By Precious Okolobo
I returned from church on June 27 and stumbled on the above-titled article written by Simon Ifeanyi Ezeh, and published in the Viewpoint section of the Vanguard on the same day. I read it thrice without realising, and could not rest until I decided to respond to better contextualise my brother’s arguments and conclusions.
If I can summarise his views, it is that the West came in with a brand of Christianity that is far from what Christ had in mind. He calls out slow bellies who pretend as pastors as well as customs and practices which he says are at variance with Biblical injunctions.
To be sure, views on the role and record of White missionaries in Africa differ and we cannot begrudge anyone for what they think. But such views must be challenged when they strike at the heart of the Gospel and potentially lead people away from the truth.
Simon is against religion, describing it as “one key evil which Christ came to invalidate and free those who’ve been shackled by it”. He lists Christianity as one of such “frauds” that Christ “exposed and punctured”.
There is nothing wrong with religion. When people dismiss religion, they’re trying to throw away the baby and the bath water. By basic definition, religion is a system of belief in God or a supernatural being. There is nothing wrong with this. Religion is not the problem but the traditions and baggage that people have added to the belief in God.
For example, the foundation for the first known religion in the Bible was laid with the Old Testament laws that became central to Judaism. However, at the time Jesus came, the Pharisees and Scribes had added oral commandments and traditions which they elevated to the same status as the 10 commandments given to Moses on Mt Sinai.
On the instruction to “keep the Sabbath holy”, the Pharisees stretched this to outlawing all forms of necessities, including healing and freeing people from demonic oppression on that day.
The Old Testament pointed to Christ but the Pharisees missed the substance because they were preoccupied with the shadow, and this, even when The Master explained that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it.
So there is nothing wrong with Christianity, but we must be careful to distinguish between doctrine (what the Bible teaches) and tradition (the opinions and customs of people over time.)Traditions must give way when they contradict doctrines, and this is why a believer must be given to “sound doctrine” and rely on the Holy Spirit to “guide him into all truth”.
Simon rightly calls Christ “our only Pastor” (note the capitalisation) but says “every other person who presents himself to us as a pastor is simply an interloper, a thief and a robber, a hireling whose interest is only to defraud and mislead us”.
He throws into this gang, religions leaders with different titles – General Overseer, General Superintendent etc, saying “all of us members are classmates or equals”, and questions why we “should worship through a system of human leaders or pastoral hierarchy.” I hope Simon doesn’t mean what I’m thinking.
A pastor is an overseer with spiritual authority; so Christ is our Pastor in the perfect sense of the word, but we also have pastors that guide us in our walk with the Lord. God said so in Jeremiah 3: 15: “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
It is true, as Simon avers,that some misfits pretend as pastors, but there are far more decent men and women who work faithfully daily in that calling, leading the flock of Christ by example. We have fakes everywhere –in law, the military, engineering, accountancy and medicine – but their existence or activities do not amount to an omnibus condemnation of these noble professions.
The warning of Jesus in Matthew 24: 4 – 5 is instructive. “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”
We cannot do away with human or pastoral hierarchy in our worship of and service for God because that is the way it works here. We are human! Paul says if anyone wants to be a bishop, “he desireth a good work” (I Timothy 3: 3.)
We must consistently assess the words and actions of pastors and bishops using the word of God as the standard, and pray and support them with godly advice and our means, knowing they are running the same race with their own share of imperfections.
And for the records, it is not the duty of pastors to determine “when we pray, how we pray, what to say when we pray, who we get married to or do business with, etc. and basically run our lives such that we are now immune and completely alienated from Christ.”
My experience is a good example. When I became born again, I was completely lost in spiritual truths and activities. Praying was a struggle, and like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: 26 – 40, I badly needed someone to help me to understand the language and teaching of the Bible.
This was where my pastor and Sunday school teacher stepped in. Based on revelation and experience, pastors and other church leaders advise and guide us, but the final decision is ours to make because in the end, we will individually answer for our choices.
The point that “all members are classmates or equals” is stretched. As Christians, we are equal in grace but we are not equal in anointing! We enjoy the same grace for salvation, but anointing depends on calling.
Paul was not among the 12 disciples but he wrote more than two thirds of the New Testament, with explosive revelations and insights that were typical of his apostolic calling “to the gentiles”.
In effect, Paul received insights about the universality of the Gospel more than the others, without which he couldn’t have reached out to the gentiles or endured the persecution and suffering it entailed (2 Corinthians 12: 7& Galatians 6: 17.)
Simon feels the West corrupted the worship of God as they came to Africa with the Bible. One area is the depiction of Christ as “a handsome White male”. I personally do not think anything of these images because I do not see Christ as black, blue or white. I see Him as Saviour.
These concocted images mean nothing and no serious believer should look at them twice. I would have had no problem if Simon ends his objection here. But surprisingly, he who objects to the depiction of Christ as a White man, turns round to manufacture his own image of the Messiah “as probably black and ugly.”
His justification isIsaiah 53:2– 3;”For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Simon compares his own image of Christ with a secretary in his office “in that she’s so ugly you couldn’t take a second look at her.”I won’t bother to advise that no child of God should call a creation of God ugly! Simon disastrously misunderstands the Messianic outline in Isaiah 53 because he takes it literally.
Something is said to be beautiful when it appeals to our senses. The ministry of Jesus did not appeal to the senses of the Jews or the Greeks because it clashed with their experiences and expectations. Here was a man who was born in the house of a carpenter, and yet claimed to be the Son of God, and dared to forgive sins.
Here was a man who was expected to uphold and defend the tenets of Judaism, and yet healed on the Sabbath and kept company with Samaritans and sinners. As if his non-conformance was not annoying enough, this thirty-something year old son of Mary and Joseph threatened to demolish the only permanent structure that God had been known to sanctify with His presence, and erect another one in a mere three days, not even 12 months!
Here was a man who came at a time the Jews were looking to throw off the yoke of Roman rule, and yet He advised them to pay tax to Caesar. Finally, here was a man who promised to give eternal life, and yet He was arrested, tortured and killed as a criminal without putting up any defiance or defence.
Therefore, when the Holy Spirit said “there is no beauty that we should desire him” through Isaiah more than 600 years before the birth of the Messiah, He was giving notice of His rejection and death in the hands of the Jews because they missed the big picture of His coming. This “beauty” had nothing to do with the face or skin colour of Jesus. Why bother about physical attributes in heaven when we shall be clothed in glory?
According to Simon, disavowal of polygamy is another Western import to Africa. He says Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon had many wives so why prevent a Nigerian believer from doing the same?
He also says “the Western culture of marrying one wife and giving birth to one or two children and sometimes, not even one child, under very elaborate population control measures is clearly not the will of God although it’s been accepted and taught as part of the gospel.”
And to make matters worse in his eyes, “we embraced their criminalisation of polygamy but never interrogated their sinful practices of divorcing their spouses and killing of children by abortion perhaps because we believe the West is the default or the norm that everyone has to copy.”
I hope Simon knows the implications of what he is wants. Abraham married his niece, Sarah. Should we do the same? Isaac married one wife. Jacob did not set out to marry four women – he toiled for Rachael, got deceived with Leah and was given Bilhah and Zilpah through the jealousy of two sisters. I won’t talk about Solomon.
The way marriages were conducted in the Old Testament fits with the point I earlier made about tradition. Those times favoured polygamous marriages and concubinage, but today, commonsense (not any white man) will dictate that a large family will need a similar amount of resources to cater for.
When religious leaders speak of marrying one wife and sizeable families, they are not necessarily aping Western culture. In the inflation-ridden economy of today, we will allow the man who wants to accumulate a harem of wives and concubines like Solomon to do so, while we quietly prepare for his death and burial!
It is most unfair to accuse religious leaders in Nigeria of not speaking against divorce and abortion. How can anyone who hears our preachers make this kind of accusation? Many preachers not only cry out against divorce, they, in addition, condemn homosexuality and all other forms of sexual practices which are at variance with the Bible.
Simon believes that the high cost and nature of marriage ceremonies is also the making of the West. Not so, brother! Years ago, a friend who went to marry in a Niger Delta community had to raise additional funds from his train as his in-laws demanded payments upon payments.
At other occasions, the grooms were not so blessed with handy companions. They exhausted what they came with and adjourned the marriage rites to another day. Much of the tears we see at marriage ceremonies are not necessary shed for joy! If we must be honest, expensive marriage rites have to do more with human greed than the making of white evangelists.
What really triggered this rebuttal is Simon’s assertion that “God’s salvation or eternal life could ONLY be obtained by works and not by believing in the death of Christ or in his blood as shed on Calvary. We get saved by doing (obeying) Christ words, not by a religious faith in his death, blood as shed on the cross, or his resurrection.”
This is dangerous indeed because it undermines a fundamental principle of Christianity that, salvation, the kind I tasted, is by grace through faith, and not works. Simon quotes the question of the rich young ruler in Luke 18: 8: “Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” to mean that salvation is by works but the end of that parable demolishes any resemblance to this dangerous assertion.
The rich ruler asked the wrong question, because he was depending on works “What must I do….” Little wonder he left sad and disappointed, as he could not do what Christ told him in v22: “Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him,
Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” In relating this parable, Christ was rather highlighting the futility of human efforts (works) in the worship of God, and the centrality of the Messianic mission to link Creator and creature.
The pages of the Bible (from the old to new testament) drip with grace offered by the sacrifice at Calvary. Paul says in Ephesians 2: 8 – 9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
We are saved when we believe in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But there is a relationship between faith and works. When we are saved, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit engraces us to do works that are pleasing to God, which means our works validate our salvation, but we don’t ever get saved because of them.
James puts it well “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” James 2: 26. Abraham was declared righteous not because he sacrificed Isaac, (which he did in the eyes of heaven by his obedience)but because he believed in the promise of God (Gen 15: 6.) I refer anyone who doubts the role of grace in salvation to the book of Romans.
This final point made me to chuckle. Referring to Matthew 26: 29: “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom,” Simon says this is false “because we know that in heaven, we’d exist like angels and there won’t be the need for eating and drinking as Christ said.”
Here again, my brother has understood the drinking literally. The Bible uses everyday language to illustrate spiritual truths, and we must dig beyond the figurative to grasp the reality. Jesus is described as the “good Shepherd,” the “Vine””the door” and “the Lamb of God,” and the church as “His bride” who will partake “in the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
On this side of eternity, we don’t and cannot know everything about God or heaven. Otherwise, both cease to be what they are. Moses says in Deuteronomy 29: 29, “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law.”
When it comes to the “secret things” we must restour curiosity on the inherent goodness of God, and hang our doubts on the Cross, knowing that all will be made clear someday. So I don’t yet know what kind of marriage supper I’ll attend, or the vine I’ll drink. But I’m dead sure to be there because I already have the invitation card!
*Okolobo, a member of the Assemblies of God, wrote from Mende – Maryland, Lagos.