Unnecessary shackles

A favorite movie of mine is the surfing documentary "Riding Giants." The film is about big wave surfing across the globe and it tracks the history of surfing from it's roots in Hawaii to the tow in revolution today (tow in is where surfers are towed by watercraft into giant waves that are often considered to big to hand paddle into).

The movie begins with a spoofy animated bit about surfing in Hawaii in the 1800's.  Apparently, surfing was typically reserved for Hawaiian royalty but other islanders had taken to the sport.  When Christian missionaries arrived on the islands later in that century, they were shocked at the indecency of the surfers, who wore little more than loin cloths as they rode their boards in the surf.  As a result, part of the missionaries' evangelistic efforts included discouraging surfing altogether, and because of the their influence many believe surfing disappeared almost entirely.

Of course surfing didn't go away and the point of the clip wasn't to analyze missionary endeavors, but it did send a pretty clear message.  As missionaries have spanned the globe, taking the gospel into remote villages and foreign cultures, there has often been a "westernized" expectation that follows them.  Those who convert to Christianity have been expected to express their faith with western ideals and practices.  Many have literally been forced to change their cultural ways in order to fall in line with a prescribed notion for what is deemed "appropriate".

In some cas this certainly isn't a bad thing.  For instance, in Papua New Guinea there were tribes that were involved in cannibalism.  When the missionaries came and presented to them the glorious gospel of life, part of the discipleship process was in teaching these new believers a better way of living that honored life instead of destroying it.  Yet in other cases, there have been efforts to literally force foreign value systems upon people, destroying their unique cultural identity.  Must a tribe in Africa or Brazil worship to the same style of music that we do here in America or wear the same clothing?

This idea of unnecessarily shackling believers with man-made preferences has its roots in the early church.  Paul and Barnabas' first missionary journey (Acts 13-14) took them through Cyprus and part of what is modern day Turkey.  During this trip many of the Jews consistently rejected the gospel message, prompting Paul and Barnabas to proclaim that they were now going to focus their efforts on the Gentiles who were welcoming this message of hope (Acts 13:46).  Up until this point, Paul had been focusing his efforts on preaching to the Jews so that they, as God's chosen people, would know that Jesus is the promised Messiah, yet time and again they rejected this message.

A Gentile is basically anyone who is not a Jew, which happens to include most of the people in the world.  The Jews would often look upon Gentiles with disdain because, well, they weren't Jews.  And now that many Gentiles were hearing the gospel and believing in Jesus, there were many Jewish Christians who were becoming uneasy with it.  These Jewish Christians still insisted on following the customs of the Jewish Law found in the Old Testament and they began insisting that these Gentile converts needed to follow the Law too and submit to circumcision among other things or they could not be saved (Acts 15:1).  Thus was the beginning of a new controversy in the Christian faith.

However, before it could take root for too long, the apostles chose to address the issue and came to the obvious conclusion that forcing Jewish ideals on Gentiles was not helpful nor profitable:
"Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples' necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are...Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God from among the Gentiles." (Acts 15:10-11, 19 as spoken by the apostle Peter)
Peter laid it down right there.  He told the Jews not to expect the Gentiles to live like Jews because they aren't Jews.  They are Gentiles, with their own customs and culture, yet it is the same grace of God that has changed them all.

I had the privilege of seeing this action a few years ago when I was in northern Sudan.  The missionary that I partnered with saw the bigger picture for Sudan and as a result he sought to mentor and disciple Sudanese believers who in turn would minister to their own people in their own unique cultural context.  Not once did he attempt to westernize these new believers or draw them into an American church way of thinking.  Instead, he chose to focus on Jesus as the central issue and as a result these beautiful people were able to worship and grow in ways that greatly influenced the rest of the people around them.

Let me finish this post by adding to all of this that what I have described above is not just an issue that happens when we take the gospel overseas to different and unique cultures.  Indeed, it happens here in America all the time.  We insist that when people come to Christ they must adopt our specific preferential church ways and worship as we do.  If they are not studying from the same version of the Bible, singing the same style of songs, or holding to the same manner of Christian thinking that we do, then whether we realize it or not we look down our noses at them and think them spiritually deficient. While there is a need to call believers to holiness and purity, insisting that they also adopt our own man-made church ideals is not essential.

That, my friends, is placing unnecessary shackles on other believers and does nothing but "cause difficulties for those who turn to God."  Let's instead focus on Jesus above all.

1 comment:

barbkibler said...

The creator of the universe with it's majesty and beauty created us to worship Him! Worship should be as unique as we are. I applaud this entry as we need to be careful....other religions demand conformity...God seeks to have a personal relationship with each oh us!

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