Written by Dr. Derek Cooper
Friday, 22 June 2012 00:00
On a recent trip to the Holy Land and the Middle East, I worshiped alongside thousands of Christians from all areas of the world and from all ecclesial backgrounds. I shared sacred space with Ethiopians, Filipinos, Germans, Palestinians, and Australians. I participated in worship services within the different strands of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. In fact, in several ancient churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, I worshiped the Lord Jesus within an ear- and eyeshot of simultaneous services in multiple languages and from multiple theological traditions.
As I reflect on these experiences in light of a class I am currently teaching entitled World Christian History, I cannot help but be reminded of the universal nature of Christianity. It seems customary – especially as an American evangelical of European descent – to assume that my version of Christianity is the way to practice our great faith. But I would be wrong. Christianity is not just my religion – nor is it just yours. It’s the world’s religion.
The late Anglican bishop and missionary Lesslie Newbigin once remarked that “the idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel” (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture 1986: 4). To assume or believe that my version of Christianity is timeless or “pure” is – to take a term from Newbigin’s book – “foolishness” indeed. Christianity – or, for that matter, the gospel – is not a sterilized liquid that is dropped carefully out of a test tube into an uncontaminated culture. It is a fleshly faith – in the good and biblical sense of the term – that is contextualized and incarnated. Sometimes it is practiced reverently, other times it is not; but always it is practiced by limited human beings whose culture neither necessarily consummates nor contaminates the veracity or the vibrancy of the gospel.
Long before there were test tubes or evangelicals or Americans, there was a universal and worldwide Christianity that was practiced widely, divergently, and – all things the same – faithfully.
Sebastian and Kirsteen Kim, the authors of Christianity as a World Religion, delineate some important characteristics of world Christianity, which reveal a religion that is much larger and more inclusive than many of us suppose:
*** Topographically, Christianity is spread across the globe and is not just the religion of one region.
*** Theologically, Christianity claims to be universally applicable and locally inclusive.
*** Geographically, Christianity has always been widespread and practiced locally in different communities across the world.
*** Socio-politically, the worldwide presence of Christianity today is not primarily the result of attempts by powerful churches to replicate themselves worldwide but the result of indigenous responses and grassroots movements.
*** Historically, Christianity does not have one single strand of development, one center, or a linear history but is diffuse, locally divergent, and adaptable to different contexts.
As we consider the reasons why Christianity is a world religion rather than a parochial one, we do well to likewise consider the reasons why Christianity is not just your religion. Christianity survived and – in many ways – thrived in a diversity of cultures, countries, and contexts long before we were here; and it is likely that it will continue to do so long after we are gone. This does not mean that your version of Christianity is unfaithful – let along “wrong” – but it does imply that another person’s version of Christianity can be just as faithful despite the fact that it is practiced very differently from yours.
Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical, where he directs the LEAD MDiv program and co-directs the DMin program. His most recent book is entitled Thomas Manton: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Pastor: http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Manton-Thought-Puritan-Publishing/dp/1596382139/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1. See his faculty page at: http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/derek-cooper.