Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
This is a series of blogs on the theology of culture, which really can be a "theology of everything" if culture is everything we think, have and do as members of a society. In this post, I think through the theology of family, which begins (as with all other cases in the "theology of services" with asking about the purpose, structure and authority of family.
The purpose of family as a cultural system
The purpose of all aspects of culture, more generally, is for humans to flourish. Marriage, being one of the first institutions God instituted (in Eden), was explicitly for our flourishing. Somehow the "leaving and cleaving" (Gen 2:24) when a man and wife are committed to each other unto death guarantees flourishing. Primarily, this seems to relate to the fact that there is no other social relationship where we see distinct persons referred to as "one." In this sense, marriage reflects the Trinity better than any other relationship; and this reflection is for our own instruction. The Father Son and Holy Spirit are eternally creating, communicating and loving; and marriage is where this sort of intimacy is to be found primarily, among all relationships. Note that the term for wife, "helpmate", is not derogatory- in fact, God refers to Himself as a helpmate more than 15 times in the OT.
What about the purpose of other relationships in the family? Family, including extended family relationships, are God's way of ensuring elderly are taken care of when they cannot take care of themselves (1 Tim 5:8) - of ensuring small children are "trained up in the way they should go" (Prov 22:6) so they can be flourishing members of society - of ensuring that wealth is produced and inherited (Prov 13:22).
Ultimately, the chief end of marriage and family, like the chief end of all humankind, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The family is the locus of some of the greatest joy we can possibly experience, when we are experiencing the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Note that all the fruits of the spirit must be lived out in social relationships (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness all are social experiences). And when things go wrong in the family - from divorce to dysfunction to abuse at home, these are the basis for some of the saddest and most traumatic experiences we can face.
The structure for family as a cultural system
Family relationships are God's plan for us function "in the image of God" than any other relationship: The metaphor of the Father-son relationship reflects God's provision and protection of all people (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6). The metaphor of mothers protecting their children reflects God's care and compassion for all people (Matt 23:37, Isa 66:13). The relationship of man to wife reflects Christ's sacrificial love for his Church (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). The metaphor of being born to earthly parents represents our lostness without adoption into God's family (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:23); the metaphor of adoption represents moving from enemies with God to friends with God (John 1:12). And the relationship of brothers and sisters is a metaphor for our permanent commitment to Christians around the world, with whom we share one Heavenly Father (1 John 3:14; Mark 3:35).
A theology of marriage and family requires thinking through gender relationships. Many theologians have suggested that the New Testament advice about structures in family (1 Cor 7:14, 1 Tim 2:9-15) are meant to limit, not expand, a male's authority (Taber, in Stott and Coote, 1980, p. 126). Others suggest that the gender roles are not about capability, but references to the order of creation (1 Cor 11:8-11; 1 Tim 2:12-13).
Some have noted that God's intended structure for families is that they be full of children-- a theology somewhat pejoratively named "quiver theology" Because of psalm 127, 3 - 5
3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children[a] of one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate
The authority for family as a cultural system
The authority, then, for marriage, does not come from the state, but from God. That's why many church leaders are arguing that however the public sphere decides to define marriage (civil unions, or whatever), the state cannot define for the church what marriage is.
Variations of family as a cultural system
Families malfunction (that is, they fail to flourish) when they mar the image of God. For example, if the marriage union reflects the image of God as the two become one, then divorce mars that unity and intimacy (see Matthew 19:6). Many of the world's cultures espouse an ideal of lifetime monogamy; but some cultures, at least in practice, look the other way at divorce, infidelity, polygamy or polyandry. To recover the image-bearing aspect of a flourishing family ideal, cultures would need to emphasize marriage as a permanent, monogamous union.
What about arranged marriage? Note that scripture doesn't outright prescribe either arranged marriages or "love marriages." And both systems can be acceptable if they encourage flourishing rather than malfunctioning. For example, when arranged marriages make an idol out of wealth, alliances, or corporate honor, they can begin to malfunction. Remember that the ultimate purpose of marriage is not wealth, alliance or the accumulation of honor- it is to represent the intimate relationship of the Trinity, and to be the primary place we experience the fruits of the Spirit. "Love marriage" too can become an idol when it places individual happiness over these actual purposes for marriage.
What about endogamy? The list of taboo relationships is pretty short, and doesn't include cousins- in fact, the marriage of cross-cousins is common around the world, as it was in the Ancient Near east. Some Christians from cultures where the marriage of a parallel cousin is encouraged point out that Moses condoned such marriages in Numbers 27.
For an in depth look at 500 years of Christian scholarship on the theology of the family, see Brown, S. and Pollard, J (eds).(2014). Theology of the family. The National Center for Family Integrated Churches
What is so attractive about animism? As a guest on Dr. Darrell Bock's podcast, I discussed the challenges that animism poses to the church
By Kenneth Nehrbass
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Some popular authors (Dawkins, Hitchens) have argued that religious fervor is responsible for intolerance and fighting: if people would stop being so religious, societies would be more tolerant and peaceful. These advocates believe that the key to getting along is for religion to just go away. They imagine that highly religious societies cannot have religious freedom; freedom of thought must be correlated with the absence of religion.
But is there really a correlation between religious enthusiasm and religious pluralism? True, some countries like Indonesia notoriously have very high religious fervor (99% of adults in Indonesia- the world's largest Islamic country- said religion was extremely important) and Indonesia has very little religious freedom - Pew rated the government involvement in religion (GRI) index for Indonesia at 8.4 out of 10. On the other hand, Estonia is one of the world's most secular nations: only 17% said religion was important; yet the country rates only 1.2 out of 10 on governmental involvement in religion. Cases like these suggest that the more religious a country is, the less religious freedom there will be; the key to religious freedom must be to be secular like Estonia.
The problem with this thinking is that there are many counter-examples. Russia is fairly secular (35% said religion was important) but the government squelches religious freedom (7.4 out of 10); and this is about the same with Israel. And on the other end of the spectrum, Brazil and Malawi are some of the most highly religious nations, yet enjoy some the highest rates of religious freedom.
I correlated the GRI with levels of religious enthusiasm for 101 countries to test the null hypothesis that "there is no relationship between religious interest and religious freedom." The correlation coefficient r=0.10, which is a very weak correlation: There is only a very weak correlation between religious enthusiasm and degree of religious pluralism. The chart below shows the results:
It seems plenty of countries can be highly religious yet enjoy a high degree of religious freedom- like those in the lower right quadrant of the figure above, including the USA. It is possible for a country to be highly religious and yet highly tolerant.
Of course, the TYPE of religion significantly affects the openness. Are Christian countries much more likely to enjoy religious freedom, whereas highly Islamic countries do not? If that's the case, then the pathway to religious pluralism isn't for religion to take the back burner, but for us to take a serious look at which religions are good for society. I compared religious freedom in ten nations where the Christianity is the majority religion (Italy, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Portugal, Ireland, Kenya, Philippines, Argentina, Zimbabwe) against the religious freedom of ten of the world's most populous Islamic nations (Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan): The average religious freedom in Christian countries is 2.49 (SD=.97) and in Islamic countries is 6.55 (SD=1.44). The t-value is -7.74. The p-value is < .00001, which is considered highly significant. That means that the chances are one in a million that the higher levels of religious freedom enjoyed by Christians, compared to Muslims, are purely coincidental. It's not a coincidence: Christianity seems to encourage religious freedom, whereas Islam doesn't.
What about secular nations? Are they more likely to encourage religious freedom than Christian ones? I compared the same 10 Christian nations above against the ten countries that self-reported as least religious (Estonia, Sweden, Hong Kong, Japan, UK, France, Viet Nam, Belarus, Russia and Albania). Remember the average religious freedom in the Christian nations is 2.49. in secular nations it is 3.69 on the scale of 1 to 10 (SD=2.25). The t-value is 1.62. The p-value is .06. Secular nations do have slightly higher rates of intolerance than majority Christian nations, but at .06 (a one in 20 likelihood that the differences between governmental influence in these countries were left up to chance), this is considered insignificant: there is no reason to think that secular societies are more likely to promote religious freedom than Christian ones.
If you needed to know how I calculated the t-value in the above stats.
T-value Calculation for Christian and Islamic nations
s2p = ((df1/(df1 + df2)) * s21) + ((df2/(df2 + df2)) * s22) = ((10/20) * 0.94) + ((10/20) * 2.08) = 1.51
s2M1 = s2p/N1 = 1.51/11 = 0.14
s2M2 = s2p/N2 = 1.51/11 = 0.14
t = (M1 - M2)/√(s2M1 + s2M2) = -4.06/√0.28 = -7.74
T-value Calculation for Christian and Secular nations
s2p = ((df1/(df1 + df2)) * s21) + ((df2/(df2 + df2)) * s22) = ((10/19) * 0.94) + ((9/19) * 5.05) = 2.89
s2M1 = s2p/N1 = 2.89/11 = 0.26
s2M2 = s2p/N2 = 2.89/10 = 0.29
t = (M1 - M2)/√(s2M1 + s2M2) = -1.2/√0.55 = -1.62
with guest contributor Denis LaClare
The new GodTools app from CRU was designed to help people share the gospel in any setting from a phone or tablet. In addition to the iconic “Four Spiritual Laws”, there are 2 versions of “Knowing God Personally” and “Satisfied”, which explore the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
And the newest tool is called “Honor Restored" which is aimed at sharing the gospel among the more than one million international students who are in the USA. Many of these students come from honor/shame cultures. In simplistic terms, the first of three primary worldviews can be summarized as “Western”, which emphasizes an interpretation of the world through the lenses of guilt and innocence.
A second worldview element for many international students is based on fear and power. Any culture with indigenous peoples (Africans, Native Americans, etc.) or cultures that try to appease the spiritual world out of fear, fall into this category. A third worldview encapsulates almost all of the Asian, Arab and Persian world and is motivated by honor and shame. The avoidance of shame and the acquisition of honor for themselves and their families are their highest virtues. The Honor Restored digital tool gives them an opportunity to understand the good news in terms that make sense to them. Released in January, 2018, the tool has 2400 “hits” and at least one international student has given their life to Jesus after walking through Honor Restored with a fellow student. Cru hopes to see thousands of students understand and embrace Jesus as a result of this tool.
“Probably the most controversial idea of the Church Growth Movement was the elaboration of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)” (Pickett, 2015, p. 178). The HUP states “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers” therefore “conversion should occur with the minimum of social dislocation” (McGavran, 1990, p. x). That is, church planting efforts should focus on “homogenous units” which McGavran defines as “simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common” (1990, p. 85). McGavran avers “the great obstacles to conversion are social, not theological” (p. 156). People will not give a church a fair hearing if they stick out in the congregation like a sore thumb. Birds of a feather flock together.
The HUP is a product of the discourse of contextualization and the notion of people groups: The gospel must be presented to people in ways that are culturally familiar to them, including indigenous language, worship style, architecture, and so on. The HUP suggests that church growth efforts will be most effective if they are directed at homogenous units (which can be taken to mean ethnolinguistic people groups).
It is significant that the HUP was conceived by missiologists who worked in India, since India is one of the most socially stratified nations. Caste identity can significantly limit South Asian’s interactions with others who are of higher or lower standing. Therefore, it would seem, church ministry would be easiest among people of the same caste. The HUP suggests that church planting efforts should focus on these homogenous units, like the Dalits or the Brahmins.
The HUP is so controversial because it seems to subvert the value of diversity, the cross-pollination of theological thought, and the unity of the body of Christ. This emphasis on distinct worshipping communities may seem to contrast Galatians 2:28, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Yet, Wagner (1978) argued, “Gentiles do not have to become Jews, females do not have to become males… in order to enter into and share the blessings of God's Kingdom” (p. 18). The HUP was meant to reify cultural difference, not to cause cultural divisions. As Steffen (2011) mentioned, “McGavran believed the homogeneous unit was a necessary starting point. He also believed it was not the end point. Homogenous churches could and should eventually become more heterogeneous” (p. 28).
Once people groups are identified, strategists begin to catalog these groups in terms of evangelistic response and need, for the purposes prayer (Johnstone, 2001). And mission organizations begin to direct mission resources to the fields (i.e., people groups) 1) that were seen as “ripe” (receptive); or 2) to those where no work has been done. If it were not for the concept of people groups, mission mobilizers would not have come to emphasize unreached people groups in the 1990s. Beginning with the world’s 7000 distinct languages (P. Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013), the Joshua project took into account features such as religion, and ethnicity, (“Global Statistics,” n.d.) to arrive at a list of over 16,000 people groups.
Missiologists (Bush, 2013) have, understandably, connected the concept of ethnolinguistic people groups to the use of ethne in the New Testament. For example, they contend that Matthew 28:19 means “Make disciples of all people groups.” This argument is fraught with difficulties:
Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world. (Nehrbass, 2016, p. 71)
The model of people groups has now been amended to include seventeen major “affinity blocs”, including the Arab world, East Asians, Eurasians, Jews, Malay, North Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. As affinity blocs are highly reductive and do not take into account these major differences in ethnicity, language or religion, the concept may appear to be a regression from “people groups.” However, affinity blocs are also a missiological application of the homogenous unit principle: Mission strategies within the Arab world will be tailored differently than they will among North Americans or East Asians.
The concept of people groups, combined with the 20th century push for “evangelization in this generation” led to the discourse of unreached people groups. Once these unreached people groups could be identified, mission mobilizers suggested adopting people groups, especially in a geographic region missiologists called the 10/40 window.
If William Carey translated 6 Bibles and portions into 29 other languages, how good could those translations have been?
I began wondering about this when I considered debates about the locus of control of Bible translations.
Bible translation organizations face an internal struggle over the role of expatriate translators. Is it desirable for non-native speakers (often from the west) who are highly trained in translation philosophy and exegesis to have a direct role in translation? Or should indigenous communities bear much of the responsibility, and westerners take on a consulting role?
For the first 1800 years of church history, as the gospel came to a new setting, native speakers who converted became inspired to bring scripture to their own people (Smalley, 1991). This method can be traced all the way back to Ulfilas’ translation of the Bible into his childhood Gothic language in the 4th century AD. Smalley (1991) suggests that the Bible translation model is now coming full circle, and the responsibility of Bible translation is now moving back into the hands of the native speakers. Just under 500 translations of scripture had been completed between the first and 18th century; yet in the past 200 years, over 2000 additional translations have been completed. Still, more than 2500 of the world’s 7000 languages do not have a single verse of scripture.
Across the USA on the fourth Thursday of November, grandparents, in-laws and families will be gathering to eat foods they don't usually eat: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, yams and cranberry sauce (below, you can post your favorites that I may have left of the list). Some will remember to thank God, the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). But what about US Americans who are overseas? How will they celebrate? I asked some Biola students who are scattered around the world what they do for Thanksgiving. One in Thailand said her expatriate (US) community usually goes out to a steakhouse or buffet together. Others, including one student in Mongolia and one who split time between Indonesia and South Korea, attempt to mimic the full Thanksgiving meal, but sometimes have to substitute the turkey with chickens. A student in Hong Kong said:
We do it up in a major way. We pull our kids out of school and gather American friends (and others who are interested) and try and pull out all the stops. Used to be finding the biggest chickens available to roast but turkey is more common than it used to be. It’s a chance to show hospitality, connect children to American tradition and spend a day together.
Dr Tom Sappington, associate professor of theology and missions at Biola University said when his family was in Indonesia they invited many Indonesian friends to experience an American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings. "Our Indonesian guests loved it, but one felt like he still needed to get rice on the way back to his home, since you haven't eaten, unless you've had rice."
On the other hand, some US Americans abroad deliberately skip Thanksgiving, if their host culture doesn't celebrate it. A missionary to the south Pacific said, "What do we do when we're abroad for Thanksgiving? Pretend we're not Americans." Another missionary said, "I try not to think about Thanksgiving when we're overseas...too sad to be away from home at that time."
A borrowed holiday?
Of course, US Americans don't have a monopoly on Thanksgiving- especially in this global age of culture-sharing. Canadians celebrate a Thanksgiving feast much like US Americans do, on the Second Monday of October. But most people may be unaware that Canadian Thanksgiving is actually older than the version in the USA, having been brought over in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe. "And we don't have the connection to shopping, like Black Friday in the States," explained Dr Michael Lessard-Clouston, a Canadian who is professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. Since moving to the USA, his family has celebrated two Thanksgivings in the fall - on both the Canadian and US dates.
Yes, Thanksgiving, as many Americans know it, is actually a European holiday, especially German and Dutch. Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1574 in Leiden, Netherlands, after the city survived a period of famine. Erntedankfest (giving-thanks festival) is the harvest celebration in Western Germany, and includes parades and fireworks on the first Sunday in October. A less religious version, the beer-festival known as Oktoberfest, is more widely celebrated at the same time. In fact, many countries with German diaspora celebrate Oktoberfest.
Thanksgiving has also been re-imagined by communities that were marginalized during the early colonial era Emancipated slaves brought American Thanksgiving to Liberia when they began re-settling Western Africa. The official date of Thanksgiving in Liberia is the first Thursday of November.
Pagan harvest ritual?
Thanksgiving, even the Christian-European version, is actually a version of a nearly global phenomenon known as harvest rituals. Throughout tribal communities, the Southern Hemisphere, the annual harvest is celebrated in March and April (their spring). In Vanuatu, clans celebrate the yam harvest by offering first fruits to the magician who is responsible for a good crop yield. Christians in Vanuatu offer their first fruits in church. rather than to the tribal magicians. In fact, the redemption of a pagan harvest ritual is a global phenomenon. For example ChinaSource reported on Lahu Christians in Yunnan province who offered their first fruits in church at the fall harvest.
There are several versions of harvest rituals in Asia (and by Asian communities in diaspora around the globe): At the full moon in mid-autumn, many Han Chinese swap moon cakes during the Moon Festival. Starbucks has capitalized on the event, selling espresso, caramel and hazelnut mooncakes. "Because it's a holiday, people have time to go visit their relatives. In fact, Chinese refer to a full moon as a 'round' moon; and the word round, in Chinese, is relate to the word for 'reunify,' so we reunite at that time," explained Dr John Liang, professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. However, Liang told me, his family has not celebrated the moon festival since moving to the USA. "My kids don't even like the taste of the moon cakes- they're too sweet, or have eggs in them." "Sometimes Chinese people say these moon cakes are like American fruit Cakes" Dr. Jamie Sanchez, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, commented.
Sanchez also explained that it can be too reductive to simply refer to the mid-autumn festival as "Chinese Thanksgiving", since there are substantial differences. Besides, "who is to say that the Moon festival is like our Thanksgiving. Maybe our Thanksgiving is like their Moon festival, which is, after all 2000 years older."
South Koreans eat small rice cakes called Songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok Day, an Autumn harvest holiday. Dr. Eunice Hong, adjunct professor at Biola's Cook School of Intercultural Studies, said many Koreans return to their hometowns for the three day holiday to enjoy cooking, eating, and bowing to their deceased ancestors. "Because I grew up here in the United States (and because we are Christians), we do not observe it quite like those in Korea. Ancestors worship is very important to Koreans (traditionally), but because we follow Christ, we do not bow down to the ancestors. So here in the States, we go visit our relatives, the women cook in the kitchen all day and in the evening we eat tons of tradition Korean food, but that's about it!"
Vietnamese celebrate a fall harvest Têt-Trung-Thu similar to China's moon festival. Michael Souter explains it is "the Children’s Festival, is held as a way for parents, once busy with the harvest, to make amends with their children who may have felt neglected." One Vietnamese-American blogged about how his family hybridized their own culinary preferences with American Thanksgiving.
So here's one more thing to be thankful for this year: The many ways people around the globe have celebrated bounty, and have celebrated each other. What's on the menu, and the date of the celebration, isn't the important thing. Above all, God delights when we praise Him for his goodness to us all year round (Psalm 147:11).
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor