Text and Context in Dialogue

Home  >  Volume 1  >  Number 3: August 2002

Church in a Box

by Mark Johnson

A couple of years ago a wealthy foreign architect and his wife were touring Nepal. At their hotel they asked the waiter if he knew of any Christians. 'Yes, there is one fellow who works here.' Duly introduced they asked about his church and pastor. 'Why don't you come along this week?' they were asked. Meeting the pastor and seeing the church was an eye-opening experience for them. But they thought that there could be some improvements and so explained to the pastor out that they could fund a new building. Not the sort of offer you have every day. One thing led to another. The couple saw a large plot of land and told the pastor to buy it. Some time later the congregation heard that they had been given a quarter of a million US dollars to build its new building. The pastor also received a box. In it was a pop-up cardboard model of the church building they were to build. Church in a box. But models don't have to be made out of cardboard. They can also be theological. When we make a theological statement that statement is a model of the reality it expresses, not the reality itself. In a different situation that reality might be expressed in a different way. It is easy for us to think that the forms we have grown up with are God-given and non-negotiable. But are they? Forms of worship, for example, grow out of a particular context. When we transplant them to a context that is altogether different are we not emphasising form over freedom?

Some time ago my son was given a construction set. In it are 450 pieces and an instruction manual to get you started. The instructions tell you how to use the tools and give some of the basic steps to building models. Then there are several models that are given with a step-by-step guide for building them. My son may follow the guide. But he may also use the pieces to build an original model of his own. Within the form that the construction set gives he has freedom to express himself.

The Indigenous Church Principle

In the late nineteenth century Henry Venn introduced missions to the 'Three Self' indigenous church principle.[1] He appealed for the indigenisation of the emerging churches in the mission fields of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Indigenous churches, he asserted, must be self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. With this, it was hoped, the emerging churches would truly be native and not mere copies of those of the West.

By the mid-twentieth century this argument was leading to a major movement in the church in India. The emphasis was on indigenous leadership. Missionaries must step aside and let local people lead the church. This paralleled the rise of Indian nationalism that eventually led to independence in 1947. Missions moving into Nepal at this time had fully taken this concept on board. Churches must be led by Nepalis and not by foreigners.[2]

The Missing Ingredient

In the late 1990s the unholy rush of foreign speculators pouring millions of dollars into the Nepali Christian community led one mission leader to call for a return to the 'Three Self' principle. There was, however, a serious omission in this call. There is a fourth 'Self' that has hardly been given any emphasis by church or mission in Nepal and without it the church can never be truly contextual. Don Carson puts it like this[3]:

At its best, then, contextualization simply takes the indigenous principle one step further: churches should become not only self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, but they should also become, shall we say, self-theologizing-i.e., they should thinking through their theology in their own context thus contextualizing it'.

Charles Kraft applies here the anthropological distinction between emic and etic-or insider and outsider-perspectives.[4] An etic study compares a number of cultures from the outside. The emic observer, however, may not use those categories at all. He explains his culture by means of emic categories-ways of understanding that are familiar to other insiders but often incomprehensible to the outsider. The point Kraft makes here is that most theologising has been carried out as an emic discipline (i.e. within a particular culture) but has often been understood as an etic one (i.e. having transcultural relevance). This gives it a reputation for cross-cultural transferability that it does not deserve.

The Great Commission

We must be very careful at this point to state plainly that evangelism, by necessity, involves theology. When we tell someone that 'You must be born again' we are making a theological statement. It is an error, then, to drive a wedge between evangelism and theology. And it is plainly wrong to say, as I have heard a senior missionary say, that 'Evangelists don't need to learn theology'. The moment an evangelist opens his mouth to talk to an unbeliever he utters theology. The question is, will what he says be true and understandable? Furthermore, the Lord Jesus commanded his disciples, and now commands us, to teach.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Mt. 28: 19-20)

The Great Commission, then, is not fulfilled until believers are taught the whole counsel of God. But what will they be taught? We rightly base our teaching on the Bible - the Word of God. But the moment we try to explain what the Bible is saying we begin the process of contextualisation.

In God's providence the gospel was brought to Nepal later than it was to the environs of the North Atlantic. In Europe and America the process of thinking through the implications of the gospel resulted in a strong emphasis on systematic theology. I do not want to downplay those achievements. It must be acknowledged, however, that the systematic theology to come out of one context may not scratch where it itches in another. This is not to assert that what is true in one situation is not true in another. But it is to argue that the truth, as it is expressed in one context, may not have an equal value in another context. Pick a systematic theology from the shelf, any systematic theology, and look in the index for entries on curses or idols and you will see what I mean. These are simply not issues for the readers of books by IVP or Zondervan. But they are issues for bhaktas of Christ in Nepal. What is an idol? Does an idol have any power? Does that idol's power increase as you go near it? Is there a demon in each idol? How should we advise someone who believes they have been cursed by a 'witch'? Such hot topics must be handled with more sophistication that the usual pat answer.

Theological Education

Are there any Bible schools or theological training programmes in Nepal that have as their basic design principle this need for contextual theologising? Traditional South Asian approaches to theological education, such as the guru-chela (teacher-disciple) relationship, are undervalued in favour of formal classroom teaching of theological curricula that a would fit very nicely in a Bible school in Britain or Korea. The non-formal model of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) is more adaptable to the local context but is only as contextual as those who write the curriculum make it. It becomes clear, then, that the best people to think theologically within the Hindu context are those who have not been extracted out of their community. New believers from a Hindu background know instinctively what the issues are. If they are not given merely pat answers to their complex questions they will probe the Scriptures for real answers. In so doing they will push those of us who are not from their background, or have been out of that background for too long, to really grapple with the Scriptures in the light of this context. That will not happen in Bible schools in the normal run of things. If thorny contextual issues are brought up in a school setting they will be treated as sterile academic questions, not as the real-life issues that they are for those trying to live in that context. Very often though, let it be admitted, thorny contextual issues that need a well-thought out response are swept under the carpet. Should a man shave his head on the death of a parent? If he does should he keep the top-knot? If such a custom is outlawed by the churches, it will simply go underground-as indeed it has on many occasions of the death of unbelieving parents. There is an integrity issue here. On the one hand church leaders prohibit such customs and on the other they are indulged in anyway - not in the open but behind closed doors. And all because the custom has not been thought through with Biblical and cultural integrity.

Bible Translation

The most basic of all contextual ministries-that of Bible translation-needs to be examined here. The awesome task of translating the Word of God into another language throws up many important issues that demand thoughtful answers. Are some words, for example, so corrupted by their use in a non-Christian society that they are beyond redemption? Is it out of the question, for example, to use the word 'bhagwan', as Ramesh Khatry argues, to refer to God?[5] The standard Nepali dictionary, Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh, does indeed give one gloss for 'bhag' as 'female genital organ'.[6] But one has to go beyond dictionary etymologies and ask whether anyone is, in fact, conscious of this when he uses bhagwan. This is not an important issue only in missiological circles. Exegetes of the Bible also struggle with this problem. Carson calls it the 'root fallacy'[7]:

One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. ? this is linguistic nonsense.

In English we use the word 'prevent' when we talk about stopping someone from doing something. At one time the meaning of this word was 'to go before' and that is how it was used. Knowing this, then, must we avoid using the word in the sense we hear it every day? Anthony Thiselton offers the example of the English word 'nice', which comes from the Latin nescius meaning 'ignorant'.[8] It is impossible to be consistent in this. Do we create new names for days of the week because the present names are associated with Norse or South Asian gods? Etymology, then, may be totally divorced from present semantics. We must not judge a word unusable simply because it is used by some people for nefarious purposes.

An examination of Nepali Bible translations reveals the avoidance, in some texts, of any Nepali word in favour of transliterated Greek or English words. Rather than use a vernacular word such as 'snan', or periphrastic such as 'jal diksha', 'baptism' is transliterated to become 'baptisma' (this is also the case in the Newari NT). Why is this? Why is it that a reader unfamiliar with churchspeak must find a particular verse of God's word incomprehensible because no appropriate vernacular word could be found? It is this philological guilt by association that has hamstrung Bible translation efforts rendering present translations unintelligible in key places. The Nepali NRV does not even attempt to translate the word 'elder' (Gk. presbuterous). Rather it is transliterated from English-'elder', completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated-when there are perfectly usable Nepali words. (The translators of the Newari NT, accurately, use 'thakali' here).

The Danger of Provincialism

One might argue that such an agenda for theologising in Nepal will create a provincial mindset - disengaged with the wider theological issues of the international fellowship of the church of Christ. I acknowledge that that is a potential problem. It is possible to imagine a group of Christ-bhaktas developing a communal theology that really does come out of an interaction between the Bible and their context and that such a situation would lead to them being somewhat isolated from the wider, global theologising community. It is possible I say - but highly improbable. In the present context it is hard to imagine how any devotee of Christ can have the space to do any really hard theologising in the Hindu context. The danger of provincialism, then, is hardly a real threat at all. The greater danger is of a Christian community that refuses to do the hard work of constructing a theology that has integrity with the context within which it finds itself. Furthermore, a truly cross-cultural theology can only come out of a comparison of local theologies and that cannot happen if no such local theology has been allowed to develop.

The movement to Christ in Nepal has had church in a box. They were given a set of forms and patterns and this is what they followed. These forms are like those models that are given in the construction set guide. Only, instead of being presented as possibilities, they were imposed as rules. It is time we starting thinking outside the box and put our hands to the plough of contextual theologising. If this article provokes such a response this author will rejoice greatly.


  1. S. Neill, A History of Christian Missions, The Pelican History of the Church Vol. 6 (Revised Edition), London: Penguin Books, 1986 p. 221.
  2. C. Perry, A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal, Kathmandu: Nepal Church History Project, p. 124-125 note 121.
  3. D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996, p. 540, emphasis in the original)
  4. C.H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, p. 293.
  5. VOB 1 (2): To the Editor.
  6. B. Pokharel et al. (eds.), Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh. Kathmandu: Royal Nepal Academy. (2040 V.S.)
  7. D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, p. 26.
  8. Anthony C. Thiselton, 'Semantics and New Testament Interpretation,' in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I. Howard Marshall, Exeter: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, p. 80-81, quoted ibid., p. 26-7.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty