My local friends in Central Asia really believe in authority. We could generalize and say that most Eastern cultures lean this way. They view society as hierarchical and they understand each tier of authority going up the social pyramid to be both necessary and worthy of great respect. They can teach us a lot about honoring authority. However, they also hold very strongly to the view that some kinds of tasks or service are not only below a leader’s dignity, but even shameful for him. Leadership is to be honored and supplied with its privileges. However, leaders are not to bring shame on themselves or their community by stooping to do the dirtiest, most menial jobs. Humble service is for those on the bottom, not those on the top.
My Western culture, on the other hand, is thick with anti-authoritarian feeling. Authority and hierarchy are often viewed through the crude lens of oppressor/oppressed. Westerners want to believe that the true nature of society is flat and egalitarian. Hierarchical leadership is to be done away with when possible, and only tolerated when necessary. The real thing, the West feels, is for us all to treat one another as equals and for no one to feel that they are above the most basic, even dirty, work. In Western society, we express these values by sometimes mocking our leaders (keeps them in their place) and by often glamorizing the work of the little guy. Even in the Church, the teaching of mutual service can be wielded in such a way as to deny the goodness of authority.
Interestingly, in John 13, Jesus honors authority while also transforming that authority through humble service. In doing so, he holds two things together that we tend to drive apart.
 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Notice how Jesus says in verse 13 that his disciples are right to call him teacher and Lord. Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, is not doing away with the hierarchical relationship that exists between himself and his disciples. They are right to honor and respect him as their leader, and he does not want them to lose sight of this. However, he has just done something positively scandalous for a Jewish religious leader of the first century – he has washed his disciple’s feet. This was a job not only reserved for slaves, but for gentile slaves. Jesus, the respected authority, humbled (even shamed?) himself and did one of the dirtiest, most dishonorable tasks of all. Then in verses 14 and 15 he tells his disciples that he wants them to serve one another in this same way. Here Jesus models and commands something that breaks the leadership paradigms of all fallen cultures: servant leadership.
This passage serves up a rebuke to both the East and the West. The East is rebuked for its penchant to privilege leaders so that they exist to be served, rather than to serve. Pride and entitlement in leaders is called out, but interestingly, not their role. This is where the West then gets rebuked. Leaders and their roles are still to be respected. The values of humble servant leadership do not negate the reality or the goodness of a world full of hierarchies. Jesus does not support some eventual Christian future where the priesthood of all believers means leadership is no longer necessary nor honored.
The balance that Jesus models so well for us is one in which leaders are honored, but they respond to this honoring by embracing sacrificial and costly service. This service in turn generates more respect, and that respect spurs on more lowly service, in a dance of sorts of mutual submission. Ancient Roman patrons were known not to address their clients as such, but as “friends,” meaning equals. But Christian leaders are called to go even further than this, not merely using different titles to communicate that they are gracious patrons, but embracing work that actually puts them lower than their followers.
What might this kind of lowering look like? In the West, it might mean staff pastors sometimes helping out with different tasks that are commonly delegated to the interns or to volunteers, similar to how in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, the high king of Anniera was known to often go out and work the totato fields alongside the farmers. In Central Asia, it might mean a pastor refusing the seat of honor, and instead sitting closer to the door, or helping to clear the dishes from the floor after a meal is finished. Yes, the leaders of the church need to be free from waiting tables in order to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, but this shouldn’t mean a complete separation from the kinds of service that would be our equivalent to foot washing.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15)
True leaders should be honored while also engaging in service that is viewed as below them – yes, as even shameful.
This proverb is spoken to the person who tries to accomplish too much on his own. Such a laborer is under a delusion that his isolated efforts can bring about the needed results. But just as one flower cannot by its own appearing bring about spring, humans cannot truly achieve great and meaningful things without a community supporting them and laboring alongside them.
It is a proverb quite appropriate for Westerners, who fall into this self-sufficient way of thinking far more than those from Central Asia. But ultimately every culture must face the short-sighted nature of individualistic labor. We are simply not strong nor talented enough to effect great change on our own. And those who cut ties with others, charging off into the world to do great things by themself will one day realize they have simply run out of fuel. I’m reminded of the English proverb, “many hands make light work” and the popular African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.” The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes on this same theme, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
It is not good for us to be alone. Not even in our labor.
When modern dictators fall the societies they ruled tend to flounder and splinter. This is because they have previously been gutted. A dictator, in order to increase and maintain his power, needs to systematically weaken all other institutions of civil society that might serve as independent centers of power and organization. So he goes after religious institutions, the media, voluntary societies, other branches of government, etc. He will often permit a shell of these institutions to continue, but will appoint loyal cronies to head them up so that they no longer pose any legitimate challenge. The longer this goes on, the more a society is gutted of healthy systems and structures that it could use to organize and unify itself once the dictator is removed. Like some kind of ravenous fungus, a strongman consumes and replaces healthy systems and institutions as he feeds off his people, slowly choking the organizational life out of society.
This explains why certain Middle Eastern countries have done so poorly since the removal of their dictators in recent decades. During long decades of dictatorship, true civil society was turned into a zombie of its former self or driven underground. Often, the only network of institutions strong enough to endure the long stranglehold has been the conservative mosques, buttressed as they are by their religious ideology. Thus, when a dictator of a Muslim country falls, the West’s hopes for the emergence of a unifying liberal coalition are disappointed again and again. They liberals can’t seem to organize effectively, and it’s no wonder. All the institutions of the liberals and moderates were practically destroyed ages ago. Into this power vacuum then steps the Islamist fundamentalists, the only ones placed to organize and take over the uprising – even if said uprising began as a majority liberal movement.
An interesting parallel exists here between these political realities and the state of many churches in the Middle East and Central Asia – indeed, anywhere in the world where the culture tends to reward domineering leaders. As in society as a whole, a strongman over the church tends to take the rightful place of other legitimate systems and structures. Look at the few churches that exist in these areas, and you will notice a curious absence of things like healthy membership, responsible giving and finances, congregational accountability and discipline, and plurality of leadership. Instead of covenanted members, belonging to the church is equated with those who are loyal to the strongman. Instead of transparent finances, the pastor controls all the money. In the place of congregational discipline for its own members, you have the favor or displeasure of the leader. And there is no healthy plurality, just one charismatic, domineering personality that leaves no room for any legitimate pushback or accountability.
If we return to my preferred napkin diagram of a healthy church (described in a previous post), we see that a strongman completely replaces all of the characteristics of a healthy church that we would see in stage two, in what I’ve called an organized church.
Now, this diagram is simply a tool I’ve used to quickly summarize the characteristics of a healthy church as they relate to the typical stages a church plant goes through. Not all of the characteristics are rigidly sequential, but I would contend that the three stages of Formative, Organized, and Sending are a common pattern in how church plants develop – and, for our purposes today, that there is a qualitative difference between what is present in a formative church and what is there in an organized church. That difference lies in the intentional organization and systematization of what had previously been a gathering of believers functioning more organically.
A bible study that has really taken off might gather regularly for fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, and discipleship. They might share the gospel regularly with their friends and neighbors. All of these things are biblical and good. And while they can be organized into systems, they don’t have to be organized in order to be done well. They don’t demand careful planning and organization. They can exist in an organic fashion for a very long time with only basic plans put in place. The same cannot really be said for the characteristics in stage two. These require careful thought and planning and implementation if they are to even exist in a church plant. And they will not ever exist in a healthy way without great intentionality that leads to the birth of good systems. In fact, to simply wing the structures of stage two is to play with deadly fire that will burn many.
This required intentionality and creation of systems and structures explains why the elements of the organized church stage are absent or so underdeveloped in many house churches. These characteristics are complicated and time-consuming to figure out and it’s simply easier to keep punting their development until some future date. Often, there is a great deal of ignorance about how to actually begin to teach and then roll out things like membership, plural leadership, and discipline. This is why groups like 9 Marks focus so heavily on reviving both the knowledge and the practical details of good ecclesiology for the Church. Even those committed to these things in principle can often botch the implementation. I’ve often heard it said that the number one mistake of reformed church planters and church revitalizers is appointing elders too quickly.
However, this is so far assuming that the church planters, missionaries, and members want to see these systems developed. But often, past experience and current methodology commitments mean that the preference is for things to stay organic and natural (And this often has roots in Westerners’ own cultural moment of being post-institutional). Stage two will just happen naturally, it is claimed, as the Spirit eventually gets around to leading the locals into how to be a biblical church. Missionaries can live in a fantasy where the kinds of intentionality and organization required in their own culture for the church to function well are actually considered bad, or at least not really necessary in the more pristine cultures of foreign lands. Some even view focusing on the characteristics of stage two as bad for church multiplication, the kind of thing that leads to the terrible “I” word that is alleged to kill movements of the Spirit, institutionalization.
When you pair these Western postures with cultures already prone to domineering leadership, you get a lethal cocktail. The missionaries aren’t interested in pushing for organized church characteristics in their church plants. They want things to stay organic and rapidly multiplying. Locals, never having before known the power of a spiritual family organized in a healthy way, default to how their families, mosques, and government are run – strongman rule. Soon, a strongman does emerge who then goes on to make the church his own little fiefdom. The missionaries become perplexed and discouraged at what has happened, and either fall in line themselves or are eventually run off when the strongman feels they are a threat to his monopoly. The end result is a sick church, one without biblical membership, giving, leadership, or discipline. Biblical mission, often the final characteristic to be developed, will also never happen through this kind of church where a spiritual dictator has settled down to feed on the sheep.
If we do not plant churches with a willingness ourselves to lead in the development of stage two characteristics, we do a great disservice to the local believers we are claiming to serve. Like a society naively asked to go vote after decades of dictator rule, we set them up for failure. A power vacuum will always be filled. And in strongman societies, little dictators spring out of the ground like so many narcissus flowers in the Central Asian fields of spring. Local churches all over the world desperately need systems of healthy giving, leadership, discipline, and membership. How will they know what these structures look like if we do not intentionally teach and model them? Or do we really believe that these systems will somehow contaminate indigenous churches more so than the inevitable strongman who will take over in their absence?
Should stage two characteristics of a healthy church be contextualized? Absolutely. And yet here we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. An imperfect effort to contextualize a system of membership is far better than never initiating formal membership because we are afraid of some kind of Western contamination taking place. Covenants can be modified for the pressing needs of specific contexts. Membership lists and vows can be oral rather than written and signed. Leadership can be chosen and honored in ways that are locally sensitive. The Scriptures provide ample room to carefully apply the principles of church organization to a given culture. “All things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) does not mean you should simply copy/paste the systems of First Baptist Church back home. But it does mean we should give serious attention to the right ordering (organizing) of the church. As Paul said to one church planting team member, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What was asked of Titus in his cross-cultural setting is still asked of us today.
Strongmen will never coexist peacefully with healthy systems that can hold them to account. They will always seek to prevent their emergence or to choke the life out of them if they are present. On the other hand, the best way to prevent the people of God being ruled by these domineering men is to order the church wisely, even if this involves great intentionality and careful organization. Protecting the church means organizing it so that it might fully display the glory of God – not only in its organic love and obedience, but also in its wise systems and structures.
In the summer before 12th grade, a group of us high school friends decided to camp out on a small uninhabited island for one week. This island was just off the coast of the Melanesian mainland and was reachable by a short ride on a banana boat, which is a narrow fiberglass boat propelled by a rear outboard motor, and usually featuring a few planks for seating. The family of one of my classmates – who was also a trip member – lived in the nearby coastal town, and they had agreed to arrange the transport for us.
The seven of us who had decided to come agreed ahead of time to bring no food with us, other than a one kilogram bag of rice for each person. The plan was to live off the land, supplementing our rice with only what we could catch or find on the island, or in the surrounding ocean. We didn’t have very much experience hunting for our protein like this, but we were sure it couldn’t be that hard. We brought plenty of fresh water, however, along with hammocks to sleep in and supplies for island camping such as machetes, homemade spear guns, fishing line, and camping pots.
Our crew of brave campers numbered seven. Five of us missionary kids (MKs) were from the same class, just about enter our senior year (we were three Americans, one Canadian, and one Belgian). Calvin, my close friend and theological inquiry partner-in-crime, was one of these. One of my older brothers also accompanied us, since he was back in Melanesia visiting us for the summer. The final member of our crew was Philip, a local orphan who had practically been adopted by my family when I was in junior high. Philip did not go to our MK school, but worked and lived at the gas station across the street as he saved up money to try to return to school (which he later did, with great distinction). During these years, Philip was a regular fixture in our home and joined us for many adventures, including the Easter camp fiasco where I ended up unknowingly dating several local girls at once. A generous soul and hard worker, Philip also had a quiet playful side to him, and had decided to bring a dreadlocks wig with him in his pack, just for kicks. He seemed to have found this in a tote we had of costumes and dress-up clothing.
The drive down from the highlands took about five hours. After an hour and a half we were stopped by other drivers and warned of a criminal roadblock just up ahead. Deciding to try and run it (what could go wrong?), my brother drove up the hill as fast as he could, up toward the crest of the slope, where just beyond the robbers were said to lurk, allegedly with bows and arrows and a couple home-made shotguns. Thankfully, we never saw any sign of the criminals as we nervously flew over the summit and around the curves in our Nissan Patrol SUV. Perhaps we were going too fast and they opted to hide out for an easier victim? We didn’t stop to find out. After two more hours we reached the pass, where by a series of slow hairpin turns we descended several thousand feet in a matter of minutes, leaving the cooler highlands weather for the heavy humidity of the tropical lowlands. An hour of driving through sugarcane fields brought us to another set of smaller mountains, and just on the other side was our destination, a lovely coastal town that had once served as a Japanese base during World War II.
We spent some time buying supplies in town and enjoyed some fast food, our last kitchen-cooked meal for a while, and were off to the island by early afternoon. One of the adult missionaries, the dad of one of the campers, accompanied us to the dock and to the island drop-off. As our banana boat sped over the waves we passed other similar craft that carried village fishermen, the occasional wooden outrigger canoe, and several larger islands on our right. Before long we saw it, a small, flat island with a dense cover of palm and coconut trees and a sandy lagoon facing the mainland. Under the transparent water, coral reefs spread out in their dull purple clusters, flecked with bright colors here and there from darting fish or waving anemones.
In all, the island was probably several acres in size, a place too small for a village. Its only structure was a thatched-roof, open-walled hut close to the lagoon. This pavilion of sorts would become our campsite. It was sheltered from the strong sea breezes, which we thought would make for better sleep since our hammock sides wouldn’t be whipping around loudly. And it would have, had it not been for the mosquitoes. These attacked certain members of our group so intensely that they even overwhelmed my brother’s anti-malarial meds, meaning he later traveled back to the US with a bad case of malaria.
A short walk through the palm trunks and dry leaves led to the back side of the island, which looked out on the endless Pacific. Large trees grew out horizontally over the water, giving shade to the shoreline of razor-sharp coral rock. There was no sand on this side of the island, just rock that was ceaselessly beaten by the incoming waves into little sharp craters and ridges that bordered tidal pools. Back here the sea breeze was always blowing, swaying the palms as it smashed wave after wave against the coral rock.
We set up camp and decided to get hunting. Unfortunately, we found fishing with our homemade spear guns quite a bit harder than we’d expected. Even when we could get close to a fish, they would often casually slip aside a centimeter just as the spear shot toward them, seeming to mock us as we swam past them to try to save our spear from getting lost in the depths. I remember one clown fish in particular that liked to look straight at me as I repeatedly tried and failed to shoot him. I eventually gave up and left him to gloat in his smug little orange and white way. That first afternoon we caught nothing, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that at least crab meat would be easier to come by once the darkness came.
Darkness fell, our stomachs rumbled, and five of us set out with flashlights and our metal spear-darts, which had proven pretty useless for securing us any fish. But Calvin and I had learned how to hunt crab from a previous trip the year before. At night, hundreds of crabs will emerge from their little caves in the rocky shoreline and come into the island interior to hunt. As they move, they rustle the dry leaves on the island floor. So, lights off we would walk slowly into the trees, waiting for any rustling noise. When we heard one, we would quickly shine a flashlight at it. And if it was a crab that was moving, the light would paralyze it. We could then simply walk up to it, assess if it were big enough to eat, and then skewer it on a spear. Within a half hour we had two spears’ worth of skewered crab, most still moving, some about the size of a palm, but most sadly a good deal smaller.
Returning to camp, we found an unpleasant surprise. The two who had not come with us to hunt crab (an American and the Belgian) were sitting by the fire, eating hot beef stew out of cans. They looked a little guilty as we approached with the still-clawing spoils of our hunt.
“I thought we agreed to not bring any food other than one kilo of rice per person?” we asked, confronting them.
“Well,” spoke up the Belgian, “We decided we didn’t want to do that, since our parents didn’t think it was wise, so we brought ourselves some food.”
The rest of us were hardly satisfied by this response, and somehow felt this would be a damper on the whole trip. But what was to be done? Frowning, some got to work boiling rice and others tore off crab legs to be boiled in a separate pot.
The end result of the crab boil left much to be desired. The legs were so small that it took quite a long time to finagle the meat out of the little armored appendages. And then once it was in your mouth it wasn’t even enough to chew. Still, it had good flavor. However, our appetites passed long before we had even a portion of what we’d normally eat. When we were finished we sat around a pile of mangled crab parts, shooting glances at our two renegade friends who were now eating chocolate bars and drinking tea, looking very satisfied that that they had made the right decision. This might be a long week, we thought to ourselves. Still, it was only the beginning, and we had barely begun to explore our various food options on what we were sure was an island of plenty.
We had a decent night’s sleep and woke up, as planned, to go watch the sunrise on the back side of the island. This morning practice became one of my favorite parts of the trip. Every morning we would all manage to roll out of our hammocks just a few minutes before the sun came up. We would then shuffle through the small palm forest to the ocean-facing side of the island, and watch the sun come up out of the Pacific ocean. The wind seemed to pick up and shift as the hint of a red disk crept out, becoming an orange orb just barely kissing the horizon. Then it launched up into the sky, growing smaller with increased height, brighter and more yellow. We never spoke while we sat and watched this island sunrise. There seemed no need to.
After this, we would split up with our Bibles and find secluded places around the island to read and pray. I picked the fat trunk of a tree that grew out horizontally over the water before it arched up into a crown of broad and glossy green leaves. The trunk was huge, wide enough for me to sit comfortably cross-legged on it. It faced East, so I could continue watching the sunrise as I read my Bible, prayed, and chewed on the day’s devotional from My Utmost For His Highest. As far as idyllic places to have a quiet time, I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tops that tree leaning out over the waves, stretching out toward the morning sun.
Breakfast, however, was an increasingly sad affair as the trip went on. There was cold leftover rice, perhaps some cold crab meat if you could be bothered to pick at the shells, but not much else – at least until we scored some coconuts. Green coconuts, the ones still on the tree, are not good for eating. They are good for drinking, if you fancy some clear warm liquid that tastes somewhat fermented, mildly sweet with just a hint of old sock. But at this drinking stage the coconut flesh is mushy and not ready to eat. No, the good coconuts for eating are those that fall from the tree and hit the forest floor with a thud.
As the week went on, Philip took to sitting in the camp with a dazed look on his face and the dreadlocks wig on his head, head cocked for any cracking and thudding noises that might indicate a dry coconut had fallen. When he heard a thud in the jungle, he would bolt up, grab a machete, and run into the trees shouting, “Dry one! Dry one! Dry one!” When it actually was a dry coconut, the camp would be filled with much rejoicing at Philip’s return and we’d eagerly pull off the thick bark, crack the inner nut itself, and distribute the sweet flesh, broken into triangle-shaped portions. Fresh coconut made a good breakfast. Though coconut boiled in rice didn’t really work out. Coconut roasted on the fire turned out to be a wonderful surprise, tasting of butter and toasted marshmallow.
As far as other edible fruits on the island, we only managed to find one unripe papaya, which we ate anyway. And while our two friends continue to eat their meals in what seemed ever-growing extravagance (canned fruit in syrup?), we sought out other sources of meat. Fishing continued to prove elusive, though I did manage to spear a small bottom-feeding fish the size of a banana which had a large underbite full of sharp teeth. He had been lounging on the sand, quite still, and I mercilessly shot him from a very near distance above. Nevertheless, after all the clown fish mockery, this felt like a great victory.
Then there were the eels. The island crabs liked to lounge in the warm tidal pools of the late afternoon, and muscular brown eels liked to hunt them there. The eels would ride in on a wave, plopping into a tidal pool and begin their hunt. If there were no crabs there for the taking, the eel would leap and slither over the rocks to the nearest pool, and keep hunting. Armed with machetes and our short metal spears, we learned to spot these eels on the hunt, rushing one when spotted and attempting to pin it down with a machete while others tried to spear it. Eel skin is amazingly slippery and tough, and they wriggled and writhed something awful, but we managed to eventually get a couple. We then proceeded to chop them into segments that resembled sushi. Our pot of boiled eel caused much excitement in the camp, although the experience of eating it was rather anticlimactic. Very mushy, very fishy, and lots of little bones.
Ultimately, our best haul of protein came from some locals that visited the island to fish, felt sorry for us, and left us with five big plump reef fish. This was four days in or so, and it was a Godsend.
Other than hunting for food, we spent our days snorkeling in the lagoon, finding brightly colored starfish, reading in our hammocks, and goofing off with our cameras. We had brought a video camera with us and used it to make a mock preview for a scary movie, based on our island experience. “Stay out of the water,” the trailer began, with a shot of my brother swimming into the lagoon and suddenly being pulled under. “Stay out of the jungle,” it continued, with shots of Calvin running scared among the coconut trees, looking over his shoulder. “Stay out of the dark,” it went on, as a dry coconut resembling a head was rolled into a circle of firelight and MKs went scurrying and screaming. A montage of several other cliche thriller scenes followed, with the final shot being of Philip, in his dreadlocks wig, emerging out of the darkness to take a swing at the camera with his machete. Alas, this visionary film never made it to a public viewing.
The only actual creepy thing we experienced happened late one night as we sat around the fire. In the midst of the rhythmic sounds of the waves, somebody heard the sound of a human cough come from down near the beach. As we were all sitting around the campfire, it couldn’t have been one of us. A nervous search in the dark didn’t yield any results, and we all tried to reassure ourselves the one who heard it must have been mistaken. It wasn’t quite as easy falling asleep that night.
However, apart from the creepiness of that one night, most of our nights there were wonderful. I remember laying out on the beach, staring up together at the night sky, where the southern cross and countless other stars shone brilliantly, and the pinkish-purple band of the milky way was visible to the naked eye. It was one of the clearest night skies I have ever seen. But it wasn’t the only thing shining. The waves themselves would flash with a neon green color when they crashed, evidence of tiny bioluminescent algae that had flowed into the lagoon. It was too good to pass up the chance to swim in glowing sea water, and soon we had all jumped in, laughing and splashing around in the lagoon, hardly able to believe we got to experience such beauty. As I recall, the conversation that night turned easily toward spiritual things. How could it not when we were surrounded by such lights and colors of creation?
At last, the final morning of our island stay dawned. We were very crusty by this point. Layers of sunscreen, sunburn, bug spray, salt, and dirt had left splotchy patterns on our backs – maps of strange continents as it were. There was a thick crust of salt on all of our scalps. Saltwater dips can be refreshing, but they don’t necessarily leave you clean. So we were looking forward to some hot showers – and some good, hot food.
The five of us who went through with the food challenge had made it. We had survived on rice and what we could wrest from the island alone, with only a little bit of help. Hungry and sugar-starved though we were, it felt good to have done it. For boys trying to become men, it was an experience that built some tenacity and gritty creativity. And now we knew of the glories of fresh coconut roasted on the fire, and the not-quite-glories of boiled eel and island crab.
And though our bodies had been somewhat deprived, our souls left that island full. Consecutive mornings of communing with God as the sun rose over the ocean. Days and nights spent talking with brothers in Christ about things that truly mattered as the ocean wind blew and the stars shone. It was a week I am still very grateful for having experienced. For I was not just alone with God in a beautiful place, but alone there together with this group of friends. Such places of easy communion with God and with others are not always easy to come by. A week like the one we spent on Crab Island drove home to us the privilege of being raised on the mission field, one not earned by us at all, but enjoyed because of the sacrifices of others.
At last the banana boat and my friend’s dad pulled into the harbor. We took some final pictures, clambered aboard, and started bouncing away on the waves. One of the moms had sent a cooler of ice-cold Cokes, (manufactured in that country with cane sugar and thus superior to the US flavor). I cracked open one of them and took a sip of sweet bliss. After having no sugar for the entire week, it tasted incredible. Calvin was giddy with the anticipation of hotel pizza for supper. My brother sat next to me on the side of the boat, happy and thoughtful, not yet aware of the malaria pumping through his veins. Philip still had on his dreadlocks wig, now blowing in the wind as if he were some farsighted Melanesian pirate.
The sky was a rich blue and cottony clouds floated past us as we made our way through the spray of the waves. Behind us Crab Island slowly drifted out of sight.
I was twenty, sitting in a tea house in a far-flung desert town. It was summer, so the temperature hovered around 120 degrees (48 C) in the dusty bazaar. My friend had suggested that we stop for some tea as he gave me a tour of the marketplace of his hometown, famous for its castle, its hard workers, and its heat. “Welcome to hell,” another local friend had quipped earlier as we drove into town, wiping the sweat off his brow.
Always one to prefer heat to cold, I had been eager to see if the summer weather in this town was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Rising early our first morning, shortly after sunrise, I had stepped out of the house and into the sunlight. Immediately, I was hit by a rush of blasting, hot wind and oppressive radiant heat, as if the entire sky were a giant hair dryer aimed right at me. Mind you, it was only 6:30 am. I quickly stepped back into the protective shade of the cement house. If I had ever doubted before why so many desert cultures wore so much protective fabric, now I understood. At a certain level of heat, you do whatever you can to keep the sun’s rays off your skin, even if it means going around covered in many folds of cloth.
As we later made our way through the bazaar, and then found our seats at the tea house, I was beginning to adjust somewhat to the constant feelings of living in an oven and clothing always soggy from sweat. I gratefully received a bottle of cold water alongside my scalding black chai. I chugged the water eagerly.
“Are you hot, my son?” asked a mustachioed older man, sitting across from me and smiling in his turban and flowy local robes.
“Yes, I’ve been told about the summer heat here, but now I see how true it is!” I responded, gulping.
“You know how we stay cool?” he asked me, raising his small steaming chai cup and saucer. “We drink this all day!” he said, laughing.
I looked at him, a little puzzled, wondering if he was joking or serious. He picked up on my expression and explained further.
“We drink the hot chai and it makes us sweat. And our sweat cools us down. That is how it works,” he said, seemingly satisfied that he had just handed down an important life lesson to this young foreigner.
I could tell he believed what he was telling me, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My love for local chai was intense, and so I was willing to drink it all year round, even in the fever heat of summer. But surely hot chai doesn’t actually cool you down in the desert. Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, a placebo of sorts that these desert men had learned to tell themselves in order to justify downing so many cups of sugary caffeinated goodness seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. The logical thing to believe is that hot drinks raise your core body temperature and cold drinks cool it down. I left our interaction mostly sure that I was right and the locals mistaken. But a part of me has always wondered if there was something to what the old man was saying.
Then this week I came across an article in The Smithsonian that would make the old desert man crack a big smile, exposing all of the teeth he’s missing because of his chai habit. Turns out a hot drink on a hot day really does cool you down. And this has now been scientifically verified with the help of a bunch of scientists and cyclists. Somehow, the cooling effect of the sweat produced by a hot drink on a hot dry day is actually greater than the warming effect the drink has on the body, making it a net win for a cooling effect. The article gets into the likely biological process for those interested.
So now I know. Hot drinks warm you up in the winter. They also cool you down in summer. How strange and wonderful. No wonder I like them so much.
There is one big caveat in all of this, however. In order for a hot drink to cool you down, you must be in an area of dry heat, not one of humidity. Since a humid environment prevents sweat from evaporating, the hot drink will actually raise your body temp, not decrease it. But as long as you are in some kind of desert or low humidity setting (and able to sweat), the trick should work.
All of this reminded me of what a tricky thing it is to interact with local lore and tradition. By default, we want to dismiss local knowledge that seems bizarre to us as superstition or old wives tales. But quite often there is something to it after all. Not in every case, but often enough that we ought to reserve judgement on local claims until we’ve looked into them somewhat. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.” Oral tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, simply because it initially strikes us as absurd.
A missionary friend in Cameroon shared with me this past week about a volcanic lake in that country. At some point in the 80’s, large amounts of toxic gas were released from the lake, killing all who lived in the villages around its shores. However, all of those villages had been founded and populated by newcomers to the area. The long-time residents did not live close to the lake, since they had an oral tradition that it was spiritually deadly to dwell too close to the water. Apparently this lake is prone to these kind of toxic gas releases every 150 years or so, meaning that the indigenous villagers had an oral tradition that preserved a deadly historical event from the distant past, although it had become clothed in their animistic worldview.
I remember another story from my childhood in Melanesia, where a village pastor, eager to prove the local traditions wrong, had decided to cook and eat a bird locally believed to be poisonous and used in witchcraft. The pastor ate the bird, and almost died as a result. Turns out this black and orange bird is the only poisonous bird known in all of nature. Local oral tradition wins again.
Why do we so often assume that local tradition is untrustworthy and bogus? Because sometimes it really is, and it keeps locals in bondage to empty and dangerous lies. Consider the Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief in patrogenesis, the idea that offspring one hundred percent come from the father, and the mother is merely a carrier, a vessel. All kinds of bad stuff has come from this cultural belief, including laws that disadvantage the mother when it comes to custody of her children – even if the man is abusive. Or, the cultural belief that the honor of the extended family is most dependent upon the sexual purity of the women in the household, resulting in honor killings which almost-exclusively target erring female family members. In Melanesia, tribes until recently believed that if your enemy was strong in something, you could kill them and eat their corresponding body part for that ability, thereby getting stronger in that ability yourself. This local tradition led to widespread cannibalism and all of the dark effects associated with it.
However, what often happens is that Christians of the reformed camp approach culture with eyes only for these cultural lies. We often have a default posture of Christ-against-culture when it comes to local knowledge and traditions. We know that all cultures, like all people, are fallen and under the curse of sin. We know that this affects every aspect of a person, and every aspect of the culture – that total depravity is not just individual, but corporate as well. The mirror which once reflected the image of God so well has been shattered, and gross distortion has resulted. And yet a shattered mirror has not ceased reflecting entirely. No, if you lean in close and focus on small individual shards, a somewhat accurate, limited reflection can sometimes be found. The fact that the fall has damaged every aspect of a culture does not mean that the image of God is no longer present at all, shining out – sometimes dim, sometimes bright – through the distortion. Just as the restoration of the image of God in believers will not be perfected until the age to come, so the utter loss of that image in unbelievers and their cultures will not be complete until that same coming age.
This means that we cannot approach the culture of an unreached people group only prepared for the gospel to begin rejecting and discarding local beliefs and culture. We must be prepared for much of this, but not only this. We must also be ready to discover local beliefs and customs that fit quite well with a biblical worldview – that at times fit even better than those of our own culture. In these cases, the local cultural practice or belief is to be retained, but filled with a new motive, that of the glory of God and love for neighbor.
Few contemporary missionaries are at much risk of the kind of overt cultural pride present in the colonial era. In fact, we are more often at risk of the opposite, an unbiblical open denigration of our own cultures as we seek to embrace the local one. But pride is a slippery thing, and if our only setting is Christ-against-culture, then we will find ourselves prematurely scoffing at local wisdom that will eventually prove to be just that – wisdom. And scoffers don’t win trust. Those who sneer at local methods of chai drinking are less likely to find a hearing when it comes to the bigger questions of life and death and eternity.
Such is the challenge of engaging local lore and tradition. You may find lies straight from the pit of hell. Or, you may find truth that has been marvelously preserved, against all odds. We must learn to anticipate both, and to humble ourselves when we get it wrong. We should listen carefully to the old men of the desert, ready both to learn and to stubbornly upend the traditions of ancestors when needed. We are tasked with this great untangling, with the laborious task of seeking to glue the shattered mirror back together. It will take a long time and countless conversations. And hopefully, lots of cups of chai. Even when it’s hot outside.
“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”
Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.
And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.
The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.
Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.
This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.
Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.
Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.
Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.
A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.
The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.
At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.
Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.
For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?
The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.
Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.
To the Irish, the pope, the bishop of Rome who was successor to Saint Peter, was a kind of high king of the church, but like the high king a distant figure whose wishes were little known and less considered. Rome was surely the ultimate pilgrim’s destination – especially because there were so many books there that could be brought back and copied! But if your motive was holiness:
To go to Rome
Is little profit, endless pain;
The Master that you seek in Rome,
You find at home, or seek in vain.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 181
There’s some New Covenant common sense in this ancient Irish verse. Worshiping in spirit and in truth means there are no longer some mountains holier than others – nor cities. The presence of the Spirit in all of God’s people means physical pilgrimage is no longer necessary. The presence of God is just as near in Ireland as in Rome, in Melanasia as in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, having lived in frontier places without ready access to good Christian books, I fully understand a willingness to go to such tremendous lengths to acquire them.
We had been living in Central Asia as a family for seven months. At last, I was hanging out regularly again with my dear friends from my gap year, Hama* and Tara*. This fun-loving couple had come to faith back in 2008 as we studied the book of Matthew, saw God miraculously answer prayer, and as they experienced God’s faithfulness during their six month ostracism from their family. When their son was born at the end of that year, they had named him Memory, so that they would never forget all that God had done for them.
I had done my best to try to hand off my relationship with them to others when I had returned to the States for seven years, but this can be a tricky thing. While one believing European friend stayed close with Tara, no one had been able to regular invest in discipling this couple, in spite of the fact that a believing husband and wife are a rare and wonderful thing in a people group where nine out of ten believers are single men. This lack of steady discipleship meant they had never been baptized, something I was eager for them to pursue.
Somehow, on that summer evening in their apartment the topic of baptism came up. As I shared how important it is, and showed them passages like Matthew 28 and Romans 6, Hama and Tara were suddenly convinced.
“Let’s do it then!” said Hama, “How about tomorrow?” Tara was beaming as well.
I was a bit taken aback by this spontaneous decision, and observed that when it comes to areas of difficult obedience, our people group have an interesting long-term resistance that suddenly breaks into a desire for immediate action – which often catches us westerners a little unprepared. Given all of the hesitancy around baptism and its costs in an Islamic society, my sense was to try to help Hama and Tara move fast, now that they were at last ready to move. I did not want the spiritual clarity and excitement for obedience they were currently experiencing to fade away again. Plus, this was a long time coming, seven years without taking that first crucial step of discipleship. This was an answer to prayer.
“Can we do it at your house?” they asked.
“Well,” I replied, “I’d have to figure some things out for that to work. Are you sure you don’t want to drive to a lake or river? The weather is nice and hot.”
“No, somewhere like your house makes sense. It would be private and clean. And we could do it fast, without having to plan a whole picnic.”
Our locals take their picnics very seriously. And no baptism outing to a lake or river would be permitted without some kind of a half day or full day picnic program also happening, which takes a lot of work and planning. There are picnic sites to argue over, food responsibilities to be debated, and logistics to be hammered out. Knowing how exhausting even just planning these local picnics could be, and that it was still too early for the cooler autumn picnic weather, I was happy to agree to something simpler and within the city. Plus, at that point we didn’t have a natural location that we knew could work well for baptism, and this would take some research.
“Right, then,” I continued, wanting to make sure they were OK with some other believers (my teammates) being present, “Let me see if I can make it work for tomorrow evening, and connect with some of my colleagues that you know. I’ll text you in the morning if it will work.”
This plan agreed to, I left Hama and Tara’s apartment full of excitement. My dear friends were ready to follow Jesus in costly obedience. And our team would get to experience their first baptisms with locals. I couldn’t wait to tell them. But first, I had to figure out if we could even pull this off in the living room of our second floor duplex home.
I had seen inflatable kiddie pools for sale on the sides of the road in recent weeks. I had also seen cheap hand-pumped siphons for sale in most neighborhood stores. A plan began to come together. I would buy a kiddie pool, inflate it in our spacious living room, fill it up with water from the porch hose, then afterward be able to drain it out to the porch drain with that same house and a siphon. We had no bathtub, something that is quite rare in our area, and I had read that some Muslim cultures have negative reactions to something representing cleanliness, baptism, happening in an area of the house that also has a toilet, or a squatty potty. No, I thought to myself, to get both privacy and respectability something like a kiddie pool is the way to go.
The next morning I embarked on a mission to find my needed supplies. Not too far from my house I bought a large inflatable rectangular pool, long enough for an adult to lay down in and deep enough to make sure they could get fully immersed, if they began by sitting down. I took the pool home and used my wife’s hair dryer to inflate it. So far so good. It fit perfectly in our living room alcove, backed by windows that looked out on the southern mountain range. It felt like it a took a very long time to fill the pool up with the slow stream of water from the porch hose, and it was early afternoon before I had achieved proof of concept. But there it was, a functional baptismal in my living room. This could actually work.
Now it was time to share the good news with the team. I sent them a picture of the pool and a pecked out a message with my thumbs.
“Last night Hama and Tara told me they are finally ready to be baptized! And they asked if we could do it at my house. I wasn’t sure if it would work, so I got a pool to test it out. But look, it works, and they said they’d be ready as soon as tonight! What do you think?”
The message I got from our team leader was not at all what I was expecting.
“We need to talk. This is not happening. I’m coming over.”
I was stunned. What was going on? Where did this kind of response come from? Clearly I was missing something big.
My team leader came over to our place and we proceeded to have a pretty tense conversation, one where I was scrambling to figure out where I had gone wrong. I had clearly stepped in something. It had all seemed so simple to me. We were there to make disciples, baptize them, and form churches in a city where there was no healthy church. What was the holdup? Why the resistance?
It quickly became clear that I had to contact Hama and Tara and tell them that we couldn’t move forward with their baptism. Our team, for some reason, was not on board. Over the proceeding weeks I began to figure out what gone wrong. The issues really boiled down to a failure of contextualization, both me toward my team and my team toward our local context. By contextualization here I mean using methods that are both faithful and appropriate for a given context and culture, taking universal biblical principles and implementing them skillfully with particular people and in particular places.
My team had responded to me so negatively because I had failed to operate within our culture as a team and organization, which was still very new to me. When I had been in the same city on my gap year, I had served with a different organization, and on a very disjointed team where we more-or-less coordinated on platform projects, but had a lot of autonomy as far as ministry decisions. But the new team and organization I was with was very different. Leadership of the team and strategy in church-planting were taken much more seriously. Ministry decisions were not rushed or autonomous, but approved by the team leader and hammered out over a long period of (hopefully) consensus-building conversations.
Comparing things to my previous season serving as a church elder in the States, I remembered once hearing the principle of “never surprise your fellow elders.” But this is exactly what I had done. I had very much surprised my teammates and my team leader, and not in a good way. In fact, they felt that the timing of my communication, after having set everything up, was somewhat manipulative, put them in a bind, and was at the very least out of order. They were stunned that I would proceed in this manner. For my part, I was struggling to understand why this kind of decision would be controversial at all.
Turns out our team had been at an impasse regarding local baptisms for a year or more before we had even arrived. A few single men had come to faith and desired baptism, but the team couldn’t agree on whether or not it was appropriate to baptize these men if they were not yet ready to tell their immediate families about their faith. Nor could the team decide on how to baptize them into a church if no healthy local church yet existed. They were also committed to westerners not doing the baptisms. Tensions had run very high around these conversations, unbeknownst to us. And into the simmering tension surrounding these ongoing debates, I, the new guy, had quite suddenly inserted myself and Hama and Tara.
Understanding this context wisely, both of team culture and of team conflict, should have led to a very different process as far as how I approached the whole baptism conversation. But in my excitement for my local friends, I had failed to contextualize well toward my team.
But there was an unintentional upside to my mistakes. I had forced the conversation. Two local believers were eager and ready to go under the water. A baptismal kiddie pool was sitting there in my living room. Nothing was stopping us from moving forward other than our own inability to agree with one another as a team. And so we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of delaying locals from obeying Jesus until we could get our stuff together. Though sometimes necessary, this is the kind of place any missionary should want to avoid. When the locals are ready to obey Jesus, we need to make sure that we are ready to facilitate this – though this is often easier said than done.
But the team, still all pretty new to Central Asia, had also failed to contextualize well to our specific situation.
The team was committed to no missionaries doing baptisms, because missionaries in Somalia had found this could result in baptisms performed by locals being viewed as second-rate by local believers. And missionaries in Latin America had found that barring foreigners from doing baptisms was an important principle in what is called shadow-pastoring. In shadow-pastoring, the missionary is never seen actually leading, but is always coaching a local leader from the background. But we weren’t in Somalia or Latin America. We were our unique city in Central Asia – which had no mature local believers able to do these baptisms. And where we had no local data yet to suggest that locals would elevate baptisms by foreigners as somehow superior, or that they would respond negatively to a foreigner directly modeling local church leadership in this way.
The team was also committed to baptism being done into the local church, a sound biblical principle. But once again, in our particular unreached context we had no local church for Hama and Tara to be baptized into. They would have to be the first local believers that would become the church for others to be baptized into it in the future.
Finally, the team was committed to baptisms not happening in kiddie pools in our homes, but in more idyllic natural settings. This final commitment seemed to be more of a personal preference or idealism, one which curiously went directly against the desires of the actual local believers we were working with. The sense among the team was really that it would be a bit of a tacky precedent to set.
In all of these things, it was not merely the biblical principles, but also their foreign applications and expressions that were being asked of our local friends. In this sense, things were backwards. Yes, good contextualization should be informed by how the global and historical church has expressed biblical principles, but it must also ask the important questions of what certain choices and expressions mean in their unique, local focus culture and people group. As far too often happens, our team was taking expressions and methodologies developed elsewhere, and imposing them upon our locals as some kind of inflexible missiological law. Hama and Tara were excited about being baptized in a kiddie pool, by me, in my living room. We were saying no to this. Why? Because of Somalia, Latin America, and our own personal baggage with indoor baptismals. Just as I was failing to contextualize to my team, my team was failing to contextualize to our local believers.
Biblically, there is nothing wrong with a foreign missionary baptizing local believers in a kiddie pool in their living room, in a private setting with a small crowd of believing witnesses. There is nothing wrong with those who are the first baptized becoming the church that others will be baptized into because no church yet exists. In fact, there is no way around this latter reality when planting the first church in what is sometimes called a zero-to-one context. But methodological commitments were prematurely denying us some of our biblical options – and doing this without any local evidence for it.
Thankfully, the ensuing conversations as a team were fruitful, and we were able to find a good compromise for Hama and Tara. The team had come around to us baptizing Hama, as long as he joined us to baptize his wife afterward. But the kiddie pool in the living room was still something they couldn’t bring themselves to agree to. It just felt tacky, and it would take many more local believers insisting that it was fine and respectable for it to become an option that all of us were OK with. Hama and Tara humbly decided to go ahead and plan a half-day picnic and for our sake to be baptized in a slow-moving greenish stream.
“The Bible says I need to go under the water, but does it say it has to be such dirty water?” Hama joked with me at one point as we surveyed the slime at the edge of the stream. I smiled at him sympathetically, wishing I could tell him about all the dynamics that had led us finally to be permitted to dunk them in that lazy stream in late summer.
As for the kiddie pool, it remained filled up in our living room for the next several weeks. “Might as well let the kids enjoy it!” I said to my wife. Plus, having the kids use it actually helped us deflect our language tutor’s repeated questions as to why exactly we had a pool set up in our living room (The picture at the top of this article is of two of our kiddos very much enjoying a splash on a summer afternoon with no electricity).
Though it quickly developed leaks, we actually got to use the same controversial kiddie pool for several baptisms the following year, one in a local’s courtyard and one in a local’s garage. It was still too soon for the whole team to be comfortable doing it in our houses. But by the end of our first term, Darius* was being baptized in a kiddie pool in our team leader’s kitchen, dunked by a local on one side and a foreigner on the other, and into what was now a fledgling local church. Considering the level of tension around baptism a few years earlier, the symbolism of this event was not lost on me.
What had changed? I had learned how to contextualize to our team, and all of us on the team had learned how to better contextualize to the locals. God had answered a lot of prayer, and all of us had shifted significantly in how we understood what methods were both biblically faithful and locally appropriate. We were more committed than ever to biblical principles, but some very good adjusting had taken place as we sought to wisely express them for the unique people and culture around us. We were still informed by missiology from the outside, but it had become the servant to local contextualization, not the law.
Study your unique team and leadership. Study your unique local friends and their culture. You’ll likely find you have to make some significant adjustments in your assumptions, approaches, and your methods. But this is what good missions work looks like. One hand holding on tightly to fixed, unchanging biblical principles. The other hand with a looser grip, tweaking, prodding, and poking at your methods, striving for the best way to apply and express those principles in a way that is faithful, wise, clear, and compelling.
In the words of renowned theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The word I am referring to here is church. And when it comes to communication between missionaries and Christians back in their supporting churches, this word is used often, but almost never defined. What often results is a failure in communication that leaves both parties feeling good, but ultimately failing to serve one another well.
Let’s say a missionary or organization reports on a certain number of churches that have been planted. This receives much applause and leads to much rejoicing. And yet what those reporting on the field mean by that little word, church, can sometimes be nothing like what the supporters back home are thinking of when they hear that same word.
Perhaps a Christian or pastor back in the home country hears a missionary report that 1,000 churches have been planted. In his mind, he envisions 1,000 smallish congregations, each maybe several dozen strong, containing diverse believers from a given community who now form a new spiritual family for one another. He projects his image of small church plants which he has encountered in his home country onto the report he hears about this overseas region. The missionary, on the other hand, influenced by a movement missiology, counts a gathering as a church if there’s merely a believing husband and wife who read the Bible weekly with their unbelieving teenage son. Or, he reports a church when two cousins who are secret believers meet up monthly to read, pray, and whisper-sing some songs together. Or perhaps a group of five college students who meet regularly with a local pastor for a time of Bible study.
None of these gatherings are bad at all. Each are worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we can assume they are churches. What is lacking is agreement upon what standard is used to call something a church.
The missionary might report 1,000 churches planted and the home audience in one sense hears that 1,000 churches have been planted. Yet they are not actually communicating with one another, because they are not using the word church in the same way. This means that what one envisions in their mind when those words are spoken is wildly different from what the other sees in their respective mind’s eye. The missionary knows that if all the groups of 3 or 4 people meet, this represents somewhere around 3,000 – 4,000 people, a mix of believers and unbelievers, most of whom gather only with those of the same natural household or family. However, the home audience is assuming something more like 20,000 – 30,000 people total, all believers meeting with others from different households. The missionary means 3,000 not leaving the natural bounds of their own network. The crowd understands him to mean 30,000 forming new spiritual families. This is, at best, a failure of communication. At worst, it is downright deception.
This entire interaction can take place without either party acknowledging the great divide in their definitions of the word church. And as long as this goes unaddressed, both sides can leave feeling pretty good about things. But it must be addressed. Missionaries and their sending churches are accountable to one another. This even applies to reporting. If missionaries mean something wildly different from their senders when they use the term church, then this needs to be made public. And for the good of the mission, common definitions and parameters must be agreed upon for when it is appropriate to call a group a church.
This is the point where most Christians realize that they are operating out of experience and assumptions rather than a thought-out ecclesiology. So step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. So far, so good. All church-planting missionaries and all pastors should be able to readily articulate what constitutes a potential church, a true but immature church, a healthy church, or a false church. Please, don’t send anyone to the mission field who can’t do this.
For example, our group of five college students represent a potential or formative church. Despite what certain methodologies might claim, I do not believe that they can biblically call themselves a church even though they regularly meet with a pastor to receive teaching, to worship, and to pray together. Several key ingredients are missing, such as the biblical self-identification as a church (covenanting) and the Lord’s supper and baptism. Now, if they had these elements in place, but no elders, giving, or mission, then they could be a true but immature church. A healthy church is simply one which is well on its way to implementing all of the Bible’s characteristics of a church.
We like to summarize these biblical characteristics into a list of twelve: Discipleship, Worship, Leadership, Membership, Fellowship, Giving, Evangelism, Teaching/Preaching, Accountability/Discipline, Mission, Ordinances, and Prayer.
A useful exercise is to list out these twelve characteristics (or a comparable list which summarizes the data differently) and to try to discern which elements can be present without a group actually being a church. Then try to figure out from scripture and church history where the line is that separates a potential church from an actual church. When I do this, I end up first with a formative church section full of a bunch of elements that could take place in a college ministry, such as teaching and fellowship, separated by the ordinances from a cluster of organized church elements such as membership and accountability/discipline that take place in a true – if still maturing – church. I personally like to then make a third division which separates what I call an organized church from a sending church, since so many churches end up implementing eleven of these twelve characteristics, without ever getting involved in church planting and missions. Again, I’d define a healthy church as one committed to implementing all twelve. A false church would be a church where in either the teaching or the practice a false gospel is proclaimed. Here is a basic diagram of how I have tried to chart things out.
Earlier I mentioned that step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. Step two is simply to then adjust your language accordingly. Don’t call something a church that is not a church. Be intentional in when you make the shift in terminology from group to church. Communicate your biblical rationale for when and why you start calling a group a church so that people understand what you mean by the term. If, like me, you believe that a mere three people could sometimes actually constitute a true church, then explain the biblical and situational rationale for this.
Step three then is to hold your ground. No matter the pressure you might feel to report higher numbers. No matter what the missiology gurus say about how good or bad this is for multiplication. Call things what the Bible calls them, and hold your ground. Sometimes this will mean surprising supporters back home who have projected church buildings, pastors with theological degrees, and certain size congregations onto the biblical meaning of church. Other times this will mean running afoul of the current trend in missiology that your leadership is so excited about. But the way the Bible uses a term is our truest window into the real, eternal meaning of that word. So let’s stick with that, and not deal in the more temporary definitions.
Finally, we must not be shy to ask others how they are defining that word, church. We cannot truly serve one another if massively different understandings of this term are simultaneously taking place while we all clap for the report of thousands of “churches” that have been planted. My sense is that many denominations and pastors would be scandalized to hear what their missionaries are actually calling churches, if they would only press for detailed definitions.
Some missionaries will not want you to press. This is a warning sign. It may mean these missionaries feel that they are superior to the Church back home or that they operate in what could be called a missiology of reaction, where their goal is above all to not do church as they have experienced it back home. Lots of weird missiology is the result of this kind of posture, but not healthy churches that last.
Trustworthy missionaries, however, won’t mind you asking. In fact, they may find your questions downright encouraging. After all, faithful missionaries have thought carefully about these things. Why? Because the front lines force them to wrestle with these things, and to examine their Bibles. But even more so, because they love the local church, and so they honor her with their language.