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Showing posts with label circumcision. Show all posts
Showing posts with label circumcision. Show all posts

Saturday 3 April 2021

The Church as Spiritual Israel (3): Israel kata sarka, Spiritual Circumcision, and Inward Jewishness

The previous article looked at Paul's Letter to the Galatians, which deals with the interface between the Church and Judaism as its primary focus. By contrast, Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth does not deal with matters pertaining to the Jews or the Jewish laws at any length. Nevertheless, there is a passage within the letter that uses a phrase—albeit only in passing—that is highly significant for the subject of "The Church as Spiritual Israel."

1 Corinthians 10:18: Israel kata sarka

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul alludes to some of the events that befell ancient Israel as recorded in the Pentateuch, citing them as moral examples: "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come" (v. 11).1 In verse 18, having moved on from the historical examples to the subject of idolatry, Paul poses a question: "Consider Israel according to the flesh (kata sarka); are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?"2 That Paul uses the present tense here (in contrast to past tense in the biblical allusions in the preceding verses) suggests that he may be referring to the current sacrificial system practiced in Jerusalem.3 What then does he mean by "Israel according to the flesh"? 

The Greek expression kata sarka occurs twenty times in the New Testament, all in the Pauline corpus.4 In some instances the phrase has a negative moral connotation, as in Romans 8:4-13, where Paul warns his readers not to live kata sarka. In other cases, the phrase has no negative connotation, as in Romans 1:3, where Paul declares that God's Son is of David's seed kata sarka. However, in virtually every case, there is an explicit or implicit contrast between that which is kata sarka and that which is kata pneuma ("according to the S/spirit").5 The common denominator of meaning is that kata sarka refers to carnal, earthly ways of being and acting, while kata sarka refers to spiritual, heavenly ways of being and acting.6 Thus, "Israel according to the flesh" in 1 Corinthians 10:18 denotes those who belong to Israel merely in a carnal, earthly sense. Paul's implication—albeit unstated—is that there is also an "Israel according to the S/spirit," consisting of those who belong to Israel in a spiritual, heavenly sense—namely, believers in Christ.

Just as Paul considers Israelites to be his "kin according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:5), so believers in Christ—whether Jewish or Gentile—are his spiritual kin. In Christ they are all, as we saw in the previous article, spiritual children of Abraham. As Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin writes, "Paul at one stroke was saying that the genealogical Israel, ‘according to the flesh,’ is not the ultimate Israel; there is an ‘Israel in the spirit.’"7

While Paul never explicitly refers to the Church as Israel in the Corinthian letters, there are hints that he understands the predominantly Gentile church at Corinth to be part of Israel in some sense.8 For instance, in 1 Corinthians 12:2, Paul reminds the readers of "when [they] were Gentiles" (ethnē). Some translations render the word as "pagans" here, but while the idolatry and unbelief of the nations is certainly in view, "Gentiles" is still the literal sense. In 1 Corinthians 10:1, Paul introduces the discussion of Israelite history as concerning "our ancestors," implicitly including the Corinthians among the Israelite progeny. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul describes the immorality "among you" as of a kind "not even found among the Gentiles (ethnē)." It appears, then, that in Paul's thought, Gentile believers are no longer ontologically Gentile except "according to the flesh." At a higher ontological level—kata pneuma—they are Israelites.9 

Philippians 3:3: "We are the Circumcision"

The ancient rite of circumcision is so integral to Jewish identity that Paul can use the terms "the circumcision" and "the uncircumcision" to denote Jews and Gentiles respectively (see, e.g., Romans 3:30; 4:9-12; 15:8; Gal. 2:7-12; Eph. 2:11; Col. 4:11). In Philippians 3:2-3, however, Paul writes the following bold words:
2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh (NRSV)
It appears that Paul is taking this identifying label for Jews, "the circumcision," and applying it to believers in Christ, including Gentiles. If so, there is little doubt that Paul thinks of Gentile believers as spiritual Jews. Circumcision is spiritualised in Romans 2:28-29 (to be discussed below) as well as in Colossians 2:11-12, where baptism is described as "the circumcision of Christ." Moreover, some Pauline references to physical circumcision seem to be pejorative about the practice seen as an end in itself, such as Galatians 5:11-12 (where Paul suggests that circumcision advocates ought to castrate themselves) and Ephesians 2:11 (where the writer emphasises that circumcision "is done in the flesh with hands").10 In Philippians, too, circumcision is described in terms of "mutilation" of the flesh and putting confidence in the flesh, in contrast to "worship in the Spirit of God" (note, once again, the sarka/pneuma contrast).

While most scholars take the "we" in the expression "We are the circumcision" (hēmeis... esmen hē peritomē) to be the Church,11 there are exceptions. Lionel J. Windsor, for instance, argues that "we" refers not to "Paul along with all of his Philippian addressees," but to "Paul and Timothy, as Jewish teachers of Gentiles."12 In support of Windsor's interpretation, a first-person plural pronoun does occur in Philippians 3:17 that appears to refer to Paul and Timothy ("the example you have in us"). However, a collective noun like hē peritomē is unlikely to be used of just two people. Timothy is a co-addressor of the letter (Phil. 1:1) and is favourably described in 2:19-24. However, between 2:19-24 and 3:2-3, Paul discusses another minister, Epaphroditus, who was probably a Gentile (given that his name derives from the Greek goddess Aphrodite). Thus, the immediate context gives no indication that the words "We are the circumcision" are confined to Paul and Timothy. Like the first-person plural constructions later in the chapter (3:15-16, 3:20), Paul uses "we" in v. 3 to bring his audience onto equal footing with himself, despite his own impressive Jewish pedigree (3:5-6).

Since Paul's fairly harsh words in Philippians 3:2-3 could easily be misapplied in an anti-Semitic way, Stephen E. Fowl offers an important reminder:
Paul’s claim, ‘we are the circumcision,’ is not designed to contrast a true circumcision, associated with Christianity, with a now superseded Judaism, a false circumcision. Rather, Paul’s claim situates the Philippian believers already within the Abrahamic covenant apart from physical circumcision… In a sense, then, Paul’s claim might be recast as ‘we are already the circumcision – there is nothing else we need to do.’13
Romans 2:28-29: The Inward Jew

The third text to be discussed in this article in connection with Paul's spiritualisation of Israel is Romans 2:28-29. Whereas 1 Corinthians 10:18 (implicitly) spiritualises the term "Israel," and Philippians 3:3 spiritualises the term "the Circumcision," Romans 2:28-29 spiritualises the term "Jew." As in Philippians 3, Paul does so by spiritualising circumcision, that fundamental identity marker of Jewish males. 

The paragraph from Romans 2:17-29 opens with Paul addressing one who calls himself a Jew. Most commentators believe that Paul is interacting with a hypothetical Jewish interlocutor to demonstrate that physical circumcision and instruction in Torah cannot save him and that true Jewishness is defined in terms of the heart, not the foreskin.14 This interpretation is reflected in most translations of Romans 2:28-29, such as the NRSV:
28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
The consensus view has been challenged, however, by scholars such as Matthew Thiessen and Rafael Rodriguez. Thiessen argues that Paul's interlocutor in this passage is not a Jew but a proselyte, a "so-called Jew,"15 and that Paul disagrees with him "not because he has redefined Jewishness, but because he does not believe that a gentile can actually become a Jew."16 He notes that the usual translation requires one to add important words that are not present in the Greek and, following Arneson, he offers the following alternative translation:
28 For it is not the outward Jew, nor the outward circumcision in the flesh, 29 but the hidden Jew, and the circumcision of the heart in spirit and not in letter, whose praise [is] not from humans but from God.17 
If this translation is correct, the focus of the text shifts from Jewishness and circumcision to divine approval. One point in favour of the latter reading is that in Paul's questions that immediately follow, "What advantage is there then in being a Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?" he appears to revert back to the standard ethnic definition of "Jew," which would be odd if he has just redefined the term so as to deny the label "Jew" to the physically circumcised who do not obey God from the heart. Thus, I think that Arneson's translation is preferable to the NRSV.18 Paul is not saying that a circumcised, Torah-observant Israelite is not a Jew; he is introducing a new kind of Jewishness, an internal, spiritual kind, that he contrasts with a (merely) external Jewishness.19 This then coincides with the Abraham's children kata pneuma vs. kata sarka and the Jerusalem above vs. the present Jerusalem in Galatians 3-4, and with the implied Israel kata pneuma vs. "Israel kata sarka" in 1 Corinthians 10. Contra Thiessen, Paul clearly does assert in Romans 2:29 that a Gentile can become a Jew, albeit a "hidden" or "inward" one.


In the previous article and the present one, we have seen abundant evidence from four of Paul's letters (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and Romans) that Paul spiritualised the concept of Israel, the elect people of God, and so understood the Church—Gentiles included—to be Israel according to the Spirit (though he never explicitly uses this term). Importantly, in spiritualising Israel, Paul was not abandoning or denigrating Israel according to the flesh, the ethnic group to which he himself belonged. The spiritualisation of Israel does, however, raise the question of where ethnic Israel, the children of Abraham kata sarka, the outward Jews, fit into the purpose of God. This is a question to which Paul turns in one long and rich passage—Romans 9-11—that will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.
  • 1 Bible translations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NRSV.
  • 2 This translation follows the NRSV except that the words Israēl kata sarka are translated literally here as "Israel according to the flesh," whereas the NRSV translates "the people of Israel." The NRSV translators are seeking dynamic rather than formal equivalence here, but as Bruce Hansen points out, the NRSV translation "obscures Paul’s rhetorical move in calling [the Corinthian believers] ‘Israel according to the flesh’, a move that implicitly interjects the question of whether there might be another way of viewing Israel" ('All of You are One': The Social Vision of Gal 3.28, 1 Cor 12.13 and Col 3.11 [London: T&T Clark, 2010], 116 n. 26).
  • 3 1 Corinthians was certainly written well before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., probably in the late 50s.
  • 4 Rom. 1:3, 4:1, 8:4, 8:5, 8:12, 8:13, 9:3, 9:5, 1 Cor. 1:26, 10:18, 2 Cor. 1:17, 5:16 (twice), 10:2, 10:3, 11:18, Gal. 4:23, 4:29, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22.
  • 5 This contrast is explicit in Romans 1:3-4, 8:4-5, 12-13, and Galatians 4:29 (the latter of which was discussed in the previous article).
  • 6 An interesting observation can be made about the occurrence of kata sarka in Romans 4:1. Most translations render this verse along the lines of the NRSV ("What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?"). Richard B. Hays, however, offers a persuasive argument that this text would be better understood as, "What shall we say then? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" ('"Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1,' Novum Testamentum 27 (1985): 76-98.) It would then be understood as a rhetorical question that expects the answer "No!" Abraham is the father of all who are faithful, including the uncircumcised, according to promise (Rom. 4:11-18).
  • 7 'Paul and the Genealogy of Gender,' Representations 41 (1993): 8.
  • 8 For evidence that the Corinthian church was largely Gentile in composition, see Paul Kariuki Njiru, Charisms and the Holy Spirit's Activity in the Body of Christ: An Exegetical-Theological Study of 1 Corinthians 12,4-11 and Romans 12,6-8 (Roma: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2002), 27-28.
  • 9 Andy Cheung asserts that "There does not seem to be any linguistic or exegetical reason for inferring the existence of an 'Israel according to the Spirit'" from 1 Corinthians 10:18 ('Who is the "Israel" of Romans 11:26?' in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith [rev. ed.; Broadstairs: King's Divinity Press, 2013], 129). However, Cheung's brief analysis of this passage does not take into account the broader "Israelisation" of the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians, or the wider use of the phrase kata sarka and its contrast with kata pneuma, particularly in Galatians 4:23-29.
  • 10 Of course, I am not suggesting that Paul was against physical circumcision; he was against regarding it as an end in itself, or something that should be imposed on Gentiles.
  • 11 For example, Mikael Tellbe, 'The Sociological Factors behind Philippians 3.1-11 and the Conflict at Philippi,' Journal for the Study of the New Testament 55 (1994): 101; Darrell J. Doughty, 'Citizens of Heaven: Philippians 3.2-21,' New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 109-110; Andries H. Snyman, 'A Rhetorical Analysis of Philippians 3:1-11,' Neotestamentica 40 (2006): 270; and most commentators
  • 12 Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 53-55; italics original.
  • 13 Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 147-48.
  • 14 "It is clear that in these verses Paul is in some sense denying the name of Jew to those who are only outwardly Jews and not also secretly and inwardly... Paul is using 'Jew' in a special limited sense to denote the man who in his concrete human existence stands by virtue of his faith in a positive relation to the on-going purpose of God in history... [but this] should not be taken as implying that those who are Jews only outwardly are excluded from the promises" (C. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [2 vols.; London: T&T Clark, 1975], 1:175-76); Romans 2 "emerges as a continual diatribal accusation against the Jew who defines himself or herself in terms of possession of the law and (falsely in Paul's eyes) rests confidence therein. By the end of the passage (v 29), Paul will have totally redefined the 'true Jew'" (Brendan Byrne, Romans [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996], 96); "The chapter climaxes with the assertion that being an ethnic Jew and physically circumcised is insignificant (2:28-29). What matters is being a Jew internally and experiencing the circumcision of the heart" (Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998], 148); "Paul here redefines membership in God's people in terms of religious commitment and not in terms of physical descent or ethnic ethos... It follows from this that Gentiles who keep the law (even unwittingly) are inwardly true Jews (2:26). Paul locates membership in the people not in external ritual but in the orientation of the heart and the actions that flow from that orientation" (Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary [Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001], 43).
  • 15 Rodriguez states that "The choice between an actually Jewish interlocutor in Rom 2:17-29 and an ethnically-gentile-religiously-Jewish interlocutor will prove to be the fork in the road for our reading of Romans as a whole" (If You Call Yourself a Jew: Reappraising Paul's Letter to the Romans [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014], 51. He summarises Romans 1:18-2:29 as "Paul's comments for (or to) three types of gentiles: (i) the depraved immoral pagan (1:18-32); (ii) the elitist moralizing pagan (2:1-16); and (iii) the gentile proselyte to Judaism (2:17-29)... In contrast to these stock gentile personae, Paul will instruct his Roman readers to be gentiles who worship the Creator God of Israel without assuming Israel's obligations under Torah. To this point, Paul has not said anything negative about Jews" (If You Call Yourself a Jew, 61). I am not persuaded that Paul's interlocutor in 2:17-29 is a proselyte rather than an actual Jew. For instance, in Romans 2:24, Paul paraphrases Isaiah 52:5 as, "Because of you the name of God is reviled among the Gentiles"; but Isaiah 52:4-5 is clearly talking about Israel, so this source would not apply to a proselyte who (according to this interpretation of Paul's argument) merely calls himself a Jew and is not really one. Moreover, in Romans 3:9, Paul asserts, "we have already brought the charge against Jews and Greeks alike that they are all under the domination of sin." Yet, if (as Rodriguez claims) the addressee in 2:17-29 is a Gentile proselyte, then Paul has not yet brought any charge against Jews placing them under the domination of sin. Another problem is that Rodriguez's interpretation hinges on the assumption (unstated in the text) that the clincher in Paul's argument against the proselyte is that he has violated the Torah by not being circumcised on the eighth day, as the Torah prescribes, and thus—like Ishmael—his circumcision is of no benefit. However, this argument overlooks that Abraham himself was not circumcised on the eighth day, but at age 99 (Gen. 17:23-24)! Moreover, if Paul regarded adult circumcision as a transgression of Torah, why would he have circumcised Timothy, as Acts 16:3 states he did?
  • 16 'Paul's Argument against Gentile Circumcision in Romans 2:17-29,' Novum Testamentum 56 (2014): 390.
  • 17 Quoted in Thiessen, 'Paul's Argument,' 377.
  • 18 A literal rendering of the Greek text (following NA28) would be: "Not for the one outwardly a Jew is nor outwardly-in-the-flesh circumcision, but the one secretly a Jew, and circumcision of heart in spirit not letter, of whom the praise is not of men but of God." A key syntactic question is what the verb estin ("is") modifies in v. 28. According to the NRSV translation, it modifies Ioudaios; thus something like "For the outward one is not a Jew..." However, the alternate translation understands estin to modify the last part of v. 29: "For it is not the one outwardly a Jew... of whom the praise is not of men but of God." The word order of the Greek is not determinative; this syntactic ambiguity can only be resolved by close attention to the context.
  • 19 Andy Cheung argues that it is erroneous to infer from Romans 2:28-29 that "anybody, Gentile or Jew, who finds faith in Christ is therefore a Jew inwardly"; rather, Paul "is restricting the traditional definition of a Jew to an ethnic Israelite who has faith in Christ" ('Who is the "Israel" of Romans 11:26?', 132). However, the notion that Romans 2:28-29 is exclusively concerned with ethnic Israelites runs afoul of the context. In the preceding verses, Paul is clearly concerned with the physically uncircumcised, i.e. Gentiles (vv. 26-27). It follows that the category of inward Jews, whose circumcision is of the heart, includes Gentiles.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Five things Western Christians can learn from African Christians

This post has been inspired by U.S. Evangelical leader Dr. Michael Brown's article, '4 Things Black Americans Can Teach White Americans About Faith'. I've now spent about half of my adult life living in Africa (seven years). During that time I've married into an African family, been part of a church in which I was the only white person, and am now part of a mixed-race church including people from many African countries. I currently belong to a Bible study group in which I'm one of two white people. Hence, I've been privileged over the past few years to have a window into African culture.

When I first came to Africa in 2007 as a volunteer/missionary, my attitude was that I was coming to 'fix' Africa; that I had a lot to offer to Africa and that Africa had a lot to learn from me. However, for the most part I had it backwards. I've learned a lot more from Africa than Africa has from me. Africa has 'fixed' me a lot more than I've 'fixed' Africa (or, rather, God has used Africa to fix me). Below I want to highlight a few of the things I've learned from the African church. Some of these observations will apply to African culture generally, regardless of religion; but I'm writing in a Christian context.

First, a disclaimer: I'm not claiming that the African church is superior to the Western church, or that African Christians have nothing to learn from Western Christians. Indeed, I think everyone benefits from cross-cultural exchange in the church. However, I think there may be a perception in the West - lingering from the colonial era - that Africa is culturally and anthropologically backward, the church included. When I returned to Canada from my first trip to Africa in 2008, an elderly Christian said to me something along these lines: "So, you've been over working in darkest Africa. But tell me, is it possible to teach them any morals?" While one seldom encounters such overtly discriminatory language with younger generations, I think the assumption that African culture is somehow morally or socially inferior to Western civilization persists in a latent form.

Anyway, on to what I have learned. (Note that I'll be using the term 'Africans' to refer to black people of African descent and 'Westerners' to refer largely to white people of European descent, while allowing for a certain lack of precision in this terminology.)

1. The value of time

The term 'African time' is generally used to refer to the lack of emphasis on punctuality in African culture. Hence, you might receive a wedding invitation where the starting time is specified as 12:00, and then arrive at 12:10, flustered and embarrassed at having arrived late only to find you're the first one to arrive. In an African community church, the Sunday service time is largely dictated by when the congregants arrive, rather than the other way around. This can be frustrating for Westerners who are used to running their lives by the clock. It may appear to us to be disrespectful to God when a service scheduled for 9:00 starts at 9:07.

However, this coin has two sides. When the service starts is one thing, but what about when it ends? Western churches tend to be just as punctual about ending their services on time. A church service will typically run for an hour or an hour and a half, and if it runs long people start shifting in their seats, pointing to their watches, and generally becoming unhappy. After all, they have important things to do: Sunday lunch, grocery shopping, housework, a sporting event to watch, an afternoon nap...

In an African church, however, just as the service starts when it starts, so it ends when it ends - which may be after three hours, or five hours. Instead of trying to squeeze everything into a predetermined interval, the church gives the Spirit freedom to dictate how long the service will last. This gives the impression that, for African Christians, worshiping God is the most important thing on their Sunday to-do list. Everything else can wait. (It's much more in keeping with the Sabbath concept, don't you think?) African Christians don't get tired of singing God's praises and don't get impatient of listening to a minister preach God's Word for an hour or more.

I've experienced Spirit-filled African church services which went on for five hours but which felt like one hour. I think in the West, with our attention spans having been abbreviated by a fast-paced lifestyle and overabundance of visual stimuli, we have a lot to learn from African Christians about the value of time spent with the church in the presence of God.

2. Worship through harmony and dance

Many African people are very gifted when it comes to vocal harmonization, rhythm and dance. Consequently, African worship through music tends to be very expressive and engages the whole being: heart, soul, body and mind. Like many white people, I don't have these gifts and my body generally remains anchored in position even when my emotions and mind are deeply invested in a song.

The fact that African worship music often sounds better, looks better and 'feels' better than Western worship music does not mean it is more pleasing to God or that Western churches should abandon their own beautiful hymns and choruses and try to emulate the African church. That would be a disaster; and what is most important in worship is the sincerity of the worshiper. However, Western Christians can be edified greatly by observing or participating in African worship.

3. Belief in the supernatural

The biblical world is full of supernatural beings and happenings. There are miracles and prophecies. There is angelic visitation and demonic possession. The activity of the Holy Spirit is so central to the life of the New Testament church. Prayer leads directly to divine intervention. However, in the Western church today, with its intellectual sophistication grounded in science and rationalism, these features of the biblical worldview are an embarrassment to many. All too often, when we encounter them in the text, we unconsciously ask, "How do I make this go away?" The question is typically answered by appealing to one of two hermeneutics. The first acknowledges supernatural realities but relegates them exclusively to the distant past, safely out of sight where we don't have to try to square them with our own experience (or lack thereof). The second is more extreme and simply denies objective reality to spirits, miracles, and the rest. Some or all of these features are interpreted metaphorically or existentially. In either case, we tell ourselves that in our daily lives we can completely ignore the supernatural world of the Bible and restrict our attention to the material realm.

According to traditional African belief, spirits (both good and evil) play an active role in life. Visions, healers and charismatics have a place in the worldview. Hence, Africans bring a basic credulity to supernatural features in the biblical text and tend to accept them at face value. African hermeneutics see no need to drive a wedge between the biblical world and our own. Africans thus encounter the supernatural aspects of Bible in an authentic way that is arguably much closer than rationalistic, Western hermeneutics to the way the text was read in antiquity.

Of course, African credulity with respect to miracles, prophecies and spirits also comes with dangers - namely, the danger of being duped by false prophets and deceitful, harmful charismatic practices. The same dangers were well known in the early church. Hence there is a balance to be struck between the extremes of naive credulity and cynical skepticism. This is what, in biblical language, would be called 'discernment'. However, African credulity still serves as a corrective to the Western church which has been heavily influenced by rationalistic skepticism and consequent marginalization of supernatural aspects of the Christian worldview.

4. Respect for authority

Within the African church, and African culture in general, one of the most important values is that of respect for authority and, in particular, elders. Children are disciplined and taught to obey parents and authority figures. Younger people address an older man as a father and an older woman as a mother (indeed, they tend to address other young people as such provided they are married). One follows certain protocols in the presence of an elder in order to show deference and respect.

In general, African churches are characterized by this respect for authority (including for spiritual leaders) which translates into order and decency in church life. This contrasts with the anarchy which characterizes some Western churches, in which each congregant thinks he or she knows better than everyone else and certainly better than the leadership.

Of course, once again this virtue has its downside, which is that an environment where respect for authority is paramount experiences great damage when that authority is abused. In the African context this is particularly evident in the political sphere, where citizens show endless patience toward corrupt and repressive regimes. In the African church, too, the flock is prone to being led astray by lupine leadership. In the West, we have long since 'learned' that human leaders cannot be trusted and that all human authority is suspect. However, at least in an ecclesiastical context, the order and harmony that accompanies sound church leadership more than justifies the African model of respecting authority by default unless or until that authority is abused.

5. Familiarity with certain biblical customs

The last area of learning is not a virtue per se, but simply a fact of life. In certain areas, African culture is much closer to biblical culture (i.e. the culture of the ancient Near East and the Hebrews in particular) than Western culture is. Hence, Africans may be able to encounter certain features of the biblical narrative with a deeper understanding than Western readers.

Firstly, the bride-price custom (ilobolo in Zulu), which is practiced in various forms throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is assumed (but never explained) within the Old Testament narrative (cf. Gen. 24:50-54; 29:16-20; 30:20?; 34:12; Ex. 22:16-17; Judg. 14:1-5, 10-13?; 1 Sam. 18:20-27). In this practice, a man must pay a woman's family a negotiated amount (traditionally cattle, but in urban areas today, cash) before he can marry her. This is not a 'dowry'; in fact, the closest analogue in Western culture would probably be the engagement ring (although in this case the gift goes to the woman's family and not the woman herself). In the traditional African mindset it is this payment, rather than a ceremonial exchange of vows or a civil procedure, which solemnizes the marriage! This is no longer the case from a legal standpoint, of course, but if a man refuses to pay, his in-laws may never recognize him as the legitimate husband of their daughter. The rationale behind the bride-price seems to be threefold. (1) It demonstrates to the woman's family that the man has the means to provide for her. (2) It compels the man to value his wife and marriage and not take it lightly. (3) It compensates the woman's family for their expenditure on raising her, an investment from which they will get no further return since her obligation's will now be to her husband and his family. The bride-price should in no way be construed as the man purchasing the woman as though she were chattel (although obviously in times past the woman moved in marriage from her father's to her husband's sphere of authority).

The bride-price custom is something I experienced firsthand. The social utility of this custom is a subject of debate today, including within the church. I won't go into detail on that here, but I certainly disagree with articles like this one which oppose the practice entirely. I think African Christian families ought to continue with this practice, but parents should not be greedy and should avoid demanding an unrealistic amount that will burden the young couple financially or delay the marriage.

Other examples of biblical rituals and customs which are practiced in modern Africa include male circumcision, animal sacrifice, and polygamy. To observe this is not to endorse these practices (some of which raise profound moral and theological challenges). Nor is it to claim that the way they are practiced in modern Africa corresponds exactly to the way they were practiced in Israel or elsewhere in the ancient Near East. One can simply note that in a number of ways, African culture is closer to biblical culture than Western culture is, and so familiarity with these African customs may assist us in understanding the Bible in its sociological and anthropological context.

I'm grateful to God for all of the faithful African believers in Christ whom I've been blessed to know over the past seven or eight years.