Tag Archives: community

Being Christ’s Witnesses in a Pluralistic Society

July 2017 Credo

We live in a highly pluralistic society, which encourages the virtue of religious harmony and tolerance. On the other side, we receive the Great Commandment from Christ to “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV).

How can Christians obey Christ’s commandment in this contemporary society? Is Christ’s teaching compatible with the ideal of religious harmony?

In order to deal meaningfully with this complex issue, we must understand the nature of Christian witness along with the context of today’s society. Of his missiological principle, Paul wrote, “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

What do Christians have to offer to a pluralistic society? Following Paul, we should answer: pluralistic portrayals of Christ and context-sensitive knowledge of our pluralistic society.

Christians acknowledge the four Gospels with at least four different pictures of Jesus. It is one Jesus with many portrayals. Even among the synoptic Gospels, the Lukan Jesus is not portrayed in precisely the same way as the Markan or the Matthean Jesus, not to mention the Johannine Christology with its own distinctiveness such as the seven great I AM statements, to name but a few.

From historical theology, particularly from the Reformed theological tradition, we have the threefold office of Christ: Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly office. The prophetic office brings true knowledge of God, the priestly true holiness, and the kingly true righteousness and mercy. Proclaiming Jesus in merely his priestly office, albeit very important, is neither adequate nor faithful to the richness of biblical Christology.

Our pluralistic society longs for pluralistic answers. From Christian perspective, we have pluralistic facets of biblical truth.

Now, how should Christians deal with religious pluralism as a fact? From an outside perspective, Christianity is just one among many other religions and therefore, cannot have an absolute claim of truth. “All roads lead to Rome,” they say. However, now we even live in a post-pluralistic society: not only are the roads many, but also the goals are many. Christian goal might not be the same goal of other religions.

The task and calling is greater yet not insurmountable. There are at least two approaches for a post-pluralistic context.

The first is to answer the small/particular questions with Christian particular answers, before uniting the answers into the ultimate answer that is Jesus. The second is to bring the particular questions of life to the ultimate question, which in turn has its ultimate answer in Jesus.

When Jesus revealed himself with the seven great I AM statements, he answered the small particular questions of life with particular answers (I AM the bread of life; the light of the world; the door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth, and the life; the true vine).

All these particular answers find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Jesus is always the ultimate answer but Christians need to carefully know the questions and context-sensitively answer them. Jesus is not the bread for the problem of darkness; he is the light. He is not the light for the problem of death but the resurrection and the life.

With regard to the second approach, Christianity believes that all questions of life are rooted in the problem of human fall into sin. All questions can be traced back in the story of Adam’s fall recorded in Genesis. Sin is the arch problem and it has many different dimensions, imitating the many facets of truth.

When we say sin, it includes again not only the dimension related to the priestly office, i.e. the problem of holy – unholy. Sin extends its power to the problem of injustice, elitism, totalitarianism, but also ingratitude, discontentment, self-centeredness, greed, idolatry, etc.

When John the Baptist witnessed Jesus by saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he was using priestly vocabularies, yet the meaning extends beyond the priestly context.

We might add perhaps one last approach, namely that of postliberal theology.

Stanley Hauerwas bases the authority of the Bible upon the practical function in the life of the Christian community: “Claims about the authority of scripture are in themselves moral claims about the function of scripture for the common life of the church. The scripture’s authority for that life consists in its being used so that it helps to nurture and reform the community’s self-identity as well as the personal character of its members.”

Far from obscuring the Christian identity, Hauerwas context-sensitively locates Christian absolute claim of truth in the living out of the biblical story in the communal life of the church. Therefore, Christian witness is not a matter of being a (individual) Christian witness but (communal) Christian witnesses.

Because of its persuasive character, Christian testimony should be free from the spell of religious fundamentalism. “Witness is non-coercive. It has no power but the convincingness of the truth to which it witnesses,” writes Richard Bauckham.

True Christian witness does believe in a grand biblical story but never oppressive. In this regard, Christians need not to fear the accusation of being threats for religious harmony. God’s love to the world is greater than our fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”


 

Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. He was a part-time lecturer in harpsichord at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.

How a Minority Church Impacted Wider Society

February 2017 Credo

The early church avoided active engagement with Roman politics, where the contestation for power was brutal and political fortune was fickle, brutish and short. The bedraggled religious community was already leading a precarious existence since it lacked political patronage. As such, it would be wise for it to avoid getting entangled with mighty Caesar who would not hesitate to snuff out any potential challenge to his throne. However, political realism did not mean that the church retreated into a cocooned existence in the ghetto. Instead, it sought to serve wider society by building effective social-economic networks for social renewal.

A Social Message of the Power of Love in Action

Lucian (a non-Christian) was impressed by the solidarity among the Christians. He testified that “their original lawgiver has taught them that they were all brethren, one of another . . . They become incredibly alert of anything  . . . that affects their common interests.”

The love of Christians was exceptional in times of plagues and calamities. Eyewitnesses reported that when an epidemic struck, the populace rejected the sick and abandoned unburied corpses in their desperate attempts to avoid infections from a contagious and fatal disease. In contrast, Bishop Dionysius described how Christians “held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them assiduously, and served them for the sake of Christ . . . many did die, after caring for the sick and giving health to others, transplanting the death of others, as it were, into themselves.”

The impact of such selfless service was highlighted by the early Church historian Eusebius. He wrote, “Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their fellow-feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day, some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city, and gave bread to them all. When it became known, people glorified the Christians’ God, and, convinced by the facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.”

It must be emphasized that for the early church Christian social welfare was not merely an emergency service but an ongoing mission expressing itself in several ways:

First, the church was at the forefront of private charity. In AD 250, the Roman Church distributed alms and supported about 1,500 widows and poor and disabled persons. There was no other equivalent charity in the Roman world.

Second, the church cared for slaves and poor people needing burial. Converted slaves were granted equal dignity and fullest rights in church. Indeed, slaves could become clergymen or even bishops. Christians extended burial services to strangers because they share a common humanity. Undoubtedly, such care comforted grieving relatives and cultivated sympathies for Christianity.

Third, the church provided employment and insisted that every able-bodied person must work. The church formed guilds to provide work for any brother in need. We can only admire its balanced social policy: “For those able to work, provide work; and to those incapable of work, be charitable.”

A Refuge and Haven of Peace in Times of Social Chaos

Roman cities had an average population density equivalent to that found in modern industrial slums. Given the absence of social welfare in Roman society it was no wonder that crime was rampant.

As one contemporary witness testified, “Night fell over the city like a shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance . . . if the rich had to sally forth, they were accompanied by slaves who carried torches to light and to protect them on their way . . . Juvenal sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach of carelessness.”

In contrast, the church was a haven of peace and support amidst urban lawlessness and insecurity. The church provided the essentials of social security and, more importantly, a sense of belonging in a city of strangers.

Neighbourhoods were transformed when neighbours were bound together not only by common rites but by a common way of life. Admittedly, social compassion was not a virtue found exclusively among Christians, but in those days Christians appeared to have practised it more effectively than any other group.

Rodney Stark aptly captures the social impact of early Christianity, “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems.

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.

To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing service.”

In summary, the church became an institution for social renewal—the new civilizing and cohesive power that could unite and care for the diverse races of the Empire.



Dr Ng Kam Weng
 is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.

What Does it Mean to Uphold Sola Scriptura Today

January 2017 Credo

Having celebrated Reformation Sunday some weeks back, I find it appropriate to write on one of the chief slogans that encapsulates the essence of what the Reformation was about—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). I offer the following theses for our consideration (the reader should be glad to know it is 5 and not 95 theses!)

  1. Sola Scriptura is first and foremost a theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people

A proper grasp of Sola Scriptura, I believe, begins with an assertion of the following theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people.

In turn, this theological claim involves two other key doctrines, that is, our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture.[1] God is seen as the God who desires to communicate, to speak with His people. And Scripture is seen as the text used by God to be the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) to address the people and generate faith and obedience.[2]

This, I submit, is the basic theological claim underlying Sola Scriptura that imbues the slogan with its sense of authority in the first place.

  1. Sola Scriptura is recognizing what God is intending with Scripture within the divine economy of salvation: as a covenant document to draw the church into covenantal relationship with God.

The above notion is verified in three ways.[3]

In terms of its content, Scripture depicts the history of God’s covenantal relations to humankind, including all the divine communicative acts (promises, warnings, commands, consolations etc.) that witness to what God was doing in Christ. In terms of its form, Scripture sets forth the terms and conditions of this very covenantal relationship itself. And in terms of its effect, to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God himself in action, supremely in his making of a covenantal promise to us.[4]

Sola Scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is sufficient to bring about this covenantal intention of God. Hence, Scripture should rightly be conceived as a divine covenant document before an ecclesial constitution.[5]

  1. Sola Scriptura, more than a principle, is a canonical practice of the church

At its core, Sola Scriptura is best regarded as a practice, specifically, a Spirit-enabled church practice in reading, understanding and using Scripture in the church in a certain way.[6]

In line with a dramatic or theatrical analogy, there are two ways that the church can ‘perform’ the ‘script’ (Scripture). The first, an ecclesial performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community (the church) authors and directs. The second, a divine authorial-centered performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community receives, responds and enacts. Of the two, the latter corresponds to the practice of Sola Scriptura.[7]

In saying this, however, I am not presuming that the church can have an immediate and unmediated access to God’s Word removed from the interpretive context or interpretive tradition she finds herself in. Stated differently, in the language of the famous philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the church’s performance—in this case her reception and response to the canonical script—always occurs out of a tradition or ‘historically-effected horizon’. It is pure naivety to say that one can approach a text ‘a-horizontally’.[8]

Rather, in practicing Sola Scriptura, I mean this: the church’s interpretation and performance is always subject to potential correction from the canon. Practicing Sola Scriptura means not collapsing the text (of Scripture) into the tradition of its interpretation and performance.[9]

In Gadamerian language again: Sola Scriptura refers to the radical alterity of the scriptural texts that confront us as the Word of God.[10] It means respecting the otherness of this other horizon in the dialogue and allowing it to do its work of critique rather than quickly neutralizing it through dissolution within the fusion of horizons.[11]

  1. Sola Scriptura is a spirited-canonical practice of Jesus Christ before that of the church

Granted the above that Sola Scriptura affirms Scripture as canon, then canon itself is ideally first viewed as a performance (by God) before it is viewed as a script designed for further performance (by the church).

This means that it is precisely because Scripture as canon is first and foremost a performance of what God was saying and doing in Jesus Christ that it serves as a normative specification of how the church is to carry on saying and doing in Jesus Christ.[12] In other words, Sola Scriptura is firstly viewing the canonical discourse in itself as an instance of the triune God’s ‘performance’, and then correspondingly as a script that calls for an appropriate and corresponding ecclesial response.[13]

In fact, a deeper examination reveals Jesus Christ himself as the preeminent canonical ‘performer’. Jesus comes and shows to us how the Scriptures should be read: he reads the parts in light of the covenantal whole and the whole in light of the Christological center that he is (Luke 24:44, John 5:39–40).[14]

In this way, Jesus establishes the preeminent canonical practice to be ‘of him’ in the sense that the practice is about him and it is his own practice. Jesus Christ is thus both the material and the formal principle of the canon, its substance and its hermeneutic respectively: ‘substance’ in that the Word inscripturated is about the Word incarnate, and ‘hermeneutic’ in the sense that the Word incarnate teaches us how to read the Word inscripturated.[15]

The final step in the equation is to recognize that in inaugurating this key canonical practice, Jesus also commissions this practice in that the apostles and the church are to interpret Jesus after the way He himself did.[16] The sending of the Spirit is to ensure the efficacy of this specific hermeneutical and canonical practice of Jesus in the church and in her tradition. Tradition, seen in this light, is hence the church faithfully passing on and continuing these canonical acts effected by the Spirit, rather than ‘inventing’ new acts under the name of the Spirit.[17]

  1. Sola Scriptura is finally a declaration of the clarity of Scripture as recognized within the community of faith

To summarize: Sola Scriptura does not negate tradition, but it does allot tradition a secondary role by designating it with a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority. As Kevin Vanhoozer aptly states it: “Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun.”[18]

Sola Scriptura proclaims there is a gauge or criterion to measure the faithfulness of tradition, and extending further, even the work of the Spirit in tradition. For Sola Scriptura is ultimately a confession and declaration of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture within the community of faith.

This is a clarity effectuated by the preeminent hermeneutical practice of Jesus himself and continued by the Spirit within the church’s tradition. Concurrently, it is this clarity that enables Scripture to serve as an incessant and simultaneous criterion and check on tradition.

The clarity of Scripture is rightly not independent of tradition or the work of the Spirit, but the clarity of scripture does affirm the otherness of the text in critiquing our interpretation and in shaping tradition such that it is best defined as “loving deference towards the words of Holy Scripture,”[19] and as a “holy attentiveness.”[20]

Ultimately, Scripture, with her clarity, forms, checks and directs the church’s interpretation, and performance. And that, I believe, is what it fundamentally means to uphold Sola Scriptura today.



Rev. Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

 


Notes

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that what he calls our ‘first theology’, that is, our first principles in doing theology, derives from a correlation of these two doctrines. See his “First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15–41.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing The Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 49–93, in particular p. 66, states it memorably: “It is this discourse, what is said in these writings, textually fixed in just this fashion, which the church knows as the ‘divine discourse’ of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

[3] This basic idea forms the main argument of chapter 4 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115–150.

[4] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).

[5] Vanhoozer, Drama, 133.

[6] Ibid., 32, 153.

[7] Ibid., 165–185.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Reprinted Edition (London; New York: Continuum, 2006).

[9] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[10] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 313–314.

[11] Mark L.Y. Chan, Christology From Within And Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology (Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000), 145.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[13] Ibid., 184.

[14] Ibid., 220–224.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As Vanhoozer highlights in Ibid., 194, this should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is subordinated in the midst of this. Instead, there is rightly reciprocity in the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus enables the Spirit’s coming, but from a Spirit-Christology perspective, the Spirit also empowered Jesus to be who He was and to do what He did. The impetus rather, is to recognise the order and pattern set forth in Scripture, that “the one ministered to by the Spirit during his earthly ministry becomes, in his exalted state, the one whom the Spirit ministers” (emphasis his).

[18] Vanhoozer, Drama, 210.

[19] Yeago, “The Bible,” 69.

[20] John B. Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew et al., 1st ed., vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Milton Keynes; Grand Rapids: Paternoster; Zondervan, 2004), 374.

Cities and Human Flourishing

May 2016 Pulse 

In his fascinating book, Triumph of the City the world-renown economist Edward Glaeser describes the significance of cities in the history of human civilisation with great eloquence and inimitable passion. ‘Cities’, he writes, ‘the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been the engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace’.

Presently about 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities, which Glaeser memorably describes as humanity’s ‘greatest invention’. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, the proportion of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to 66 percent.

In recent years, a number of Christian theologians have been reflecting on the significance and meaning of the city, and construcitng what may be described as a theology of the city. A notable contribution to these reflections is surely Timothy Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment, published more than ten years ago.

The perceptive reader of the Bible, however, will notice that the city is not regarded very highly in its pages.

We do not have to venture too far into the Bible to find a city that symbolises the colossalism and rebelliousness of the human spirit. The building of the first skyscraper described in Genesis 11 was a clear expression of human defiance against God, making Babel the quintessential city of rebellion.

In just a few short chapters later, we arrive at two cities that together signify the epitome of human depravity. There can be no doubt that the great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is sexual perversion, those degrading habits and practices that are detestable in the eyes of the holy God (Genesis 19; Jude 7).

In the final chapters of the Bible we find a city – personified as a woman – that embodies every kind of idolatry and abomination, and the persecutor of Christians. In describing this city, John does not mince his words: ‘And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations”. And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus’ (Revelation 17:5).

It is therefore not at all surprising that some Christian thinkers see the city as the very antithesis of the will of God for humankind.

The most forceful and eloquent among them is surely the French Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul, for whom the city signifies the rejection of Eden and the quintessential symbol of sin, the ‘world’ and the powers of hell.

To see the city in such a negative light, however, is to fail to appreciate the complexity of the Biblical portrayal. Most crucially, it is to fail to see the significance of the fact that although the Bible began with a garden, it ended with a city.

In the midst of the Bible’s negative use of the city as a symbol of human evil, we find the powerfully redemptive imagery of the cities of refuge in Joshua 20 that serve as safe havens for persons guilty of manslaughter. These cities, built on the basis of the divine imperative, serve as the striking symbol of justice and mercy.

In Israel’s great wisdom literature and in the testimony of her prophets, we find an even more remarkable imagery of the city as a place of security and prosperity. ‘Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble’, writes the Psalmist, ‘and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in’ (Psalm 107:6-7).

The city is depicted as a home, a refuge from the dangers and terrors of the wilderness, where the human community could flourish. The meaning of the city therefore transcends the buildings and the shared spaces, important though they are. As Gorringe puts it, ‘It was early recognised that it was the community, and not the built environment, which makes a city’.

The existence of cities therefore tells us profound things about ourselves and about our species. ‘The enduring strength of cities’, writes Glaeser, ‘reflects the profoundly social nature of humanity. Our ability to connect with one another is the defining characteristic of our species’.

‘Cities’, argues Gorringe succinctly, ‘instantiate social relations of difference without exclusion’. The city manifests this more powerfully than the town or the village simply because of the density and diversity of its population.

The Christian theologian or thinker must therefore avoid two extremes when reflecting on the meaning and significance of the city.

The first extreme is to follow Ellul uncritically and regard the city as the evil invention of the fallen man. And the second is to idealise the city and to see it as the guarantor of human happiness and peace.

Cities are in reality a mixed blessing, caught in the tension that characterise our time, between the first advent of Christ and his return.

And in this ‘time between the times’, human cities enigmatically are at once the locus of sin and evil and the environment where everything that is associated with what it means to be human – relationships, community, art, science, technology, music, commerce – may flourish.

In the midst of tensions and contradictions, however, cities can also be the locus of the presence of God.

In Ezekiel 48, we have a powerful description of the restoration of the city. In looking for best way to characterise the restored city, Ezekiel writes: ‘And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is there’ (Ezekiel 48:35).

The city that upholds justice and mercy can be a place that welcomes and honours the holy God. It can be a faint but real reflection of that heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, where glory of the Lord is resplendent and where nothing unclean, detestable and false can be found (Revelation 21: 27).


 Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.


Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


Notes:

[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.

The Crisis of Biblical Literacy

November 2015 Feature Article

The “crisis of biblical literacy” among Christians is now well known. It has been reported in various journals for over 20 years now. The 17 October 2014 issue of the Christianity Today reports:

Study after study in the last quarter-century has revealed that American Christians increasingly don’t read their Bibles, don’t engage their Bibles, and don’t know their Bibles. It’s obvious: We are living in a post-biblically literate culture.

The situation in Singapore is not much better. To alleviate the problem, several Christian organizations are now taking steps to promote the reading and teaching of Scripture. The Bible Society of Singapore and Project Timothy are two of such organizations here in Singapore.

The problem of biblical literacy is much worse and more complicated than is reported or realized. Reports on biblical literacy usually cites the majority of lay Christians not reading or knowing very little about the content of the Bible. This problem is worse than is realized if we include the many who do read it regularly and who show they know the Bible by their frequent citation of biblical text but who for the most part misread or misinterpret the Bible. These are effectively illiterate. The very low level of biblical literacy is also rampant among those who teach the Bible in Sunday Schools, in Bible Study or fellowship groups and also over the pulpits. It also occurs among the clergy and those who teach others how to teach and preach the Bible.

It may seem odd that those who regularly read the Bible and write messages based on the Bible to preach it or teach it can be considered as biblically illiterate or have a low level of biblical literacy. Is not “literacy” defined as “the ability to read and write”?

Actually it is has been realized for some time now that the standard dictionary’s definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write” is no longer adequate. One cannot assume that just because a person can read and write, he can read and understand all texts correctly and is capable of using what he has read appropriately and effectively.

There is now a realization that literacy must include critical and effective functioning. Critical ability is necessary so that one can differentiate right from wrong interpretations. Effective functioning is necessary so that one can translate the information given and apply it in a way intended by the text. A man who having read a manual on how to repair a television yet does not know how to follow the instructions to repair his television is essentially no different from his child who cannot read it. As far as that manual is concerned, he is effectively illiterate.

There is also the realization that literacy is not something as simple as completing a course of study or passing a series of tests. Literacy is something that can be gained incrementally in a continuum and over a lifelong process. This is especially so when we realize that what is needed to read various texts and various media is not just literacy but multiple literacies. Persons literate in a particular text, such as poetic text or historical prose, may be illiterate in scientific, computational or even legal texts. The ability to interpret one narrative text does not necessarily mean having the competency to interpret other narrative texts. Literacy acquisition must be a lifelong process because linguists, literary experts and biblical scholars are still gaining new useful insights on text processing and interpretation of texts.

The concept of literacy is now better understood and is being redefined. A working definition given by UNESCO is this:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential and to participate fully in their community and wider society. (The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO: 2004)

This expanded understanding of literacy has important implications for those who teach the Bible or who promote biblical literacy. Firstly, it highlights to us the complexity of biblical literacy. It is possible that those reading and teaching the bible in the homes or in churches may be doing so with a very low level of understanding of the biblical text. Secondly, we should help our members have a critical ability to differentiate right from wrong readings of scripture based on sound linguistics and literary principles. Thirdly, we need to help Christians use the biblical texts according to their intended function and be able to differentiate a right application from a wrong application. This requires learning how to identify the intended rhetorical function of various genre, books and passages and also how to do contextualization. Fourthly, we need to realize that just because we have the skill to understand or teach a particular book of the bible, it does not mean we have the skill to understand or teach other books. This calls for a lifelong learning for all; the laity, the clergy and the academicians in the seminaries.

I have mentioned that the problem of biblical literacy is worse than what is reported. Let me highlight four specific problems that mask the low level of biblical literacy prevalent among Christians: The first is the atomistic reading of biblical text; the second is the failure to take seriously the multi-contextual nature of all biblical texts, the third is the use of biblical texts beyond their intended rhetorical function; and finally, the failure to properly recontexualize the message of the Bible when we apply them in different time and context. I shall just elaborate on the first.

Most of the biblical books are intended to be read as a continuous whole. These include the longer books like Judges, Job, Ezekiel, Matthew, Romans, Hebrews and Revelation. Either there is a central plot line that runs right through the book or the different parts of the book are arranged and function together to form a chain of argument. For some books, the continuous whole may mean going beyond one book. For example, Exodus is but part of the plot from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The book of Acts is a sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Those with an eye for holistic reading of the Bible tell us that even the books which were previously thought of as random compilations of unrelated parts such as Psalms, Proverbs or James, are actually organized in certain logical order to function and be read like a book. Finally there are those books which are indeed separate books but they are intended to be read with certain other books as foils or counter foils- such as Joshua is to be read in conjunction with Judges and Ezra with Nehemiah.

So to read in Genesis about Sarah being held captive by Pharaoh and about Jacob and his wives in the crutches of Laban without seeing its connection to the Exodus account of Israel’s captivity (slavery) in Egypt and to Deuteronomy’s anticipation of Israel’s exile foretold, is to miss the larger intended theological message. Similarly, to read the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel without seeing its connection to the Samaritans and the Gentiles being accepted into the kingdom of God in Acts also misses out an important point of Luke’s Gospel. Reading Psalm 8 as God giving all human beings the right to rule all creation without considering that the adjacent psalms are actually cries of David as king against his enemies and the Davidic Kingship theme in Psalm 1-2 serves as an important frame to read the whole Psalter in the hope of God fulfilling his promise to restore the Davidic kingship is to misread a passage anthropologically when it is intended christologically.

A look at the reading of scripture recorded in the Bible reveals that for the most part they are intended to be read holistically (Exo 24:7, Deut 31:11; Josh 8:34; Neh 8:3; Isa 29:11-12; Jer 36:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; Rev 22:18-19). If the books of the Bible are intended to be read holistically, then much of our reading and preaching of the Bible err in its atomistic approach. Reading or preaching one part of the book without considering how it functions within the whole book, may cause us to mistake the tree for the woods. We are not only missing the main theme or the rhetorical function of the book; we misinterpret the passage and read into it some ideas foreign to the book. Drawing application from every short passage instead of deriving application based on the whole book may be akin to attempting to build a house out of one brick or a beam. Sadly, much of our devotional reading of Scripture, the preaching and teaching of the Bible in churches, and the way preaching or teaching of the Bible is taught in seminaries are mostly based on atomistic reading and preaching of biblical text. There is a need to teach the reading and preaching of whole books.

The story in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” strikes a similar vein. The twist at the end of this story highlights to us the need to read in full before making a premature conclusion. Applying a small passage before reading the whole book may lead us to imitate the many “laudable” things the pigs did but only to realize at the end that the author is actually against what the pigs were doing. Christians who do no know how to read text holistically or contextually, can easily be misled to radical extremism and imitate what the pigs do in the “ Animal Farm”.

Dealing with the problem of biblical literacy should now be a matter of public concern. There are at least three reasons why it is so. First, how Christians read their biblical text will affect how we live in the public square: our clothing, our diet, our leisure activities, our ethics and our involvement in social issues. Second, it affects the way we view and relate to others: our neighbours, our government, those of different cultural or economic groups, those of other faiths or ethnicity, and those with differing ethical values. Third, it can affect how others relate to us: positively as people whose view and participation are to be welcome, or negatively, as people whose views are best kept to ourselves and whose participation is to be curtailed.

How Christians read the Bible and even how adherents of other religions read their religious text can no longer be said to be of the concern for the individual or the religious leaders of the various religions. It should be a matter of public concern too.

In today’s world where our education is more focused on reading computer, engineering and financial texts than on literary texts or historical documents, we cannot assume that people know how to read and interpret religious texts which are more akin to literary or historical texts. Well-educated Christians who have a high regard for the Scripture but who have low level of biblical literacy can be misled by others who distort the teachings of the Bible. This is also true for members of other religions. The official stance of Islam in Singapore and that of many Islamic scholars elsewhere is that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the chief characteristic of God in the Quran is mercy. According to these scholars, those who use the Quran to call for radical violence have taken the teachings of the Quran out of context. Yet recently, we read that well-educated Muslims have been radicalized by certain teachings to leave their family and profession to join ISIS in the war.

For this reason some governments now realize it is no longer wise to ignore how various religious communities read their religious texts. Christians in places of influence should not just be concerned with how their fellow Christian read texts; they should also help promote competent contextual reading of literary and religious text to the general public. While we have no right to dictate how people of other religions read and interpret their texts, the way we read and interpret our text holistically and contextually can be a model for others to follow. Christians are supposed to be light of the world; we should also set an example in competent reading of text. It is important to teach proper reading of biblical text not only at home, in church and in the seminaries, but also in the public arena as well.


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David Lang is an Associate Professor at the Singapore Bible College. He teaches Theology, New Testament and Hermeneutics .

Tongues

What is the purpose of speaking and praying in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues?

Although the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is described in only two books in the New Testament – Acts and 1 Corinthians – it has attracted much attention and controversy in the church. No consensus has been reached among Christians from different backgrounds and denominations about its place in the church today, and contradictory and conflicting views continue to persist. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the cessationist view that asserts that tongues, together with the other miraculous gifts described in the New Testament, have ceased at the close of the apostolic age. On the other end, Pentecostals maintain that tongues are a universal gift in the church and that every Christian should speak in tongues.

In his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul devotes much attention to the gift of tongues. What was Paul referring to when he speaks of the gift of tongues? I think we can describe tongues as the gift of ecstatic speech. As this passage from 1 Corinthians makes clear, the Holy Spirit bestows this gift on some Christians. Unlike the practices of some cults and pagan religions, however, tongues-speech in the Christian church is not a type of somnambulism where the speaker is in a trancelike state.

Commenting on the phenomenon in Volume 4 of his magisterial Church Dogmatics, the Swiss German theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, describes speaking in tongues as ‘an attempt to express the inexpressible in which the tongue rushes past … the notions and concepts necessary to ordinary speech and utters what can be received only as a groan or sigh, thus needing at once interpretation or exposition’. For Barth tongues-speech is not a ‘bizarre stuttering and stammering’, but rather an ecstatic flow of inexpressible joy.

The phenomenon of tongues-speech in the Corinthian church must be distinguished from that described in Acts. The tongues that the disciples spoke at Pentecost were actual foreign languages (xenolalia). Hence Acts 2:8ff states that the bewildered crowd was able to hear the Galileans praise God in their own languages. But the tongues that were spoken by members of the Corinthian church were unintelligible to both speakers (14:14) and hearers (14:16) and required Spirit-enabled interpretation. This phenomenon is arguably similar to that which is found in some contemporary churches.

Tongues can be seen as a type of prayer for Paul says that the person who prays in tongues addresses God (1 Cor 14:2, 14). In 1 Corinthians, Paul asserts that when used in private devotions this gift can edify the believer. He explains further that with interpretation tongues can edify the whole church, and in this sense must be deemed as valuable as prophecy (1 Cor 14:5). Paul therefore urges his readers who have the gift of tongues to also pray for the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). The apostle affirms the gift of tongues and even boasts that he uses this gift more than the Corinthian Christians (14:18). He teaches that the ability to speak in tongues is a gift that the Holy Spirit bestows upon Christians. This gift is to be received with gratitude and exercised for personal edification as well as that of the community of believers.  

Some Christians think that speaking in tongues is a higher form of prayer. Such a view must be rejected. In 14:14-15 Paul emphasizes that praying with the mind (i.e., praying intelligibly with one’s understanding) is just as important as praying in the spirit (i.e., praying ecstatically in tongues). The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 also suggests that some believers in the church at Corinth had elevated the gift of tongues above the other gifts. In this letter, Paul takes great pains to refute this teaching. In verse 28, Paul delineates the various gifts of the Spirit in a hierarchy (indicated by his use of ‘first, second, third’, etc) and places the gift of tongues at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, Paul rejects the view of some believers in Corinth that only truly spiritual believers could speak in tongues (12:29).

Some Christians (Pentecostals and some charismatics) have associated the ability to speak in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I hope address this topic in another article. The question that I wish to deal with in the final few sentences of the present article is whether Paul had expected every Christian to speak in tongues. Paul certainly desired that every Corinthian Christian would speak in tongues (14:5). But as the rhetorical questions in 12:29-30 make clear Paul did not expect every Christian to possess this gift. This is perfectly congruent with Paul’s insistence that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.

Let me end by underscoring Paul’s closing remarks on this topic found in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. Because tongues-speech is controversial and problematic, there is a tendency for some to prohibit it altogether. Paul’s response is unequivocal: ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’ (v. 39b). How can the church prohibit what God by his grace wishes to grant? But tongues-speech must be regulated and practiced in a ‘fitting and orderly way’ because God is not a God of disorder (14:33).  In dealing with this controversial practice, Paul counseled propriety, not prohibition.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2014).

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).

Responding to Changing Family Realities

September 2015 Feature Article

Conservative Christians perceive that there are threats to the institution of the family.

Most apparent are attempts internationally to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. Cohabitation has become so common in some societies that they now account for nearly the same number as those who enter into marriage.

Medical technology has also made it possible to redefine parenthood. Single women now have the choice to have children without the need to know their child’s father through the use of donor sperms and artificial insemination. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and remarriages are not certain to hold for life.

In the Singaporean context, there is little likelihood that same-sex unions and single parenthood by choice will become mainstream. Surveys show that Singaporeans of all religious persuasions and those who are not religiously affiliated, do not approve of either same-sex unions or out of wedlock pregnancies. The government is conservative and is resistant to make changes related to family norms which may not be well accepted.

While the population, especially younger people are more open to cohabitation, housing is a scarce resource in Singapore and thus practicality will deter many from that option.

The concern of higher divorce rates is however disconcerting.

More recent cohorts who marry are dissolving their unions at a much faster rate. Based on figures released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent of them dissolved their marriage by the tenth year of marriage.

This is compared to the lower proportion of 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort. About 20 per cent of the 1998 cohort dissolved their marriage by the fifteenth year of marriage.

The forces that lead to such marriage instability cannot be attributable to mere changes in family values. Most couples are not frivolous about their marriage commitment. They believe that when they enter into marriage, it is meant for life.

However the stressors of modernity and accompanying aspirations can greatly affect what people believe is an acceptable relationship.  With both husband and wife busily engaged at work, the demands of raising children and caring for one’s own parents mean that strains in relationships are very likely.

Because people today want to have authenticity in their relationships, they are unlikely to stay married if the marriage is not fulfilling what it was intended to do. There seems to be greater tolerance for divorce than enduring in a loveless and contentious marriage.

Besides the increase in divorces, the overall profile of households in Singapore is changing. The nuclear family form consisting of a married heterosexual couple with children is declining as the dominant form of household here.

Instead, because of population ageing and norms of privacy, there are more households which comprise of single persons or married couples without children. Lower marriage and parenthood rates also mean that there will be more singles in the years to come and fewer younger family members to attend to the needs of those who are ageing.

With more divorced persons choosing to remarry, there will be more blended families where children can come from two marriages. In other cases, households will comprise a divorced parent who will have to singlehandedly care for his or her child. In general, these different household types have to contend with greater difficulties in accessing adequate care.

The Christian church has always thought highly about preserving and supporting families. In response to the challenges that modern life poses to families, many churches today involve themselves in the provision of a variety of services to assist families in need.

Christian faith does not make Christians unsusceptible to family trials but provides perspectives which allow for better coping. Diana Garland in her often used textbook, Family Ministry states that,  “Congregations nurture strong families by instilling values that promote strong family life, committing themselves to the challenges of loving unconditionally, celebrating joy together, making time together a priority, handling anger and conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than destroy relationships, practising repentance and forgiveness, and together serving the larger community and world.”

Besides the values imbued through the Christian tradition, churches provide practical guidance for family living through sermons and teaching and give a platform for different generations to coexist and interact. Many a church member can learn the struggles and blessings that are unique to different stages of the family life cycle just by interacting with others in the congregation.

What is it like to live as a family with an older parent co-residing in it? How do older spouses who have no children relate to each other? How can a divorced mother ensure that her children have a sense of normalcy despite their father leaving the marriage? It is easy to find suitable models within the church who thrive despite the struggles of family life.

If churches are to continue being relevant and offer strong support for families both in the Christian and broader community, they must also be attuned to the changes that are happening to the institution of family. They must accept that not all families are the same.

There is a common tendency among church-goers to advocate for how the family should be, both in form and function. Whether it is about gender roles, how married couples should relate to one another, optimum parenting styles or the role of grandparents, there are strongly held views which have the tendency of silencing other views and sometimes sidelining those whose families do not conform to expected norms.

The Scripture does prescribe what family should look like and how its members need to meet one another’s needs.

The Bible declares that marriage is between a male and female (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5); sanctions sexual relationships and reproduction only in the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and stresses the obligations that parents and children as well as husbands and wives have to each other (Ephesians 6:1-4, Ephesians 5:22-33).

However the Bible does not shy away from depicting biblical characters and how far they conduct themselves from the biblical ideals of family. The fact that Jesus Christ is born in a family line full of complications is testament that God uses a variety of family types and conditions to achieve his redemptive purposes.

Churches then need to be places where people know that their family circumstances will not be unkindly judged. Concerns about being held under scrutiny, lead many members and leaders to be ashamed about sharing the realities of their family life where there might be much deep-seated conflict, violence, sexual misconduct and other characteristics deemed as “unbecoming of saints”.

Instead of shunning family arrangements which mainstream culture devalues, Christian theology provides a rich resource where family types can enjoy recognition. For instance, while singlehood may sometimes be deemed in popular culture as depicting one’s lack of ability to attain marriage, Scripture provides value to the role of singles.

Similarly the Bible extols older persons in the family and society, something which our youth-oriented society is just now beginning to grapple with. Where individuals do not have strong family ties to support them, the church provides a platform for them to find kin-like relationships.

The Christian tradition allows us to reconceptualise the concept of family beyond the structures of blood-ties and marriage. Individuals can have kin-like ties with its corresponding privileges and obligations as brothers and sisters because we share God as our Father.

Our response as Christians to the continued changes in the family institution should not be to merely decry or politicize such changes. While it is important to make a stand for biblical principles that undergird strong and stable family units, we should prioritise on what we are best at doing – offering Christian love to support and strengthen families.


Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He has researched on a number of family-related issues. He actively serves at Alive Community Church. These are his personal views.

Caring for Our Ill Neighbour

January 2015 Feature Article

Many people have heard the familiar story about the Good Samaritan that Jesus told in answer to the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” It was in the context of the Great Commandment that Jesus declared – to love God and to love our neighbour.  That parable focused on an injured traveler who needed help, not unlike the many injured people on our roads today.  The priest and the Levite (recognized religious leaders) avoided the situation, but the Good Samaritan responded with compassion and care, thus defining the “neighbour” that Jesus meant in His Commandment (Luke 10:25-37).

It is significant that Jesus chose a healthcare scenario to explain Himself. It is a very natural and apt example with which to discuss the issue of human caring. Injury and illness are very real human needs that define our humanity (and mortality), and the true meaning of compassion and care as practical expressions of our God-inspired love.

Healthcare is a basic human need, and the way any society responds to it determines to a great extent the type of social compact that exists in that community. Caring for the sick and injured is something Christian ministry can easily identify with, and has a role to play. Jesus led the way for all of us, by showing compassion and healing of the blind, lepers, paralytics, deaf, mutes, the woman with a bleeding problem, and those with unknown illnesses such as fevers.

When a man with leprosy approached Jesus and pleaded, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” the response was very clear: “I am willing. Be clean!” (Matthew 8:1-3) Those of us called into the health profession would do well to heed the example of Jesus to serve willingly and with compassion. How then should we respond to healthcare needs of our people?

Perhaps the story of the Good Samaritan can give us some guidance. First, we must see the need. The Samaritan saw the injured man and “took pity on him”. The ones who were expected to respond, the religious leaders, didn’t. We have to see what we should see – a fellow human being suffering in need, and have the heart to want to help. We respond either as individual professionals or collectively as a community in the organization of services and programmes to help the sick, particularly needy sick.

Next, we must meet the need. The Samaritan went on to “bandage the wounds, pouring on oil and water” with whatever he had with him at that time. It would be proper for us to do our best in the circumstances, with skill and competence. In our response to health needs, we are reminded of the three important ingredients for a successful and meaningful result – the hardware (facilities and equipment), the software (the application of knowledge and skills), and the heartware (the compassion and care). It is also useful for us to recognize that the need for healthcare is often sudden and unexpected, and it can be great at that point in time. In financial terms, it is quite in order for the ‘haves’ to help the ‘have-nots’ and the well to help the sick.

Last but not least, have good follow-through. The Samaritan passed on the care to the innkeeper, promising to return and pay for the extra expenses. Patients need to be helped as they transit from acute hospitals to step-down care and finally home. The services of St Luke’s Hospital and Eldercare are in that direction – to support families in the recuperation and rehabilitation of their loved ones. So are the many Christian healthcare organizations in Singapore.

Christian involvement in the social development of Singapore began almost as soon as it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Education came first, and then followed by Healthcare. Among the early pioneers was the Anglican Mission, which started a clinic for women and children in Bencoolen Street. This was the forerunner of the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital, which was reported by the Straits Times in 1923 in these words: “…the hospital would prove to be a light in a dark place, … ignorance would be replaced by knowledge and understanding; physical distress by comfort and healing.”

Since then, many other organizations have been established including the Anglican Community Services, Methodist Welfare Services, Presbyterian Community Services TOUCH Community Services and now St Luke’s (an interdenominational initiative). We must also not forget the groups that continue to be involved with drug rehabilitation and aftercare, thus making effective contributions to the control of drug addiction in Singapore.

A useful healthcare system is one that gives ready access to all people in need high quality of care at affordable charges to both individual and community. When it comes to costs, it is not about keeping them low at all cost, but giving good value for what we to have to spend. With our focus on holistic care that encompasses physical, emotional and spiritual health, it is a natural platform for Christian involvement at all levels.

We have a proud and credible heritage, which continues to flourish in modern Singapore. As the nation celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence, it would do well for us to celebrate with thanksgiving the many caring services and professionals who have served quietly and diligently the needs of the sick. Even as we move forward to make further progress in building an economically vibrant metropolis, let us never forget there are still many who need care with love and compassion.

The challenge is to continue to provide cost-effective healthcare at reasonable costs, generously enriched with love and compassion.  May God help us.

“Let us not become weary in doing good… Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…” Galatians 6:9-10


Lee-Hin-Peng

Professor Philip Lee Hin Peng is Head of the Health Systems and Behavioural Sciences and Head of the Chronic Diseases Programme of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore. He is a member of Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church. These are his personal views.