Time To Listen?

By Todd Statham

As my wife and I embarked for Africa, the denomination’s mission secretary gave us this advice: “When you get there, keep your mouth shut for the first six months.” He knew from long experience Christian missionaries have often been quick to speak and slow to listen.

So for the first six months I worked at a seminary in Malawi, I followed his advice during staff meetings, and I have to say it saved me from some blunders!

I wonder if Canadian churches should heed similar advice as we debate major issues such as homosexuality. What if each denomination were to ask its partner churches in the Majority World what they think, then zip lips and listen carefully?

Many Canadian denominations find themselves divided over whether to affirm nonheterosexual (LGBTQ) orientations and reverse longstanding prohibitions against same-sex marriage. Such issues are complex because they involve rethinking theological foundations such as the role and authority of the Bible, the human person, the nature of the Church and even the role of divine grace.

Can we do such theological heavy lifting and not involve our partner churches around the world, to whom we are bound by longstanding friendships as well as shared confessions and ethical traditions? I think not.

When decisions to affirm homosexuality were recently made by the Church of Scotland, the Episcopal Church, the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, and the Presbyterian Church USA, partner churches in the Majority World were offended by how these Western churches simply ploughed over the confessions and traditions that formed the basis of ecumenical partnerships – as if no one else’s opinion mattered.

Christianity has become a truly global faith, and the centres of vitality and influence are no longer in the West.

Today there are twice as many Protestants in Nigeria as in the birth country of Protestantism (Germany) – and far more Roman Catholics in the Philippines than in traditionally Catholic nations like Italy or France.

Indonesian Lutherans now outnumber several Lutheran state churches in Scandinavia, and even a Canadian homegrown church like the Christian and Missionary Alliance counts most of its membership outside North America.

There are single Presbyterian congregations in Seoul larger than the entire national membership of the Presbyterian Church in Canada!

As Canadian churches debate, let’s keep in mind some changes that seem mainstream here can actually sideline us within the global Church.

If we ask our partners for input, we don’t have to agree with their response, but at least we’ve made a genuine effort to maintain unity and take seriously the Christian mainstream.

A recent Presbyterian Church USA moderator shocked many when she compared Christians in the Majority World to teenagers still “finding their way” toward a mature faith and sophisticated reading of the Bible. Her comments were both racist and false.

Churches in the Majority World actually have heaps of experience negotiating how the Bible, culture and Christian tradition fit together.

Like Indigenous Christians in North America, Christians in Asia and Africa have had to figure out what the gospel means for their culture, rather than what the Western missionaries who brought the gospel thought it meant for them.

Many have dealt with challenging sexual norms of their own cultures like polygamy and sexism. We’d be foolish not to ask them to share their wisdom.

We will find they also have wisdom about thinking biblically and living faithfully from the margins rather than the centre of culture – wisdom we need in our increasingly post-Christian culture.

Christians in the Majority World tend to hold more conservative positions on sexuality, but don’t think my proposal is just trying to drum up foreign aid for the traditionalist side here in Canada.

I’d love to see Canadian denominations listen earnestly to their partner churches on a range of pressing doctrinal, social and ethical issues.

Remember, honest listening does not require agreeing. But as my friend Joseph Thipa, professor of theology at the University of Malawi, remarked to me, “An international church partnership permits frank discussion about important issues for both churches, especially if they are done out of willingness to learn from each other.”

Canadian Christians have a responsibility to our own context, yes. But we also hold bonds to the global Church. Let’s not make major decisions without first consulting our partners in the Majority World.

Todd Statham served in Malawi as a missionary of The Presbyterian Church in Canada from 2011–2014. He’s now the Christian Reformed Church chaplain on the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia.

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