by John Wilson
Have you ever felt like an outsider? Of course! Perhaps you were the last one picked for a game in the school yard? Or maybe you were the only one of your friends not invited to a party?
Have you ever felt like an outsider? Of course! Perhaps you were the last one picked for a game in the school yard? Or maybe you were the only one of your friends not invited to a party? You know the feeling. You’re not good enough, you’re not wanted, you’re excluded, you don’t belong. That’s what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2. We were the outsiders, but through Christ, God has made us insiders. But he does even more; he makes us insiders with a radically different nationality, and consequently we have a fundamentally different way of looking at other people.
As missionaries in a strange land and culture, you’ve experienced life as an alien who doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know the rules to the local version of the game of life, and you are therefore culturally inept. You’ve felt lonely, despised and stigmatized as whitey, Americano (worse when you’re not one!) and foreigner. Socially you’re undesirable and politically you’re a resident alien lacking desirable privileges. Back home, where you’ve often longed to be, you were a proud insider, perhaps even reveling in your identity and silently pitying other nationalities and races.
When we study Ephesians 2, we need to sense and feel what Paul is talking about from both sides of the fence. As uncircumcised Gentiles and former unbelievers, we were on the outside. Now, as Christians, we are on the inside, full family members of a new nation, the people of God. However, as insiders we must not fall into the errors of racial pride and exclusivism that build walls and fences. If we do so, we will fail to understand both what Christ has accomplished in breaking down the dividing wall, and what insider privileges in God’s family mean.
I gained fresh insight into this passage by studying the initiation rites of the Yali, a people group in Irian Jaya. Let me paint a picture of this process in the hope that it will help you, too.
My journey to greater understanding of Ephesians 2 began with understanding the importance and process of rites of passage, particularly initiation. Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957) was the first anthropologist to note the regularity and significance of rituals attached to the transitional stages in human life. He identified a process of three phases including separation from a defined past, a transition (or liminal) phase, and a final phase of (re)incorporation (see diagram on page 324). We all practice rites of passage (even if we don’t realize it), such as infant dedication, landmark birthdays, graduation, marriage and funerals. Those of us who’ve immigrated and received citizenship in another country have experienced a certain type of rite.
I learned about the importance of Yali initiation ceremonies for incorporating boys into male dominated Yali society. Then I saw this rite of passage as a metaphor of the process Paul describes in Ephesians 2. The Yali boy was dubbed kubilon: uninitiated and excluded. All non-initiated people were stigmatized kubilon, an expression which was even used as a derogatory term for adult males. The initiated were called wiron. Yali boys and all women were separated from the benefits, privileges and obligations of the initiated male segment of Yali society. These terms were the Yali equivalent of uncircumcised and circumcised.
A day came when the father or maternal uncle forcibly extracted the young boy from his mother’s house, and led or carried him (sometimes kicking and screaming) to the yard of the sacred Kwalu hut.1 There, along with other novices, the boy was cleansed through ritual washing of the body, and by mimetic2 removal of polluting contaminants the boy had ingested or acquired through living with his mother and sisters. This constituted the phase of separation or severance from the boy’s former identity and way of life as a non-initiate (kubilon).
Throughout the day (the liminal phase), other rituals prepared the boy for his new identity as a man, a warrior and a responsible, functioning member of Yali male society.
Finally, the maternal uncle picked the boy up and lifted him carefully over the threshold of the sacred men’s house (he may not enter on his own lest he stumble). The boy was physically placed in the men’s house. Once inside the hut, further rituals incorporated the novices into the household of Yalis.
Every Yali hut has four house posts planted in the ground that support the roof. When the Kwalu hut was built, a portion of fat from a pig dedicated to the founding ancestors was buried at the foot of these poles. During the last phase of incorporation, each man and boy clasped one of the four posts and jammed his splayed big and second toes against it. Then they shared a symbolic meal (a kind of communion), in which they each took a bite from a portion of sacred pork. Accompanied by chants and incantations from the officiating priest,3 they are rooted and grounded into their founding ancestors. (See table on page 325).
Ephesians 2 follows the pattern of initiation separation or exclusion, the intermediary or threshold phase and, finally, the incorporation phase. We Gentiles are identified as separated from God, outside the community of his people and as good as dead. However, we are then saved and cleansed by Christ’s blood, adopted as sons and daughters, and finally placed into his house. We are incorporated into Christ (our ancestor) and become integrated as full participants in God’s extended family, the household of faith. He does this by grace; we can’t do it by ourselves. This parallel especially helped the older Yalis understand what it means to become members in the community of God’s people.
What does this initiation mean for those of us from a very different society and way of life? And what might it imply for how we view the church and go about church planting?
First, we Westerners have a limited ability to grasp the communal nature of the church and the associated values of corporate identity and interdependence because of our centuries-old love affair with individualism. Charles Van Engen puts it well:
Paul’s concept is that the whole defines the identity of the parts, and is more than the sum of the parts. This is a perspective of clan and tribe. Individuals have significance in themselves, but they derive their ultimate meaning from their place in the whole. As Paul expressed it in 1 Corinthians 12, a hand, ear, or eye has no significance, no task, no identity in itself. It takes on importance as a part of the whole body.
This concept of the body questions Western individualism as well as Marxist conformism. Persons are extremely important and unique, but only in and through their special participation in the whole by exercising their own unique gifts according to the grace given them. This is the sense in which to understand the old Cyprianic dictum, extra ecclesiam nullum salus (outside the church there is no salvation). Apart from the body no members can maintain their lives, their identities, or their purposes. (Van Engen 1996, 108)
Second, Christians in the West lack the sense of community that is characterized by corporate solidarity and identity—the kind which people like the Yali still enjoy and which the Israelites experienced. We see this perspective, for example, in the story of Achan’s sin (Joshua 6 and 7). We can’t fully understand this account without appreciating how much Achan’s individual identity is bound up in the life and nature of the wider community (Israel): Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. (Josh. 7:11)
Similarly, individualistic Westerners don’t readily grasp the Bible’s teaching about our corporate identity in Adam and then in Christ. This solidarity is in Paul’s mind when he talks about a new, all inclusive humanity–the one “new man.” This new man both the representative man Jesus Christ, and the corporate people of God incorporated in him!4
Thirdly, as church planters we need to keep in mind this biblical paradigm of the church as the universal community of the people of God, rather than a Western model of church or denomination with its roots in the organization of society under the Roman Empire, and subsequently influenced by European ideas of social organization, individual autonomy and democratic governance. Our tacitly held paradigms are more cultural than biblical.
Tom Julien, executive director of Grace Brethren International Missions, identified this problem:
A fundamental problem in church planting is our tendency to identify the church with her cultural expression rather than her biblical essence, and then make that particular cultural expression the norm. Our concept of the church has been influenced more by the nursery rhyme, "Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and here are the people," than by the images of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Why? The Reformation model of the local church, growing out of the Roman model, became practically universal, both in Europe and by extension throughout the world. This is the local church emphasizing the building, the professional clergy and a formalized worship ceremony. This influence has been so profound that we speak of "going to church” (attending a worship service) or "being in the church" (a building).
It is hard for us to read our New Testament apart from our cultural bias. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the New Testament church was quite different in form from the Reformation model, having been modeled after the synagogue. This model was especially applicable to the rapid growth of the early church, because it grew out of the dispersion. It freed the people both from the temple (the building), the sacrifices (the liturgy), and the priesthood (the clergy). All of this provides the context for rapid expansion.
Yet, we find it hard to visualize "the" church of Ephesus as being composed of multiple small groups, most at that time meeting in houses, led by shepherds who, for the most part, had no more training than the people of their flocks, brought together under the coordination of overseers. It is even more difficult to realize that "the" church of Antioch, our model missionary church, was scattered throughout the city. We tend to interpret these passages in the context of our structured Reformation model churches. (1998)
The forms of church which we encounter and experience in the West are often closed communities which have been described as bounded sets and predisposed against growth and multiplication (Hiebert 1994). These are often marked more by exclusion than inclusion, due to the walls we erect the parameters of membership described by cultural values, doctrinal statements, bylaws and conditions of membership. These walls fence people out rather than invite them in. The church in Ephesians is an open community characterized primarily by the members’ orientation to Christ, their incorporation into him and the consequent unity of the Spirit in the fellowship bond of peace (see Eph. 4-6). In light of these truths, are we planting churches (constraining forms) or the Church (reproducible essence)?
Sometimes we need to define things by stating the negative—what they are not. At other times we can define something by painting a picture or using a metaphor. We must acknowledge that our paradigms for church are based largely on Western cultural models and learn not to adhere to them. And perhaps the Kwalu initiation rite of the Yali people will help us grasp what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 2. God has turned our view of community inside out and brought those outside into the one, new inclusive community of people who have been incorporated together in Jesus Christ.
1. The Kwalu cult was one of two primary traditions in Yali religion.
2. A ritual act which is believed to actualize what it imitates or mimics is called mimetic.
3. These were medicine men healers, responsible for the total welfare of Yali life.
4. Paul has this corporate nature in mind where he talks about the growth (even multiplication) of the church and growing toward the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16).
Hiebert, Paul G. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Julien, Tom. 1998. “The Essence of the Church.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34:2, 148-153.
Van Engen, Charles. 1996. Mission on the Way: Issues in Mission Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Wilson, John D. 1986. “Steps Towards Knowledge: Male Initiation Practices among the Yali of Irian Jaya.” Irian 14: 3-13.
John Wilson and his wife Gloria ministered 20 years with World Team (RBMU) in Papua, Indonesia. He currently is a trainer and mentor for Asia.
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