Is My Faith More Authentic Than Your Faith?
Recognizing how much of my faith is due to my culture.
Fairly often, my husband, Gil, makes his Tanzanian Bible school students pretty uncomfortable.
For example, in March, Gil taught a class on developing a biblical worldview. This was for his second-year students, so they already had a solid knowledge of Scripture, and Gil had a good relationship with them by that point.
Something came up about tattoos, which was met by a strong negative response by the entire class. Gil was intrigued by this, so he posed the question, “Which would bother you more: If your pastor got a tattoo, or if your pastor committed adultery?”
Unanimously, the class agreed that a tattoo would be much more disturbing. Of course, this led to a lively conversation, with a lot of Bible pages flipping around and Gil offering some pretty strong challenges.
Another American missionary was visiting that day, and when he told the class that his two adult (Christian) children both had tattoos, the students were dumbfounded. Gil and our visitor were dumbfounded that they were dumbfounded.
Some of the students were so agitated that they went home that night and spent hours searching their Bibles for proof that a tattoo was the cardinal sin.
This kind of discussion happens all the time at Reach Tanzania Bible School, an EFCA ReachGlobal theological training school for Tanzanian church leaders. In a country where Christianity is common but training is not, we’ve found that helping these students correctly interpret and understand Scripture is crucial. But it’s not always that simple.
Set me straight, please
It might be tempting for us as American missionaries to believe that we are in Tanzania to set straight the African Christians who don’t know any better. After all, we have theology degrees and conferences on doctrinal statements and We Know The Bible.
What we’ve learned, though, is that they need to set us straight too. We white Americans have a thing or two we can learn from the African Church.
When we talk about church in America with our Tanzanian friends, it’s their turn to be shocked. Your church services are only an hour and 15 minutes long? And that’s the only service you attend all week? And you’ve never, ever done an all-night prayer vigil? Like, never?
Are there even any Christians in America?
In America, our devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of personal time we spend in prayer and Bible study. Am I right or am I right? Well, in Tanzania, your devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of time you spend in prayer and worship with others.
Of course, we might protest that measuring godliness sounds like legalism. Which is true. But we still do it, don’t we? As an American, what would we say to a Christian who never did personal devotions but spent many hours every week in church worship services?
Would we even know where to put that person in our spiritual hierarchy? And would we be able to back up our conclusion with Scripture?
Blindspots in the American Church
It’s easy for us as missionaries to come to Tanzania and point out what the Christians are “doing wrong.” I wonder: What if Tanzanian Christians came to the States and were given a voice in the white American Church? What deficiencies would be glaringly obvious?
To start with, they might wonder why we get so excited and passionate while watching sports when, in our worship services, we look bored out of our minds.
Maybe they would point out the reluctance of American Christians to open their homes to others—certainly to strangers, but even extended family members. How about our lack of being unconditionally generous with our resources?
Maybe our gluttony? The way we waste food? Or how we consistently serve donuts every week to congregations who are already unhealthy?
Maybe how we downplay the older people in our church and instead do everything we can to attract the young?
Maybe we as Americans don’t see those things as “big” problems. Maybe we want to defend our own church culture as not being that bad. But let me tell you something: The way that the Tanzanian Church does those things—passionate worship, generosity, hospitality and respect for elders—puts the American church to shame. The contrast is stark.
Do U.S. Christians hold the trump card on authentic Christianity?
The truth is that every culture—including every Christian culture—has blind spots. We have our hierarchy of sins and our hierarchy of godliness, and we know we are right and no one can say otherwise.
But that is dangerous.
God created culture, and He loves ethnicity and diversity, even in (especially in) His Church. I absolutely believe in the authority, inspiration and unchanging nature of Scripture. But we also must remember that it was written for all generations, all cultures, all peoples.
I think that, sometimes, we Western Christians assume we have the trump card on what Christian culture should look like, but why? What if an African (or Asian, or South American) Christian holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, uses solid principles of interpretation, and yet comes to different conclusions and applications?
Even among ourselves as Western Christians we can differ in our conclusions and applications. How much do our individual cultures and upbringings influence that? Living overseas is teaching me that I need to approach some of these issues with more humility.
For me, it starts with something as simple as going to a Tanzanian Christian friend and asking, “Where are the blind spots in my white American church culture? How am I sinning—against you, against God, against my neighbor?"
And then swallowing my pride and listening. As a result, I’m discovering how much of my own faith has been influenced by culture. I’m learning the Tanzanian way of prioritizing people over schedules. I’m starting to value corporate fellowship as being just as vital as personal devotions.
After all, if our Tanzanian Christian friends are willing to be teachable on their strongly held beliefs about tattoos, then I want that kind of humility as well.
This post was adapted from “Surprise! We Need to Learn From Christians in Other Cultures,” from the author’s blog.