The Bible, Reformation and Modern Missions
What Did You Learn In Sunday School?
This three-page article presents what may seem to be a new perspective on the Bible, the Reformation, and Missions, and provides the basis for the unusual theme of this whole issue.
I learned in Sunday School that "Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins." I accepted him as my personal Savior. I learned that Jesus sent His followers to all the world to preach the Gospel. I saw how Paul actually went out and did it. And that's how Christianity began!
Great! But what was not clear to me for an embarrassingly long time was that Paul's chief contribution was to make the Gospel into a runaway best seller by detaching it from the Jewish cultural tradition--just as Luther later by detaching the Gospel from the Latin tradition.
I did not realize the extent to which the massive Jewish community within the Roman Empire (about 10%), had been a quiet testimony for many decades. The Empire had accorded them special favors because of their exemplary behavior. They even sent out missionaries a hundred years before Jesus was born. Jesus spoke of some of them, "travelling over land and sea to make a single convert" (Matt 23:15;). They did not fail, exactly, but they sometimes attempted to make Greeks into Jews instead of believers. That did not succeed very well.
What Paul did was to release the Gospel from its Jewish clothes. What Luther did was to release the Gospel from its Latin clothing. What is about to happen on a global level is the release of the Gospel from its distinctively Western clothing.
This is an incredible, world-level "reformation" which apparently must happen, is mainly yet to occur and will radically change our understanding of the Hindu and the Muslim challenge.
The Bible Revisited
But to be absolutely sure of what we are looking for in a "reformation" in missions today, let's revisit the New Testament.
First of all, the Bible emphasizes all the way through that the only Jews who were pleasing to God were those who were Jews inwardly, not just outwardly. Thus, to any clear thinking person, it would do no good for the Greeks and the Romans to become Jews outwardly. Not everyone understood this. Jesus' complaint in the verse just mentioned (Matt 23:15) was that outward converts were simply not good enough.
What was the coming "reformation" back then? It had to come. It took a long time. What led up to it?
- The Jewish people, migrating out through the Roman Empire mixed among the Romans for many decades. Many were high minded and godly people and as a result quite a few Romans and Greeks became followers or seekers. The Jews called them "God fearers" or "devout persons."
- But for every Roman who became resigned to putting on Jewish clothing (taking over customs like circumcision and dietary regulations), there might have been ten or twenty or 100 who devoutly sought the God of the Jews while being unconvinced about the outward clothing. Something had to give.
God told Peter to go to the home of a nasty dirty Gentile Roman. At first he objected, but God insisted. And (Peter could hardly believe it) God made clear that Gentiles were acceptable to Him if their hearts were right--whether or not they put on Jewish clothing.
Was God changing the rules? Was He launching a new deal? Did He really prefer the faith in Greek clothing?
Cornelius really wasn't nasty and dirty, except ritually. He was in fact widely recognized by many Jews as a devout person, a God fearer, along with his whole household. He was generous to the poor and a man of prayer (Acts 10:2). In this dramatic moment Peter discovered, at God's insistence, the explosive truth that "in every nation such people are welcome to God" (Acts 10:35).
- Such people? Such people had heard the word through Jews--people who were foreign to their culture. They had heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His redeeming death and His glorious resurrection. They recognized that the Jews had been ordered to preach this Gospel and to testify of Jesus (Acts 10:36-43) .
Seeing all this, Peter crumpled in a moment of new awareness--God would accept these people. He stammered out, "Why, these people ought to be baptized!" The gifts of the Spirit were apparent, the breakthrough had come. A significant "reformation" had taken place. It was now clear that Gentiles did not have to become Jews outwardly. The important thing was that they have an inward faith--like all those in the Old Testament who were "Jews inwardly."
So, you can imagine, the word quickly spread that "the Gentiles also had received the word of God" (Acts 11:1).
- But some of the folks back home complained. "Are you telling us, Peter," they glared, "that you went to uncircumcised men and ate with them?" Peter numbly recalled how repulsed he had been by the other culture. So he simply fed back the details. The complaining group was quieted, and they glorified God saying, "Yipes! God has allowed the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:2-18).
But this was only the beginning.
The word travelled: Greeks in Antioch began to repent and believe " in considerable numbers" (multitudes it says in the margin). Unbelievers among the Greeks razzed these new Greek followers of Christ, calling them "Messiah-nuts," (the Greek word was Christ-ians) Acts 11:24,26--see also 1st Pet 4:12-19.
This new, fast-growing, divergent group in Antioch soon sent Paul and Barnabas on to spread the word further. On return, some visitors to Antioch from Jerusalem were scandalized (Acts 15:1). So Paul and Barnabas checked all this out with the Council in Jerusalem. This
council was considerably wiser (and more godly) than the bunch in Rome in the time of Luther, who deliberated on that "atrocious German monk's antics." And, probably quite a few years passed before these new, unJewish Greek and Roman believers in Christ were willing to adopt for themselves the derisive term "Christian."
The key point was not what they were called but whom and how they believed.
Just imagine, these strange, repulsively non-Jewish heathen had come to God through authentic repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Historians wrestle with the details. While there were perhaps a million Jews still in Palestine, there may have been eight million throughout the Empire in thousands of synagogues where the scriptures were preached. Let's guess that only 100,000 Greeks and Romans had joined them by fully shifting gears culturally into the Jewish way of life by becoming "proselytes."
But perhaps one million Greeks and Romans were like Cornelius, devout persons who had not really ever become Jews outwardly. They had the essence of the Jewish faith, but not the clothing. The new message to them became "the good news" that God would welcome them, as Gentiles, without the Jewish clothing!
Sad to say, some of these new Gentile believers apparently ridiculed the Jews who believed in Christ for not switching over to Greek clothing, to the Greek way of life (Rom. 14). These Jewish believers still followed many of the Jewish ways. The new Greek believers, some of them, may have thought that God was now throwing in with the Greeks and leaving the Jews out!
By contrast, the Greek believers weren't upset at all about meat that had been offered to idols. They looked down on Jewish believers for being prudish about such things. Jewish believers in Christ were hesitant, profoundly concerned about anything to do with idols. Paul defended them and their way of life (Rom 14). His point: repentance and faith does not require Jewish clothes, neither does it require Greek or Roman clothing! Not every believer in every culture will ever catch on to this fact.
In Sunday School, you may have even received the impression somehow that the Jewish way of life was no longer valid. Some leaders in ancient times thought so. Marcion is the one famous for this, but his ideas were not approved of by most of the rest of the leaders. He threw out the whole Old Testament as being too Jewish. He did not realize that rightly understood, it too, emphasized that "circumcision is of the heart" (Deut 10:16, Jer 9:25). Ours is a multicultural faith!
Down through history, as we shall see, many followers of Jesus Christ have become caught up with a single cultural formulation of the faith and have doubted the real faith of all others. But now the "first reformation" was complete. Now let's look at another major reformation.
Did you learn this about the Reformation in Sunday School?
Hang it all, why couldn't more of us have expected that this whole drama--this whole New Testament "reformation"--would be replayed again and again as the Gospel went to the ends of the earth?
Jesus had said that the gate was narrow and few would find life. And sure enough, many Jews and many Gentiles wore religious clothing but did not go on to find eternal life through genuine repentance and faith. In fact, those who clung to outward forms and technical verbal formulations often panicked at the slightest variation.
In the August 12th issue of Christianity Today (p. 8), Timothy George, the Dean of the (Southern Baptist related) Beeson Divinity School, takes another eminent evangelical theologian to task for whittling our definitions too closely as to who is right on. He came out with a classic statement:
God justifies by faith alone Roman Catholics, among others, whose understanding of justification is different from mine and (the mature) Martin Luther's. To think that Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, to go no further, are all consigned to perdition because they do not properly define justification in precise Reformation terminology is to deny both the grace of God and the sovereignity of God. It is, in short, to turn justification by faith alone into justification by doctrinal erudition alone, which is another form of justification by works.
Thus in Luther's day the same issue surfaced again as in other times and places many times before then.
The Germans had fought off Roman power successfully. The legions had given up in the 5th Century A.D. From then on German followers of Christ no longer had any military apprehensions when they took on the Latin language and Roman Catholic traditions.
But all this foreign clothing of the Gospel eventually did not seem so desirable. While the Roman military power declined, the Roman church gained momentum. By 1200 A.D. it had parted ways with Greek "Eastern Orthodox" followers and was now bossing around everyone in Europe--with both financial and spiritual intentions, of course.
By Luther's time, 1517, one of the most reputable popes, Leo X, although named a cardinal at the age of 14, had grown into a man of high minded integrity. But, he presided uneasily over a church bureaucracy that was shot through and through with carnality.
Luther didn't object to Leo X as a person, but to the implications of his position. Luther, and virtually the whole German nation, gradually decided that the Latin tradition was not for them. Would God allow German clothing for the faith? Should German pastors have to give an oath of allegiance to a corrupt Italian bureaucracy?
Note that the reaction was not just to the corruption but also to the Italian cultural vehicle. We are often confused about the Reformation if we think it was just a reaction to corruption or wrong doctrine. We are confused if we conclude that the Roman believers were wrong and the German believers were right. Church corruption was rampant in Germany as well as in Rome, both before and after the Reformation. There are no completely white knights!
The more basic reality is that neither Roman nor German church clothing could save you--any more than Jewish or Greek clothing could save you. The Gospel in NT times, in Reformation times and today, owes none of its power to its cultural vehicle. And this leads us to the impending reformation of the 1990s.
In Sunday School did you hear about an astonishing "new reformation" coming up in global missions today?
Most Sunday School publishers apparently don't dare print lesson materials on anything but the Bible itself. They are afraid that they couldn't sell their goods widely and have everyone agree on anything except the Bible. So the history of the impact of the Bible following the Apostle Paul usually gets left out of what is taught in Sunday School. I got interested in history because of one sermon about the Reformation. Couldn't Sunday School materials at least talk about the Reformation without reducing market share?
Less common still are Sunday School materials which let their students in on the incredible story of modern missions. But here it is.
The Jews sent missionaries--Jesus referred to them. The Hellenized Jews sent their "new reformation" missionaries. Did the new Greek and Roman believers send missionaries to still other strange cultures? Unfortunately, although this does not come up in Sunday School, the deliberate carrying of their faith to other peoples on the part of the new Greek and Roman believers is a fairly bleak picture. In many cases, they were just happy to be cut in on eternal life and get what the Jews got.
But they eventually did send missionaries of their own. Roman missionaries eventually made their way up into middle Europe and England. (Celtic missionaries had been there first. But the Romans considered them heretical because, ironically, they followed Greek customs more than Roman customs.) This Roman missionary effort was not very successful until the Roman military legions had long gone.
This is why the number and vitality of mission field Christians of our time took a great leap forward after World War II when the colonial powers withdrew their troops.
Roman missionaries tried but did not effectively succeed in giving away their faith to other cultural traditions. For example, for more than a thousand years they couldn't imagine the mass being translated out of the Latin. They accused even the Celtic believers of heresy despite the high quality of their theological tradition and their assiduous study and transmission of the Bible.
In the same way modern missionaries in Africa, Asia, and among the aboriginal peoples of the so-called New World have not been altogether successful in giving away their faith.They too have wondered about the initial theological understanding of literally hundreds of "new movements" which derive from the missionary movement. Some of these are terribly heretical yet zealously study the Bible. Others are not so bad yet have no use for the Bible and thus are not likely to level out. As in Paul's day, people "back home" often unaware of all this.
In the four largest "blocs" of Hindus, Muslims, Chinese, and Buddhists our missionary impact is barely discernible. Is a "Reformation" soon to appear? Are we ready for it? Will we be on speaking terms with its leaders? Ninety percent of all remaining frontier mission work depends on the answers.