Friday, May 26, 2006

Have Western Evangelicals Become the New Judaizers?

This week I received the latest edition of Missiology journal, Vol. 34, no. 2 (April 2006). This issue is devoted to discussion of issues surrounding the shift in Christianity’s growth from the Northern to Southern Hemispheres, with decline in Western Europe and North America and growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This shift has been recognized for some time by the missions community, and has been explored by a number of authors, including Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom, the subject of a few previous posts and an interview with the author on this blog.

One of the articles in this issue discusses the missiological implications of the southern shift (“The Changing Face of Mission: Implications for the Southern Shift in Christianity,” by Mark Lang, pp. 164-177). In a sub-section of the article titled “Blessed Reflex,” the author discusses the revitalization of the early Jewish church that came with the growth and strength of the Gentile church. He then discusses the possibility of the Western church being revitalized and renewed by interaction with southern Christianity’s mission and theologizing, unencumbered by the Enlightenment and other Western cultural assumptions. Lang writes:
Missionaries are being sent from vibrant southern churches to the North bringing renewal and revitalizing northern churches. Coming from contexts unaffected by an Enlightenment worldview, many are able to naturally connect and communicate with the post-Christian post-modern world, where in contrast, the Western church often struggles to do so. In fact there is the danger for Western Christians, that in their quest to maintain orthodoxy, they may find themselves unwittingly defending the plausibility structures of the Enlightenment rather than defending Christianity, guarding a cultural form of Christian Enlightenment. (p. 175)
In light of my own cultural and missional studies and experience in the West I find this statement interesting. As I considered its ramifications it dawned on me that evangelicals might have unwittingly become the new Judaizers. Let me briefly explain.

One of the groups that surface polemically in the New Testament, such as in the Pauline epistles like Galatians, have been labeled the Judaizers. Scholars believe that this was a group of Jewish converts to Christianity who believed that it was also necessary to not only accept the gospel, but also to keep the law of Moses. Their error arose because of a their connection of the gospel and Christian identity with aspects of Jewish culture. In the process of this connection the gospel itself, and the unity of Jew and Gentile in one united community in Christ was undermined.

With the syncretism of the Western church with aspects of modernity and Enlightenment presuppositions I believe that we may indeed by guarding and promoting a particular cultural expression of Western Christianity as the universal and orthodox expression of the faith. This may be happening on an even grander scale among those ministries that evangelize adherents of new spiritualities in the West, where the tendency is to extract them from their subculture and to reinculturate them in the evangelical subculture, rather than presenting the gospel contextually in their cultural context and permitting the development of indigenous expressions of the faith in new cultural forms. (If this is an accurate assement it would indeed be ironic in that such ministries frequently cite Galatians and other texts addressing the Judaizers in refuting many new religions.) If this indeed the case then the Western church can learn a lot from the southern church, and my hope is that we in the West can exercise the humility and teachability necessary to learn and adapt to new roles, theologies, and ways of being in the twenty-first century.

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