Friday, 24 May 2019

Local Mission vs. Worldwide Mission

The other day a colleague of mine heard her pastor preach a sermon saying something like, 'Mission isn't about going somewhere else, it's about reaching people here at home!' We have also heard the same from mission boards here in the UK. 'We want to focus more on local mission.'

Why the switch from overseas mission to local mission?

I think there are several factors we need to consider:

  1. Our God is too small, to paraphrase J. B. Phillips. We believe God can help us reach folk in our neighbourhood, but the idea of going somewhere completely different, with another culture and language, seems too far fetched. Also, deep down we may believe that, actually, they are OK with their beliefs and practices, and we have little to share with them. This is tantamount to believing that each region has its own god, and ours is only in charge of the local patch.
  2. We have believed the lie that short-term is better than long-term mission. This has turned mission service into mission tourism, which is also fine, and better than getting sun-soaked on a beach in Greece, but does little to further the Kingdom. The trouble with focusing on short-term mission is that it ticks a box, and we think we've done something significant. Really?
  3. We have heard that the church is growing elsewhere, but not here. This makes us think that we need help, rather than wanting to send people to serve elsewhere. But this is not a universal truth. There are still many many unreached areas of the world. If you believe the church is growing elsewhere, then look into where it is growing (Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, etc.), and stop sending folk there! Only kidding. But seriously, there are many places in Asia, for instance, where the gospel has not yet begun to have an impact.
  4. I also suspect that our failure to send folk overseas means we have lost faith in the gospel, and therefore our local mission is also doomed to failure. It's not about getting people through the door into church, but about going to where they are, to the 'next village' as Jesus said (Mrk 1:38). We can't spend all our time in the local synagogue.
I could go on, but I think you have got my point. When will we get our vision back? When will we start believing in the God of Sinai, who made the mountain shake as he revealed his word to us there on that summit? (Exo, Heb, with thanks to Craig Blomberg for the idea). 

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Can We Be Saved by Law?

Can we be saved by law? Paul says many times that we are saved by grace, not law. He even says Christ is the end of the law:

Since they [Israel] did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans 10:3‭-‬4 NIVUK

There are two things we need to think about first, before we jump to conclusions on this issue:

1. The word nomos 'law' could refer to several different things (Gal 2:19 illustrates this point)
2. The word telos 'end/culmination/goal' also needs interpreting

On the first question, Paul, in Romans 10, is likely to be referring to the Mosaic law, with its regulations to offer sacrifices and so on. We cannot be saved by keeping all of the teaching of the Torah. Neither are Jews saved simply by having this teaching. Having a Bible doesn't save you.

On the second, the word telos is likely to mean 'goal/fulfilment' here. Christ is the goal and fulfilment of the teaching found in the Torah. He is the fulfilment of the sacrificial system. Actually the Jews haven't been able to offer sacrifices since the Roman desecration of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70. But both Messianic Jews and Christians  believe Christ's sacrifice was sufficient once for all. Also, if we are to talk about nationalism (i.e. pride in being a Jew), then Abraham is the father of all Jews (and Arabs), and the grandfather of Jacob, who was given the name Israel, and Abraham was promised he would be a blessing to all nations, albeit through his descendent. If you are a Jew, there is no point in being nationalistic and anti-gentile. In fact the Hebrew word for nations is the same as the word for gentiles - goyyim. Abraham's name is a blessing to all, both Jew and gentile.

So can we be saved by law? Yes! By obedience to the law (i.e.teaching) of Christ (Gal 6:2; Jhn 15:1-17). The similarity between Moses and Jesus is that they were both teachers, but Jesus brought (and taught) grace and truth (Jhn 1:16-18). Also, we have been saved, and therefore want to obey, not the other way around. If it were the other way around, it would be us not him. It would be our righteousness not his.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Evolutionary Theory

Another point I made in my blog on syncretism in the Western church is this:

'A kind of intellectual belief in evolution that makes us want to believe any advance is good, not only in technology, but also in morality, world view, spirituality, and so on. There is no biblical basis for this. In fact the Bible tends to view many so-called 'advances' as moves away from God. For example, when the people of Israel asked for a king, so they could be like other nations, the prophet Samuel (in 1Sam 8) told them very clearly what that would mean for them, and it wasn't an upgrade!'

At the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century there was enormous optimism in Western culture. We seemed to be making many discoveries, documenting all known life-forms, and progressing at a tremendous rate in terms of scientific progress. Underlying much of this optimism was a belief on evolution - not just evolution of species but evolution of civilisations. We believed that 'primitive' cultures could evolve into 'modern' cultures. Often we expected them to take the following path, in terms of their religious beliefs:

traditional religion and/or polytheism ==> monotheism ==> theism or deism ==> humanism/atheism

It was thought that belief in one God was more 'civilised' than belief in many, and that the belief in a divine principle and logic that was behind the world was more civilised than that, and finally people would reach atheism.

This optimism also affected the church, and resulted in a kind of postmillenial theology based on Rev 20 that believed that we were living in a golden age of prosperity that would soon be followed by the 2nd coming of Christ. Of course that isn't the only possible reading of Rev 20. Amongst others there are premillenialists (who believe Christ will return before a literal millenium), amillenialists (who believe that Revelation should be read as a series of pictures/analogies), and, as the old joke goes, panmillenialists ('it's all gonna pan out in the end') :). Many postmillenialists were occupied in trying to make life better for those not yet living in the golden age. This resulted in some good things - social action, fighting issues of injustice, and so on. But it tended to result in an all 'now' and no 'not yet' view of the Kingdom of God.

Another problem with postmillenialism was that it was based on evolutionary ideas. But the evolutionary ideas are simply not true. There are no 'primitive' cultures, at least not in terms of their beliefs and practices. In fact it's possible to see modern civilisations as more fragmented and therefore a deterioration of values we held in earlier times. As I said above, Israel asking for a king was a step away from the God-as-king model of politics and religion they had previously lived by.

In any case, postmillenialism was way too optimistic. The optimism was wiped away by the events of the 1st world war. In fact the 20th century, with its highly developed modernistic philosophies (Marxism, Socialism, etc.), had the most atrocities in any century since historical records began.  This pessimism led to the rise of many dispensational premillenialist movements such as the Brethren and some Pentecostal groups. Dispensationalists believe that the Bible has several ages, known as dispensations, and that God dealt differently with Israel/us differently in each 'dispensation'.

Although there is now a widespread scepticism of modernist views I've described above, postmodernism can sometimes be just that, a negative reaction to modernism. A scepticism in science, and all that we used to put our trust in. This has been replaced by a view that local is good, and that there is no metanarrative. All beliefs are equally valid. 

In terms of churches, and their position on this, I would say some are still stuck in modernism, so therefore have a rather over-optimistic view in the role of science as the bedrock of all other beliefs.

Other churches have swung to a postmodern view that all cultures are valid and equally important. Therefore we have little to share with those from other cultures and should concentrate on reaching our own. 

There is yet another view coming to the fore, which is globalism. In this view each culture has something good to offer. Therefore Westerners still have a role to play in seeing the world reached for Christ. We work alongside locals to see the work accomplished, rather than being in charge and passing on some of the above ideas, that, quite frankly, are somewhat bankrupt. We act as catalysts, but try not to influence ideas directly, rather we model biblical living and values as Westerners, realising that the people we work with may choose to go in a different direction, equally biblical, but contextualised for their own situation.

In conclusion, we need to be more humble and see ourselves as much in need of influence from others as vice-versa. There are many good, vibrant churches in other parts of the world we can learn from. If we can also pass on some of what we have learnt, that is a good thing!

Thursday, 2 May 2019

I Believe in Miracles - Syncretism in the Western Church, Part 1

In my previous post I said that the Western church exhibits:

'A certain cynicism about miracles, so healing is thought not to be real, but in someone's imagination. This is a result of secularism, and what Paul Hiebert called 'the flaw of the excluded middle' in his article on the subject, which shows that Westerners don't believe in the middle realm between supernatural and natural. The Bible, however, constantly mentions dreams, angels, unclean spirits, and so on, which are very much to do with this middle realm.'

This shows itself in two, rather extreme ways. The first is to deny that miracles happen. This is the secular approach to miracles. They don't happen now, they didn't happen then i.e. in biblical times and therefore somebody must have made them up, we think. It is possible to find a whole host of literature in theological libraries that is written from this position. Miracles are something outside our experience, which is much more real and concrete, therefore we would like proof that miracles happen before we assent to some kind of belief in them. So, for example, Jesus didn't multiply the fish and bread, it is thought, rather everyone brought their sandwiches and shared them with each other. Wouldn't it be nice if we did the same today? Now,  you might say that this belief isn't part of our churches, but I would argue it is very much part of certain kinds of churches, and that it does creep into evangelical churches too, at least in the realm of what we might label 'doubts'.

The second extreme is to say that a miracle has to be i.e. it is defined as something that can't be explained by science, though at the same time (rather paradoxically) we would rather like to have scientific proof that it has occurred. So, for example, if someone is healed, it would be really good to have an X-ray or scan or something to show that the problem was actually there originally, and that it disappeared as an answer to prayer.

Probably it would be better to see the miraculous as something that happens all the time, often without our realising it because of our world view, which has been influenced by securalism, whether we recognise it or not. A miracle doesn't have to be inexplicable by science, rather it is the spiritual view of something that has occurred, albeit supernaturally. For instance, one miracle I experienced was being saved from a plane crash. I myself had re-booked my ticket to come back from South Asia a few days earlier than originally planned, but only God knew that plane was going to crash, and it was his purpose that I was kept alive. There is both a natural and a supernatural, or spiritual, explanation for what happened.

So, we need to avoid the two extremes above, and spend more time relying on God and believing that he can intervene in our lives. I believe in miracles!

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Is the Western Church Syncretistic?

It's almost Easter, but here I am writing about a serious topic - how the Western church has become syncretistic i.e. it has mixed the surrounding culture in with its culture to form a mix of biblical Christian beliefs and secular beliefs. Here are some areas where I think we are being invaded by the surrounding world view:

  • A certain cynicism about miracles, so healing is thought not to be real, but in someone's imagination. This is a result of secularism, and what Paul Hiebert called 'the flaw of the excluded middle' in his article on the subject, which shows that Westerners don't believe in the middle realm between supernatural and natural. The Bible, however, constantly mentions dreams, angels, unclean spirits, and so on, which are very much to do with this middle realm
  • A kind of intellectual belief in evolution that makes us want to believe any advance is good, not only in technology, but also in morality, world view, spirituality, and so on. There is no biblical basis for this. In fact the Bible tends to view many so-called 'advances' as moves away from God. For example, when the people of Israel asked for a king, so they could be like other nations, the prophet Samuel (in 1Sam 8) told them very clearly what that would mean for them, and it wasn't an upgrade!
  • Post-modernism tends to make us believe that every culture is valid and shouldn't be messed with. The Bible, however, is very clear that no culture is privileged (including Western) and that all cultures come under the scrutiny of Scripture. In other words all cultures have both good and bad in them. All peoples and nations, therefore, need to hear the gospel, which will need to be contextualised by finding the sweet spot where both truth and relevance are optimised
  • In this age of social media many of us have fallen foul of fake news alerts. For instance, someone recently told me that Bible translation probably isn't needed any more because English is so widely spoken (!). That is just nonsense. The number of first and second language speakers of English, worldwide, is about the same as that of Mandarin! You can see a very good table representing the figures here. English has comparatively fewer first language speakers, and more second language speakers. By the way, not many of those who speak English as a second language would be proficient enough to read and understand the Bible in English, and in any case, why wouldn't they want to read it in a language they know better, probably speak at home or in the marketplace? It is also one of many cultural identifiers i.e. someone who speaks a language also sees it as 'theirs' in the same way they see their artwork, music, and so on as 'theirs'
Nevertheless, we in the West still have more opportunity to hear the good news that anywhere else in the world. There might be a higher proportion of believers in the global South (though I dislike this label, as plenty of hot places near the equator are unreached), but that doesn't mean they have the same number of churches, missions, and resources. The danger is, however, that we have become so syncretistic that we no longer believe the Bible is our main source of authority. As soon as we start to look elsewhere we are in danger of losing our distinctiveness. I fear it may already be too late to go back...

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

What to Preach on Easter Sunday

I don't know if you're preaching on Easter Sunday? And I don't know what your congregation is like, but imagine you're preaching in an honour-shame context on Easter Sunday. What would you say? How would you explain the efficacy of the work of Christ on the cross?

  1. You wouldn't mention Christ 'paying the price for our sins'. Noooo
  2. You would mention restoration to a new family, the family of God
  3. You would mention a sense of belonging to that family
  4. You would mention that Christ's death took away our (collective) shame and restored honour to both God and to us (collectively)
  5. You might mention that Christ (as representative of a new humanity) succeeded where both Adam (representative of humans) and Israel failed
  6. You might mention that as our elder brother Christ paved the way for us to share the honour that belongs to him
  7. You probably would mention that we now have access to the Father, and have the same right to the privileges that Christ won for us as Christ does. We live and have our sufficiency 'in Christ' (through his work etc.)
I know that when we want to explain the cross we always mention the price having been paid. But please try and think outside the box? The effort will definitely pay off.

Oh and you might want to refer to the victory Christ won on the cross, over evil, death and shame. Many honour-shame cultures also contain elements of power-fear also.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

On Pruning

The other month I pruned our apple trees. I did this not just because they were out of control, too tall, ungainly or too wide. I did it because I want to get more fruit next autumn. I like apples! Note that I did not chop the trees down and they were in no way harmed. In fact, now it's Spring, they are budding and beginning to look beautiful.

John 15.2, below:

He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.NLT a verse many people struggle with because they (in my view correctly) assume the vine is believers, plural, and they think some branches i.e. individuals will be thrown out of the kingdom. The trunk, and the roots, are Christ. It's from him that we get our nourishment.

It's rare that a gardener will chop off and remove a whole branch. Usually the branches are pruned. We may have to let some things in our lives that are unhelpful or unproductive go. We may have to get rid of them! God may help us remove them by causing us to go through difficulties that help refine us. This might be hard at the time but will make us more fruitful in the long run.

Just to reassure you, all true believers remain in the vine i.e. in Christ, and all produce fruit. Some who feign belief are not connected to the vine. Let's pray they get connected! Without that nourishment from the root, they are 'Christians' in name only.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Bible Translation and Kudos

Photo taken from Toyota UK website
Do you know people who drive a 4x4 just to get the kudos of owning such a safe, expensive vehicle? Probably we all do.

We don't do Bible translation so as to get kudos. Or do we? The number of times I have heard people talk about 'proper Bible translation' is amazing. What do they mean? They're usually talking about working on one of these products:

  1. A print Bible
  2. A print New Testament
  3. Print books from the Bible e.g. Proverbs, Luke & Revelation
In contrast people working on Scripture-based products such as stories (booklets, apps), videos, and audio recordings (of stories) are seen as somehow second-class. Not working on the real thing. Doing something temporary that will be replaced by the real thing later on. 

There is, of course, some truth in the fact that a print Bible will be more likely to be used by believers in churches in the long term (if it is in the right language, has the appropriate style, etc. etc.) than oral stories. It might be more appropriate to start with Scripture-based products before moving to traditional Bible translation, however:
  • They will probably have more impact
  • They are more likely to 'go viral'
  • They are more likely to generate the believers needed to use a (future) print Bible
There's a great story in Bible Translation Basics, a book by Hill, Gutt, Hill Unger and Floyd, (Harriet Hill and Margaret Hill are sometimes known as 'the Hill sisters' 😁 though they are not related) involving a family who own a Toyota Land Cruiser, but never drive it, because the cost of the petrol, repairs and so on is too high. In they end they sell it and buy a small family car that is much more economical. This makes them very happy and is a much more practical solution, until, that is, the father gets a job where he has to travel out to villages (in Africa) down pot-holed roads. Then he decides it might be time to get a Land Cruiser. Their needs have changed, and, in any case, he can now afford to run the more expensive, more solid Land Cruiser. The implication is that we might want to start with Scripture-based products before moving onto translating whole books. In many parts of the world, for projects in minority languages, that is likely to be the case!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Language Matters

The language we use to refer to projects matters. It's well known that referring to a project as 'my project' is not a good idea, for instance. Or 'my language' meaning the language you are learning and working on. Equally problematic is talking about Bible translation as if it is the be-all-and-end-all. For instance, "So and so is just doing storying, but his friend so and so is doing proper Bible translation!" This does not communicate what we want it to communicate. It communicates that Bible translation is the real job, what actually matters, and storying is in some way inferior. Whereas in fact storying, or whatever, might be the most appropriate strategy for the audience in question. And it might lead to a Bible translation programme of some sort.

Also, we often refer to New Testaments as Bibles. Strange. Why do we do that? Because that was the traditional goal of many Bible translation programmes. They were working on a 'full New Testament'. After the NT was dedicated those 'Bibles' will have been distributed amongst the people (queue pictures of people in grass skirts outside grass huts), and the 'translator' (the expat working on the project, with 'input' from local people) will have left on a small plane, along with all their worldly goods, or most of them. I've even heard people talk about the NT as 'the full counsel of God'. Well, sorry, but it isn't. Our Jewish friends would disagree, even the Messianic ones (perhaps especially them), and our Muslim friends too, even believers from that background.

Please let's be careful about the language we use and the pictures we show, and what they communicate.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

There was no Room in the 'Inn'

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 KJV (emphasis mine)

It wasn't an inn! There was no room in the guest room. First century houses in Palestine had a courtyard, rooms for the animals  in the ground floor, and two rooms above or next to those, one for the family and one for  guests. Since Bethlehem was full of relatives, there was no room for Joseph and Mary to stay in the guest room, so they  had to sleep on the ground floor with the animals. The unfortunate thing is that a mistranslation of the Greek in an early English version paved the way for future misunderstanding. The Greek word is (UBS4): καταλύματι, 'lodging place, guest room' in Luke 2:7.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Not all Problems Need Solving

The good thing about working as an exegete and translation adviser with translators is that you don't have to solve all the exegetical problems:

  • Numbers in the Old Testament
  • Whether manna was light blue or a kind of whitish colour
  • Who wrote the books of the Bible
  • Whether or not there were different 'sources' of a given book
  • etc.
We simply translate what is there and leave others to sort the problems out 😄. But, and it is a big but, there are problems we do need to solve:
  • What 'righteousness' means in the Old Testament, and in Romans/Galatians (actually it's more about how the respective Hebrew and Greek terms sadaqah and dikaiosune are used)
  • What does 'the righteousness of God' mean? Is it God's righteousness (as in his honour), or the moral righteousness i.e. innocence he imparts to us?
  • What does 'lord' mean when it refers to Jesus in any given instance? LORD God? Or lord/sir?
  • Why was a given verse/passage/book written? What was its purpose?
  • Is it ok to change direct speech (in quotes) to indirect, or vice versa? What effect might that have on the impact of the translation?
Only when we've solved the latter kind of problems can we translate a given text. 

So, to summarise, the good news is that some of the thorny issues people discuss are not relevant to us in translation. The bad news is there are plenty of even thornier ones out there for us to think about 😧 ...

Local Mission vs. Worldwide Mission

The other day a colleague of mine heard her pastor preach a sermon saying something like, 'Mission isn't about going somewhere else...