In some ways I wonder if this last post in the series may be the hardest for some to swallow. It might seem like the riskiest. Maybe it is. Ironically, however, it is also the post in which I will most push for a deeper trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. In a sense that’s what all of these posts have been about, a movement away from trust in ourselves – our systems, innovation, power, leadership abilities, ingenuity, or religious-know-how – and a movement towards trust in the work of the Spirit.
In the last post, drawing on some of Newbigin’s work, I wrote about engaging in evangelism for our own sake; for our own conversion. Still, Newbigin plainly states that, “The Christian will also believe and expect that the Holy Spirit can use the dialogue as the occasion for the conversion of his [or her] partner to faith in Jesus.”1 The question I want to take up here is this: when another is converted to Christianity, who sets the moral implications of that conversion?
One of the first things that Newbigin addresses is that following Jesus necessitates change. He states it plainly: “There cannot be a separation between conversion and obedience.”2 To follow Jesus is to obey Jesus. Always. Driving the point further, he asks:
“Can there be any true conversion that does not involve, here and now, a new way of behaving and therefore a new decision on the ethical and political issues of this time and place?
No, there cannot. To that question there can be only one answer. But a new question has now to be put: Who has the right to decide the ethical content of conversion at any time or place — the evangelist or the convert?”Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1978, this ed. 1995), 136
Jesus gives ethical teachings and we, his followers, are to obey them. But there is a complexity here which must be acknowledged. First, there is the matter of ethical issues not specifically addressed by Jesus. Second, there is the issue of our own cultural and contextual interpretation of ethical decisions. In some contexts, drinking is frowned upon. In other contexts, the preacher is taken out for a beer after preaching her sermon. Such issues are cultural, not scriptural. But note well, they become so engrained that to many they seem scriptural. And so while following Jesus demands change and faithful obedience of us all, that change can be complex, especially when it is culturally attached – and it is always culturally attached. Much more could be said here, but suffice it to say that to neglect this complexity and insist, even with good intention, that others simply must become like us is to engage in a form of colonialism (the very reason many wish to avoid evangelism in the first place). So Newbigin’s question, “Who has the right to decide the ethical content of conversion at any time or place — the evangelist or the convert,” is a deeply important one. It is a question about power and agency.
Newbigin believes that the convert decides. That isn’t quite right, though. It would be more accurate to say that Newbigin believes that we can trust the power of the Spirit at work in the convert. To insist that the missionary (or the evangelist) sets the moral implications of conversion is, for Newbigin, actually a failure of the missionary to trust Christ.
“The missionary has failed to realize that the living Christ, speaking through the Scriptures, can speak directly to the new convert in a way that is not just an echo of the words of the missionary. At this point we have to listen to the witness of converts as much as to that of evangelists.”ibid.
Later, he is even stronger with his language:
“I am pleading for a recognition of the sovereignty and freedom of the Holy Spirit to bring the word of God in Jesus Christ to the consciences of men in his own way.”ibid. 138
The issues here is not simply the freedom and sovereignty of the convert (though that too), but the freedom and sovereignty of the Holy Spirit! The question who sets the moral implications has another question underneath of it – do you trust the Spirit in the heart of another as much as you trust the Spirit in your own heart?
I’ll let Dietrich Bonhoeffer weigh in here. Bonhoeffer insists that the goal of Christian community is to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”3 There is a back-and-forth movement, with the Spirit between us.
I often come back to these stunning words of Bonhoeffer (forgive the abundance of masculine language) :
Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 23. (emphasis mine)
The problem with the missionary/evangelist setting the moral implications of conversion is two-fold. First, they trust the Christ in their own heart more than the Christ in the heart of their sister. Second, in so doing they refuse to open themselves up to the moral implications which may be set upon them. This is huge.
In his account of the beginnings of Christianity in Uganda, John V. Taylor has shown very vividly how the first converts (most of whom were young men at the court of the Kabaka) felt the demand of the gospel upon their consciences in ways that had little connection with the ethical teaching of the missionaries. The latter laid great stress on the necessity for an immediate abandonment of polygamy as the condition for baptism. But in the hearts and consciences of the converts other questions were being raised by the gospel and especially by the teaching and example of Jesus himself. They saw in him a new pattern of behavior, calling for humility and for willingness to share the work and the hardship of the poor. They saw that slavery was incompatible with allegiance to Christ, and they found themselves engaged in a deep struggle between the “old man” and the “new man of Christ,” of which the missionary was only dimly aware.Newbigin, Open Secret, 137
The missionaries needed the challenge of what the Spirit was impressing upon the hearts of these new converts, yet they were “only dimly aware” of this. Stefan Paas echoes Newbigin’s point:
Countless are the examples of missionaries who started their work with all sorts of theological and moral expectations – delivered to them by their own cultures, and were totally surprised by the way in which other peoples accepted and appropriated the gospel. For example, they expected that converted Africans would quit drinking alcohol, but the new Christians kept holding drinking bouts while meanwhile releasing their slaves – unnoticed by the disappointed missionaries.Stefan Paas, Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society, (London: SCM Press, 2019), 47
I’ve noticed an interesting thing about many faithful missionaries. Oftentimes, after giving their lives to a people very different from them, they themselves change. They go through a conversation of sorts. They set out with certain cultural and political assumptions, beliefs, and commitments. After some time, though, they begin to see differently. Their imaginations are baptized. The scales fall. The people whom they serve, by the power of the Spirit, open their own hearts and eyes. This is exactly as it should be. As we trust the work of the Spirit in those around us, including the new convert, the Christ in the heart of our sister and brother becomes magnified and we are drawn closer to Christ who is emanating from them. The work of the Spirit doesn’t come from me as giver, but rather works between me and the person I encounter. The Spirit will challenge and change us both together as we trust the work of Christ in the heart of each other.
*This post is also available on my Substack page.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1978, this ed. 1995), 187
2 ibid. 135
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 23