In preparing for the trip to Singapore, I read a recommended book on cross-cultural missions. Wisely, the author warned of many differences between cultures, often between the West (in writing to a North American audience) and the rest of the world. Among the differences, two stand out for discussion.
First, the West has a linear view of life more than the East. Interestingly, Charles Norris Cochrane, in his book Christianity and Classical Culture,points out that the West used to have a very cyclical view of history, viewed either as a pattern of repeated history or very literally as a repetition of events. Christianity, however, especially seen in Augustine’s City of God, despised this view and presented the biblical view of historical progression, based on prophetic Scripture. Even if this has now been twisted in the West into a cult of progression or a tyranny of efficiency, its roots are nonetheless Christian in nature. Therefore, a missionary should not be ashamed of teaching a linear view of history as if it were merely western—it is biblical.
Second, regarding the famous individualism of the West versus the collectivism of the East, certainly both sides could claim some aspect of biblical worldview. The church is a collective, but conversion is individualistic. As Luther quipped, just as a person must die alone, so each must have his own faith—and woe to the one who dies without faith! The New Covenant, as well, is very individualistic, in comparison to the tribal emphasis of the Old Covenant (Jeremiah 31:27-34), as delineated recently by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum in their large book, Kingdom through Covenant. And if Cochrane is correct, Christianity contributed much to the development of individual personality in the West, both through its emphasis on the persons of the Trinity and its debates over free will. The residue effects of this emphasis lingered through the Second World War, when a submarine came to the rescue of one “flyboy” downed at Chichi Jima, the future president of the United States, George H. W. Bush. As told by a Japanese eyewitness years later, Japan would have never sent a submarine after one pilot (see James Bradley, Flyboys).
Therefore, two tasks present themselves. First, I would like to know the relationship between Christianity and classical culture. In some sense, the relationship between Christianity and classical culture is the key to understanding the West, just as the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament is the key to understanding the Bible. Second, for my own sake—since I live in the West—and for the sake of missions, I would like to know what aspects of western culture are due to Christianity and then to discern how these aspects have been distorted and perverted in modern times due to secularism. Without this discernment, missions will be hampered by the bald objection, “You are imposing your western ways on the rest of the world.” Perhaps we are, but if I can say that these aspects are biblical and that’s why they are now also western, I will have my defense.
Note: In addition to linear history, free will, and personality, Christianity also brought to western culture an emphasis on compassion in contrast to Caesar’s clemency (see Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). If I remember correctly, this emphasis on mercy was one aspect of Christianity that Nietzsche hated in his desire to bring the West back to pagan strength. Herbert Schlossberg reports that both Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson regarded this western incorporation of paganism as a sign of cultural decay (Idols for Destruction, p. 269). Regarding free will, Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson asserted, “It remains a fact that Aristotle spoke neither of liberty nor of free will…Among Christians, on the contrary, and especially among the Latins, liberty at once comes to the forefront” (The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A H. C. Downes [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936], 307). Gilson attributes the rise of debates over liberty of exercise to the “moral preoccupation” of Christians (ibid., 308).
“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.
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3, ESV).
This episode in Acts is the clearest example we have of what today is known as a sending church. Of the five prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, two were called by the Holy Spirit to mission work, and the church is said to have “sent them off” (v. 3). By instigating this commissioning, the Holy Spirit is also said to have “sent out” these two men. Perhaps as a result of this episode, the two men—Barnabas and Saul (also known as Paul)—are also said to be “apostles” (Acts 14:14), which means those who are sent out as official representatives.
What is a sending church?
Specifically, how much authority does a sending church have over the missionaries that are sent?
For conscientious churches and their missionaries, this question cannot be avoided. For example, must a missionary receive the approval of a sending church for a change of field or focus? Does the sending church have the authority to call a missionary home or to account for various reasons? Is the relationship between the missionary and the sending church one that demands submission, as a wife behaves to her husband, or as church members act toward their pastors? What can we learn from the biblical record?
Before answering, two cautions are in order. First, we must be careful of making one experience normative for all later occurrences. For example, even though the Holy Spirit audibly selected these men by name, most churches today do not expect Him to be so explicit, even though they do expect Him to call men to mission work.
Second, we must also keep in mind that Paul is an apostle of Christ; therefore, not all that Paul experienced as a missionary would be true for all missionaries.
With these cautions in mind, let us consider the following observations.
First, it appears from the book of Acts that the relationship Paul and Barnabas sustained with the church in Antioch changed at the point of their commissioning. Before Acts 13, for example, we see them directed by the church to take a gift to care for the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 12:25). We also see them serving in the local church as teachers, even as Barnabas had initially recruited Paul to do (Acts 11:25-26). On a par with the other leaders, they were under the direction of the church as a whole. However, when the Holy Spirit called them by name, He told the church to “set apart for me” these two men. In other words, they were no longer leaders in the church there, and under the direction of the church, but were now under the direction of the Holy Spirit Himself. Subsequently, we see Paul making decisions in the Spirit, and even being hindered by the Spirit from going in a certain direction (see Acts 16:6-10; 19:21).
Again, is this leading of the Spirit due to Paul being an apostle of Christ, or is it due to both men being sent out by the Spirit, even as missionaries today would be sent out? Perhaps both men are said to be “apostles” in the book of Acts because they were sent out by the Holy Spirit, even as Jesus is said to be an “apostle” because He was sent out by the Father (Hebrews 3:1).