Emic vs Etic: Understanding how insider & outsider perspectives interact when doing theology. An example from the Philippines.

Cross-cultural interactions are a part of my everyday life. Is there a theology of cross-cultural interaction? There have been many. Unfortunately they don’t always have good results. Take for example the whole residential school debacle in Canada that started from faulty theology codified in the doctrine of discovery but stemming from long-seated ideas of cultural superiority.

Churches quite often have deep seated assumptions about “the world” that aren’t in fact true. Case in point. When I was in Grade 5 our class received a Gideons New Testament (is that still a thing). Afterward we were all talking in the boot room about the NT and I said to one of my classmates, “What are you going to do? Rip it up?” He looked at me like I was crazy. What possessed me to say that? I had been told my whole life in Sunday school that the world was opposed to Christians. Guess what? That wasn’t true after all. It seems that I as a Christian had assumptions that were untested.

So how can we move away from assumptions towards actual empirical data about the world around us? Last week I wrote about how the church can partner with the world in things like this. Some commented that the post was short on the “How” so I thought that I might give a more concrete example. We need to develop ways to better understand the world to make sure that we are asking and answering the right questions – to make sure that the message we exegete from the Bible is presented in a relevant way to those who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. Anthropology can help us understand that. 

The following comes from planning some conversations I had with Filipino men about their masculinity and religiosity. I had heard that men are less religious than women but wanted to find out for myself if that was true. I decided to plan some research that tried to discover what is called the insider viewpoint.

Because many religious systems in the Philippines are from external sources, and because male participation in those systems is universally identified as being lesser than that of women, it is important to discover how Filipino males have constructed their understandings of pagbabalik-loob, pagkalalaki, and maka-Diyos. This calls for an emic approach to the problem rather than an etic one. Oxford defines emic as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in terms of its internal elements and their functioning rather than in terms of any existing external scheme.” Etic is defined as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in a way that is general, non-structural, and objective in its perspective.” Thus, an etic approach looks at the problem from outside, while the emic approach looks at the problem from inside. 

Origins of the Emic/Etic concept. Pike (1967) defined the terms etic and emic as “etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system,” while the “emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system” (p.37). Pike wanted to move from etics to emics.

There is a debate about the validity of using an emic approach in seeking to understand a culture on its own terms. In fact, this debate is behind the development of ethnoscience worldwide.  What is often missed in the debate is the reality that all forms of science are emic in that whatever frameworks or structures are developed are developed from the emic perspectives of a specific culture. They merely become etic once applied to another culture.  

Bennagen (1980) discusses the “Asianization” of anthropology “to help strengthen Asia’s rightful claim to its heritage as well as to its visions of man, society and culture” (p. 1; see also Mendoza, 2016).  

Geertz (Geertz 1973b) championed what some have called an “actor-centered view is central to Geertz’s work, however, it was never developed into an actual theory or model” (Hudson et al, 2009). 

Harris (1976) adapted Pike’s terms. For him, emic was the focus on a single culture while etic was the “comparison of two or more cultures as a means of identifying common characteristics” (Olive, 2014). Harris saw emics and etics as equally valid – there was no advantage to be gained from an etic approach and thus no need to try to discover the emic.

He has an example the difference between an emic and an etic understanding of male to female cattle ratios in India. Approaching the issue from an emic perspective, Harris says that locals identify the causes of higher mortality of male calves is due to a variety of naturally-occurring causes. Approaching the issue from an etic perspective, however, causes Harris to ascertain that higher male calf mortality is due to the locals’ manipulation of naturally-occurring events that are economically determined. Harris’ conclusion is that by relying solely on an emic approach, the researcher misses the etic realities of what he calls “bovicide.”  

I suggest that another factor may be at play here. Harris’ emic reasons for the ratio include “that males ate less than the females…. because they were not permitted to stay at the other’s teats for more than a few seconds” (p. 33). I find the words “not permitted” to be telling because here we have the locals themselves giving the reasons for why the male calves die. It seems that Harris didn’t follow up on this clue to discover what else the locals might want to tell him about this process.  

An indigenous approach here might be helpful. Enriquez (1994) discusses pakikipagkapwa, or Filipino interpersonal relations, as divided into two categories — Ibang-Tao [“outsider”] and Hindi-Ibang-Tao [“literally “not-‘other’-person” and therefore an insider”] each in turn divided into several other stages (see also Pe-Pua et al, 2000; Lapiz, 2010, refers to these as Tagalabas [“From the outside”] and Tagaloob [“From the inside”], respectively). Information passed from one person to another varies based upon the relationship between the two parties. If the two parties are in the Ibang-Tao category the informant will seek to pass on information that they perceive to be what the researcher wants to hear. If the two parties are Hindi-Ibang-Tao, then the information passed on more accurately reflects the reality. Pe-Pua et al recommend that “the first level under Hindi-Ibang-Tao, which is pakikipagpalalgayan-loob (level of mutual trust, understanding, rapport) should be reached, at the minimum, in order to be assured of good quality data” (Pe-Pua et al, 2000, p. 59).  

Another hallmark of Filipino communication is pahiwatig [“hint”], or indirect communication. According to Maggay (2002)ang pahiwatig marahil ang pinakalaganap at maaaring masabing pinakabuod ng ating kulturang pangkomunikasyon” [“the hint is perhaps the most widespread and possibly the best summary of our culture of communication”] (p. 24). It is also defined as “hindi tuwirang pagpapahayag sa isang bagay, idea, o saloobin” [“a thing, idea, or thought is not revealed in a direct manner”] (UPDF) or as “di tuwirang pagpapaabot ng mga mensahe” [“messages are not delivered in a straight way”] (Maggay, 2002, p. 24). Information is revealed over a period of time and is not given all at once. The pahiwatig is an invitation for the researcher to dig deeper to find out the truth that is not yet fully revealed. Jocano (1999) speaks of a multilevel process of communication starting with pahiwatig [“hinted at”], moving through pabatid [“informed about”], and finally into pahayag [“revealed”]. Thus discovering truth in the Philippine context is an extended affair as layer after layer of truth is slowly revealed as the relationship between the researcher and the researched draw ever closer together. 

Now granted, Harris’ example is from India that may have different cultural norms from the Philippines, but that doesn’t belie the fact that there was “truth” in the emic investigation that Harris perhaps didn’t explore fully. Harris’ own example shows that the locals did reveal the cause of the ratio (i.e. “males …. not permitted” to eat) but there is no evidence that Harris pursued the conversation to it’s fullest extent.  

Thus in Harris’ example above, the farmers themselves are revealing the reality behind the ratio differences in an indirect way and inviting him to discover more through further communication.  

I argue that an indigenous approach to the issue would have led to Harris’ realization that the locals were in-fact telling him the reasons for cattle ratios but that his framework was unable to adequately aid him in this discovery. Thus his use of an etic framework allowed him to see a disconnect between the ideology (killing cattle is prohibited) and economy (cows are more economically advantageous than bulls) of his subjects in India. Imagine the study Harris could have had in discovering in partnership with the locals their strategies for dealing with the needs of both their ideological system and their economic system!  

The emic approach and Philippine studies of masculinity. The emic approach is common in Philippine studies.  

Pingol (2001), in her study of Ilocano men, states that she want to focus “more on emic rather than etic – the men’s understanding of themselves, how they construct themselves, how they remain men in their own eyes, or as viewed by their relatives and their community” (p. 16). 

Zialcita (2005) also takes an emic approach because it “looks at the data from the point of view of the actor; it seeks to understand in their own terms the reasons advanced by the actor for his thinking and acting” (Kindle location 1924).  

Mojares (2006), in his discussion of trying to recreate the way early Filipinos thought, struggled with the pull of emic and etic. He talked of trying to find a middle ground between “a facile universalizing and the exoticizing of difference; between the location out of which we are speaking and that ‘nation’ we are moving towards; between the need for political constructions and the awareness of their fictive character; between the claim to moral ascendancy and the practical requirements of power; and between the importance of the ‘native’s point of view’ and the dangers of turning it into a fetish” (p. 7)  

Moving into our present study, Houtman offers insights into understanding religiosity without using the frameworks developed by organized religions.  

Emic, Etic and our Problem. Houtman (2014) suggests that the study of religion can benefit from an emic approach. Rather than focusing on general definitions researchers should instead “let those under study decide whether and how religion is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’. It is they who can tell researchers in what sense they consider themselves ‘religious’ and/or ‘spiritual’, what exactly this means for them, and whether and how all this drives their behavior beyond the strictly private realm” (p. 20).  

There are in existence in the Philippines a variety of sets of preconceived notions of what it means to be a man or to even be a godly man. These have been formulated in the various world religions that have taken hold in the Philippines, especially Christianity and Islam. Christianity can be further subdivided into two sometimes-opposing conceptualizations that need to be understood on their own. A look at the intersections between maka-Diyos, and pagkalalaki would benefit from an emic approach. However, this study’s desire for an emic approach to the issue of Filipino male spirituality[1] is not so much a desire to ignore external structures and definitions and to favor indigenous structures and systems. Rather it is based on a desire to discover what, in fact, these indigenous emic structures and systems are. To date there has been very little work done to develop a philosophy or a theology connected with Filipino male spirituality. 

Criticisms of Emic-Etic approaches. There are no pure cultures and thus no pure emic-etic divide. All cultures use their own frameworks to evaluate the things they experience and sometimes these frameworks are in an etic form and sometimes in an emic form.

As Guillermo (2003) said, having too much focus on the emic removes any reason for interpretation to begin with. “The complete unification of the consciousness of the social scientist with an increasingly transparent object of analysis would be none other than the end of hermeneutics itself.” Which raises the question of for whom is the interpretation? It implies a cross-cultural facet that is essential to the process. Certainly someone within the culture is in no need of a hermeneutical framework but also someone who is completely outside of a culture can use no other framework than the one she brings with her. Of course, this is beside the point that no culture is pure or unsullied from outside influences. The key is finding a balance between the two that allows each side to see the other’s perspective and perhaps gain some understanding on their own. Thus, there must be a dialogic aspect to research. 

But the fact that there is cultural relativity (ala Franz Boas) implies that some level of hermeneutics is needed in understanding what one sees. For example, the sight of two men walking down the street hand-in-hand has different meanings in different parts of the world. Growing up in Canada two males holding hands was undeniable evidence that the two were in a homosexual relationship. However in the Philippines best friends not only hold hands but walk unashamedly down the street with their arms around one another shoulders. It is only through dialogue between etic and emic actors that one can determine the hermeneutical key. The goal of balancing the emic with the etic guides this research into a specific series of frameworks. 

I propose that seeking the insider view is a key part of church ministry. Only by having conversations with others can we discover our own blind spots and find ways to connect in meaningful ways with others.

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.


1. The history of term Filipino is long and storied and beyond the scope of this paper. Coupled with this is the terms’ grammatical gender: Filipino refers to males and Filipina refers to females. Thus the term “Filipino male spirituality” is technically redundant. However since this redundancy is not necessarily seen nor understood outside of the Philippine context, for clarity this paper will use the term Filipino to denote people from the Philippines, regardless of their gender. 


References:

Bennagen, P. L. (1980). The Asianization of AnthropologyAsian Studies, 18, 1-26.

Enriquez, V. G. (1994). Pagbabangong-dangal: Indigenous psychology and cultural empowerment. Quezon City: Akademya ng Kultura at Sikolohiyang Pilipino.

Geertz, C. (1973). Religion as a cultural system. In C. Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Fontana Press.

Guillermo, R. (2003). Exposition, Critique and New Directions for Pantayong PananawKyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 3.

Harris, M. (1976). History and Significance of the emic-etic distinctionAnnual Review of Anthropology, 5, 329-350. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.05.100176.001553

Houtman, D. (2014, September). Pure religion and real sacrality: Authenticating Religion beyond Institutions and Traditions. Paper prepared for the summer seminar: Religion and Culture in a Globalized World, Questioning our Research Frames, University Centre Saint Ignatius Antwerp (UCSIA) University of Antwerp.

Hudson, S., Smith, C., Loughlin, M., and Hammerstedt, S. (2009). Symbolic and interpretive anthropologies. In Anthropological Theories, Department of Anthropology, The University of Alabama. 

Jocano, F. L. 1. (1999). Working with Filipinos: A cross-cultural encounter. Quezon City: PUNLAD Research House. 

Lapiz, E. (2010). Pagpapahiyang: Redeeming culture and indigenizing Christianity. [Manila: Christ Strengthening Ministries.]

Maggay, M. (2002). Pahiwatig: Kagawiang Pangkomunikasyon ng Filipino. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University.

Mendoza, S. L. (2016). Doing “indigenous” ethnography as a cultural outsider: Lessons from the Four SeasonsJournal of International and Intercultural Communication. doi:10.1080/17513057.2016.1154181

Mojares, R. B. (2006a). Reconstituting the mental life of sixteenth-and seventeenth century Philippines. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 34(1), 1-10.

Olive, James L. (2014). Reflecting on the Tensions Between Emic and Etic Perspectives in Life History Research: Lessons Learned [35 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(2), Art. 6.

Pe‐Pua, R., & Protacio‐Marcelino, E. A. (2000). Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology3(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1111/1467-839X.00054

Pike, K. L. (1967). Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior. In K. L. Pike, (Ed.), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Nature. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 37-72. doi: 10.1515/9783111657158.37

Pingol, A. T. (2001). Remaking masculinities: identity, power, and gender dynamics in families with migrant wives and househusbands. Quezon City: UP Center for Women’s Studies.

Zialcita, F. N. (2005). Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University. Kindle version.

Blending “real” with “virtual:” What significant virtual interactions are already real and what does that mean for the church?

The telephone is an embedded virtual interaction in society.

COVID-19 has introduced a whole new level of virtual interaction into our society. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t virtual interactions already embedded in our society.

I read a great article the other day by John Paul J. Arceno. While it focusses on the issue of virtual baptism, it also provides a good analysis of how the term “virtual” can be connected with church and church-related activities.

Arceno says, “It should be noted that there is a misconception that ‘virtual reality’ is not ‘real’. This terminology is misleading. For example, we can have “real meetings” with “real people” in ‘real-time’ — and just because the medium is Google Meet in cyberspace — does not make the meeting, people, or experience any less ‘real’ than one conducted in a physical room. It is a real meeting. This analogy can be applied to ‘Virtual Church’, ‘Virtual Baptism’, and ‘Virtual Communion’.”

This blending of the virtual and the real can be confusing at times and I do wonder if we resist virtual methods that are new. After all, it does seem to me that there are certain virtual activities that are considered real. I wonder if there was resistance to these activities when they first came on the scene.

Here is a list of normal activities that are also virtual activities (Some of these examples may show my vintage):

When you call on the telephone a girl to ask her on a date, that’s virtual. I remember talking for hours on our technologically-advanced phone — it had an extremely long curly cord that allowed me to find someplace private to talk. Likewise, when you talk for hours on the phone with your significant other, that’s virtual — but it’s also real.

When you read a book and get drawn into the story or into a conversation with the author, that’s virtual. When we read good books we experience the whole realm of emotions and we get drawn into the story. The story may be fictional but the emotions we experience as we read them are very real.

Love letters are virtual and have gone through changes over the years. Where it used to be a physical letter, written on paper, using special inks and scents, it can now be electronic — emails, FB messages, chat boxes, or texts. I spent many hours both writing and reading love letters while treeplanting in Northwestern Ontario and it was those letters that helped me maintain my relationship with my (future) wife. Of course I made some mistakes: Can you believe that I actually corrected her grammar using red ink? Good thing that she saw past that and agreed to marry me anyway.

Virtual has taken on new significance during the pandemic. Which brings me to a question asked by Arnold Cubos, one of my students at SEATS. He asked, “Is there a qualitative difference between the gospel presented online vs face-to-face?” I posted the question on Facebook and was intrigued by Mike’s and Robert’s responses

Robert Brown answered: “Only if you limit the work of the Holy Spirit or you limit the efficacy of God’s Word.”

Mike Swalm answered: “The qualitative difference in my mind is the relative inability to inhabit and embody the gospel online (truly embody). While i recognize and understand the hybridization of life (and rebel against it, truthfully), there is an embodied aspect to the gospel (think “bearing witness”) that I think cannot truly obtain online. I recognize various arguments insisting on the burgeoning online “space” as a place of true vulnerability, but without true embodiment, I see a lack. Can the gospel be “presented” online? Certainly. Can it truly be embodied? To a lesser degree, in my view.”

I think the answer lies in a combination of the two. Mike’s “embodiment” reminds me of the incarnation, which is the embodiment of the Word of God. John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But it’s the word “Word” that connected with me in this context. Is there a connection between the living Word and the written word and is that embodiment? Jesus was only physically present on earth for just over 30 years so today we don’t have any physical connection with him. We may have a spiritual connection with him. We may have an emotional connection with him. We may trust him as our saviour. We read his words and recorded by the Gospel writers but we only hear his words as read and expounded through others. I guess that’s what we mean when we say the church is Christ’s body.

But how is that embodiment governed today? Here is where Robert’s answer comes into play: The Holy Spirit is our guide today. The gospel is embodied in us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I guess I should admit here that for me as a Baptist, this dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than a clearly thought out statement of faith or theological system is scary. But it appears to be what the Bible teaches.

So what does all this mean in today’s world of virtual church activities? Is embodiment possible through the binary code that runs the internet? Is there something to be learned about Jesus and the Holy Spirit through the networked nature of online? Can social media truly provide the social connections that we as humans crave? More importantly, how can Jesus be experienced through what we are doing today? How is Jesus present?

I guess a harder question to answer is was what we were doing before an effective way of embodying Jesus? Was Jesus present or did we merely present him then? How? In what ways? Or were we merely interested in informing people about Jesus? Does virtual + church help us or hinder us in this task?

What is your favourite real activity that just happens to be virtual?

Feedback is always welcome!

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Oh no, Canada: Reflections on Canada on Canada Day

Reflection is good for the soul because it causes us to look back on events that we normally view on default and look at them with new eyes. Canada Day is one of these things, especially in light of a recent push to reconcile history with the past. Even using the term “default” is actually problematic because what may be default thinking for me is different for someone else. The history that I read may be different from the history someone else reads. My understanding of the past is also almost certainly different from the actual past.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. What we are beginning to realise is that some form of physical genocide may also have been happening. Certainly the past was a lot more dangerous than the present, with diseases like TB and the influenza pandemic of 1918 taking many lives, but there are also documented cases of abuse and death at the very hands of those entrusted with the care of these young First Nations children. What makes things worse is that it doesn’t seem to be merely a government issue (and governments do tend to be animal-like), but also a church issue. This is because churches were an integral part of the Residential School system.

Because of these issues there have been calls to rethink Canada Day. After all, why celebrate the country when the country is built on such shameful actions that has made some many mistakes? Some communities are cancelling Canada Day celebrations, while others are planning alternative events to help incorporate victims of Residential Schools into Canada’s story.

So what is the answer? I think it lies in the concepts of Truth, reconciliation, and repentance.

Truth. This is the debate between history and the past (that I have discussed elsewhere). In a nutshell, history is “texts” about the past from a certain perspective. Texts can include writing of course but can also include any aspect of society (citation) including statues, memorials, and events like Canada Day. The past is the actual events that have happened and are being interpreted when doing history. History changes all the time as new perspectives create new interpretations but the past remains the same.

Reconciliation, or restoring relationships, is supposed to be a major part of the church. After all, God has given the church the “ministry of reconciliation.” Relationships need to be restored people and God but relationships between people and other people also need restoration. The church has emphasised the first aspect throughout the years — and in many ways this emphasis may have led to the residential school disaster by ignoring God’s command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves — but hasn’t worked as hard on the restoration of interpersonal relationships. We haven’t been as good at this part as we could have been.

“What about forgiveness?” some may ask. Forgiveness does need to happen, as Matt Stovall, writing from a First Nations’ perspective, points out in his great FB post on this. However, forgiveness works best when it is coupled with repentance, which means the church, as the offending party, needs to repent and ask forgiveness.

So what needs to be reflected upon this Canada Day? Where does reconciliation need to happen? Where does truth need to be reevaluated? How can I ask forgiveness?

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Canada and repent of our sins. Our eyes are finally opening to the our ugly past. How will we make a better future? Listen to someone’s stories of their residential experience. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Read Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. Read about residential schools, reconciliation and the experience of Indigenous peoples.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on the church and repent of our sins. It’s quite simple. For church insiders there is a wide range of church types and theologies, that are unknown and even meaningless to church outsiders. The specific churches involved in the Residential School System cannot be separated in people’s minds from the idea of “church.” As I have said elsewhere, “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?” So as churches we need to seek ways to ask forgiveness. We need to reflect on the theologies that we hold that led to the whole Residential School system. We need to find ways to connect with First Nations People. We need to reflect on what repentance looks like for you and me.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Truth and repent of the untruths and half-truths we have believed instead. I have written elsewhere on truth. Suffice it to say, none of us has a complete understanding of absolute truth. Don’t get me wrong— I do believe in absolute truth but at best I can say we are approaching absolute truth. That means that part of the way forward includes reflecting on the truths that I know and how those truths coincide with the truths that others know and changing our truths so the future is better than the past.

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.

Are there any examples of leadership from a distance in the Bible or is leadership always face-to-face?

Examples of distant leadership in the Bible.

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.[1]

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.

Notes:

1 For more on this see Matt Anslow, (April 11, 2020), “Remembering Jesus’ Self-Isolation: Holy Saturday & COVID-19,” Common Grace Blog.

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Church and Crisis Today: How Philippine Religious Consciousness can better inform how the rest of the world does church?

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.[1] 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.

Religious Space.

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 dambanaDambana 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.

Notes:

1 Vince Rafael talks about this at length in his Contracting Colonialism.

Image by Varun Gaba on Unsplash.

Church, modified.

Church.

It doesn’t matter what you add to the word or how you modify it, it still means the same basic thing.

  • Underground church is a church that remains as hidden as possible due to persecution.
  • Local Church is a church in one community.
  • House church is a church that meets in someone’s house (or office, or third place).
  • Universal church is the church that has existed, exists today, and will exist in the future.
  • Indigenous church is a church that is contextualized to a certain society.
  • Persecuted church is a church that is being persecuted by another religion or by the government.
  • Mega Church is a really big church.
  • Cell Church is a really small church.
  • Online church is the online portion of a local church, whether live or prerecorded.
  • Virtual church is where every aspect of the church exists in the virtual world.
  • Live-streamed church is when a church broadcasts it’s Sunday morning services live online.
  • In-person church is when people gather for face-to-face meetings.
  • Church at home is when families worship at home.

But guess what? It’s all still church.

So what does that mean?

We should continue to be the church regardless of which modifier we pick.

  • We should continue to proclaim the good news the Jesus is our king.
  • We should live out the values of the Kingdom of God.
  • We should love God and love our neighbour.
  • We should bear witness to the truth.

How will you be the church today?

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Skull Kat on Unsplash.

Is it possible to sin in the Name of Jesus?

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 those unaware, residential schools were a part of Canada’s Aboriginal policy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on Canada’s Residential Schools says it this way:

“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.[1]

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.”

Image by Leesa Epp.

1. See Dean Flemming’s Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission for more on this.

What should be my place in the church’s pecking order?

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?

Is the solitary nature of pastoral ministry necessary?

As pastors we need to be self motivated. After all there is no one who is looking over our shoulders, is there? There is no bundy clock to keep track of our hours. There is no one instructing us on the things we should teach or preach about (unless it’s the book of Revelation). There is no one checking in on us making sure that everything is ok.

Sometimes pastoral ministry seems a rather solitary existence, where we are expected to do the majority of a church’s ministry, where we are expected to haver everything figured out, where we are expected to be strong in the middle of a hard world.

But together with this expectation of doing the ministry, it often also feels as if there are many people looking over our shoulders: 

  • People want to talk to the pastor when the call the church. 
  • People want the pastor to visit them. 
  • People want the pastor’s preaching to be good. 
  • People want their cars/motorcycles/houses/jeepneys/businesses/atbp to be blessed. 
  • People want you to attend their birthday parties. 
  • People want you to be available at any time, day or night.

Apart from this we need to make sure our families are well taken care of. 

It’s impossible really. No one can do all of this and survive. There are so many voices vying for our attention as pastors that it takes skill and ability to navigate all of this. 

One of the problems is the popular idea of the solitary pastor leading his flock closer to Jesus. Fortunately this idea has been challenged of late. Hal Puttick illustrated it somewhat like this, 

“Pastoring is like solo paddling. We train pastors to paddle their own canoe. We then load them up with a huge amount of cargo and expect them to be able to paddle it to the destination. From time to time they may get close to other pastors who are also paddling alone but what ends up happening is that one paddler tries to transfer some of his load to another paddler (who is already overloaded themself). What we need to do is to develop leadership teams.”

Hal Puttick

In the theological world, people like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost and their various co-authors have been advocating for a more APEST-type ministry model for several years. APEST comes from Ephesians 4:11 that speaks of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, and Teachers. I have seen a couple of restatements of the APEST idea that help us better understand what Ephesians 4 is saying. 

There is this tweet from @lukejohnson2191 that restates the 5-fold ministries as things each person would say:

Then there is the restatement from Frost & Hirsch themselves that restates the 5-fold ministries using terms that may have less theological baggage: 

But this APEST idea is not an excuse to just sit back and let things happen. Rather it is a call to both work hard at what your speciality is and to develop at team of people who can work together to meet the needs of the church as a whole.

But what if you are solo paddling? What can you do?

1. Make decisions on what you will prioritise and what you won’t. Not everyone will be happy with you but you might survive the journey. 

2. Help train others to join you in your canoe. After all, if we want things to change we need to start changing them.

3. Keep working hard. Be self motivated. Don’t forget your calling to serve God in whatever circumstances.

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.

What does the Bible say about Gathering?

Many times during the pandemic, especially when church gatherings are being restricted, people resisting restrictions quote Hebrews 10:25, that reads, “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing,” as a defense that church gatherings should not be restricted. 

An initial appropriate counter to this argument is Matthew 18:20, that reads, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” This is the only verse in the Bible that sets a number to the assembly.[1] While this verse does apply a number to the concept of gathering, it does lead to several questions. What if you are alone? Does that mean that God isn’t “in your midst”? Not at all. The Bible also has examples of God meeting people who are alone, including Hagar in the desert (Genesis 21), Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28), Moses in the desert (Exodus 3:1-4:17) and on the mountain (Deuteronomy 34), and Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19).

It does raise the question however of what exactly the gathering is. Has gathering always been the same? Is there a mandated “biblical gathering model” that can be universally applied to all settings and situations? Can the Bible help us in understanding what exactly gathering is?

What follows is my rather lengthy attempt to answer these questions. I approach it from the perspective of how the Bible conceptualises religious or holy space. I will then talk a little bit about some post-biblical historical conceptualisations of the same. For those who have neither time nor desire to read such a long approach, here is the TL;DR version: Both the Bible and church history describe multiple examples of religious or holy space, some good and some bad, none of which are prescribed for us today.

The Worship of God and Holy Space.

One important aspect of understanding church gathered and scattered is to look at how people in the past have used space to meet God. Perhaps the strongest resistance to change is seen in the simple statement, “We haven’t done it that way before.” It implies that our own experience represents the whole of knowledge. This of course isn’t true but does lead us to ask how this relates to issues of church gathered and church scattered? How does history prove or disprove what we have or have not done before? Holy spaces have changed over the course of the history of the world. As described in the Bible, we see varying forms of what holy space is, depending on the situation or the time.

Positive examples of Holy Space.

There is a wide variety of positive holy spaces in the Bible. These are places where people approach God through means the Bible approves of. 

Garden of Eden. At the very beginning of the Bible, sacred space was in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived.[2] God would come down in the cool of the day, and they would talk together. So, there was direct conversation with God in this holy space, in this sacred space of the garden, which represented the entire world. And so, there is no need to have any special place where that would happen. In the age of innocence, the space and the time were the same. The cool of the day in the space of the Garden of Eden, God would talk to his people. 

Sacrifices and Altars. As humans became slaves to sin, we see that there was a new way of interacting with God, we see the story of Cain and Abel, and were they brought “offerings” to the LORD.[3] And so, it seems that these sacrifices were offerings of the produce of the land, whether it was flora or fauna, to God. It would appear that at this point there’s some kind of burning involved. These happened on altars, but it wasn’t simply the use of an altar, it seems that there is also the proper use of an altar because God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. This implies that is seems to be more than simply the place where the offering is given – there seems to be some kind of an attitude that gets developed through the offering of sacrifice.[4] Prior to the flood, the process of “offering” isn’t clearly explained, but after the flood we are introduced to the word “altar” and this word is used 338 times in the Old Testament. As the story progresses, you see these sacrifices happen on altars as the key ways that humans interact with God. In fact, The Bible tells us that only some of the animals came to Noah’s ark two-by-two. The rest came in sevens – and these were the clean animals that Noah and his family would subsequently use in sacrifices and offerings after they were saved. Abraham interacted with God through altars. Wherever he and his descendants Isaac and Jacob went they would set up an altar to God. That makes altars a kind of a very specific religious space. 

“You are standing on holy ground.” Moses is in the wilderness herding sheep, he sees a burning bush that isn’t consumed by fire. When he approaches, God says to him, “Take your sandals off because you’re standing on his holy ground.” Perhaps this is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden where the ground the earth and everything God created was holy. This event, however, appears to be a one off – there are no further accounts of encountering God at burning bushes. 

The Land of Goshen. When the children of Israel first arrive in Egypt, they are given the Land of Goshen, which becomes their religious space (Genesis 46:3-4; 47:27). Eventually during the Egyptian captivity, the people call out to God and God hears their voice, and he answers their plea for help. And he comes down and frees them from the land of slavery, and brings them into the land of promise. And while they’re on the journey, they go to several other holy spaces. 

Holy Mountains. Mountains are also key religious spaces in the Bible. There’s Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, which is a holy space.[5] Moses had several encounters with God on this mountain including the burning bush[6] and receiving the decalogue.[7] It was on Mount Carmel that Elijah and the people of Israel had their encounter with Yahweh and the prophets of Baal were defeated.[8] The ultimate example of a holy mountain is talked about in both the story of Abraham and the story of Jesus. Richardson (2005) notes that Moriah, the mountain where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac,[9] as the same mountain where both Solomon’s Temple was constructed[10] and where Jesus was crucified.[11]Mount Zion is also a key mountain especially with regard to God’s kingdom extending to all peoples of the earth. Mount Zion is in many ways a virtual space, sometimes identified with Jerusalem,[12] sometimes with heaven,[13] and sometimes with the place where God encounters the nations.[14]

The Tabernacle. The tabernacle is a portable holy space that the children of Israel carry with them wherever they go. Within this holy space we see a variety of spaces each with a reducing number of authorized users. In addition to the tent spaces there was also a special place between the cherubim on top of the ark of the convent. This was called the mercy seat and was where there was an interaction where people were reconciled to God, through the blood of the sacrifice. 

The Temple. The Temple was the permanent dwelling place for God, planned by David and built by Solomon on the Temple Mount. And this, this becomes a place of connection between the Jewish people and God. There were in fact a series of temples, each rebuilt after the destruction of the previous temple. There were also a series of tools and implements that were used inside the Temple.  

Jesus and Holy Space. Jesus does some of his teaching in the temple, but he also teaches in other holy spaces. He preaches on a mountain, he preaches in people’s homes, and he teaches in a new place called the synagogue. Eventually Jesus returns to heaven. The people of God continue to worship in the temple, they gather in the temple for prayer, even as they live in community together outside of the Temple. Ultimately the Romans attack and the temple is destroyed so that it is no longer a place of worship for Jews nor for Christians. 

Synagogue and ekklesia. The Jews focus their space on synagogues, and Christians focus their space on the church. Synagogues appear to be gatherings of God followers, in small communities, that are apparently spread throughout the Roman world. The diaspora of Jews throughout the Roman world meant that they couldn’t bring the temple with them so, the synagogue is created as a way for them to connect to God in an appropriate way. In many ways churches are the same. Both of these terms mean basically the same thing in Greek, it’s just that there is this agreed upon idea that Jews call their gathering a space “synagogue” and Christians call theirs a “church,” but in Greek the meaning for both words is essentially the same. Related to church and synagogue are “The Church that meets in their home.”[15]

Negative examples of Holy Space.

We also need to point out some other religious spaces that are not good examples. There are times where people seek God through means that the Bible disapproves of.

The Tower of Babel.[16] The Tower of Babel introduces a different kind of sacred space, one that wants to usurp God’s position as the ruler of the universe, almost as if to say if the tower is built then humans be able to reach to the heavens, the dwelling place of God, and then become like God. Even God himself says, “What can these people not do?” So, then he talks about messing with their language, and that’s where the different languages come out.

Under every spreading tree and on every hilltop.[17] Even though the people of Israel had the tabernacle as a center for worship, we discover that the people are constantly trying to create their own holy spaces for themselves. “Under every spreading tree, and on every high Hill” becomes a way to describe holy spaces where people worship God in inappropriate ways. We also see Gideon and Micah and the idols that they set up, complete with Levites to oversee the proper use of worship. 

Jeroboam’s Golden Calves. Jeroboam sets up two golden calves in Israel, after Israel seceded from Judah during Rehoboam’s reign. Jeroboam doesn’t want to maintain any connection with worship at Jerusalem because that would undermine his authority. Ultimately two events happen to destroy this second holy place: Assyria comes and carries the 10 tribes off into permanent captivity and Josiah destroys the two calves. 

Historical Religious Spaces.

Now we move on from biblical understandings of holy space and move into other historical expressions of the same. 

Christendom. The time of Constantine saw a change in Christian religious space. Whereas before the church was in a largely persecuted state and had to hide out in places such as the catacombs in Rome, now the church experienced official sanction. This allowed for the construction of church buildings, perhaps the most famous of which is the Hagia Sophia. Throughout this time the church transitioned from a group that met in homes to what we have today where churches largely meet in specially constructed facilities called churches. This has resulted in a theology where our worship is largely centered on a building; we’re used to “going to church.” In the Philippine context, you have churches that were also built as a kind of fortress, to protect the priests and members from harm.

The persecuted church. Christendom is not always the norm for how churches gather. There are vast areas of the Christian world where Jesus’ followers are not allowed to gather. In Iran, for example, you have Christians who have never met with another Christians because of the danger of doing so. If they haven’t experienced any sense of corporate worship at all does that mean they’re not church? Does that mean not a part of the family of God? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. 

A theology of Church Scattered.

We have seen that from the beginning of time that people have been able to approach God in a wide variety of ways – there is no universal system for doing so. That directly addresses present-day concerns about churches have to forego face-to-face gatherings because of the pandemic. We need to develop an alternative theology of church that will assist us in moving forward into the new normal. We will begin with defining the concept of church and then move into a discussion of the functions that the church is designed to perform. 


[1]  Some see this verse as applying only to situations of church discipline. However, I would argue that the proximity of the word ekklesia in the surrounding verses also allows its application to other church activities as well. What is interesting is that at least one church that is opposed to the restrictions bases their argument partially on the fact that they need to practice church discipline. 

[2] This story is found in Genesis 2-3. 

[3] Genesis 4:3-16. 

[4] It should be pointed out that there are no clear reasons given in the biblical account for why Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was not. 

[5] See for example, John Calvin (1847-50) Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc03/cc03006.htm (retrieved Feb 11, 2021). 

[6] See Exodus 3. 

[7] See Deuteronomy 4:10, 4:15, 5:2, 9:8, 18:16, 28:69; Psalms 106:19; Malachi 4:4. 

[8] See 1 Kings 18:16-45. 

[9] See Genesis 22:2. 

[10] See 2 Chronicles 3:1

[11] Richardson says, “Where was Golgotha—The Place of the Skull—located? Just outside the wall of Jerusalem and within, at the most, 1,600 meters of the tip of Mount Moriah. King Solomon, centuries earlier, had erected the first Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah, probably to commemorate the exact spot where Abraham stretched Isaac upon that pile of wood (see Gen. 22:1-19). It was there that Yahweh placed Himself under oath to fulfill both lines of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 147).

[12] See 1 Kings 8:1-2; 2 Chronicles 5:2. 

[13] See Hebrews 12:22-23; Revelation 14:1. 

[14] See Psalm 9:11; Isaiah 2:3, 14:32; Micah 4:2. 

[15] References to churches meeting in homes can be found in Acts 1:13; Romans 16:3,5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15. 

[16] This story can be found in Genesis 11:1-9. 

[17] References to these places can be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 12:1–4; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:2-4, 20, 17:10; Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20, 3:2, 17:2. 

Image by @vladhilitanu