“You are imposing your western ways on the East!”
This charge of imperialism was recently waged against my colleague, after we returned from training Asian pastors in expository preaching. It was not a surprise. In fact, before I spoke, I myself had been thinking, “How can I teach pastors how to preach, when I have such a little idea of their cultural context?”
My personal response to my own question was twofold. Subsequent reflection has added a third idea about East and West in general.
First, I believe in parity in the body of Christ. As fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, we have only “one teacher” and we are “all brothers” (Mt 23:8). As one body with many members, the church universal and local has a diversity of gifts, spread unevenly by the Spirit according to His will, in order that we would be mutually interdependent on one another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21). We each bring our special gifts to share. And even if we were as gifted in teaching and preaching as the apostle Paul himself, eager to “impart…some spiritual gift to strengthen” other believers, we could still purpose in all honesty “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12).
In general, while the West may offer training in academics, the East offers experience in persecution. Each set of gifts can build faith, if offered in love. Both need each other. And both should respect each other heartily. The book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, was a big encouragement to me in this perspective.
Second, I believe that the Bible is the common property and heritage of all Christians. If I do not know a culture, at least I know the Bible and can teach the Bible. After all, as Gentiles, we have all been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers” (1 Pt 1:18) and have brought into the household of God with Abraham—the “father of many nations”—as our father (Rom 4:11, 16-17). This is not to say, however, that we should adopt Jewish customs, any more than a believing, ethnic Jew today should cling to outdated customs of the Old Covenant. While the gospel allows for cultural diversity held in faith and love (Rom 14), the ideal is actually a cultural flexibility to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 12:22). Another book encouraged me greatly in this perspective: Conscience, by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley.
Now, with regard to expository preaching specifically, we do have to be careful. As a concept, expository preaching—to expose the meaning of the text in a sermon (cf. Ps 119:130)—is non-negotiable. The New Testament commands regarding gifts, “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pt 4:10-11). A pastor must “preach the word,” a message based (in context) on the inspired and profitable Scriptures, the sacred writings “able to make [one] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15-4:2). In its basic idea, this is what expository preaching does. The main idea of the sermon is the main idea of the text.
As commonly practiced, however, the concept is often narrowed to a particular method of verse-by-verse exposition through a book of the Bible. Personally, I believe that any text, of any size and in any order, if handled rightly and in context, can provide the basis of an expository message. Those preachers, however, like C. H. Spurgeon, who rely on the textual sermon should probably broaden their context at times to preach whole books in one message, otherwise the congregation will become familiar with a lot of trees but never the forest. Similarly, those preachers, like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who rely a lot of verse-by-verse exposition through a book should be wary of misapplying books (especially Hebrews, as if the congregation was dull and drifting), keeping application far off in the future (getting to Ephesians 4 next year), and lacking theological depth (there are few chapters on the Trinity). A lack of variety often accompanies these pulpits and one searches in vain throughout the New Testament to find such an approach in the epistles. The closest may be the series of expositions from the messianic Psalms in the book of Hebrews.
Perhaps the book of Acts is most helpful. The same apostle—the apostle Paul—varied his approach based on his audience, preaching narratively in the Jewish synagogue and discursively on Mar’s Hill to the Gentiles (Acts 17). In both approaches, Paul preached Christ. Evangelism, of course, differs from pulpit ministry, but we see again the principle of cultural flexibility. Within the church, however, the writings of Luke clearly show that the word of God is the authority. Even arguments from experience, such as the resurrection of Christ (Luke 24) or the conversion of the Gentiles (Acts 10-11, 15), were ultimately resolved through recourse to the word of God. The Bible is the authority. Its message must be preached.
Therefore, in addressing an audience of Philippine pastors, I could not presume to understand their cultural context, but I could appeal to our common roots. As Gentiles, we both have to relinquish our “futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18) and now accept Abraham—the father of many nations—as our heritage. Graciously, we have been incorporated into the household of God and are reckoned Jews (Galatians 3:29)—but as Romans 14 shows, this does not remove the need for discernment, because many aspects of Jewish culture were removed by the Cross and are tolerated as acceptable differences under the gospel.
Our American cities are losing their American identity—perhaps not good for America, but good for the gospel. A secular globalism resembles the first century. Chinese communism prepared the ground for the gospel. We have the only true world-religion—Christianity is transcultural.