by Herb Hoefer
A look at seven theological principles can help us embrace other elements of God’s revelation and command.
While doing research in South India twenty-five years ago, I realized there was little organized theological reflection among the hundreds of thousands of non-baptized believers in Christ (NBBC). Today, however, theological reflection is taking place among both caste Hindu believers in Christ and among missionaries working with them. Because of this, these NBBCs have now defined themselves. They call themselves “Jesu bhaktas.” Bhakta is the term for devotion in Hinduism. It is one of the schools of Hinduism whereby a pious Hindu can relate to God through the deity that makes the most sense to him or her. These believers in Christ are defining themselves in terms that make sense to them and to their communities.
Another significant development is the one I want to focus on in this article. Jesu bhaktas have come to take issue with the very title of a book I wrote more than two decades ago, Churchless Christianity. They say they are neither “churchless” nor “Christian.” Their rejection of the term “Christian” is well understood in missiological circles. It is a term that is problematic in some areas of the world where mission work was carried out during colonial times. The term is understood as accepting Western culture and rejecting national culture. Thus, many ancient peoples around the world use the term “Christian” disparagingly, and many culturally-rooted converts feel uncomfortable using the term for themselves.
More problematic in missiological circles, however, has been the rejection of the term “church.” Tim Tennent has traced the history of this debate and concludes that membership in the Church is essential for authentic practice of the Christian faith (2005, 171-177). The emerging Jesu bhakta theology would agree with Tennent to a great degree. They see themselves as part of the Church, not as “churchless.” However, their understanding and practice of church is different from the traditional, Western model. The term they now use is often “faith community.” In this article I will attempt to develop the broad theological framework in which we must develop our ecclesiology. A major reason we have imposed a Western pattern of church upon other cultures is because we have failed to develop our doctrine and practice in concert with the full biblical revelation. Any doctrine and practice of church must embrace all other elements of God’s revelation and command. Since the formulating and implementing of these biblical principles will differ from culture to culture, our doctrine and practice of the Church will as well.
As we work through this issue both theologically and practically, we need to set our ecclesiology within the larger context of other relevant doctrines and principles. I would like to discuss some of these principles and propose possible implications for our understanding of the Church in missiological contexts.
Tennent discusses Martin Luther’s formative perspectives on ecclesiology, particularly the concept of the “invisible Church,” known only to God through faith, and the “visible Church,” known to us by profession of faith or church membership (cf. Matt. 7:21-23; Mark 7:6; 2 Tim. 2:19; and 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus, not everyone who is on church rolls (the visible Church) is actually in the body of Christ through faith (the invisible Church, known only to God). Likewise, there are people unknown to us in the visible Church, but known to God as his own.
To this discussion of Reformation principles, I would like to add four more.
1. The “adiaphora principle.” This Reformation principle states that any church practice or policy that does not compromise the gospel of salvation by grace through faith is a matter of adiaphora, a matter of indifference and freedom. Therefore, Luther could accept much of the traditional liturgy, church structures, sacramental practices, etc. and leave them intact. His was a conservative reformation which attempted to provide stability in people’s lives wherever possible.
2. Bene esse versus esse. This principle was derived from the adiaphora principle. There are matters which are beneficial (bene esse), but not essential (esse). The common topic on which this principle is applied is that of the episcopacy. The Episcopal Church order was considered of the bene esse type by the Lutheran Reformers, not of the esse of the Church. In traditional Roman Catholicism, the Episcopal structure of the church was considered essential to its validity; however, among these Protestants it was considered beneficial, not essential. How the church structured and organized itself was a matter of freedom.
3. The Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. This principle is used primarily in Lutheran circles. It is the distinction between the left hand and the right hand of God (or the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right). This distinction states that God has two ways that he battles the forces of Satan on earth. One is with his “right hand,” the Church. The other is with his “left hand,” the government and other social agencies. With his left hand, God controls evil; with his right hand, he cures it. In the Church, one lives by faith, and Holy Scripture is the authority for life and doctrine. In society, one lives by human reason, and socio-political structures are normative.
This can cause tension for the Christian who lives in both at the same time. He or she must apply human reason in discussions of the Kingdom of the Left, and he or she must use scripture as the sole norm in the Kingdom of the Right. There will be times when he or she must stand against issues in the Kingdom of the Left because of scriptural instruction; however, he or she also must recognize that scriptural arguments will not be authoritative for many in the Kingdom of the Left.
4. Sola fide or “faith alone.” Historically, this phrase was used to (1) object to the requirement of works to gain God’s favor and (2) depend only on his mercy in the final judgment. Instead, the reformers insisted that God gives us salvation as a pure gift because of Christ. We need only receive that gift in faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God—not by works.” Similarly, Mark 16:16 reads, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned.” In our present discussion, then, we would never insist on church membership as a necessity for salvation. From the thief on the cross to the Ethiopian eunuch to the jailor in Philippi, we are confident they were saved through faith alone. They were filled with the Holy Spirit by God’s gift of grace through faith, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
There are three additional theological principles that we must apply in working out our ecclesiology in mission contexts.
1. The traditional doctrine of the “orders of creation.” This doctrine states that God has instituted some basic structures for the maintenance of society’s stability, including marriage, family, government, courts and social mores. Although they may take different forms, these structures are common to all societies. Especially in view of the power of sin in our fallen world, these structures must be guarded and secured or sin will run rampant and the world will self-destruct.
2. The doctrine of creation. This doctrine is traditionally identified with the work of God the Father, the creator of the world. The understanding is that God has made all things, including the ethne (“cultures” or “people groups”) of the world. The peoples of the world in the vast variety of cultural expression are his valued possession. This was true at the scattering of the Tower of Babel. It was true when Jesus gave the Great Commission. And it will be true until the in-gathering at the end of time “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 5:9). Culture is not God’s enemy; it is his valued creation.
3. The biblical concept of the Kingdom of God. The rule of God extends to more than the Church. God’s love, concern and will are extended to all people, whether they acknowledge and serve him or not. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” God’s prophets spoke not only to his people, but to the nations. His kingdom comes wherever and whenever his will is done.
What are the implications of these seven theological, biblical concepts for our doctrine of the Church in a mission context? There are four.
1. The “visible community” that Tennent advocates is of the bene esse of the gospel. Some form of fellowship is highly helpful for sanctification; however, the form that this faith community takes may differ from culture to culture. Furthermore, even the most conservative advocates of Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“Outside the church there is no salvation”) acknowledge that there are exceptional situations.Ultimately, church membership is an adiaphoron; it is not essential for salvation. The ancient dictum about baptism would apply also here: “It is not the lack of baptism that condemns, but the despising of baptism.” Or another: “Baptism is necessary, but not absolutely necessary.”
In my original research for Churchless Christianity, I found several instances where Jesu bhakta women were gathering regularly for worship, sometimes under Christian church leadership and sometimes independently. Subsequently, I have also found new forms of faith communities evolving. The Jesu bhaktas do not despise fellowship with fellow believers; indeed, they desire it and are developing various ways to achieve it. They are doing this separate from the established church bodies: through pilgrimages, Christian sanyasis, mass rallies, Christian friends, standing outside the church on Sundays, joining in Christian worship, Holy Communion, Bible correspondence courses, Christian ashrams and internet discussions. These are forms of spiritual fellowship and accountability that are familiar and comfortable to them from their Hindu cultural background.
2. The issue among the Jesu bhaktas is not participation in fellowship with Christians, but membership in a church. In Indian law, baptism into a Christian congregation changes one’s legal status in the country. The person is considered legally to have left his or her previous community and joined a different community, now governed by a different civil law (marriage, inheritance, divorce, family, etc.). Most Jesu bhaktas welcome Christian pastors and Bible women into their home for prayer and study, but they hesitate to go to the church. These Jesu bhaktas value their culture and their family. They want to do everything to keep these orders of creation and be an effective servant of God within these structures. Missiologically, they are an ongoing presence of God’s call within walls where a church person could rarely enter. They are servants and witnesses of the kingdom, outside the structures of a church. If they joined a church, they would lose their place and opportunity in this kingdom work.
3. The Church is not an order of creation. It is not a “community” in the sociological and theological sense. Believers are not expected to find their family life, financial support or civil law within the Church. That is provided by our Lord in the Kingdom of the Left, in the structures of the orders of creation. God has made us social beings, people who need other people in all aspects of life: psychologically, socially, economically and politically. God’s kingdom of love extends over all these structures.
Ideally, therefore, we do not extricate people from their God-given community when they come to the Lord. We also do not expect the church to become their community. The early Church assumed many aspects of community (Acts 2-6); however, it did not last long and it was fraught with problems. What God has ordained to provide through the orders of creation, we should keep intact if at all possible. Where God has placed people in their order of creation we should expect them to serve faithfully as his new creation, leaven, salt and light.
4. We do not set up a “new law.” We do not make church membership into a good work required to secure salvation. The certainty of our salvation is not because of our church membership but because of the faith that God has worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Faith is to be in God’s promise, not in church membership. Likewise, we do not bring unnecessary stumbling blocks to those who are new and weak in faith. Church people can be like the Pharisees whom Jesus castigated, who “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4). In certain mission contexts, through church membership we extricate people from their God-ordained support system of family and community. Then we are unable—and unwilling—to do all it takes to bring them into the orders of creation. By our insistence on church membership we may cause them to stumble in their beginning walk of faith with the Lord. We must heed the warning of Matthew 9:42: “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea.”
CONCLUSION: WHAT THIS MEANS FOR US TODAY
As we work out our ecclesiology in a mission context, we take into consideration all of these biblical principles. The integrity and role of the Church is a prime theological concern, but not at the sacrifice of any of these other biblical principles. Our theological and practical goal is to integrate and implement all seven theological precepts as we work out our doctrine and practice of the Church. Clearly, the issues are much more complex and fuzzy in the flux of mission work. Often, the rules and traditions that govern our established church life cannot be applied easily in mission situations. This organizational aspect of the church’s life is in the Kingdom of the Left, and thus a matter of adiaphora. Rather, the Church is to focus on its primary commission of the Kingdom of the Right, to “go and make disciples of all peoples.” Therefore, we intently heed Jesus’ caution against “setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions” (Mark 7:9).
Likewise, the forms and practices of church that evolved in one culture over hundreds of years cannot automatically be taken as normative in new, evolving mission situations. It will take time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for these new forms to develop. We do not “frustrate the Spirit” by imposing the forms that we are comfortable with but that may inhibit people from growing in the Lord according to their own traditions of faith community. The established Church is a partner along this path, being readily available but also duly cautious not to interfere in the growing process of this new form of church.
Hoefer, Herbert. 1991. Churchless Christianity. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Tennent, Timothy C. 2005. “The Challenge of Churchless Christianity: An Evangelical Assessment.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 29(4): 171-177.
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PRACTICAL EXAMPLE FROM INDIA
Obviously, these are issues that arise in mission contexts all over the world, especially in highly-developed societies. Below is an example of how this may typically play out among the hundreds of thousands of high-caste Jesu bhaktas of India.
A man named Radhakrishnan goes to a mass rally at the invitation of a Christian co-worker. He hears the gospel preached and the challenge to go to Jesus with his life burdens. Radhakrishnan has not found peace or direction when he has laid his troubles before his Hindu gods. He believes that there are many gods and goddesses, so it is no violation of conscience for him to appeal to Jesus. He prays, and he does experience a new sense of peace. As he continues to pray, Radhakrishnan finds more and more of his problems being resolved in unexpected ways. He asks a local pastor to visit him in his home. Soon Radhakrishnan is convinced that Jesus is the real God. He prays only to him, and he shares his new experience of God with his family and community. He stops going to the temple, but he does not prevent his wife from carrying on her traditional home rituals or from going to their family temple.
Radhakrishnan begins listening to Christian radio programs and enrolls in a Bible correspondence course. He becomes more convinced that Jesus is the only true God. As his knowledge of the faith grows, so too does his boldness in witness. He goes to occasional mass rallies and discusses Jesus with Christian friends at work. One of these co-workers asks Radhakrishnan if he is ready for baptism. Radhakrishnan understands that this rite will make clear to himself and his community that he is now a Jesu bhakta, a devotee of Jesus alone. This is not difficult as he has already made this clear to everyone. When he shares his intention with his family, however, they remind him that this is not a simple profession of allegiance to Jesus. It is a rite that will change his legal status in the country as a Hindu. He would now come under Christian civil law and be considered a member of the “Christian” community. Members of his community will see him as one who has rejected their cultural traditions and social ties.
The pastor who visits him in his home is from a Protestant church; however, Radhakrishnan has never gone to worship at the church. They are all from the outcaste background, and they would be as uncomfortable to have him there as he would be to be there. Instead, he goes to the Roman Catholic Church, where he can melt into the large crowd anonymously, like he does at the mass rallies. He also likes the roadside shrine with the statue of Jesus, for he can easily stop at that shrine, just as he used to do with the shrine of the Hindu god he had worshipped. Radhakrishnan has even gone forward for Holy Communion when it was offered, despite the fact that he has little idea of the deeper meaning of the rite. For him, it is another way to present himself to his Lord and to receive God’s blessing.
How should the Protestant pastor advise Radhakrishnan? Should he baptize him privately and not list him on the church roster? That would be against church rules. In addition, Radhakrishnan has been very open about his faith and he sees no point in doing something so sacred and important secretly. He would like to be baptized, but he does not see it as essential. He is confident of Christ’s love and commitment.
Radhakrishnan enjoys his visits with the pastor, his visits to the Roman Catholic Church and other contacts with the church’s ministry such as rallies and radio programs. What more should the pastor encourage him to do? If Radhakrishnan takes church baptism, how will he be received and how will he carry on without his ancestral community?
Radhakrishnan introduces the pastor to other members of his community. If he joins the church, all those relationships will at least be strained, if not completely broken. People in his community have admired the new sense of peace and integrity that they see in Radhakrishnan. They have always respected him, and they listen intently to his words about his new Lord, Jesus. His people will look at him and at the pastor differently if they see that Radhakrishnan’s faith in Jesus has caused him to break with his community life and responsibilities. This pastor is Radhakrishnan’s best contact with the nurture and guidance of the church. However, when the pastor gets transferred to another parish, who knows what the attitude of the new pastor will be. Radhakrishnan may be left alone, judged and rejected. He knows it may be hard to stand in the tension between the established Church and his community and culture. However, he knows from experience that Jesus will not let him down.
Can we leave Radhakrishnan in this tenuous position? Will joining a church make things better or worse for his walk with the Lord? What is the church’s responsibility to him in their service to the wider kingdom work of our Lord? These are some of the broad questions and considerations about the Church in the mission context of Jesu bhaktas in India. It is not simple or clear. It is something that must be worked out on an individual basis, determining what will strengthen and guide the faith and witness of each Jesu bhakta in his or her context. Here the established Church can be a great help or a great detriment, a tool of God-enabling faith and witness or a tool of Satan-destroying faith and witness.
We pray fervently for wisdom and courage, both for ourselves in the visible Church and for Jesu bhaktas in the invisible Church. By our common faith and our common life in the Holy Spirit, we are jointly members of Christ’s body called to embrace each other, so that “speaking the truth in love, we will grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16).
— Herb Hoefer
Herb Hoefer is missions chair at Concordia University-Portland in Portland, Oregon. He was a missionary to India from 1968-1983 and presently serves as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod area director for India and Sri Lanka.
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