Intercultural Ministry: Some Biblical passages for group reflection and discussion


God’s heart for all people and nations directs the church to minister to people of all cultures

Read and listen to the Word:   Gen 12:1-3;  Rev. 7:9-10

I listen and hear the Word:

 

I listen to your understanding of the Word:

 

I listen to the understanding of others of the Word:

 

My response to the Word:

 

Gen.1-11 tells the story of God’s good creation and purpose with mankind, but also of the failure and sin of men to do God’s will. Gen.11 closes the section by revealing God’s judgement and intervention when the people once again in pride sought their own glory through their own efforts and refused to fill the earth (Gen.11:4). Through confusion of language God scattered them over the face of the earth. Gen.1-11 reveals that God in spite of the sin of man and his punishment of the people, gave expression to his will that the people should fill the earth (Gen.1:28).  Gen.12 tells us of God’s new beginning with the estranged people of the world through his election of Abraham: “and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen.12:3).

Although Gen.12 starts with an individual who became the father of the nation Israel which dominates the history of the Old Testament, it is clear throughout the Bible that God’s love and attention is in reality directed at all the peoples of the earth. The fact that God wants to save and bless all the peoples on earth so that they can become part of his people who worship and praise Him, can be seen for example in passages such as:

  • Israel is a kingdom of priests to serve the nations:   Ex.19:5-6           :
  • Israel must draw the nations to God :  Isaiah 2:1-4; Zech 8:20-23; Isaiah 60; Ps 87; Ps 98:2, 3, 9; Ps 99
  • God rules, blesses and judges all nations:   Ps. 145:9, 15, 16; Ps 22:29; 47:9; 99:2; Ps 7:9; 9:9, 20; 96:10, 13
  • God judges and promises blessing to the nations:   Jer.46-50; Isaiah 13-23; 25:6-8, 45:22-23; Micha 4:1-5; Amos 1-2:3; Nahum; Zeph. 2:1-15  :
  • The gospel should be preached to all nations:   Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8 :
  • People from all nations will praise and worship God at the end of times:   Rev.7:9-10

God’s heart and ministry is directed to all the peoples and nations of the earth. Believers and congregations who belong to God and wish to honour and obey Him should therefore also be involved in ministries directed at all the people in their community to the ends of the earth.  Working inter-culturally and cross-culturally in the immediate community and other parts of the world is therefore not an option for the church, but an obligation!   Believers and congregations who restrict their ministries to people of their own culture are sinning and grieving the Spirit of God.

Identification with others and denial of the self are necessary to minister to people of other cultures

Read and listen to the Word:   1 Cor. 9:19-27

I listen and hear the Word:

 

I listen to your understanding of the Word:

 

I listen to the understanding of others of the Word

 

My response to the Word

 

In John 17:8 Jesus stated in his prayer:   “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”  God sent Jesus into the world to bring about holistic salvation for the world He loved (John 3:16). The implication of this statement is not only that the disciples should pursue the same goal of the Father for the ministry of Jesus in the world, but also that they should conduct their ministry in the same manner and style of Jesus which pleased the Father.

Central in the ministry of Jesus is the fact that He left his heavenly glory to come and live among the people He intended to serve (John 1:14; Phil. 2:4-6). He did not cling to his power, glory and way of existence / “living” with his Father, but humbled Himself to become a slave who served the needs of people even to the point of death (Mark 10:45). In order to serve people in their circumstances, he denied his culture of glory to submit Himself to the culture and way of living of human beings, especially the Jewish culture.

To be sent as Jesus into the world means that disciples of Jesus must leave their comfort zones to serve other people.  It means that believers must enter the cultures of other people in order to minister effectively to them.  They must deny themselves, their culture included, in order to minister in a culture-sensitive way to other people.

While Jesus identified wholeheartedly with sinners in need, his ministry was always characterized and stamped by the principles and values of the Kingdom of God. While fully embracing sinners, He never embraced sin. He opposed and corrected values, attitudes and deeds which could not stand the wil of God.  (For example he criticised and corrected the Pharisees Matt. 23). Incarnation into another culture therefore does not mean that everything in the culture should simply be accepted or tolerated. The wil of God and the values of the Kingdom of God set boundaries to the extent of incarnation in a culture.

Culture affects everything we do, think or feel.  It is so part of us that we are usually unaware of it. When we encounter however people of a different culture, for example when we minister to them, we become aware of their culture and ours. People who live and work fulltime among people of a different culture will have a high awareness of cultural differences and attitudes and emotions related to that.

An increase in awareness of culture is often accompanied by a desire to defend or promote one’s own culture or to  pass judgement on other cultures or specific aspects of other cultures.  Usually one’s own culture is seen as superior to other cultures. In most cases this sense of superiority or inferiority will be communicated non- verbally to others involved a particular relationship, resulting in weakened or spoiled relationships. Paul, following the example of Christ, urged Christians to avoid this trap by accepting the lowest cultural position in his society, that of a slave to others. By doing so, he posed no threat to anybody, did not defend or promote his own culture, served the needs of the people and introduced Christ to them in a culture-sensitive way (1 Cor.9:19-23).

 Notes: 1 Cor. 9:19-27

Corinth was inhabited by Romans, Greeks and smaller groups from other countries. The Diaspora Jews was one of the groups from other countries.  When Paul stated that he became a Jew for the Jews and somebody without a law for those without the law, he was not first of all referring to groups in different places or countries, but to groups in Corinth.  In his daily interaction with people he assumed different roles and positions, always denying his own preferences in order to reach and serve others.

The concept of “slave” is important in 1 Cor.9:19. In general the focal points in the slave metaphor is submission,  obedience and availability to serve the interests of the owner or master. In 1 Cor.9:19 this metaphor is deliberately contrasted with a “free man” and qualified as “make myself a slave”.  “Free man” refers to those people who do not belong to any person, group and do not live in slavery. It may also refer to somebody who once was a slave, but gained freedom and does not belong to anybody.  When Paul declares that he is a free man, he refers to the fact that he does not belong to any person or group and can take independent decisions and live his own life.  In the context of 1 Cor. 9 Paul used this metaphor to stress the fact that since he is financially independent from the congregation, they do not “own” him in any way.  He is not obliged to do them any favours due to the financial assistance they rendered to him. As a free man, Paul made himself a slave to the congregation and other people in Corinth. By doing so, Paul voluntarily laid down his own position of status for the benefit of others. His sole purpose was  to serve the spiritual needs of the people in order to win as many as possible for the gospel.

The main thrust of 1 Cor. 9:19-23 is to give expression to the overwhelming desire and obligation of Paul to win as many as possible for the gospel. In order to ensure that cultural differences or the social position of people do not form stumbling blocks for the spreading of the gospel, Paul becomes  a slave who denies his own cultural preferences in order to humbly serve the spiritual needs of all kinds of people. Self-enslavement provides the way and method to avoid or overcome cultural stumbling blocks for the spreading of the gospel.

Paul illustrated his self-enslavement approach by referring to four different groups whose interests could be served by respecting and adapting to their cultural views and circumstances:

  •   Jews (During his first visit to Corinth Paul shaved his head after he made a vow according to Jewish tradition in a context where the Jews apposed an rejected him (Acts 18: 18:4-6,9-10,12-18)
  • “Those under the law” probably refer to proselytes or Christians who adhered to the Jewish Law under the advice of Christian Jews (see 1 Cor.8:7)   (Some commentators view this as an extension of the Jews)
  • “Those not having the law”.  This refers to Gentiles in general.
  • “The weak”. In the context of chapters 8-10 it may refer to those people who are spiritually immature and still hold on to aspects of the law. Some commentators are of the opinion that it refers to the socio-economic lower-class who were poor and vulnerable.

Paul showed through his example of self-enslavement to other people in order win as many as possible for Christ, that  there is no place for any cultural pride or efforts to uphold one’s culture when reaching out to unbelievers and ministering to people. Any cultural thing or practice which could be a stumbling block for people to hear, understand, accept or experience the salvation in Christ should be left aside or removed in order to pave the way for people to meet Christ.

Paul could only enslave himself voluntarily to other people because he was sure of and respected his identity in Christ. To voluntarily become a slave of other people was not the same as to empower them as total masters of his life.  Only God (Jesus) owned him and was Master of his life. Although he was a slave of God and men, only God was his master. That he kept the principle in mind of “being a slave to everybody, but having only Christ as master” is seen in the fact that he restricted the scope and extent of his servant hood in certain circumstances. (Although he identified with and sought the interests of people with the law, he always respected the law of Christ in everything he did. 1 Cor.9:21). (See also 1 Cor.5:9,11; 1 Cor 6:12-14).

The ideal in reaching people of other cultures is therefore not total assimilation (Where people retain nothing of their original culture or identity  in intercultural relationships), but meaningful integration (Where people become part and parcel of a community without completely losing their identity).

Paul’s desire and obligation to reach as many as possible for Christ, his flexible and sensitive approach to people in different cultural settings and circumstances under the rule of Christ was not restricted to Corinth, but could be seen in his attitude and actions at other places during his ministry.  See for example:

  • Timothy is required to be circumcised in order to be acceptable for the Jews (Acts 16:3), but Titus was allowed to remain uncircumcised (Gal. 2:5);
  • He preached in synagogues and used the Old Testament to reach and teach the Jews, but opposed circumcision as necessary for salvation and opposed Peter when he ate only with Christians from a Jewish background and did not eat any more with Christians from a Gentile background (Gal.2:12).
  • He readily entered into discourse and dispute with Greeks in Athens as they were used to do, but did not refrain to mention key aspects of the gospel which were strange and unacceptable to them (Acts 17:16vv);
  • In Jerusalem Paul underwent purification rites in order not to offend those Christians who still hold on to the Old Testament laws (Acts 21:17-26)

Paul’s attitude and approach resembles that of Jesus Christ who left his heavenly glory and “culture” in heaven in order to come and live among sinners (John 1:14) and serve their needs (Mark 10:45).   Paul urged Christians to follow his example as he followed the example of Christ (1 Cor 11:1)

Winning people for Christ through self-enslavement to others where the needs, habits and views of others always receive preference above one’s own needs, desires and culture is not easy. That is why Paul continues his remarks in 1 Cor. 9:19-23 with the image of a race that needs to be won. Winning any race requires a clear objective, training, discipline, determination and endurance. Only if Christians are prepared to voluntarily give up certain rights and cultural things and with determination reach out to unbelievers, will they succeed in winning people for Christ.  As for Paul, he knew his goal and therefore lived a disciplined life in order to please God as he witnessed and ministered to others.

 

Reconciliation and unity of the church oblige all Christians to minister to one another

Read and listen to the Word:   John 17:17-26

I listen and hear the Word

 

I listen to your understanding of the Word

 

I listen to the understanding of others of the Word

 

My response to the Word

 

Since the church consists of all people who believe in Jesus Christ and who received the reconciliation and salvation which He brought about between God and sinners (Acts 2:47; 2 Cor.5:17-18), the members of the church must also accept and minister to one another, notwithstanding their cultural or social background.   The very nature of the church is multicultural since Jesus removed all the barriers which separate people from one another when He united them all to Himself. (Eph. 2:14-22; Gal.3:26-29).  John emphasised that he proclaimed the Word to all people so that they may eventually fellowship with all of them who have fellowship with the Father and Jesus Christ (1John1:2-3).  If all of them will walk in the light, they will experience fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7).

Unity among Christians form all backgrounds is essential for the building up of the church and the mission of the church to the world. The gifts of the Spirit function only properly within the whole body of Christ (1 Cor.12) where all the different members build one another up in love (Eph.4:11-16). The credibility of the mission of Jesus to the world (and the mission of the church as a continuation of the mission of Jesus) depends to a large extent upon the unity and love which the world may witness among those  who belong to Jesus Christ.  (John 17:21-23).

It is of the utmost importance that Christians from different cultural backgrounds experience fellowship and minister spontaneously to one another whenever an opportunity presents itself. Since people from different cultures often experience difficulties to communicate effectively or develop strong and meaningful relationships, the desire and need for unity among all Christians should motivate Christians to overcome these obstacles through training, exposure and continued contact.

Withdrawal or avoidance of Christians from cultural or social backgrounds different of one’s own, is sin and to the disadvantage of the body of Christ and the mission of the church.

Notes John 17. Gal,3:26-29 Eph 2:14- –

 The credibility of the ministry of Jesus (and that of the church which is sent as Jesus into the world Jn. 17:18) is closely tied to the unity among believers (former Jews and new believers Jn.17:20-21) in the  world.  Unity among believers from all cultural and social backgrounds will encourage non-believers to believe in Jesus and his ministry.  The image of God which people have of God depends to a large extent upon their observation of those who claim to be his children, that is who claim to be like Him.  If there is no love and unity among them, how can there be a God of love who sent his Son to bring salvation to all people?

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn.17:21); “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn.17:23b). A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn13:34-35).

The strive for unity among all believers (church) is not simply one among other initiatives, projects or ministries of the church, but is the foundation of the life, witness and other projects of the church in the world.  It is the unity among believers (church) which enhances the full potential of the ministry of the church in the world.  Believers and congregations who want to witness effectively, who want to render holistic assistance to the poor and disadvantaged, who want to understand the truth and who want to be protected from the Evil one, need to be united with all other believers.

People have different views on the nature of the unity among believers (church) according to John 17:21-23, for example:

  • The unity is spiritual and mystical and therefore largely invisible.   The unity does not lie in church structures, organisation or decisions and such things cannot guarantee unity;
  • The unity lies in the same mission and purpose for all believers in the world;
  • The unity is expressed in harmony, reconciliation and care for one another;
  • The unity must get expression in one church organisation.

The passage emphasised that the unity among believers must reflect something of the unity between the Father and Son: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

The unity between the Father and the Son which believers should reflect, is so comprehensive and perfect that it could be described that the one is totally “in” the other: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

The unity among believers should therefore reflect this comprehensive and perfect unity between Father and Son.  All dimensions of unity should be pursued. True unity needs all dimensions of unity: spiritual, mystical, invisible, visible and concrete and structural.   True spiritual unity implies the removal of organisational and structural hindrances to the expression of mutual love, care and action, but one organisation or structure cannot guarantee true unity.

Worship and ministering with and to Christians from all cultural and social backgrounds are therefore no option for believers, but the logical outcome of those who give expression to the unity among believers.

How to we seek and promote the unity among believers? Unity is first of all a gift which flows from the unity of believers with God. That is why Jesus prays that his followers should “also be in us” (Jn.17:21).  The unity of believers can only get full expression through an intimate relationship with God. As they unite with Him they unite with one another.

Jesus declared that He gave his glory to the disciples so that they could be one. Unity is therefore also       the result of sharing in the glory of Christ.  What is the glory of Christ which He gave to his disciples?       It is the glory which he received through his death and resurrection. Jesus died in order to make the       unity among people possible. Only those whose life are based upon the reconciliation brought about      by the death of Jesus Christ, can live in unity with others.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  (Jn.12:23-24). “Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (Jn12:28)

As Jesus, believers should also pray for unity among them. Who earnestly prays for unity will also  seek and promote unity among all believers irrespective of culture  as far as possible.

 

God’s heart for strangers directs the attention of the church to all people regardless of their culture

Read and listen to the Word:   Lev.19:33-34;  Dt.14:27-29;  Matt.25:34-40

I listen and hear the Word

 

I listen to your understanding of the Word

 

I listen to the understanding of others of the Word

 

My response to the Word

 

When the Bible refers directly or indirectly to “strangers” it usually describes either God’s attitude towards them or the attitude which believers should express towards them.  The words “stranger”, “alien” or “foreigner” are used to translate the concept of “stranger”.  These English words are used to translate different Hebrew and Greek words and at times the same word is used to translate different Hebrew words.   In order to get a better understanding of the meaning of these words, it is helpful to trace the use of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible which are translated by using the above mentioned words.

Hebrew:

gēr:

This word is often translated as “stranger” or “alien” in the Bible. It refers to foreigners, non-Israelites, who stayed or lived in Israel in contrast to foreigners who lived outside Israel or were just passing through or stayed for a very short while in Israel.  These people left their home country due to political or other reasons and were seeking refuge or a means of living in another country. (Abraham in  Hebron Gen.23:4; Moses in Midian Ex.2:22; Israel in Egypt Ex.22:20; Lev.19:34 etc.). Although these foreigners owned no land in Israel,  (At the time of Ezekiel this was changed 47:22) they shared in many rights and privileges of Israel: Shared in the tithes (Dt.14:29), Sabbath year (Lev.25:6) and protection of certain cities (Num.35:15).  Usually they were also poor and were employed by Israelites. They were often grouped with widows and orphans as vulnerable people who need special care, protection and support from God and God’s people (Dt.10:18; Ps.146:9; Lev.19:10, 23:22).  Because the foreigners shared in the privileges of Israel, they also shared in the responsibilities of Israel: Sabbath (Ex 20:5), fasting (Lev.16:29) and partaking in offerings (Lev.17:8) and festivals (Dt.16:11). In practice an foreigner was treated more or less just as any Israelite while staying in Israel.

zār

Although this word is often translated as “foreigners”, the meaning differs from that of gēr.   It usually refers to foreigners who are a threat or an enemy of the Israelites (Hos.7:9, 8:7; Isaiah 1:7; Jer.51:51; Ez.28:7,10, 30:12 etc).   It has therefore a strong ethnic and political connotation.  Sometimes the word refers to foreign gods (Isaiah 17:10; Jer. 2:25, 3:13; Ps 44:21).

In the wisdom literature the word often refers to other or strange people who can be a threat to people such as unfaithful or adulterous women (Prov.2:15; 5:3,20; 7:5).

In the priestly literature the word often refers to those people who did not belong to a specific cultic community (Ex 29:33; Lev.22:10-13; Num 1:51).

In general it is clear that zār refers to people which Israel avoided and who were in one way or the other a threat to their well being.  Israel were warned not to get involved with them and they were also enemies of God.

nēkār/nokrī

nēkār is usually translated with “foreigner” (Gen.17:12; Lev.22:25; Isaiah 56:3,6; 60:10;61:5; Neh.13:30; The word also refers to foreign gods (Gen. 35:2.4; Dt. 31:16, 32:12; Jos. 24:20,23; Jer.5:19 etc.)

nokrī usually refers to another nation (Ex2:22, 18:3; Dt. 14:21, 15:3, 17:15, 2 Sam. 15:19; Isaiah 2:6 Zeph.1:8 etc).  Sometimes it means simply someone else (Prov. 5:10, 20:16).

It is clear that there is no big difference between the meaning of zār and nēkār/nokrī. In most cases Israelites were reserved in their relations to these people because they could be a threat or an enemy to the people of Israel.

“Stranger”, “alien” or “foreigner” are also used to translate different Greek words in the New Testament.

Greek:

xenos

This word is translated in English with stranger, foreign or alien. This word is used 4 times in Matt. 25:31-46 where care of the xenos is care for Jesus Christ himself. Before their call to faith, the heathen people were strangers (xenoi) and aliens (paroikoi) (Eph.2:19). The patriarchs lived as strangers (xenos) on the earth (Heb.11:13).

paroikos

This word which is translated as stranger or alien, is usually used to translate the concept of gēr in the OT. It is usually accompanied by a reference to the history of Israel.  Acts 17:6 and Gen.15:13; Acts 7:29 and Ex.2:15;  Acts 13:16ff and Ex.6:16;   Heb. 6 stresses that Abraham lived as a stranger in the promised land.  Since Christians live as strangers in the world, they must refrain from fleshly lusts (1 Pet.2:11).

While the meaning of paroikos is closely related to that of gēr in the OT, the concept of xenos is more flexible. At times it links to the concept of gēr, but it has also the connotation of foreign people who were a threat or enemies of Christians.

It is clear from the study of the words which are translated by “stranger” in English that God is concerned about vulnerable people in the world, even if they do not belong to Israel. God is concerned about any people in need and He expects his followers to care and minister to such people in the community regardless of their background and culture. Israel’s acceptance and care for strangers is rooted in and motivated by the care which they received from God when they were strangers in Egypt (Lev. 19:33-34, Dt. 10:19). God’s example to protect and assist orphans, widows and strangers (Ps.68:5; 146:7-9) should be followed by his people. Vulnerable people who experienced the grace and care of God, should also express the same attitude and care to strangers and other people in need.

The significance of God’s attitude to  “strangers”  (as gēr and similar meanings of xenos and paroikos) and the attitude which He expected from his people towards the strangers, is not only seen in passages which refer directly to strangers, but also in stories which reveal God’s or people’s attitude or behaviour towards strangers although the passage may not describe  them with these particular words.  Stories about care, assistance and hospitality to vulnerable people in the Bible give concrete examples of God’s care for strangers and his will that Israel should care for strangers who usually were also poor or vulnerable and in need of someone to assist them in one way or the other.   For example:

  • Abraham received strangers for a meal (Gen.18:1-8);
  • Lot received the strangers (Gen. 19:1-3)
  • Elisaha was cared for by a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-13).
  • Ruth was cared for by Boaz (Ruth 2)
  • Feeding of the crowd (Matt.14:14-21)
  • Jesus appears to people as a stranger in need (Matt.25:31-46)
  • The disciples from Emmaus received Jesus as a stranger (Luke 24:28-31)
  • The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke  10:25-37)
  • The care of Christians for evangelists (3 John 8)

The expectation in the Bible that the people of God should welcome and care for strangers and show hospitality to all people (1 Pet.4:9; Tit.5:10; Rom. 16:23) reveals very clearly that no congregation or individual Christian could restrict their hospitality to their “own group or people”.  God embraces all people in need and his children should do the same, regardless of culture or circumstances.

 

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