Earlier this year I saw fake news on Facebook about how Mike Pence, Vice-President of the United States, was going to get creation taught in science classes. Now an elder at my church excitedly shared this story, blessing Pence for his initiative. The moment I saw the story and this elder’s response I was horrified and I let him clearly know. Apart from it being scientifically and theologically nonsensical to even think of something like that, what struck me the most was how oblivious this church leader of mine was about the current American cultural climate, especially post-election 2016.
American culture is globally very pervasive. As they say, when America sneezes the whole world catches a cold. Beyond that, as regular readers will know, I keep a keen eye on socio-cultural developments in the US and how it affects the American church. I can’t expect the average Ghanaian Christian like my elder to follow these things let alone closely, however there is a deeper issue at hand. He, like many others, have a view of Christianity solely shaped by their own context and through that myopic lens they view global Christianity. I cannot pretend that I too am not a prisoner of my own time and space however what does make a difference is being aware of your own contextual trappings. Why at all should I know about another random Christian on the other side of the world? The simple answer is because we are family.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and on the earth is named. – Ephesians 3:14-15 New English Translation
Much of Western influenced Christian theology has been preoccupied with joining the family in heaven. This almost exclusively vertical focus leaves very little room for such horizontal concerns. We only care about the Christians we go to church with on Sundays (which is not always easy) and those who belong to our particular denomination. We have the theological rhetoric of the “church universal” but in practice we do not see it because we fundamentally do not conceive ourselves as one in the Messiah.
When we look at the New Testament it regards the Church not as a religious organisation but the renewed covenant family of Abraham found in the Messiah, the true Israel of God. As such being Christian was closer to an ethnic identity, a “meta-ethnicity” comprised of people of all stripes across all geographical locations. Fellow believers are supposed to be “our people” in the same way people of our ethnic group are “our people” and even more so. When you read through the New Testament, particularly the Epistles, you see this strong familial connection and identity. This is not to say it was always easy. Unity and diversity are very hard things to, add on top of that holiness, but it was an identity they constantly worked at when you read the scriptures.
For such a thing to work in early Christianity there had to be interaction between the churches which was facilitated mainly through missionary activity. For example, through apostles like Paul and Peter and the letters they wrote as they travelled back and forth between churches across the imperial world. Within the epistles you had personal anecdotes of individual believers and churches helping each other through their resources and being encouraged by one another’s examples. Being an unauthorized movement with no political power who were spread few and far between, but divinely called to be the one holy people of God in the Messiah, they had strong interest in how things were going elsewhere. Now we are many and enjoy relative security in many parts of the world, we have the luxury of being sequestered behind denominational walls, artificially separated from caring for one another.
Now to have meaningful interactions you need to be able to communicate. It was only very recently in human history that communication has become very easy. Back then long distance communication was tedious and costly. A letter cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to compose, send and reply. Things are much easier now and if you have forgotten, take a step back and appreciate the wonderful technology which you are using to read this. Just a few decades ago this was the stuff of science fiction. Information is nowadays abundant so we really have no excuse for ignorance of another. Now I am not advocating for some grand ecumenical conference with the most remote, obscure church you can find. What I do want is for us to be informed about the church outside our contexts. How can we be our brother’s keeper if we do not even know he exists?
There are important benefits we gain as the body of the Messiah when we are simply aware of other believers beyond our bubble.
- We learn. One of the greatest things happening in Christian scholarship is gaining global perspectives. Christian scholarship has been dominated by the West for so long but nowadays fresh insights from the Majority World is changing Christian academia. Outside the Ivory Tower churches learn so much through partnering with other churches across the globe. Personally knowing a brother in another part of the world and communicating with them I have found to be deeply enriching.
- We appreciate. When you talk to believers from other parts of the world, you learn to appreciate the things you take for granted. My country Ghana is not rich by any stretch of the imagination but the freedom we enjoy to be Christian cannot compare to with China or even a United States where faithfulness to Christ is no longer culturally permissible. Right now there is a genocide of believers in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity.
- We love. We get to actually support our brothers and sisters in diverse ways across the world when we know they exist. It does not need to be as extravagant as hopping on a plane to another part of the world. It could be as simple yet vital as praying for our persecuted family across the world. By knowing others we have an opportunity to love them.
However we do it, love is the biggest reason why we should know about Christian contexts and situations other than our own. When we see things through own circumstances we sometimes get a very conceited view of Christian faith and it is hard to truly love and empathise with believers in different situations through that conceit. One of John the Elder’s tests for knowing a true believer is that he loves the children of God. We cannot say we love God and ignore his children. The cross-shaped vision of love we have is self-sacrifice for others just as the Messiah did but how can we do that if we cannot spare a thought for someone other than ourselves? We need to be more attentive to what is happening in the Global Church and we are better equipped now more than ever to do just that. Once we do that we can be in a position to implement our Lord’s final prayer and ultimate vision for his followers,
As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. – John 17:18-23 ESV