There are many examples of ministry from afar. The Bible itself reflects the reality that much of ministry is from afar because the entire scripture is written. We don’t have direct access to the Biblical writers other than through their writings. This means that it was intended to be read in a variety of locations and often without the presence of the human author.
Old Testament Prophets. There is a distinction in the Bible between the prophet and Prophet. “Prophet” refers to the book written by the “prophet” (VanGemeren, 2010). This means that while the people living at the same time as the prophet were able to hear directly from him or her, the majority of people can access the prophet’s voice through the written Prophet. It is also important to note that these prophets had oracles for many nations other than simply for Israel. How were these messages from God supposed to arrive in these various nations if not through a process of isolation and then presentation? These nations are somewhat isolated from the prophets’ messages, but they were able to access these messages through the Prophets once they were written down.
God’s 450 years of silence. There are also examples of when God is silent in the Bible. Ex 2:23-25. But God still hears when people call on him. The 450 years between the testaments. God is silent but eventually answers.
Jesus in the Grave. Jesus was isolated in the grave, but he still ministered to the souls in hell. That’s why we have a Sabado de Gloria to celebrate Jesus’ ministry to those who had been condemned.
Paul. We don’t know Paul personally. Rather, we know Paul via his writings. That is a form of distant communication. If Paul hadn’t been isolated, he wouldn’t have needed to write the various parts of the New Testament that he wrote, and we would have nothing today to base our faith upon.
Biblically, times of isolation are both normal and essential for the future of the church. Which leads us to this question: Will that also be the effect of the COVID-19 lockdowns that are continuing to happen around the world? Will these lockdowns provide opportunity for us to contribute to the future of the church through writing, recording, or posting online? Will the church continue? Will the church grow? All because of this quarantine? What are we doing to ensure the church lives on? During this time, we long for the return to our buildings, our return to mass gatherings, our return to the way things were. But these are not essential to our existence as Christians. What is essential is that the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ continues to be spread throughout our communities and throughout the world. And this will happen through the crisis and associated quarantine.
So, let’s talk about the church. What does church really mean? When it comes down to the idea of how we respond to COVID we have to realize that we’re talking about different aspects to church. We can look at the church as both gathered and scattered. Sometimes the church gathers together and sometimes the church is scattered and spread apart. Sometimes the church has both gathered and scattered aspects existing simultaneously. For example, sometimes a church has a Sunday-morning gathering, a weekly small group – known by various names including cell church, small group, Bible study, the life group, discipleship group, and more – as well as members who spend most of their time in their respective physical communities as well as their workplaces, homes, and selected third spaces. Sometimes the concept is explained using cells with single shell churches meeting Sunday mornings but multiple cell churches meeting anytime throughout the week. What all of this means is that there are multiple ways of understanding the concept of church.
But perhaps the most traditional model is the single cell model of a church that gathers on a Sunday morning in what is often called a congregation. This is actually not a traditional Philippine way of worship. Spain’s introduction of the concept of church to the Philippines involved a lot of reengineering of Philippine society. Spain used a colonial system called reducciones where they would gather scattered people into communities, called Poblacion or plaza complex in the Philippines. Here you have the church, the municipal Hall, and the market with people living in the surrounding blocks. The distance that you could be away from the church was restricted by the sound of the church bell. This is called baja de campana, or under the bell. If you could hear that bell ringing that would call you to mass then you were baja de campana. This identified you as a person submissive to the system. While the term baja de campana isn’t used as much today, this concept is still seen in the Parokya or parish where the church bell and mass are broadcast to the community on loudspeakers.
A New Normal, 500 Years Ago!
While this is normal in the Philippines today, 500 years ago it was a new normal. Prior to this, people lived wherever was convenient to them: Fishermen lived near their favorite fishing cove and farmers lived near their fields.
Spain came in and brought their system for not only colonization but also for evangelization, because the two are not much different. Today we have other issues coming in, including public health concerns such as the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. These issues are creating a new normal that governs how society operates. Because of the public health crisis, we have developed this idea of virtual or online or live stream churches, whether these are services that we’re broadcasting, whether it’s praise and worship, that we’re broadcasting, whether it’s a new way of doing church online, or whether we’re just doing the same thing and recording it and broadcasting it, whether we’re using Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo, or other things, and there’s a variety of other ways to interact where does this fit this virtual online church? Is this the church gathered? Is gathering a part of this online community when we’re gathered together on zoom? Is that a gathering? When we’re all watching doing a watch party together? Is that gathering? Is that scattered? Because the church can be gathered scattered? Is this cell a single cell or is it multiple cell? How does this all interact and work with each other? What does it all do?
Then you get to COVID-19 times where people can’t gather together. And we love to gather together. And it’s the gathering together in a sense that it’s the community of believers, in a sense, makes up the church, but we’ve conflated that with the facility within which we gather.
And so, when it comes to the point of gathering together, not being able to gather together for COVID, all of a sudden, the discussion goes to “Oh, well it’s religious persecution,” or some other kind of an issue. As if the only way that we know how to connect with God is inside a church building. But if we look at biblical and church histories of the way people have gathered, we realize that that’s not entirely the case.
It just means that our way of doing things may go through changes, just like the change from walking in the garden, to having to build an altar, to having to go to a tabernacle, to then having to go to a temple, to then doing a synagogue or a church. It’s just part of the transition and there’s been lots of “new normal” over time.
Philippine Religious Consciousnesses and Crisis Today.
There’s no concept of religious space in the Philippines system because all space is religious space. This helps us particularly when we talk about issues of issues of religious liberty. Do I have the right to practice my religion and if the government tells me not to meet together, does that mean I’m not being able to practice that? these issues are sort of put aside, because there is really no specifically religious space. We’re used to worshiping in a church, but quite often in society, you’ll see a variety of different religious spaces that are used. You know, whether it’s a procession, where you’re going down the street and so the street becomes a religious space as you bring your as you bring your statue around the community. Even there’s what’s called the pabasa. During Holy Week. When the, the story of Jesus passion is, is, is, is sung in various parts of the community and so these homes and these different places become religious space because of the usage. There’s even the Stations of the Cross where religious spaces are temporarily set up in various parts of the community as people go around and pray as they remember Jesus’ passion. So religious space in the sense of here’s where we do religious activities and this space we don’t is not a concept that exists in the Philippines.
The first point we need to remember as we as we try to create a theology of crisis is that any space can be religious space — we don’t need to be fixated on a church building.
Church Leadership and the Filipino Family.
I guess the second point is that typically the pastor is seen as being in charge of the church. They provide leadership there, but what about inside the home? Who is the one who provides leadership there? It certainly isn’t the pastor.
As the story goes, the pastor visited a home at lunch time. In an effort to honour him they mother invited him in to eat. She had prepared a fish for lunch and the kids worriedly watched the pastor through the window as he tucked in to the meal. All of a sudden one of the kids yells, “Mom, he flipped the fish over!”
While the pastor may be a visitor to the house really the leadership of the home is provided by the father and the mother. And this leadership extends not simply to who feeds the kids and who does the laundry but it goes beyond that. Ultimately it is Who sets the rules? and Who shapes the future for the family? It’s the parents.
One way forward in the midst of crisis is to encourage, train, and empower parents to be the spiritual leaders of their families.
Dambana, or the family altar.
The third aspect would be the idea of dambana. Dambana is a is an old Filipino word that talks about a place where you encounter the divine, you know whether this is whether this is a space like a, like a building, whether this is an altar. But, but typically within a house, you know a lot of houses have the altar inside their house so there’s this religious space inside the house, that is that is devoted towards the worship of God and the connection proper connection and relationship with God. Quite often, of course in Filipino homes you’ll have a, you’ll have a, an image that’s that is in that spot, but you’ll also notice in many homes you’ll have other religious artifacts such as Bibles and other things that are there. And these are these are just to remind everybody that God is always present with us. And so within, within each house you have this religious space.
We can use these concepts. As we move towards developing a theology of crisis, a theology of lockdown a theology of pandemic. Rather than trying to find theological reasons for convincing the government to let us reopen our church buildings, we can help encourage and empower families to be responsible for their own spiritual development inside of their homes. During this time, and maybe this will expand them beyond that into the time after the pandemic whatever it will look like.
A few weeks ago we needed to vaccinate some calves against black leg. It was quite the process. First we had to round up the cows and calves in the pasture and gather them in a temporary corral. Then we had to move them through the farm yard and across the road into another corral — this one with three sections. We then had to separate the cows from the calves. The final step was to run the calves through a chute four at a time (a process that involved a lot of shoving). At the end of the chute they were locked into a smaller space so that they could be vaccinated. Eventually they were all released into another pasture to continue on with their lives.
None of this would have been possible without a goad.
I actually had to take a look at my Oxford Thesaurus of English to get an equivalent modern word for “goad.” Here are a few: Stimulus, incentive, encouragement, stimulant, stimulation, inducement, fillip, impetus, impulse, spur, prod, prompt; incitement; motive, motivation.
Basically, a goad is a tool used to get cows to move.
We had a variety of goads. Some were long thin whip-like instruments made of fibreglass. Others were old hockey sticks with the blades broken off. The most scary of the bunch, for the cows that is, was a plastic shaker that made noise when moved. All of these tools are used to make sure the cows go where you want them to go.
Jesus used the word “goad” in his encounter with Paul on the Damascus Road when he asked, “Why are you kicking against the goads?” (Acts 26:14). It was him saying, “I have been trying to get your attention for so long. Why are you not listening?” The way the question is asked implies that God had been trying to get Paul’s attention for quite some time.
What were the goads that Jesus used to convince Paul? While the list is not explicit in scripture, I could think of these possibilities:
Paul knew the scriptures and the scriptures point to Christ — road to Emmaus. yet Paul didn’t see this yet.
Paul heard Stephen’s testimony about Jesus, but still approved of his death.
Paul knew the teachings of the Jesus followers, which is why he persecuted them.
Now Jesus takes matters into his own hands and personally appears to Paul in a very dramatic way!
We can be grateful that Paul finally yielded to the goads and chose to follow Jesus but the real question is, “What goads am I kicking against?” And perhaps, “How do I know when God is trying to convince me of something?”
[I thought about including a list here but then that might be goads you are kicking against and not ones that I am kicking against!]
One area of dispute is the extent of evil in the world. Some people simply say things like, “I am not racist so racism isn’t real” or “I have an indigenous/black/person of colour friend who hasn’t experienced racism so it isn’t really an issue” or the kicker “Once people accept Jesus they are no longer sinners so things like the mistreatment of others will just disappear.”
These various approaches view evil as being something personal and so provide personal solutions to it. And this isn’t all that surprising given that the default message of the evangelical church over the years has been, “Invite Jesus into your heart and your sins will be forgiven.”
Evil, however, is much more complex than simply being personal. In fact there are three types of evil, or sin, that are discussed in the Bible: Personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil.
In this post we will take an introductory look at each of these types of evil with the hope that a renewed understanding of these will lead to justice and change in society.
Personal evil has been the central way that people in recent times have understood evil. There are three ways to approach how the Bible understands personal evil, each one from a different cultural perspective.
Guilt to Innocence is the most common understanding of personal evil, largely due to the predominance of western Bible interpretations. It uses a courtroom as its motif. This understanding has led to popular gospel presentations such as the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, and the Roman Road to salvation. The emphasis to this approach is that all are guilty of sin and are thus in need of righteousness. This perspective is common among individualistic societies.
Shame to Honour is another perspective on personal evil. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of honour and shame. Shame to Honour emphasises relationships and how they can be restored. This perspective is common in communal societies.
A third approach to understanding personal evil is Fear to Power. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of Power and Fear. Jesus overcame the power of Satan and death on the cross and gives power to those who are afraid.
Natural evil includes things like famine, drought, disease, wild animals, floods, storms, and disease.
Floods: God brought “a flood of waters on the earth” (Genesis 6:17).
Thunder, hail, lightning: God “sent thunder and hail, and fire came down” (Exodus 9:23).
Destructive Wind: God sent a “great wind” that destroyed Job’s house and killed his family (Job 1:19). Earthquake: By the Lord “the earth will be shaken” (Isaiah 13:13).
Drought and Famine: God will shut off rains, so neither land nor trees yield produce (Leviticus 26:19–20).
Forest fires: God says, “Say to the southern forest, ‘I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree’” (Ezekiel 20:47).
These events affect people all over the world and the results are often not good. A super typhoon went through the Philippines a number of years ago. In a small coastal town many lives were lost as logs from the mountains were washed through the town. Those logs were seen as a curse. About a week later, a small island community was awakened by cries of, “Thanks be to God. He has provided these logs for us. Now I can build a house/boat/business.” Those same logs cursed a week earlier in another place were now seen as a blessing.
It’s important to point out that these natural evils started with the curse in the garden of Eden, where, because of Adam’s sin, the ground was also cursed. It is this curse that leads to the examples listed above.
Structural evil is a system or pattern of beliefs or activities in an organization or culture that hinders or opposes the advance of God’s kingdom in this world. There are structured evils rooted in society’s prevailing religious, social, economic or political systems. The key element of structural evil is that it is organizational, a pattern or network that opposes the Kingdom.
Examples of structural evil include things like tax evasion, caste systems, dowry, sexual mutilation, slavery, racism and apartheid, colonialism, and bribery or governmental corruption.
Key elements of structural evil include the existence of a wicked power or spirit. Structural evil is also corporate, either organizational or institutional. It is systemic, with patterns, networks of activities or parts. It has a multiple nature including laws, law enforcements, culture, taboos, attitudes, beliefs, lack of alternatives, and repressive rule. It can be social, political, economic, or religious. It aims to create chaos, division, injustice, human suffering or natural damage. It opposes advance of Kingdom of God.
The good news for structural evil is that at the cross Christ defeated sin, death, and Satan. These now have no hold on believers. All authority is given to Christ … He is far above all and every other name. The Church as His Body shares this authority over Satan & evil spirits. In Christ the believer is given the authority to disciple nations.
The church needs to further develop its theologies of evil so that we can both acknowledge the extent of evil in the world, and also find better ways to deal with it. Emphasis needs to continue, of course, on repentance from personal evil, but we also need to incorporate ways to repent from both societal and natural evils.
What do you think of this 3-part framework?
Did you enjoy this intro? Why not take a look at Part 2?
How can we navigate issues like this? One good place to start is by understanding the difference between the Past and History — and no, they aren’t the same thing.
The events of the Past are unchangeable. The past rolls on continuously and inexorably. But there is no DVR or VHS for the past. The only thing that can be changed is the future. As Jose Rizal said, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” [“Whoever doesn’t know how to look to where they came from will not arrive where they are going.”]
History, on the other hand, is different from the Past. History is the interpretation of the events of the past. Because it is interpretation it is subject to change and reassessment.
Now let’s apply these ideas to statues. Is a statue the past or is it history? It’s history because it is the commemoration of a person deemed significant in the past. As Charlottetown, PEI, Coun. Greg Rivard says, “I don’t think removing a statue erases any history. A statue is symbolic of something, and I don’t think right now that the statue is symbolic of the right things.”
What about a grave? Is a grave the past or is it history? Graves are the past. This is because in most cases, actual people are buried in a grave. There are of course many types of grave. There are marked graves, complete with gravestone and epitaph. There are commemorative graves — for example the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — where the person buried within is unknown but is representative all those who died for their countries but remain unidentified. Then there are mass graves or unmarked graves. Mass graves generally hold the bodies of those who have died in a tragedy.
Now what about when the victims of those memorialised and commemorated with statues are buried in unmarked graves? In May 2021, the unmarked graves of 215 First Nations children, whose deaths were undocumented, were discovered on the grounds of a former Residential School in Kamloops, BC. It doesn’t seem right to continue to commemorate or memorialise those responsible for the residential school system when these children have been abandoned and forgotten does it?
But it is one thing for this to be socially reprehensible. We also need to ask what the Bible says about stuff like this. I can think of two ideas in the Bible that apply here.
The Bible has a high regard for children:
Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are an inheritance from the Lord. They are a reward from him.”
Jesus had a high regard for children, even when society seemingly didn’t. We see this a couple of times, including Mark 10:13-16 that says, “Some people brought little children to Jesus to have him hold them. But the disciples told the people not to do that. When Jesus saw this, he became irritated. He told them, “Don’t stop the children from coming to me. Children like these are part of God’s kingdom. I can guarantee this truth: Whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom as a little child receives it will never enter it.” Jesus put his arms around the children and blessed them by placing his hands on them.”
Matthew 18:2-5 says, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.”
Caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners is important to God:
James 1:27 says, “Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world.”
The Bible even has harsh words for those who don’t treat children appropriately:
“These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a large stone hung around his neck” (Matthew 18:6).
A millstone around the neck certainly isn’t commemoration is it?
Shocking news out of Kamloops. A graveyard containing the bodies of 215 first nations youngsters was discovered on the site of a residential school. What makes things worse is that the school in question was run by people who bear the name of Jesus.
I should clarify that while the news is shocking for the general Canadian population, First Nations peoples are intimately acquainted with stories like this.
“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’
“Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
“In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.”
What makes the Residential school narrative especially troubling is the deep participation of the church — those who bear Jesus’ name — in the whole mess. It causes a guy like me, who identifies as a Jesus follower and who is into theology and mission, to ask what went wrong?
Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, of one of the key advocates of residential schools, wrote in 1880 about the purpose of residential schools:
“To become civilized they should be taken with the consent of their parents & made to lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors.”
Unfortunately the history of missions is full of stories like this.
What is odd is that the Bible is very clear when it comes to culture and faith. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 both speak of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language being a part of God’s kingdom. What does that mean in practical terms? When we bear the name of Jesus we attempt to have people meet him on their own terms, using their own language, in their own cultural context, in their own place. And when people from every nation, tribe, people, and language get to heaven their uniqueness is celebrated!
The rest of the New Testament is a study in contextualization as people from various cultures and places found ways — through the guidance of the Holy Spirit — to embed Jesus into their own contexts.
I will make a bold statement: If your theology states that someone needs to abandon their own cultural identity — and to subsequently adopt a new cultural identity — in order for them to follow Christ, then your theology has no connection to Jesus.
Having said all of that, even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?
“I pray Lord that I would see where I am wrong in the things I do today. Forgive me for those things I have done in your name that misrepresent who you are. Lord heal our land.”
My wife and I have spent the past week on a farm and one incident reminded me of the common saying, “Pecking order.” There were a bunch of eggs in the incubator waiting to be hatched and our arrival at the farm was the due date. One by one the little chicks pecked their way out of their shells and began the next phase of their lives. Which is when we noticed an interesting occurrence. Those chicks who hatched first began to peck at the chicks born later. This is the famous pecking order that determines who gets to peck whom?
It’s the most basic form of relationship and while I can’t begin to try to understand the way a chick’s mind works it does illustrate the way some relationships are oriented around power and domination.
Sometimes the same thing happens when people come to faith. Those who come to faith first set the rules for the next who come to faith. There are countless examples in the Bible, perhaps the most famous being the Pharisees and the prodigal son’s older brother.
Acts 15 is a great example of how the pecking order was challenged and a new way of relationship was hatched. Apparently some of the early Jesus followers decided that non-Jews also needed Jesus and so they began to proclaim Jesus to others. The first stage was Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, who was a Jewish proselyte. Others, however, went further and began to talk about Jesus with people with an entirely different worldview. This of course created turmoil in the early church as people accused both Peter and these other Jesus followers — now called “Christians” — of violating God’s laws.
Peter’s rebuttal is simple: The same Holy Spirit that guides us also guides these new Jesus followers.
The result was the order issued by the early church leaders that is recorded in Acts 15 that outlines how these new Jesus followers could be folded into the church.
This was a reversal of the pecking order concept where the old timers get to set the rules. Now the newcomers could create their own rules. In fact, it was the very rules themselves that lost their ability to shape culture. Rather, the Holy Spirit would somehow intervene in the lives of these others and help them to reshape their own cultures for Jesus.
Jesus says, “Be the one who gets pecked. It’s ok to be pecked because I have been pecked, too.”
So what other pecking orders exist within the church? What does the Bible have to say about these pecking orders?
Intergenerational pecking orders. But Jesus said in Matthew 19, “Don’t stop children from coming to me!” and also a few verses earlier in Matthew 18, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.” What does this mean? Sometimes people whose faith is fresher have a better approach to faith.
Favourite Bible Translation pecking orders. It is interesting that most of these debates are about English translations of the Bible, even though English is not one of the original languages. It doesn’t make sense if we are happy accepting other language translations but are only happy with one English one. What is important is that God says in Isaiah 55, “My word … will not come back to me without results.” What does this mean? God’s word works.
Favourite preacher pecking orders. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 — “some of you say, ‘I follow Paul’ and others say, ‘I follow Apollos,'” — talks about the teamwork involved in church ministry. What does this mean? Be a team player when it comes to church. Listen to a variety of voices. Engage in conversations rather than monologues.
Theological pecking orders. People love to fight about theology. I can remember to this day some of the theological arguments that I had more than 30 years ago — and I loved debating because I knew that I was right! That is the problem with theological debates because the goal is to find out who is right and who is wrong. The bible advises us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). What does this mean? Be prepared for the reality that you may not always be right!
Hermeneutical pecking orders. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation and for many years one hermeneutical system has reigned supreme: the grammatical-historical method. The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the default hermeneutical system used either in the Bible (eg. take a look at how Peter interprets scripture in at the end of 1 Peter 3) nor in various parts of the world. What does this mean? Sometimes other people know how to make sense of things too. It’s best to dialogue with them rather than condemn them.
Where is your place in the pecking order? How can I embrace being pecked rather than pecking others?
Note: A few days later I happened to see all the chicks huddled together because it was cold. I guess a common problem is more important than pecking each other! Is that why persecution sometimes makes the church stronger?