Towards the Indigenous Church

(Part Five)

WHEN the first edition of Roland Allen’s book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Our’s? was being prepared for publication, the Right Rev. Henry Whitehead, D.D., then Lord Bishop of Madras, was asked to write the introduction. Many of his statements deserve our respectful consideration as coming from a man of wide experience in Christian missions. Nor should the note of warning which this introduction sounds go unheeded by our churches as they grapple with the intricate and vexing problems of mission methods.

The question of mission policy needs to be studied far more than it has been studied in the past, with due reference to the first principles of missionary work which we find in the New Testament.

I have felt for some years past that our policy in India has been largely dictated by sentiment, by circumstances, by expediency rather than by first principles, and I am grateful to Mr. Allen for this effort to bring our missionary methods to the test of apostolic precedent…

There is obviously a very wide and marked difference between the methods and principles of St. Paul and the methods and principles of modern missions. We neglect the open doors and then spend time and money largely in preaching to people who show no willingness to accept the faith. We found Churches and keep them in leading strings for a hundred years, and even then are not within measurable distance of giving them independence…

The fact remains that, where St. Paul conspicuously succeeded, we have conspicuously failed. May it not be because we have worked upon widely different principles?

It cannot be gainsaid that the Christian Reformed Church also has followed in large measure the methods pursued by the churches which the Lord Bishop of Madras represented. Instead of undertaking a serious study of the Scriptural teachings concerning this matter, we simply sent out missionaries here and there without more carefully defining their task than the general terms found in the liturgical form for the Ordination (or Installation) of Missionaries. Thus our missionaries did their work in quite the same way as was being done generally by missionaries of other churches. Until comparatively recently the whole question of proper mission methods was hardly raised. Haven’t our policies largely been determined by sentiment, by circumstances, by expediency instead of by the Word of God? And when objections are being raised against the indigenous method among us, don’t the former considerations seem to be more weighty and effective in the argument than the latter?

Here it is easy to blame tile missionaries. And time after time precisely this has been done in times past. But the fault lies not first of all with the missionaries. It lies with the church which has sent them, that is, with you and with me and with all who are members of our church. And until all of us by virtue of our calling as Christian prophets set ourselves to a serious study and discussion of the relevant issues in the light of the abiding Word, we can hope for little real progress in the prosecution of our missionary task as a denomination. In this light we would consider further some of the objections raised against the indigenous method. Mention has already been made of the problem of finance and the need of strong leadership in the younger churches. Now a few others demand our attention.



Deterioration of Discipline

In a sense this objection which concerns itself with the internal life of the newer churches on the mission fields is closely related to the preceding one. Many also today are asking, If the government of the congregations established on the mission fields is so soon entrusted to the converts themselves, will this not necessarily result in a lowering of moral standards and a resultant compromise with heathen mores?

Such a danger cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Many who have recently forsaken heathenism find it very difficult to assimilate the high ideals for Christian faith and practice which the Bible sets. In specific and concrete language the New Testament itself mentions this. We cannot read the epistles of St. Paul, particularly his first letter to the Corinthians, without becoming painfully aware of the relevance of this problem. Members of that congregation were deeply involved in litigation with each other. At least one member was guilty of an exceedingly gross form of fornication without being disciplined. The relation of the new converts to paganism as represented in the guilds demanded proper definition.

In a more modern setting’ this issue is raised and discussed in J.T. Munday’s article on “A Central African Question of Morals” in the International Review of Missions for October 1949. In it he deals specifically with offerings to the spirits and divining which “are practiced by all pagans frequently and openIy, for they are a part of the normal pattern of social life.” Against such customs the church has taken a positive stand, but they continue to he regarded “at the most as very venial faults by the great majority of Christians.” As a result the church elders fail to report the instances when such practices are followed with anything like the frequency which church discipline would seem to require. This, the author contends, must be interpreted in the light of the complete lack of understanding and appreciation which the new converts have of the Christian doctrine of the soul.

We do well to inquire into the position adopted by St. Paul on such and similar crucial matters. Even though we arc not competent to deal in detail with the subject, a few things can be said. A careful reading of the first epistle to the Corinthians seems to warrant the conclusion that the apostle never tried to solve such problems by merely appealing to and then applying some rule of the law. There is no evidence throughout the letter of a codification of things prohibited and things permitted in the heathen environment of Corinth. Naturally, such a construction by no means implies that Paul failed to realize the importance of the law as the rule for the Christian’s life. Yet he seemed to prefer to approach the problems raised from the point of view of the impact which the gospel of salvation made on the conscious life of the individual and the congregation. He reminded his readers frequently of the spiritual compulsion to a holy life which is an integral element in salvation b’y grace. And al though he counseled and pleaded, chided and rebuked, took sharp decisions and urged these upon the congregations and its leaden;, he did not lord it over the flock in such a way as to obscure their spiritual responsibility for church discipline. He was convinced and consequently taught the church of all ages that by divine appointment the whole congregation must be active in this work. The significance of this position [or both offender and congregation is admirably summarized by Roland Allen in these words,

We look upon the sting of excommunication as exclusion from spiritual privileges; but the man who so acts as to incur excommunication is often the last person to feel that sting. His spiritual apprehension has already been deadened before he falls into sin. What he needs is the public censure of the majority of his fellow-churchmen to awaken his conscience. If the majority of his fellow-churchmen do not avoid him and cast him out, it is little use for a formal sentence of exclusion from Church privileges to be issued against him and carried out by the officials of the society alone. That does no good; it very often only does harm. It hardens the man without humbling or instructing him.

Moreover, an act of this kind is done not only for the good of the offender, but for the good of the Church. It is meant to clear the Church’s good name which has been sullied by the act of one of its members. It is meant to be a real clearance of the Church. But if the majority feel that they have not a real share in the action of the Church, if they do not heartily and sincerely realize that the act is their act, if they consequently do not support it, then there is no real clearance of the Church. Christians and heathen alike recognize that the leaders of the church have expressed their disapproval. Christians and heathen alike recognize that the body has done nothing of the kind.

Here are laid bare the weaknesses inherent in much which passes for church discipline not only on the mission field but also back home. And possibly not until the home churches begin to understand more clearly and practice more consistently the discipline of the Holy Scriptures will we be able to look on improvements in this regard among the younger churches. What such a statement above all clarifies is the importance of giving a large measure of freedom to the new converts and their own spiritual leaders in carrying out the teachings of the word in this respect. In many quarters on the mission fields discipline is almost entirely in the hands of the foreign missionary who may act either with or without consulting the native leaders, hut in nearIy every case he is recognized by all as the responsible party in the procedure.

In any case it must still be demonstrated that when indigenous leadership assumes responsibility in the name of the congregation, the moral bars are consequently lowered. We are strongly inclined to believe that precisely the opposite will be true. The late Dr. J.C. De Korne often remarked favorably on the discipline which he found in the young churches on our Nigerian field. He claimed that it was stricter and more wholesome than that which passes for discipline at home. The native elders and congregations invariably know far more of what is actually happening in the village than does the foreign missionary, even when he is resident there. And in the measure that these young Christians become aware o[ their duty in this work, will Christian discipline begin to answer to its high and holy purpose.

Indigenization of the Gospel and Heresy

But now if we concede that perhaps church discipline will improve in the measure in which this is nude the responsibility of the congregation and the elders, will not an even greater danger, t h at of heresy, threaten the very life of these young’ churches? In view of the strong insistence which this method makes on bringing the gospel in terms intelligible to the peoples on the fields we dare not lightly dismiss this objection. After all, the Bible unmistakably affirms the necessity of sound doctrine. The church to be and remain church must manifest herself as the pillar and ground of the truth.

This matter comes into sharp relief, when we listen to the criticism repeatedly heard in our day both from within and outside of the younger churches. The seeming irrelevancy and unintelligibility of much of the Christian message in non-Christian lands is being loudly voiced. Rajaiah D. Paul in his provocative book The Cross over India writes in this vein,

The third great defect is the failure on the part of both missionaries and Indian Christians to nationalize Christianity in the country, their failure to learn anything from Hindu philosophy and to evolve all Indian Christian theology in which both strands of the Indian Christian heritage are woven into a new pattern acceptable to the Indian mind. The fact is that after two hundred years of Christianity the Christian message is still being presented ill language unintelligible for the most part of the people of the country.

Unambiguously this statement presents us with a challenge and sounds a warning. Here we face some of the ultimate issues relative to the transmission of the Christian gospel from age to age and from country to country. Therefore we can expect that the opinions on this problem will be sharply divided. Some insist that Christianity can learn nothing from Hindu philosophy because of its avowed non-theistic and anti-Christian presuppositions. Others hold that onIy with respect to the formal aspects and methodologies of this body of learning can disciples of Jesus Christ sit at the feet of the ancient teachers of this land. Still others maintain, as does R.D. Paul, that the wisdom of the Eastern sages must somehow be amalgamated with the unique principles of Christianity, in order to make the gospel palatable and appealing to the people.

What would happen in india of this challenge were seriously pursued is difficult to determine at this time. But it cannot be denied that indigenization in this sense can easily swing wide the door to heresies of many kinds. Throughout the centuries missions have been compelled to declare war on similar attempts to “indigenize” the gospel. The pages of church history are replete with examples. And for us who have some acquaintance with .the history of mission work carried on by the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands on the island of Java, the tragic tale of the Sadrach movement there during the last decade of the previous century with its attendant lessons is significant.

From another part of the world comes, an even more contemporaneous warning. In his recent book, Bantu Prophets In South Africa, Bengt G.M. Sundklu tells what is happening among the Zionists cults which are proliferating in that land. The leaders of those groups are attempting to merge Biblical ideas with the old Zulu religion, especially with such aspects as ancestor worship and magic. Innumerable varieties of emphasis have led to much fission among the natives following these cults. But in the judgment of the author the underlying pattern is evident.

The behavior and activities of the Zionist prophet and his church reveal that, in certain cases the deepest cause of the emergence of Independent churches is a nativistic syncretistic interpretation of the Christian religion…The syncretistic sect becomes the bridge over which Africans are brought back to heathenism.

How similar this sounds to many of the stories of the experience of the early Christian churches, and how comparable its consequences to the rise of humanism, secularism, and irreligion produced by much of the modernism of the past half century!

A more restrained and carefully formulated plea for indigenization of Christian theology than that given by R.D. Paul is presented in the booklet on The P/aDe and Nature of the Christian Church in India written by the Right Rev. S. Kulandran, Bishop in Jaffna of the Church of South India. What he has to say about his own church and her leaders in attempting an indigenization of the Christian message is worthy of consideration by missionary leaders throughout the world.

For the Church to do a thing because it is Indian, will certainly help to indigenise it, but one may have to ask whether it will keep the Church, or an effective Church. To employ the old bottles of Indian habit, practice, custom Or inheritance m,ay be a wise policy, if they can contain the new wine of Christian Faith and Christian Witness. To consistently prefer the old bottles to the wine can scarcely be the policy of the Christian Church….If it means that its purpose in any respect will be defeated by the adoption of Indian categories of life or thought, then it must seek other patterns.

Thereupon he adds his conviction which has been so largely denied in recent years and yet never disproved, “Basically, the dichotomy between the East and the West is irrelevant to the Christian Church. It is not concerned with being Eastern or Western. What it is concerned with is being a witness to its Faith as effectively as it can in its particular context.”

J.H. Bavink, it seems to me, gives within a few pages a good analysis of what is taking place on mission fields throughout the world with respect to the rise and development of indigenous conceptions of the gospel. In many places these are uncertain, hesitant, nebulous, lacking in positive quality and until the present not sufficiently capable of dynamically revolutionizing the minds and hearts of the hearers.

The younger churches in the mission fields have not yet given birth to great theologians like Augustine. They are still too much involved in the political crisis of the present situation in the world. They are still wrestling to find an indigenous and congenial expression of their conception of Biblical truth. Their situation is dangerous. It is likely that sooner or later heresies will arise among them and they will have to resist them with the weapon of the holy Word of God.

But, we now ask, will not precisely such a construction of the dangers and difficulties force upon us the conclusion that we can prevent heresy only by compelling the younger churches to adopt our historic creeds as the basis for their doctrinal teaching and preaching?

To our mind this by no means follows.

Of course, we expect that the missionaries in season and out of season will teach and preach the gospel of grace as they have learned to know it in the churches back home. Their presentation will be thoroughly saturated with the official teachings of these churches. They are not committed to these doctrinal positions, they have no business on the mission fields as official representatives. Rather, they are traitors, possibly even hypocrites, who have carefully concealed their inner convictions from the churches which sent them. But where they are true and honorable ambassadors, their work of teaching and preaching will strongly color the faith of the converts, especially of the leaders with whom they work more directly.

Yet if such missionaries truly understand their task of seeking to establish a Scripturally informed and doctrinally conscious church, they will not foist upon these congregations the creeds of the home churches. Of course, these should be translated. They must also be taught as the best and most complete affirmation of Scriptural truth in creedal form. But the churches on the field, as full-fledged congregations of our Lord and Savior, must be given the freedom to determine their own official standards. Unless creeds are appropriated in accordance with the doctrinal knowledge of the members and their relevancy for the particular historical context in which such churches find themselves, they will be merely dead-letters.

Nor will this enlarge the danger of doctrinal defection and heresy.

If the missionaries faithfully and consistently preach and teach the Word, insisting upon it as the all-sufficient rule for faith and practice, we need not fear for the future. Strange as it may seem, usually the new converts are much more loathe to indigenize than are the missionaries. This is evident from the fact that the impulse in this direction has come usually from the latter instead of the former.

Above all, we must be clear in our conviction that these new Christians in their ecclesiastical as well as personal life have received the Spirit of the Lord Jesus. He will lead them into all truth and bring to their remembrance the things which Christ Himself has taught. The venture of missions in all its parts is one that demands faith, an heroic faith which hopes to accomplish great things for Gael because it expects great things from God. The more we train the new Christians for responsible spiritual leadership, also in doctrinal matters, the greater right we have to expect God to bless these efforts. This, to our mind, is one of the wonderful lessons taught by the history of the Korean churches which have developed under the consistent pursuit of the indigenous method. No doubt heresies have assailed and will at times continue to assail that church too. But there does not seem to be a mission church throughout the whole world which knows its Bible better and seeks to live by its truths more humbly and consistentIy. These people have been trained to think and live by the Bible, and that training has been honored by our Lord.

The Place of the Missionary

Those who are fearful of the indigenous approach register still another objection.

This concerns specifically the person and position of the foreign missionary.

He has come to a strange land to dwell among its people for the purpose of bringing to them the sweet but strange message of salvation by grace. Those who have embraced the Christian faith consequently associate their spiritual apprehension and experience largely with him and his teaching. In a real sense he has become their spiritual father. From his lips they first heard the wonderful story of forgiveness through the blood of Christ and reconciliation with the living God. Patiently and persistently he has instructed and admonished, counseled, rebuked and comforted them. Both they and their children have been baptized by him. Time after time he unfolded to them the riches of the Word. He has taken a hand in the erection of their churches and schools. Their personal and family and even social life has largely been supervised by him. They look to him; they listen to him; they lean on him.

But according to the indigenous plan it would seem necessary to cast these raw recruits to the gospel with their infant congregations upon their own resources. Surely this is both unkind and unrealistic, the opponents argue. It looks too much like forcing a babe of three months to walk and talk. It robs the infant church of the spiritual support it so sorely needs in its earliest struggles towards spiritual maturity in Christ. But even worse, such a procedure must be accounted unrealistic. Nothing else can be expected than a rapid return to heathen standards and customs. In support of their argument the opposition usually points to the tragic stories of the spiritual shipwreck suffered by so many who were baptized by Francis Xavier in India or by the early Dutch Reformed missionaries under the aegis of the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia, Ceylon and Formosa. All work by such and similar fly-by-night evangelists who like restless birds all the wing cannot tarry anywhere long must surely come to nought.

We would counter first of all by asking whether those people who were baptized and later fell away were properly instructed at all and gave evidence of genuine conversion. The two examples referred to above were about as far removed from the indigenous plan as night is from day. But still more we would cite the example of St. Paul. Roland Allen, we believe, has cogently argued that the “converts” of the apostle were no better educated or inherently more spiritual than most of the new Christians on our mission fields today. Yet he never stayed with them long. Even in such strategic centers as Ephesus and Corinth his tenure did not exceed two years. But he did keep in constant touch with them. He often left one of his associates in such places for a season. Yet most of all, he insisted that front the beginning the congregations themselves assumed great responsibilities. He never wanted to make them dependent on him.

Of course, there were grave dangers in these places. Again and again they had to be warned and rebuked. But will anyone argue that the difficulties encountered in mission churches established as a result of the “comprehensive approach” are any less serious? If we as Reformed Christians believe that also the life and labors of St. Paul were recorded for our instruction, we would do well to make careful study of his methods and follow them to the best of our ability. For those methods, we are convinced, were not his own but directed by the Holy Spirit of God.