This Central Asian proverb speaks to the danger of friends going into debt with one another. Borrow money from your friend, this wisdom claims, and risk the love between you getting cut up.
I’ve experienced the great strain that friendships can come under when money I’ve loaned out to friends in Central Asia isn’t returned or acknowledged in an honorable way. Even though our family tried to be very cautious in loaning out money, it is still an expected practice in a patron-client society where the foreigners are often much wealthier than the locals. Some foreigners take a “never loan money” approach to the culture. But over the years we’ve developed more of a practice of conservatively lending money the first time, and then letting that experience determine if the door is still open or not for future requests. For those who repay their debts, this can greatly increase the trust in the relationship. And it is a wonderful thing to have friends you know you can trust with money, especially between believers who must function as a new household for one another. For those who don’t repay, we know not to extend the same trust in the future, at least when it comes to money. The money may be lost, but wisdom in the relationship is gained. But even with this general approach, we tried to spare our dearest friendships this debt/trust test whenever possible. It’s stunning how money can so quickly come to divide people.
In general, Central Asians are much more comfortable than Westerners with having money be a part of their close relationships. So much so that many feel they can’t honorably say no to a friend asking for a loan. So it’s curious that this proverb also exists in the culture, standing as a wise warning, even if many will struggle to feel they are free to heed its advice.
Some local believers are seeking to change this culture. Harry* once told me his response to requests for loans. “I’m honored that you would ask me this, my respected brother. But I value your friendship so much that I dare not risk it by getting money involved.” This kind of response takes an action viewed as shameful – saying no to a loan – but explains it by appealing to the value of the relationship, something very honorable and close to the heart of the culture. To me, this seems like a very wise way to say no. The goal is to communicate that my refusal is not a rejection of our relationship, but rather a statement of just how important it is to me. So important, I would protect us from the money that might cut our bonds of friendship.
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.
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.
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.
This Central Asian proverb is used of someone who has been appointed to a position they’re not qualified for. In Central Asia, this almost always takes place because the person appointed is a relative or client of the one making the appointment. This sort of nepotism is rampant, holding back all kinds of effectiveness in the public and private sectors, and leading to lots of bitterness on the street as locals eventually lose hope that a qualified person could ever be chosen over a patron’s relative or yes-man. Turns out that even in patronage cultures, the human heart knows that character and experience are what really qualifies someone for a job, not the mere bestowing of a title. You can change the saddle, but the donkey is still a donkey.
This proverb is not only a statement of lamentable reality, but also serves as a humorous dig – donkey being a very common way to insult someone in Central Asia, where donkeys are a favorite butt of all kinds of jokes. This leads to many proverbs that speak of donkeys (examples here, here, and here), and to the rule that you should never mention a donkey in your sermon, lest you want to lose the local believers in fits of suppressed laughter. Which makes one wonder, what would happen to the preacher who has to preach on Balaam?
Before we moved overseas we lived in an apartment complex full of refugees, immigrants, and low-income Americans. By that point I had become aware of the power of proverbs among those from the Middle East and Central Asia. What surprised us was finding that proverbs and truisms also functioned centrally in the speech and relationships of the low-income Americans around us.
While proverbs didn’t really feature much in the speech of my middle class, highly-literate peers, or only functioned in an ironic way, I found that my black or white Kentuckian neighbors from difficult backgrounds dropped them on the regular. They were not always helpful proverbs. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to engage someone with the gospel and were met with opaque responses such as someone’s commitment to “let go and let God” or insistence that “God helps those who help themselves.” But other times they contained biblical wisdom, such as “Y’all reap what y’all sow.”
What we were experiencing was a curious similarity between the cultures of our Arab and Sudanese neighbors fleeing war and our American neighbors trying not to get arrested for dealing drugs. It seemed that every culture in our apartment complex – other than ours – was considerably more oral in its ways of thinking and speaking. Being primarily oral might mean that someone is illiterate, but it often means that someone knows how to read and write, but only does so when necessary, and not for pleasure or for organizing their life. It means that someone’s use of language is largely independent of the written word, and the corresponding ways that the written word shapes how we think and speak. Instead, it is the memorized and spoken word that come to dominate an oral person’s use of language. This has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, though it can often reflect a person’s level of education.
There is a significant communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are from an oral culture, even if they are from the same country and speak the same language. This is because the ways we use language and the ways our brains have been shaped by that usage are so very different from one another – and this is a reality that is often invisible. An oral communicator relies heavily on stories and proverbs. They end up with a kind of language that is less direct and more full of symbolism and concrete metaphor. A highly-literate communicator relies more on argument and logic and ends up with speech that is more direct and abstract.
Often this communication barrier can result in a situation such as highly-literate communicator asking an oral communicator about a concept such as sin. The oral communicator responds to the question by telling a winding story, one which might be interspersed with several proverbs or truisms. When the story is finally over, the highly-literate communicator is left unable to discern what kind of point or answer has just been made. So he tries to get back to the abstract concept he was asking about, only to be met by another confusing story. Both leave the interaction not confident that they have been heard or understood.
For about ten years I have been chewing on this communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are oral communicators. This is one reason I have been on my long-term experiment to learn and employ Central Asian proverbs as we’ve ministered overseas. The challenge of orality is a serious one, since it limits our effectiveness in communicating the gospel cross-culturally or to huge portions of our own societies that are poor or working-class. This is likely one reason why reformed evangelicalism is so homogeneous when it comes to our socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. We are, if anything, an extremely literate tribe of Christianity. There are amazing strengths that come along with this, but one weakness is that we are no longer naturals in communicating with those who are oral thinkers and speakers. It’s as if we speak a different dialect than huge chunks of our own fellow countrymen, especially those who are working class or coming out of backgrounds of poverty.
If this is true, then what can we do to become better oral communicators of the gospel? First, we need to recognize that this communication barrier exists. It does us no good to continue thinking that the rest of society is just as literate as we are. If you are reading this post, that likely means you are in the top literacy bracket of your nation (for the US, this is only 12 percent of the population). This means that the vast majority of our neighbors are less literate than we are. And literacy profoundly impacts how we think, speak, and comprehend others. Have we been assuming that our communication with others is being truly understood? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that assumption. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
Second, let’s learn how to employ proverbs and truisms. We might feel like those that are still in circulation in English are cliche or unhelpful. But let’s redeem what we can and set about crafting some new ones if we have to. The key to a good proverb is its ability to condense complex truth into a short, catchy statement that can easily be memorized. For oral communicators, these memorized moral statements provide a ready framework for navigating the complexities of life. What would it look like to build a discipleship curriculum around key biblical proverbs? Or an evangelism strategy? Just as you would give a literate friend a good book, consider how to give away a good proverb to a friend who is an oral communicator.
Third, let’s not be afraid to tell stories. Sometimes those of us in the reformed camp can complain about illustrations, as if this part of the sermon is really only fluff. But a good illustration or story may be one of the most important components of a sermon for oral communicators. Even for those who are highly-literate, the illustration often remains in our brains long after the outline has faded. In a sermon that is largely abstract language, a good illustration provides some helpful concrete imagery. Stories also engage our affections in important ways. And after all, our Bible is three-fourths narrative, so we should think seriously about how story functions in our own efforts to communicate God’s truth.
Music also has a huge part to play in engaging and discipling oral learners. Again, the idea is to have truth that can be memorized and carried around, ready to be engaged without the help of a written resource. To serve oral communicators, some of our songs need to be of the sort that can be memorized and sung without any instrumentation, much as was the case with the great hymns of the past. Good songs can be an incredible tool for oral cultures.
Finally, let’s stay curious about the communication breakdowns that are happening around us. I am not saying that we abandon our highly-literate forms of communication, as if we should replace all outline-based preaching and bible studies with stories, proverbs, and songs. But rather, what can we do to meet oral communicators half-way? Can we learn to become bilingual as it were, able to communicate the same truth orally to those with only an 8th grade education as well as in highly-literate fashion to someone with a PhD? These are complex, invisible dynamics. It will take some chewing and curiosity to make any changes here and to not just revert to our defaults.
Proverbs still matter. In fact, most of the world’s population still employ them as a key part of their primarily oral engagement with reality. Actually using them may seem strange, or cliche, to us. And yet learning how to use these and other oral tools may allow our churches to break out of our highly-educated, middle-class strata, and finally communicate well with the poor, the immigrant, and the hard-working laborer. And that seems a goal worth striving toward.
“Before we agree for you to meet with these ladies, we need to know what your ministry strategy is.” I could see my wife’s face cloud over as she read this text. During a difficult season of ministry where she was struggling to make meaningful connections with local ladies in our new city, she had heard of a community center run by other believing expats that was in need of someone who could do local language Bible study with a few local women. As one gifted to do this very thing, we were excited for her to be able to help these ladies understand God’s word, especially since there was no one else at this community center who could currently help them. But once again, the “S word” was being deployed as the primary filter for partnership. Not my wife’s testimony, not her doctrine, not questions regarding her character or competency, but the deal-breaker for simple Bible study with local women was going to be her position on strategy of all things. Her ministry methods would mean she would or would not be allowed to study the Bible with several open women from an unreached people group. If my wife didn’t espouse the right strategy, then these expats would effectively deny these local women the chance to study the Bible. During a season of attempting to bring healthy change in a city deeply divided by ministry methods and strategy, this text made us feel somewhat angry and somewhat sick.
Many Christians in ministry are prone to be dogmatic about their methods – even more dogmatic than they are about their actual dogma (their teaching/doctrine). Missionaries are particularly at risk of this, likely due to the specific needs and gifts required by the mission field context. There are a few methods that are commanded more explicitly by the scriptures, things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but most of our ministry methods are an effort in trying to apply biblical principles faithfully so as to come up with faithful expressions of those principles for our unique setting. Study what the New Testament has to say about musical worship and you’ll see what I mean here. Lots of principles about worship, almost nothing regarding the actual forms we should employ. Nevertheless, Christians in ministry become very dogmatic about our own preferred methods, even when the scriptures don’t speak to them specifically. Rather than treating a method’s importance as primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on how clear God’s word is about it, particular methods are elevated to be primary based on some other standard – a standard which is sometimes unexamined, and other times mere pragmatism. When this happens, we expose ourselves to at least seven profound dangers.
Limiting our biblical options. When we zero in on one expression of a biblical principle as the way to do it, rather than understanding that it is a faithful way to do it, we limit our biblical options. As a former house-church-only advocate, this was an error that I fell into. House church is a great biblical option for some contexts. But if we are in place where church can happen in other settings outside the home, why would we automatically rule those options out as less faithful or less effective? Ministry is hard anywhere in the world. It is particularly hard when we are seeking to plant churches among the unreached. We need all our biblical options on the table.
Failing to do good contextualization. We often become dogmatic about certain methods merely because of reasons that are personal and tied to our own cultural background. “We will not use a projector for songs because of the baggage I have with it from the church I grew up in.” But have we stopped to study our focus culture to understand what using a projector might mean to the actual locals? It really does not matter all that much what it means back home. Instead, is it a biblical option and how does it communicate in the local culture? Good contextualization is often prevented because those in ministry enter their new contexts with a prepackaged set of methods that they have gotten from their books, their trainers, their past experiences, or some study based on a movement in another part of the world. Thus, they fail to first stop and ask insightful questions of their actual target culture – and so they fail to do good contextualization.
Encouraging unnecessary division. Paul says that division among Christians is necessary (1 Cor 11:19). But we must strive to keep these divisions appropriate to how central something is to the truth of the gospel and the central teachings of the Bible. As others have so helpfully written, we must know the right hills to die on. Some issues are worth dying for since they separate saving faith from false gospels. Others are worth dividing over and require us to be in separate churches, such as our ecclesiology. Then others are worth debating for within the same church, like our understanding of the end times. Then there are issues to personally decide for, such as whether we should drink alcohol or eat pork in a Muslim context. When we fail to do “triage” like this with our ministry methods, we end up treating tertiary things as if they are secondary or even primary. For example, if one missionary is fine with introducing one local believer to another when they are not naturally part of the same “household,” other workers might ostracize this missionary because they are violating their movement strategy. Sadly, these kinds of divisions will also not be limited to the community of ministry professionals, but will trickle down to those we disciple as well.
Exposing others to false condemnation. Our preferred methods often have an uncanny correlation to our personal gifts and strengths. When we get dogmatic about these methods, we can cause other believers to feel as if they are a less valuable part of the body of Christ because they are not as strong of an evangelist, not as good at reproducing stories, not as expressive in corporate worship, etc. We must be aware of the accusations that our brothers and sisters will hear when we speak or believe too dogmatically about our ministry methods. We may be exposing them to struggle with false condemnation.
Becoming a silver bullet salesman. This danger is particularly for those of us who experience seasons of success or breakthrough in ministry. After a year of very encouraging ministry in college, one mentor cautioned me to make sure I didn’t assume that my experience would be true for all others also. It was sound advice. Fresh off a year of seeing my Muslim friends miraculously come to faith, I was at risk of sharing the “gospel” of my methods with any who would listen, implicitly communicating that they would see the same results if they followed the same formula. The ministry and missions world is full of books and speakers who are effectively silver bullet salesmen. Praise God, they saw breakthrough in their particular ministry. But now they’ve written a book and reverse-engineered their experience so that if you follow these simple steps you too can be a part of this new thing that God is doing! Some will even imply that they have uniquely rediscovered the methods of the early church which have been lost over the centuries. This kind of talk is heady stuff, but is really spiritual naivete – self-deception at best and spiritual pride at worst.
Leaving a more temporary impact. When we become dogmatic about our ministry methods, we zero in on things that may be proving to be effective in our own little slice of culture and history. But by focusing on these expressions rather than on the principles they come from, we end up leaving a more temporary – rather than lomg-term – impact. The next generation’s context may be drastically different from my own. If I try to pass on my methods, they may prove to be ineffective. If I pass on my principles, these have the flexibility to be applied in countless diverse contexts. This is what separates the Christian books that continue to be read century after century from those that are forgotten. This is also why Protestant principles such ad fontes (to the source) and semper reformanda (always reforming) have given Protestant Christianity such dynamism and flexibility in the last 500 years compared to the older churches that became so chained to their Latin, Greek, or Syriac ministry methods (i.e. traditions).
Opening the door to doctrinal drifting. We have a limited capacity for dogmatism. I have often observed that missionaries who are dogmatic about methodology are less convictional when it comes to theology, and vice-versa. It seems we simply cannot live in the real world and be dogmatic about everything. We must fix ourselves to some particular area of importance which then becomes our ballast for navigating everything else. If our north star is “right” methodology, then that means right doctrine is not what we ultimately look to for guidance. This opens the door to doctrine and theology slowly feeling less and less important, as we convince ourselves that right practice is really the main thing in the end. Yet dogmatism in our methods has another path that leads to doctrinal drifting, or to what many are calling deconstruction – when our much-hyped methods let us down. If we have been fixated on the false promise that the “right” methods will be a guaranteed formula for success, then we are in for a gut punch when they inevitably fail. And the enemy uses that season of disorientation to convince us that it wasn’t just the methods, it was also the theology that we believed that led us here. This seems to be happening all around us as in the West as Christians grapple with abuse in the church, and proceed throw out both unhealthy leadership methods along with complementarian theology.
Ministry method dogmatism will lead us to some bad places if we let it shape our lives and ministries. We need to open our eyes to the dangers of this very common malady and put ministry methods and strategies where they belong – as the flexible servants of solid biblical principles and doctrine. While a few areas of methodology are commanded more specifically in the New Testament, most of our methods are not the kind of thing we need be dogmatic about. Should we be convinced of our methods? Sure, let’s have well-formed opinions and make intentional choices about what methods we employ. But let’s not hope in our methods, as if they are what will make or break our ministries. Our methodology – and the Christians around us – can’t handle that kind of pressure. Only the word of God can. Let’s keep the dogma in the dogmatic, keep the central things central, and hold the other stuff with lots of grace, a willingness to change, and a good dose of humility.
“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”
“So they come by regularly?”
“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”
This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.
Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.
“Have you eaten bread today?”
“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”
Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.
At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).
The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”
There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.
I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.
There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.
Patronage is one area of foreign cultures that is hardest for us Westerners to comprehend. Sometimes described as patron-client systems, this is a global and historical way to structure society when you can’t rely on impersonal institutions. If Westerners need to borrow money to buy a house or a car, they get a loan from the bank. If they need a job, they submit a resume to a company. Impersonal institutions help us acquire some of our most important resources for succeeding in life. A patronage system instead relies on important people to get these needs met.
In the West, we sometimes hear that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What this means for us is that relationships are still important, as a sort of lubricant that makes the institutions run more smoothly. In a contest of two equal resumes (or CVs), the resume of the person who is already known will win, because relational experience has been thrown in as the tie breaker. In places like Central Asia, resumes are almost meaningless. Far superior candidates are passed over for the unqualified relative or loyal client whose uncle or patron heads up the company. In patronage systems, who you know really is everything.
The basic logic of a patronage system is that society is set up like a pyramid, with patrons on top and clients on the bottom. To get ahead, members of society look to secure patrons, individuals higher up in the pyramid than they are. The client will offer their loyalty, services, and public praise to the patron who will in turn secure the material goods or connections that the client is looking for.
If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, the character Don Carleone spells this out explicitly. After agreeing to order a hit on a man who has shamed his new client’s daughter, he clarifies that this relationship is one of mutual obligation. “Someday – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” Don Carleone offers a favor of power and influence and the client is thereby indebted to offer any services which might be in his power to offer his patron in the future.
In the past in Central Asia, this could look like an important chief granting land, seed, a horse, and a rifle to a villager. The expectation would be that that villager would give the patron a portion of the crops, that he would fight for him when conflict arose with other tribes, and that he would in every way become his loyal man. Central Asian culture being what it is, this also would mean the client must regularly visit the patron in order to drink his tea and thereby honor him. The peasant was client to the chief, who was client to the regional governor, who was client the emir or king, who was himself client to the emperor or caliph. A current manifestation of Central Asian patronage might look like a politician giving cars or monthly salaries to individuals in order to ensure their votes and support come election time. Or a working class woman bringing food regularly to the family of a university professor to ensure that her son gets into university – while that same professor is indebted to a patron higher up for his job.
There are at least two types of patrons, the powerful individual and the one who connects you to the powerful individual. This latter person is sometimes called a broker. He may not be able to get you the job, but he’s got the ear of the guy who can. Individuals who are on an equivalent level in society with one another are either rivals or “friends,” equals who are in a positive relationship of helping one another out, perhaps sharing the same patron above them.
The mutual obligations of patron-client relationships are the sort of thing continually taught and modeled to kids by their parents and broader society as they grow up, in a sort of “how to invest and get ahead” informal mentoring. These obligations are then (unlike the quote from The Godfather) usually implied rather than spelled out. Patron-client realities are something everyone in society is just supposed to understand. This is what makes this aspect of culture such a minefield for Western missionaries, who arrive completely ignorant of how a patronage society works.
Westerners often look askance at a patron-client society as one in which unequal access to powerful individuals replaces a more just system of merit and equal opportunity. This critique is not always wrong. But remember that most of these societies do not have dependable impersonal institutions to rely on, such as insurance companies. So, your extended family serves as your insurance policy, and beyond that, your network of patrons and clients. Westerners often assume that everyone in their new society can depend on impersonal institutions as they can back home, not realizing that things like banks and government entities are often merely shells which actually contain an internal patronage system. Westerners come from a society which assumes that everyone should be equals, whether “friends,” rivals, or strangers. So a Central Asian may befriend a Westerner in hopes of finding a broker or a patron, only to have the Westerner treat him as an equal “friend” with no strong mutual obligations. Confusion and frustration results.
Patronage causes some big problems for missionaries and for the establishment of healthy churches in our region. For starters, the Western missionary is viewed as a potential patron with lots of wealth and connections. This brings a flood of relationships that are trying to get a leg up on the societal ladder, but which the missionary might mistake for purely friendship or spiritual interest. Missionaries hiring locals is another minefield. Far from the limited contractual relationship between employers and employees that we are used to, employers in Central Asia are patrons responsible for much more than the unsuspecting Westerner knows. Many warm relationships blow up when the Westerner ends the employment of a local. It’s even more dangerous for how locals might come to understand the local church, as a place where their loyalty and services are given in return for the patron-pastor’s providing them with their physical and spiritual goods. But viewing the pastor as patron or broker merely recasts the church in the image of a fallen patronage society.
After living these past seven years in a patronage society, I’m only now beginning to see the through the fog of it all a little bit. Since so much of this kind of a system is meant to be intuited rather than explicitly taught, I’ve had to find scholars who have studied these kind of systems in order to make sense of the patronage sea I’ve been swimming in. One of these helpful guides is a New Testament scholar who wasn’t writing with my context in mind at all, but instead doing historical context work on the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural world of the first century. David A. DeSilva’s book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, has proved to be a very helpful resource for better understanding how patronage still functions among our focus people group. Even my framing of patronage in this post relies heavily on language that that DeSilva uses to describe New Testament culture. Turns out much of the culture of the societies in the Bible has hung on in parts of our region – not entirely surprising given how the mountains tend to preserve things and Islam itself arose in and is compatible with a patronage culture.
The wonderful surprise I found, with DeSilva’s help, is that the New Testament authors model how to transform a patronage culture. I’d like to go into more detail of how this is done in future posts, so for now I’ll content myself with a preview. In short, the New Testament authors didn’t reject patronage, but they did radically redefine it. God is held up as our true patron, the generous patron of all humanity, yes, but the specific patron of believers to whom he freely gives gifts of salvation and new life. Jesus is presented as our true broker – or mediator, in first century language – who mediates creation, redemption, and continual access for us with God the Father. Believers are now all “friends” with one another, regardless of socioeconomic status, who share the same patron and are to work for one another’s good and honor, without rivalry. All of this results in a certain posture of gratitude and service toward God the Father and Jesus Christ which taps into the logic and motivations of a patronage system: what client could ever betray such a generous and trustworthy (faithful) patron? To do so would be unspeakably shameful. Instead, God is worthy of our eternal loyalty, public praise, and joyful service – for our patron has even more glorious gifts yet in store for us, namely resurrection.
This is how the New Testament authors transformed the patronage cultures of the early churches. To make sense out of patronage cultures, and to faithfully engage them ourselves, we need to follow their lead. Given that so many of the unreached people groups of the world are patronage cultures, how amazing that the New Testament authors can serve as such direct models of faithful engagement. My guides for understanding and engaging patronage were there all along, right under my nose.