Submission to Scripture: Africa & America...

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On another World magazine blog site, Zeitgeist, Jack Crabtree writes:

I traveled to Africa this summer with my friend, Earle Craig, a staff pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Costa Mesa California. We were invited by Dr. Moffat Zimba, president of Northrise University in Ndola, Zambia. I taught an intensive two-week course on Romans. Earle taught an intensive course on the Pentateuch. The ministry students at Northrise have learned their Bible largely from TBN and much of what the apostle Paul was saying in the book of Romans was radically different from what they had absorbed through Christian culture. What struck me was their response. I discovered, to my delight, that I was in a room full of biblicists, authentic biblicists. Not just people who liked to say that the Bible was their ultimate authority, but people who actually believed it and practiced it. If they were persuaded that the biblical text was teaching what I was proposing, they were prepared to change their view of God, man, and the cosmos in order to have their views conform to what the Bible teaches. As I teach here in America, it is not unusual for people to respond, "That can't be right! I've never heard that before." The objection is not, "That can't be right! That's NOT what the Bible says" (followed by an argument for why the Bible is saying something different). Rather, the objection is, "That can't be right because we have never heard that interpretation before." Or even, "That can't be right because WE don't believe that." Americans ground their beliefs in culture and tradition more than they do in the Bible. Too often we are not prepared to let the Bible correct and stand in judgment over our particular Christian subculture and tradition. We prefer to live in the safety of some community consensus. In contrast, these Zambians I was with seemed genuinely prepared to alter their lives by what the Bible was saying to them.

So what's the likelihood that two of Zeitgeist's bloggers spent time in Ndola, Zambia this summer training future pastors? Well, my wife, Mary Lee, and our two youngest children, Hannah and Taylor, spent the first two weeks of July in Ndola while visiting our dear friends, David and Terri Wegener. David teaches at the Theological College of Central Africa and I've visited him twice in the past fourteen months. During the visits I've taught classes at TCCA, preached in their chapel services, and preached at area churches.

The work of TCCA is impressive and, in a heartbeat, I'd encourage African men to prepare for the ministry there rather than leaving the continent to be trained in the US, for instance. TCCA is lead by an able principal, Joseph Simfukwe, who has served in the pastorate and directs TCCA with a wise and godly pastor's heart.

But on to the matter of Trinity Broadcasting Network and the authority of Scripture in Zambia as compared to the United States.

TBN is everywhere in Africa. It's taken the African church by storm and its influence on Christians there is constantly lamented by pastors and elders. And while I'm hopeful hearing Jack's comments about the teachability of his students in Ndola, I'm also partially skeptical. Lecturers have much authority, culturally, and Zambians are by nature compliant. So distinguishing between biblicism and compliance can be difficult.

My guess is that TCCA is less connected to the TBN culture than Northrise, but David Wegener reports to me that the health and wealth non-gospel sold by TBN is a virus hard to eradicate among his students. He teaches and preaches against it constantly, yet finds his students only partially receptive.

While in Zambia, David and I taught an all-day leadership training seminar in Chingola, a city in the middle of the Copper Belt near Kitwe on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo--formerly Zaire. Pastor Allan Kasumgami invited us. He is the pastor of the only English-speaking congregation there in Chingola under the auspices of the denomination, Evangelical Church of Zambia. At the seminar, David Wegener warned the church officers against TBN saying that he'd rather his children watched pornography than TBN. Of course those present understood he was speaking hyperbolically, and thus understood how serious is the error of TBN doctrine.

As for a comparison between the biblicism of American and African Christians, it's my observation that it all depends upon what group of Christians one is preaching to.

When I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary back in 1983, I was ordained in the very liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) where I served a yoked parish (two congregations) in small town and rural Wisconsin. Prior pastors had been on the more evangelical end of the still quite-liberal culture of the PC(USA), but my two congregations were still fairly unformed, biblically, and certainly not at all identifying with the evangelical (Billy Graham, Wheaton, Campus Crusade) culture.

When I began to preach the substitutionary atonement, the necessity of regeneration, the gift of repentance, the call to holiness, and especially the absolute trustworthiness and authority of Scripture, it was amazing to watch the response. Some hearts were hardened and, over time, fell away. But many responded with faith. And then, an amazing thing happened--their entire lives became negotiable under the specific authority and commands of Scripture.

Many examples come to mind, but one will suffice. A young mother who, with her husband, were both raised in liberal mainline denominations--he in the PC(USA), came over to our house one morning with a question: she had been reading 1 Peter 3 and wanted to know whether it was wrong to wear jewelry? As we talked, it was clear she was fully prepared to change her life, including her adornment, if that's what Scripture commanded.

Skip forward a decade. I'm now (1993) preaching to a congregation that has long been known around the country for its conservative evangelical commitments. To someone who grew up among the leading lights of evangelicalism in Wheaton, Illinois (what my Dad called the Land of Goshen), I had returned to my homeland. But what a homeland!

After four years of preaching in that congregation, I observed that the more a congregant identified with the national evangelical subculture, the less submissive they were to Scripture. Why?

It's my observation that the culture of American evangelicalism as arbited by Wheaton College, Christianity Today, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIM, and Zondervan inoculates believers against the authority of Scripture. Rather than asking the Berean question, "Is that what the Bible says?" they are taught to ask the serpent's question, "Hath God truly said?"

Read Christianity Today on almost any controverted issue and the approach becomes clear. "Some rigid and legalistic Christians say this; liberal mainliners say this; and those of us who are balanced, intellectually, and who hang out with wise women and men who have the terminal degree know that extremes are lethal to spiritual health, and that the middle way is always best."

So for this preacher, give me unbelievers, new believers, Roman Catholics, liberals, mainliners, or pagans over card-carrying evangelicals any day. If the Holy Spirit gives them faith to believe in the substitutionary atonement and the infallibility and authority of Scripture, every part of their lives will be put on the table, ready for change.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, will have been innoculated against the authority of Scripture and it will be tough slogging, bringing them back to humility and submission. And no, I'm not speaking hyperbolically.

May God protect the African church from both the health and wealth non-gospel of TBN and the intellectual pride and sentimentality of the evangelicalism I've described. (There is another evangelicalism seen clearly through Church history as a God-honoring movement that causes me to continue to identify myself not simply as "reformed," but as "evangelical and reformed." More on that some other time.)