once a child who always wanted to get his own way.  He did not like his parents’ rules.  “I want to do what I want to do!” he often said.  And, one day, he did.  He built a cart with four wobbly wheels and a steering system that had a mind of its own.  His father saw it and told him not to take it onto the road as it was very dangerous.  However, the boy could not get the idea of an exciting ride down a hill out of his mind.  One day, he skipped school and walked up the windy road to the top of a hill near his village.  He strapped on his bicycle helmet and started his exhilarating ride at an ever increasing speed.  He managed to steer around the first several turns and keep to the road.  The boy felt the joy of steering himself down the hill in the cart that he himself had made. Soon, however, he realized that he was gaining on a car ahead of him.  He tried to apply the brakes, but they failed.  The driver saw him in her rear view mirror shooting down the hill, heard a ‘thump,’ and then couldn’t see him at all.  She brought her car to a halt by the side of the road half way down the hill.  She looked under the car, and there was the boy, wedged between the road and her car, half alive.  The driver called an ambulance and the police.  The boy was taken away to the hospital, strapped to a stretcher with a neck brace.’

The master then turned to the disciple who read the article.  ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘did the boy’s disobedience give him freedom?’

‘Yes,’ said the disciple.

‘And was it a life-giving freedom?’

‘No,’ said the disciple, ‘the boy nearly died.’

‘Perhaps he did, but not right away,’ said the master.  ‘Many people call ‘disobedience’ by the name ‘freedom’, but it is not a life-giving freedom.  God, however, calls ‘obedience’ ‘freedom from sin’, and that is a life-giving freedom.  And I say to you, that all have disobeyed God, like Adam and Eve, and found a freedom that brings death.  But Jesus Christ, the Righteous Redeemer, has died to set us free from sin and set us free to live in righteous obedience to God once again.  Now, hear these words: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Parable of the Eagle Who was Taught to be an Ostrich

The master and his disciples walked their way up the High Street of Monmouth to the old grammar school.  ‘It was here my grandfather studied,’ said one of the disciples.  She imagined her grandfather marching along the corridors of the little brown buildings, standing at attention on the quad, or playing around one of the trees before going in to class.  ‘He boarded here when his parents sailed for Africa,’ she added, caught up in a memory mixed with imagination.

‘Education was restarted in the Middle Ages by the Church,’ said the disciples’ master.  ‘We can thank Charles the Great for that, but he turned to the Church to accomplish it, and for most of the history of Europe ever since, education has been the responsibility of the Church.  Even today in these lands, many schools are still run by the Church.  When you place the study of Scripture at the centre of education in order to form children in the way that they should live, all education follows.

‘Learning to read the Scriptures is the beginning of education.  Then students want to read other literature, too.  They learn to write as well, and engage their minds with what is right and true or painful or exciting or good. 

‘They learn from Scripture that God created all things, and they study the sciences to explore His creation. 

‘They want to learn how the story of the world unfolds in obedience or disobedience to God, and how it continues in the life of the Church.  History is the study of what has gone wrong and what has gone right, and they learn from its many stories the virtues of the good life.

‘They hike the hills and visit the cathedral and discover within their hearts a longing for beauty, awe, and inspiration that stems from their desire to know the God of our worship and the God of all creation.

‘The revelation of God in His Word and His creation is the fountain of all our learning.’

Some of the disciples felt a little guilty.  They had not particularly enjoyed their school days, nor had they ever seen study to be anything about God and His Word.  One of them asked, ‘Master, what about the many in Wales today who study but have no knowledge of God and no desire to study His Word?’

The master replied, ‘Oh, God made us all to seek Him, whether we know it or not.  The soul is never at rest, as the bishop of Hippo says, until it finds its rest in God. 

‘But to remove God from knowledge is like the eagle who was taught to be an ostrich.  He no longer flew but ran along the road, flapping his wings.  He never soared.  He dwelt on the ground instead of nesting in the cliffs.  He caught his food well enough but never felt himself lifted up to glide on the currents of the air.  He saw only what was near him and at eye level.  He reduced his life’s pursuits to what he needed rather than spread his wings in the high altitudes to see the wider world and know the sheer joy of flight.’

‘Today most children do not want to read books,’ said one of the disciples.  ‘They use books to get information, although they prefer youtube and wikipedia.  I suppose they have lost the sense of revelation one gets from reading.’

Another said, ‘Most students hate the arts.  I suppose they have lost the sense of transcendence.  Art class is a painful exercise unless you have talent.  School singing has disappeared, too; making music is for professionals, who sell it to the rest, who in turn consume it  through their headphones.’

‘The study of biology is purely functional,’ said a third.  ‘There is no sense of higher purpose for living organisms.  Desire is itself just a function.  It exists only to ensure mating and therefore the survival of the species.  But the awe of being created a little lower than the angels and being crowned with glory and honour has been lost.  The notion of one’s body being a temple of the Spirit of God has been exchanged for the mere purpose of survival in a world where everything ultimately dies.’

‘Students find history boring, mere facts and dates for past events that are better left forgotten,’ said a fourth.  ‘Without God, they have no sense of story and no narrator for human life.  They just exist and seek the pleasure of the moment.’

‘What about mathematics?’ asked another disciple.

‘Before creation,’ said the master, ‘all was without form and void.  When God formed the world, He separated things—the darkness from the light, the sky above from the waters below, and the dry land from the waters.  He created distinctions, and with them measurements and relationships and ordered functions that allowed life to flourish in the places He created.  In total chaos, there is no mathematics.  In God’s ordered creation, everything is mathematics.’

‘I think,’ said Peter, ‘that if I had to do it all over again in school, I would try to soar like the eagle rather than run around like the ostrich.’

‘Education,’ said the master, ‘when understood as knowing God, awakens the heart for God.  But what will this land do when the Church in these parts no longer knows God?’

Issues Facing Missions Today 62: From Cairo to Cape Town—Scriptural Authority versus Western Theology


When the Church becomes a mirror of the culture, it becomes irrelevant to the culture.  Its youth drift away, its numbers decline.  It throws its angelic visitors and own daughters out to the horde of Sodom knocking at its door.  When the Scriptures are used in defense of the culture, its words are co-opted by the culture and its message suppressed.  It is no longer the Spirit-inspired Word of God but becomes words in the mouths of other spirits.

A Tale of One Culture in Two Centuries: The Cases of Slavery and Homosexuality in the West

One still finds today people who try to link the Church’s use of Scripture to defend slavery in the West in the 19th century to the Church’s use of Scripture to oppose homosexuality in the 20th/21st century.  The assumption, of course, is a liberation hermeneutic (a liberation interpretation) that equates the situation of slaves to other marginalized groups, such as women and homosexuals and transgender people and persons wishing to die or to design their own babies.  This is a confusion of categories—otherwise we would find ourselves championing the causes of every marginalized group. 

One might even argue, on such a logic, that once the West’s majority affirms homosexuality on the grounds of its pursuit of freedoms, the Church would then have to change its stance and take up the cause of the now marginalized orthodox (an increasingly persecuted minority) who oppose this new teaching.  However, the error is not just one of a confusion of categories (putting slavery, women, and homosexuals in the same grouping).  It is also a misuse of Scripture.  The particular mistake is to use Scripture like a puppet, making it say what you want it to say: people see the puppet’s mouth moving, but the puppeteer is the one talking.

On this matter of the misuse of Scripture, the issues of slavery and homosexuality are related (and not on the issue of liberating the marginalized).  In the 19th century, a culture that had slaves and economically depended on them to work the cotton and tobacco fields of the American South, conveniently ‘forgot’ Scripture’s calling the slave-trade a sin.  In its interpretation of laws 5-9 of the Ten Commandments, 1 Timothy 1:10 relates the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, to slave traders.  In its description of God’s judgement on Rome’s economic system, Revelation 18:13 highlights that the slave trade is a trade in ‘human souls’ that God’s judgement will end.  To strike at the very mechanism of slave trading is to strike at the institution of slavery itself.

1 Timothy 1:10 also mentions that homosexuality is a sin, relating it to a breaking of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’.  The Ten Commandments stand for moral topics rather than single issues, and this commandment stands for all sexual immorality, not just adultery.  In a Western world that sees things through the lenses of liberation, both a licensing of sexual immorality and an opposition to slavery make sense.  But from a Biblical perspective, as in 1 Timothy 1:10 itself, the two issues are distinct.  To allow sexual immorality and homosexuality in opposition to what Scripture says is to break the seventh commandment not to commit adultery.  To allow people to capture and enslave other people is to break the eighth commandment not to steal.

The West’s chief cultural lens has, for several hundred years, been liberation.  It is the value that determines all other values.  This explains why mainline denominations that have embraced this culture have searched for ways to remove Scripture’s concrete and clear teaching from the discussion.  Some have turned to the numerous, conflicting options to reinterpret Biblical passages addressing homosexuality: any interpretation will do other than the one that the Church has affirmed for 2000 years.  Others have acknowledged that Scripture says what it does but have tried to override these texts with the more abstract values of liberation and love—values that can be shaped into any sort of teaching one wishes.  (For example, for one person, giving a mother the right to abort her child is to give her freedom to choose, and to give her this freedom is how to love her; for another person, killing your own children is hardly loving and not a freedom the unborn child can be expected to embrace.  Vague values are little more than wax noses in the hands of whoever is shaping them.)

Thus, it should be no surprise that, when the Anglican Bishops of the Global South met this past week in Cairo, they did not sign up to the West’s cultural interpretation—or misinterpretation—of Scripture.  They rejected the cultural ‘West’s’ mainline denominations’ rejection of Scriptural authority, be they in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, or South Africa.  For the Anglican Bishops of the Global South, Scripture stands first, not some culture’s primary value over against Scripture or misinterpretation of Scripture.  In Scripture, liberation is first and foremost liberation from idolatry (Egyptian bondage) and sin (Babylonian exile), and love is first and foremost the love of God by obeying His commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4-6).  It is no use separating love of God from obeying His commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23).  Nor it is any use making ‘liberation’ a tool for redefining Biblical sexuality over against what Scripture actually teaches.

The Saga of South Africa

South Africa offers an interesting case study in the misuse of Scripture to establish rather than challenge the culture.  The Dutch Reformed Church was the actual incubator for Apartheid in South Africa already in the 1800s.  Scripture was read in such a way as to support Apartheid, the separation and subjugation of the native races under white, colonial power.  Opposition to this teaching was particularly strong in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, but it, too, turned to a particular ‘culture’ in order to articulate its message.  In the case of ACSA, the ‘culture’ was a theological cultural wind blowing from the West, the wind of liberation.  Liberation theology from the mid-twentieth century in the Americas was a ready tool to oppose Apartheid in South Africa.  Rather than the subjugation of non-white races, as in the Apartheid theology, their liberation was championed.

If the Dutch Reformed Church was the instigator of an Apartheid theology and politics in South Africa, it was also a key player in its demise.  With mounting international pressure and sanctions in the 1980s and continual opposition to Apartheid from several Christian denominations (including Reformed denominations outside South Africa and the Anglicans inside the country), certain Dutch Reformed theologians began to call for a new epoch (Kairos).  The initial call was rightly focussed on a call for Biblical justice.  But the developing call for liberation in the culture, which might have appeared to be in agreement with the virtue of justice, easily became something more.  The wax nose of liberation served the South African situation rather well to undercut misinterpretations of Scripture and Christianity in the Apartheid culture and to call for justice, but it could be shaped into other things as well.

The borrowed theology from the West of liberation was (to change the metaphor) a lion let out of the cage.  What else would it attack?  Unchained to Scripture, it quickly gained a taste for other liberations from Western culture.  Who can argue against anything when ‘liberation’ is the chief value?  Only liberation that takes away someone else’s freedom can be checked; but giving people a license to do whatever they wish in all other cases is clearly the ethic of the day—so much so that enforcing people to participate in others’ liberation is also considered ethical and even a legal necessity.  (You will open your bathrooms to any gender.  You will bake the cake for a homosexual wedding.  You will call a person by the gender pronoun he, she, or it wishes.) 

The West has lost the very vocabulary and the ability to articulate any ethic other than assent to individual freedoms—the right to engage in whatever sexual unions people desire, the right to define one’s own gender despite ones sexuality, the right to abort children, the right to design children (eugenics), the right to adopt children into same-sex households—and so forth.  We watch the news each week to see what the latest victim is that this unchained liberation devours.  This past week, in South Africa, the old champion of liberation during the Apartheid era, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, picked up the cause of assisted suicide.  Of course he would.  He did so in the midst of a student uprising on college campuses to demand free education and other real or imagined ‘rights’.  Of course they would.  All this is perfectly logical: liberation as a cause in the culture prowls from village to village, snatching unprotected victims day by day.

So, it was no surprise that the bishop of Soldanha Bay in the Western Cape put forth a motion at the synod in September for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to affirm same sex unions through church blessings.  (Over against the canons or laws of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the diocese had already declared that homosexuality is not a sin!  The motion was defeated at the synod, but the Archbishop of ACSA has vowed to continue the cause—the cause of liberation is never sated, and the culture cheers it on even in the Church.)

Nor was it a surprise that the once Bible-believing Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa earlier in the month condoned same-sex marriage.  (With its congregational Church polity, individual congregations may be able to resist the denomination’s view.)  It has exchanged Biblical interpretation for theological application, and the chosen theology to apply is liberation theology.  Such views affirm a liberation from the Biblical understanding of marriage itself—people can be sexually united with the Church’s blessing outside marriage—and a liberation from Biblical teaching on sexuality—in particular, the Bible’s teaching on gender and marriage being between biologically male and female persons.  For a culture that marinated in Apartheid for so long and that, in the end, used liberation theology to deliver itself, this makes perfect sense.  But it is solidly opposed to Scripture and the teaching of the Church from its beginnings when it comes to the issues of sexuality and marriage.

It is also no surprise, then, that the Bishops of the Global South, representing somewhere around 2/3rds of the Anglican Communion throughout the world, rejected the liberation interpretation of sexuality from the West and reaffirmed the historic commitment to Scripture of the Anglican Church.  Individually and collectively, they are not so blinded by their cultures that they forever try to bend Scripture with the hurricane of liberation to affirm rather than challenge culture.  They have not guzzled the wine of liberation to the last drop but have savoured it along with the meat of God’s Holy Word.


There lies the challenge.  Every mainline denomination in the West imbibing the sweet wine of freedom from its culture is in free-fall.  The Episcopal Church in the USA, having severed itself from Scripture, is sailing at the mercy of every wind of doctrine.  Its numbers are half today what they were in the 1960s.  The more it looks like culture, the less relevant it is.  The Church of Wales has so few ‘participants’ in its services and has so fully embraced the culture (there are always exceptions in a few individual churches, to be sure), that it is an ossified relic of a Church that Once Was.  England is facing the same challenge, and that with an Archbishop guiding it who seems to want everyone to sing together rather than sing truth as the ship goes down.

And what of South Africa?  Will this country at the tip of the continent where the Church is growing fastest in the world continue to link itself to its Western, colonial past by reading the world through the lens of liberation?  And what of the Church?  Will it join with the orthodox faith of historic Christianity, affirming the teaching of Scripture and prophetically witnessing in its context in the face of a cultural suicide in the name of liberation?  Or will it choose to mirror the culture and become irrelevant?