Author Archives: Florence Kang

Grappling with our Christian and Asian Cultural Identities

September 2018 Credo


Should Christians participate in Chinese rites? Can we use Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda (Indian medicine)? Is it wrong for Christians to practise Yoga or Taiji Quan or other Asian martial arts? These are just some of the many questions that Asian Christians ask whenever they grapple with our two-fold identity as Christians and Asians.

These are not easy questions to answer, particularly when most Christians are more familiar with Western culture, science and theology, than with our own cultural heritage. How then should think about the relationship between our faith in Christ and the culture we are brought up in? While it is impossible to address these concerns exhaustively here, there are some theological principles we can work with to navigate these murky waters.

Defining Culture

What is culture? Culture, as Martin E Marty put it, is simply “everything that human beings do with, make of, cultivated or nurtured from nature.” It “comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values.” On the most part, this definition covers the whole of human knowledge. I shall, therefore, assume culture and human knowledge as one and the same.

Special versus General Revelation

So how do we evaluate culture? I begin with the observation that the whole of Christian teaching focuses on three poles: the natures of God, humanity and Creation, and their relationships with one another. Specifically, God revealed Himself through His salvation of Israel, and the redemptive work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Both stories have been passed down to us through the teachings of the Bible. Christian tradition commonly regards these teachings as ‘Special Revelation’.

Scriptures, however, also assert that the world we live in has much to teach us about God. This ‘General Revelation’, as it is known among theologians, is assumed in Psalm 19:1, when it says ‘the heavens declare (or communicates) the glory of God’. Romans 1:19 asserts likewise, though negatively, that humans do know much about God’s laws, but refuse to acknowledge them.

Judging from figures like Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17) and Job, who seem to know God well even though they were not Israelites, it appears that one can know some aspects of God and His laws truly if in a limited way. This is also why many ancient cultures, such as the Greek, Roman, and Chinese often expound ethical beliefs that are similar to biblical teachings!

Having said these, it is noteworthy that the Bible is silent about many aspects of human knowledge. For example, how the world was created, the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, medical knowledge, agricultural knowledge, and the like. These belong to neither the rubrics of special nor general revelation. There is, therefore, much room for us to differ here. Christians must be careful not to confuse these ideas with General Revelation (ideas about God and His relationship with Creation) or to reject them simply because they are culturally unfamiliar.

Being Images of God and our Capacity for Knowledge

Scriptures also teach that human beings are fallen images of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This has three implications for us. First and foremost, we are inclined to seek knowledge that is always true, absolute and unchanging, just like God. Second, since we are only images, we can never attain absolute truths. Our knowledge will always be limited and perspectival, shaped by our personal circumstances, training, resources and even cultures. Thirdly, we are also sinful creatures, hindered by our addictions and biasedness. These can mislead or compel us to deny the truth. Is this not why we sometimes refuse to give up our cherished ideas even when proven wrong?

Modes of Knowing

Based on our human experience, we can say more about the nature of human knowledge. Often, much of our knowledge is based on our accumulated experience or empirical evidence. We try something and it works consistently, and we develop a theory or hypothesis to explain why this is the case.

Our empirical studies, however, are often informed by transcendental ideas. These are assumptions that cannot be proven but generally taken for granted to be true, such as ‘for every effect, there is a cause(s)’ or ‘the shortest distance two dots is a straight line’.

The Wesley Quadrilateral & Assessing Culture Ideas

The above concepts are well summarised in the famous Wesley Quadrilateral which teaches that all theological ideas should be evaluated on the basis of (1) biblical teachings; (2) Christian Tradition or theology; (3) reason; and (4) practical experience. Given these different paradigms for understanding human knowledge, how do we go about evaluating a cultural idea? Jackson Wu, in his Saving God’s Face, suggests the following: we should avoid cultural and theological ideas that are unbiblical (Areas F, D and C), affirm those that conform with Scriptural teachings (Areas A and E), and be on the lookout for cultural ideas that may not be addressed by classical theology, but are, nevertheless, compatible with biblical faith (Area B).


Implementing the Principles

In practice, how do we apply these principles? Let us consider the Confucian doctrine of filial piety. For the Chinese, it involves a cluster of ideas, including filial piety as a means of abiding by the Heavenly mandate, as respecting our parents, and also the necessity of upholding ancestral rites.

Clearly, the doctrine has many affinities with biblical teachings (Area A) about honouring our parents (Eph 6:1-3; Deut 5:16), and is thus an excellent example of ‘General Revelation’. Furthermore, Chinese reflections on filial piety are intricate and can provide insights on how we can ‘honour our parents’ (Area B) beyond what is taught in Western theology.

Yet, the doctrine is not unproblematic. Some ancestral rites assume the enduring presence of our deceased ancestors and their powers over us. This does not square with biblical teachings (Area C). While Christians should discontinue such practice, much care and creativity is needed to develop substitutional rites to enable us to convey the same underlying ideals of filial piety.

Dr Lai Pak Wah is Vice-Principal and Lecturer of Church History and Historical Theology at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST), where he teaches courses in church history, cross-cultural apologetics and Christian spirituality. A graduate from BGST (Grad Dip CS) & Regent College, Vancouver (MCS, ThM), Pak Wah completed his PhD at Durham University, where he specialised in the theology and spirituality of early Christianity.

Non-optional Option

September 2018 Pulse

In his book Dispatches From the Front, the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas describes a commercial produced by the National Association for Retarded Citizens. The film begins with a couple standing in a dark room and looking into a crib, the contents of which are kept from sight.

Then the young mother looks up and into the camera and says, “Don’t let this happen to you. Our baby was born retarded. Our lives are crushed and we do not know where to run. Do not let this happen to you. Get prenatal counselling. Help us eliminate retardation.”

Whatever good intentions the Association may have in producing this commercial, it conveys the disturbing message that the best way to eliminate retardation is to terminate the retarded – an inevitable conclusion however we may choose to interpret the commercial. As Hauerwas points out, “We can care for cancer patients by trying to alleviate their cancer without destroying the patient, but you cannot eliminate retardation without destroying the person who is retarded.” However, this is clearly an approach that Christians could never accept.

Sadly, modern society has become so bewitched by utilitarian ethics (in its various guises) that it is no longer perturbed by its twisted moral logic or shudder at its frightful social consequences.

Throughout its history, the Church has always extended its service and care to the most vulnerable in society in ways that are truly self-sacrificial and counter-cultural. This is because Christians recognise the equal dignity and worth of every human being and seek to uphold and demonstrate the unconditional love of God.

In Western Christianity, this vision of the Church is encapsulated in the notion “the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand this statement. For many, the term “option” suggests a particular course of action that one may choose to take or not to take. It therefore follows that to say that a course of action is an option is to suggest that it is optional.

It is thus imperative that we clarify the meaning and intent of the expression “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”.

“Preferential” simply means that the needs of the poor and the vulnerable should come first. The expression “poor and vulnerable” refers to society’s weakest and neediest members – the elderly, the terminally ill, unborn children, and all victims of oppression and injustice.

This, however, does not suggest that the poor and the vulnerable are more valuable in the eyes of God. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez makes clear, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”

What about the word “option”?

Here, “option” does not merely refer to choice. Rather, it has to do with a fundamental commitment.

As Prof Dr Jacques Haers puts it, “option” in this context refers to “the desire, the will and the ability to struggle in close connectedness with the suffering people against the evil that causes pain and exclusion”.

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner asserted that while serving the poor and the vulnerable does, in a sense, involve a choice for Christians, it is never optional but a moral requirement.

Thus, for Christians, serving the poor and the vulnerable is a non-optional option. It is a moral imperative and a noble duty. In obeying this imperative and performing this duty, the Christian truly images or mirrors the God he worships, the God who always reaches out to the needy.

In fulfilling this moral requirement, the Christian stands in solidarity with the vulnerable in society by being a ‘neighbour’ in the biblical sense. Here, solidarity demands that the Christian takes concrete actions to alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable, clearly illustrated by the story of the good Samaritan. As expressed by the eminent ethicist Henk ten Have, “Solidarity is not a pious intention, but shows itself in supporting a specific cause.”

The preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable is not a moral requirement for Christians only. It is the responsibility of every member of human society.

As Pope John Paul II puts it, “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying”.

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

Citizens of Heaven on Earth

September 2018 Feature

Recently, I became acquainted with the striking story of a 22 year old Singaporean while visiting a friend in San Francisco. At the age of 3, he relocated with his Singaporean parents to the United States. Being immersed in American life and culture, he grew up like any American would.

Life would have continued along the American path, if not for the letter he received from the Ministry of Defence fifteen years later, summoning him to enlist for national service.

What seemed striking to me was his subsequent response to the enlistment letter. Instead of perceiving national service as an inconvenient disruption to pursuits in “the land of opportunity” as some call America, he embraced it as an opportunity to deepen his roots. Taking his citizenship seriously, he discharged his responsibilities in the military with distinction and became an air warfare officer.

Cynics may interpret the above story as an expression of youthful idealism that so happens to be in line with national interest. Having personally met the young man and lived abroad for some years myself, I do not doubt his motivation for national service. There is something about citizenship that resonates deeply with our human desire for a sense of belonging and identity.

Recognising the theological and didactic potential of the citizenship imagery, writers of the New Testament employed it freely to convey their message to early believers living in the Graeco-Roman world.

The status of these believers as citizens or resident aliens were earthly realities that helped to elucidate teachings concerning Christian identity, its standard of behaviour and future hope. These teachings often juxtaposed the realities surrounding the earthly, political status of Christians with that of their heavenly citizenship. Indeed, priority is consistently accorded to the latter.

One of the clearest instances in which the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is given priority is found in Paul’s declaration to the believers in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20). Paul’s declaration has a twofold implication for his recipients. Firstly, they are not to pursue “earthly things” as the “enemies of the cross of Christ” do (Phil 3:18, 19), but live lives which are in keeping with their heavenly citizenship. Secondly, they are to place their hope in no one else but “the Lord Jesus Christ” who has the power to “subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).

When situated within the political climate of Paul’s day, his declaration above is both radical and risky. The imperial cult worshipped the Roman emperor as saviour and Lord. Thus, calling Christians to confess Jesus of Nazareth not simply as “Christ” but also as “Saviour” and “Lord” is to pit the authority of Jesus with that of Caesar’s.

For Paul, the issue at stake in the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is allegiance to Jesus Christ. Working out what this allegiance means while living under Roman rule was a crucial aspect of early Christian discipleship.

Although the political context is different for Christians in Singapore, the same challenge of being citizens of heaven on earth still applies. Like the early church, we too must work out what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord in our context. Carrying out such a task responsibly would require us to take seriously the tension between Christ’s insistence that his kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), and the equally clear assertion that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” (Rev 20:15).

Holding on to this tension is important so that we do not fall into one of two errors: (1) failure to acknowledge the authority of Christ over the world, including civil institutions like governments; (2) failure to distinguish the authority of civil institutions from the authority of Christ over his church.

The first error leads to disengagement with society or nonchalance about our civil responsibilities. The second legitimises a politicised view of Christianity that treats our civil and political life as spheres in which the church has authority to govern.

As we celebrate 52 years of Singapore’s independence this year, it is appropriate to consider afresh what it means to live as citizens of heaven on earth. This task is especially critical in a time where the social fabric of our multi-racial and multi-religious society is being tested by the threat of religious extremism.

Often, there is no simple answer to the way our allegiance to Christ should look like in the specific details of our earthly citizenship. However, the Biblical portrait of such a citizen is clear.

According to the anonymous, second century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, “Christians…inhabit the lands of their birth, but as temporary residents thereof; they take their share of responsibilities as citizens, and endure all disabilities as aliens. Every foreign land is native to them, and every native land, foreign territory…They pass their days upon earth, but they hold citizenship in heaven.” 1

Like the saints of old, we long for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16) and point others to its glory by the way we live.

Rev Dr Edwin Tay is the Vice-Principal of Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Singapore. He holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (BA), the University of London (MA), and the University of Edinburgh (PhD).

What About 1 Timothy 2: 11-15?

September 2018 Credo

One of the most significant passages that any exegete or theologian has to grapple with when reflecting on the role of women in the Church is 1 Timothy 2: 11-15. In verse 12, the Apostle, writing to Timothy his young protégé, gave a specific instruction not to permit ‘a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man’, but to ‘remain quiet’.

In addition, Paul uses the Genesis creation account as the bedrock for his injunction: ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’ (vv 13-14). This has led some scholars and theologians to conclude that the Apostle is here issuing a command that prohibits women from teaching in the church and exercising authority that must be applied universally, in every church and in every age. Here we have Paul’s clear teaching of male headship and female submission that is based on the order of creation, gleaned from the very first book of the Bible, they insist.

However, there are a number of scholars and theologians (including the author of this article) who have profound difficulties with this way of reading this text, and the conclusions it suggests. For these scholars, there are compelling reasons to understand this instruction, not as a universal directive, but one that is bound by the particular context of the Ephesian church where Timothy was serving as a pastor.

In the first place, all scholars of the Bible would agree that Paul’s three pastoral epistles – including 1 Timothy – are occasional pieces. This means that they were written because Paul and his associate Timothy wanted to address some issues that have arisen in the Church at Ephesus. Thus, in order to properly understand the epistle, we must have some idea of what occasioned it in the first place.

The society in Ephesus, at the time this epistle was written, was dominated by the worship of the goddess Artemus, whose temple is one of the wonders of the world. Women played such a significant role in Ephesian society that some scholars have argued that their prominence in civic and professional life is unmatched by any other city in the Roman Empire.

In addition, there were the followers of the cult of Isis and the priestesses of Demeter, who stressed that men and women have equal rights and who gave women roles that were traditionally performed only by men. There even were philosophical schools in Ephesus, where women served as respected and influential teachers.

The women in the church at Ephesus, some of whom scholars believe were converts from pagan cults, also wanted to exert their rights to teach and govern, despite their lack of theological and spiritual credentials.

In the church at Ephesus, there were also some false teachers who challenged the authority of Paul and his disciple, Timothy. They preyed on the more vulnerable women in the church (2 Tim 3:1-9), especially those who were struggling with sexual problems (1 Tim 5:6, 11-16), who were weak in their faith (2 Tim 3:6-7), and who perpetrate fables and myths (1 Tim 4:7; 1 Tim 1:3).

Against this background, the main purpose of the Apostle in his letters to Timothy is not to prohibit women from teaching or exercising authority. Rather his main purpose is to protect orthodox teaching (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25; 3:7) from being polluted by heresies perpetrated by people who do not have the requisite theological and spiritual understanding (1 Tim 1:7), especially some of the women in the congregation.

That is why throughout the epistle, the Apostle emphasised again and again the need for good and sound teaching (1 Tim 1:3-11, 18-20; 4:1-7, 16; 6:20-21).

This brings us to Paul’s use of the Genesis account of the Fall to press his point. As mentioned above, some scholars maintain that Paul’s instruction on the role of women must be seen as a universal (as opposed to contextual) directive because it is grounded in Scripture.

However, other scholars have pointed out that Paul’s use of the Genesis story is typological. In other words, for Paul the story of Adam and Eve provides a powerful analogy to what was happening in the Ephesian Church. The women in the Ephesian church reminded Paul of the predicament of Eve in Genesis.

Just as Eve was deceived into believing the serpent, so the women in the Church at Ephesus were deceived into believing the false teachers who used these women to spread their heresies. And just as Eve’s deception resulted in disastrous consequences, so will the deception of the women in the Ephesian church bring harm to the body of Christ.

Thus in alluding to Eve, Paul is not saying that women are more likely to sin or that they are more vulnerable to deception. As Andrew Perriman points out, ‘Rather than claiming that men are less likely to be deceived, Paul chose references from Genesis to illustrate the disastrous consequences of a woman accepting and passing on false teaching’. The main concern of the apostle in this passage is not about the male-female hierarchy as such, but the problem of deception and how it can poison the community of faith.

It is therefore very important that we understand the nature of the prohibition. As Aída Besançon Spencer explains: ‘Paul here is not prohibiting women from preaching nor praying nor having an edifying authority nor pastoring. He is simply prohibiting them from teaching and using their authority in destructive ways’.

‘Consequently’, writes Stanley Grenz, ‘the apostle commanded that these women refrain from teaching and reverently learn from true teachers’.

If this reading of this problematic text is sound, then Paul’s injunction must be seen as a temporary instruction that he gave to Timothy to address a specific problem in the Ephesian church. It cannot be seen as a directive that has universal application to the Church, based on the hierarchical understanding of the relationship between man and woman.

This reading is more consistent with the rest of the NT, where the ministry of women is recognised. Paul elsewhere not only allowed women to pray and prophesy (1 Cor 11:5) but he also commended a number of women who were serving in leadership positions (Romans 16).

It is therefore reasonable to read the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 as context-specific, that is, as addressing a particular issue in the Ephesian church and not as a permanent rule.

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

Nanotechnologies and Ethics

September 2018 Pulse

Imagine creating robots so small that they are able to swim swiftly through fluids like blood to a specific destination to deliver medicine to treat a cancerous tumour. Such nanorobots would not only negate the need for invasive procedures; they would also make possible delivery of medical payloads that is so precisely targeted that it would significantly reduce the side effects of the drugs.

This (and many other mind-blowing applications) is the promise of nanotechnology, a new category of technology that involves the manipulation of materials or molecules at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

Here is how one journalist describes a nanometre: ‘If a nanometre were somehow magnified to appear as long as the nose on your face, then a red blood cell would appear the size of the Empire State Building, a human hair would be about two or three miles wide, one of your fingers would span the continental United States, and a normal person would be about as tall as six or seven planet Earths piled atop one another’.

Although the study of nanoparticles can be traced to 1914 when Richard Adolf Zsigmondy used an ultramicroscope to investigate colloidal gold and other nanomaterials, it was only recently that scientists are able to manipulate, use and even produce them.

The current applications of nanotechnology are already quite staggering, covering areas as diverse a medicine, air quality control and energy efficiency. For example, in the field of medicine, nanoscale silver is being used as an antimicrobial agent in the treatment of wounds. Nanotechnology is also being used to increase the efficiency of fuel cells and solar cells, while reducing the costs.

Some nanotechnology products have already been commercialised and made available to the general public, often at a speed that has caused disconcertion among some commentators.

As Patrick Lin and Fritz Alhoff note: ‘These nanotechnology products are quickly entering the marketplace today, from stain-resistant pants to scratch-resistant paint to better sports equipment to more effective cosmetics and sunblock’.

Transhumanists like Williams Sims Bainbridge and Raymond Kurzweil have welcomed nanotechnology with much enthusiasm because of their firm belief that the technology would one day be so advanced that it could save human beings from illness, ageing and even death. Some transhumanists even envision the day when the human species itself with be transformed into something much more superior, free from the encumbrances and limitations it currently experiences.

The speed with which nanotechnology is developing and the scope of its applications has led some ethicists to worry that ethical reflections have lagged behind, and perhaps are even unable to catch up with the science. To be sure, there is a paucity of rigorous ethical discussion, and scientists and ethicists alike have not always greeted the new-minted ‘nanoethics’ with enthusiasm.

The good news, however, is that ethicists wrestling with the problems tossed up by this rapidly developing science need not start from scratch. As Mette Ebbesen, Svend Andersen and Flemming Besenbacher have rightly argued, ‘a number of ethical aspects of genetics, biotechnology, and environmental science parallel ethical issues in nanotechnology’.

Following Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, they insist that principles such as respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice can help ethicists navigate the complex labyrinth of ethical and social issues associated with nanotechnology.

Be that as it may, there is still an urgent need to directly address the ethical and social concerns that are specifically tied to this new technology and its applications.

One serious concern has to do with the uncontrolled proliferation of self-replicating nanosystems that may in the long term irreparably harm the ecosystem as it spreads in the environment. In addition, nanobots that malfunction and could no longer be controlled or even detected could not only cause untold damage to the environment but also endanger human lives (K. Eric Dexler’s famous ‘gray goo’).

The dual-use nature of nanotechnology means that products that are meant for therapeutic applications can also be used for biological warfare and terrorism. Although this is a common issue for many technologies, in the case of nanotechnology the problem is much more complex and magnified (pun intended).

The list can easily be expanded.

In an important document on the ethical and social issues raised by nanotechnologies, UNESCO identifies several other peculiarities associated with nanotechnology, broader issues to which serious consideration must be given.

The first has to do with the fact that the ramifications and consequences of nanotechnology are global, affecting ‘even countries and societies that are not participating in nanotechnology as researchers, producers, or consumers’.

And the second has to do with the fact that nanotechnology will most certainly increase the inequalities that already exists between developing and developed countries, what some commentators have described as the ‘nanodivide’.

Although Ebbesen et al are right to point out that the issues addressed in nanoethics and general ethics related to technology bear some familial resemblances, there is still a need to think outside the box and anticipate novel scenarios when it comes to this new technology.

To do this scientists, ethicists and policy makers must not only learn to ‘problematise’ nanotechnology. They must also learn to ‘fictionalise’ it, that is, imagine possible utopian or dystopian futures in relation to this technology. As M. L. Brake and N. Hook note: ‘Science fiction helps to train our intellects to accept our imagination as a useful tool within science’s “toolbox”’.

Because the social and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology are immense and complex, scientists and policy-makers should not be too quick to commercialise nanotech products.

Engagement with the public involving as many sectors of society as possible is not only desirable; it is imperative. This is because the social ramifications of nanotechnology – positive or negative – can potentially impact everyone, users and non-users alike.

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

Body Dynamics

August 2018 Pulse

One of the most interesting concepts peculiar to Methodism is ‘connectionalism’, a neologism coined to describe how the Methodist Church is ordered and organised.

At the practical level, connectionalism refers to the ways in which Methodist churches support each other by sharing their resources – pastors, leaders, and financial support – so that they may fulfil their common mission to spread the Gospel. Seen in this light, this concept points to the symbiotic relationship between different local congregations.

Connectionalism, therefore, is the way in which the unity of the Methodist Church is made manifest. Some have described it as an aggregate model of unity where different groups – local conferences, Annual Conferences, ministry networks – are denominationally bound together in a network of relationships.

While this practical aspect of the concept is generally well understood, more attention must be directed at its theological foundations. As Methodist historian Russell Richey has rightly observed: “Seldom unpacked theologically, this practical and practiced ecclesiology can be an extraordinary resource for self-understanding and for Christian unity, but only if Methodists think about it seriously.” (emphasis added)

Connectionalism should not be seen merely as a pragmatic arrangement, an ecclesiastical polity that is practically appropriate but not in any way theologically grounded. Rather, it expresses what the Church in essence is, and what it should always strive to be. Put in slightly more technical terms, the concept points to the Church’s ontology, its very being.

The most important image of the Church in the New Testament that helps us to understand the essence of connectionalism is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Once a believer puts his faith in Christ and is baptised, he becomes a member of what theologians like Augustine of Hippo call Christ’s mystical body (Latin: Mystici Corporis Christi).

The believer becomes a member of God’s universal (‘catholic’) Church by becoming a member of a particular church, for example Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, through baptism. The believer’s vertical fellowship (Greek: koinonia) with God results in his horizontal fellowship with God’s people, the Church.

The body of Christ metaphor portrays the members’ communion with one another in a relationship of love, mutual responsibility, and interdependence, with Christ as their Head. Each member is equally important (1 Corinthians 12:14-20), and the relationship obtained by the power of the Holy Spirit is such that “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Now, the metaphor ‘the Body of Christ’ is used for the local church as well as the universal Church. This means that the local church should never be regarded simply as merely a part of the larger Body of Christ – the local church is the Body of Christ in the fullest sense, regardless of its numerical size.

Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in a paper titled ‘The Church: Local and Universal’ by a joint working group of Roman Catholics and Protestants. In paragraph 14, we read: “The local church is not an administrative or juridical sub-section or part of the universal Church. In the local church the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is truly present and active.”

However, although complete in itself, the local church also participates in God’s universal Church. Conversely, the universal Church (which stretches across space and time) may be said to be a communion of particular churches.

Here communion must be understood theologically and not simply from the standpoint of organisation or affiliations, formal or otherwise. This means that the universal Church must not be seen simply as a sum of particular churches, a web or federation of churches.

Thus when we speak of the universal Church as a communion of churches, we are pointing to its essential mystery.

As the Roman Catholic document on communio ecclesiology puts it: “…the particular Churches, insofar as they are ‘part of the one Church of Christ’, have a relationship of ‘mutual interiority’ with the whole, that is, with the universal Church, because in every particular Church ‘the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active’.”

As a neologism, ‘connectionalism’ is at first blush admittedly clumsy and theologically unsuggestive. It gives the impression that it is only of practical – administrative, organisational, utilitarian – import.

But when the concept is unpacked theologically, connectionalism expresses the very essence of the Church, its mystery. It points to the Church’s organic unity.

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

Proverbs: Rulers and Working for Justice

August 2018 Credo

Israel’s kings had a hand in the composition of the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 25:1). It is not surprising, then, that some of the sayings in Proverbs relate specifically to rulers.

Proverbs addresses questions which naturally arise for us as Christian citizens: How should we view our rulers and their officials? How can we help them carry out their tasks? How should we respond if they do not?

Some verses in Proverbs tell us that attributes such as wisdom, justice and integrity are what should distinguish a good leader. In Proverbs 8 Lady Wisdom (wisdom personified) states: ‘By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly’ (8:15-16). Other verses develop this theme: ‘It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness’ (16:12; cf. 20:28). But at least one verse reflects an apparently more cynical view: ‘Many seek the favour of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that one gets justice’ (29:26).

Proverbs also speaks about people, those whom rulers govern. One verse makes the simple point that a ruler needs a people (14:28): ‘The glory of a king is a multitude of people; without people a prince is ruined.’ But equally, a people needs a good ruler (28:2): ‘When a land rebels it has many rulers; but with an intelligent ruler there is lasting order.’

Interestingly, while Proverbs 28 and 29 contain some sayings specifically relating to leaders, they contain many more relating to the character of the people, e.g., 28:4: ‘Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.’ See also: 28:5-10, 24-28; 29:6-10. Citizens as well as rulers are responsible for the moral character of a nation.

Proverbs also focuses on those who advise and serve rulers. Some verses depict rulers as seeking out people of skill, integrity and honourable speech: ‘A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favour, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully’ (14:35; cf. 16:13; 22:11, 29). Other sayings note that a leader may be led astray by the wrong sort of advice: ‘If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked’ (29:12; cf. 25:4-5).

A leader should administer justice, punishing the wicked: ‘A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes’ (20:8). Most telling of all are the ‘words of King Lemuel’ (31:1-9), which tell rulers not to focus on the side-benefits of power (concubines and strong drink), but to take seriously the responsibilities of their position: ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (vv. 8-9). Conversely, Proverbs uses telling images to describe the harm done by an unjust ruler: such a person is ‘a beating rain that leaves no food’ (28:3) and ‘a roaring lion or a charging bear’ (28:15; cf. 29:4)

For Proverbs, then, a ruler is an awe-inspiring figure, not lightly to be approached (19:12): ‘A king’s anger is like the growling of a lion, but his favour is like dew on the grass.’ And yet there are times when one needs to confront a leader or an official for the sake of justice, whatever the personal cost (25:26): ‘Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.’ If one speaks skilfully and tactfully, the result may be positive (25:14): ‘With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue can break bones.’

To return to the questions posed earlier: how should we view our rulers and their officials? Surely, as people who can do a great deal of good or harm, depending on how they exercise their power. At the very least, we should pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Again: how can we help our leaders carry out their tasks? If we exercise leadership in any sphere, then let us make our influence count for good. Most of us will never be leaders, but we can still help our leaders indirectly, by making sure that in our personal lives we conduct ourselves justly and righteously. As noted earlier, the character of a leader makes a big difference to the moral quality of a nation, but so, too, does the character of its citizens. Proverbs has much to say about fairness, integrity, justice and straight dealing as these relate to national leaders, but it has much more to say about these qualities as they relate to all of God’s people.

What if our leaders fail to carry out their responsibilities? One response is to vote them out of power. (I write two weeks after the Malaysian general elections.) But what about the years between general elections? Sometimes Christians, whether church leaders or not, may feel themselves called to challenge the governing authorities.

This is not a task for the raw and inexperienced. Those who come before a ruler or official on behalf of others must exhibit many of the virtues and attributes commended throughout Proverbs: they must be people of integrity, who feel a deep concern for the underprivileged; wise and shrewd, knowing how to avoid giving unnecessary offence; able to speak persuasively, knowing how to present a case and how not to be provoked in debate, able to sense when to speak and when to fall silent.

Such men and women may, in God’s providence, be a wholesome influence in the life of the nation. They may bring about significant good for their fellow citizens, particularly the most needy. In this way they may provide a powerful witness to the gospel. Is that not an area where we should long to see the church taking a lead?

I end with a general point: it is high time we studied Proverbs more seriously, because it remains a highly contemporary book, full of practical wisdom that can guide us in our Christian discipleship.

Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

Christian Worship and the Shortage of Space

August 2018 Feature

Churches in Singapore have to deal with a reality that is unique, compared to many of their counterparts in other countries. Many of the churches here have been built on land that has a leasehold tenure of 30 years (or are located in buildings that have a similar leasehold arrangement). Every 30 years, these churches need to renew their leases to use the space for another 30 years, at the prevailing market rates. The net effect is a financial burden that few churches in other countries have to bear. Based on some estimates, the additional financial commitment  necessary to sustain these leases can take up as much as 20% of a church’s annual budget, considering the typical weekly combined worship attendance of between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers.

Given such burdens, while churches that are sitting on freehold properties can channel much of their funds to useful ministries, other less fortunate churches are constantly on a fund-raising mode to sustain the use of their facilities. Many churches do so with the hope that, once the lease is renewed, their congregations would continue to grow. This would hopefully lessen the financial burden, per capita, for the next lease renewal. However, that hope is also limited by the fact that the church can only accommodate so many additional members on a Sunday, as far as the physical space is concerned. This is quite a sombre language to use in talking about the ministry of the gospel! But it is a stark reality that many churches in Singapore have to grapple with.

Coupled with this is another trend, which is the growing number of Christians. According to the latest population census report in Singapore (2010), the general population grew at the rate of approximately 2.34% p.a. in the past 10 years. The number of Christian worshippers, however, grew from 588,000 in 2000 to 930,000 in 2010 (as reported in the Straits Times on 23 Feb 2015), an annualised growth rate of 4.7% p.a. That is double the rate of the population increase. While the data on the physical space allocated for religious use in Singapore (especially for use by Christian churches) is not available to the public, it is nonetheless conceivable that the space crunch for churches in Singapore will be increasing in the years to come, based on the trends mentioned here. In other words, Christians in Singapore have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution? Among other things, the Singapore government is encouraging the development of a new approach to the sharing of space for Christian worship — a hub for multiple churches to use. Quite recently, such a project was announced: a $25m hub was proposed at a location in Jurong. Despite some teething issues in that particular project, such an approach can alleviate the space constraints to some extent. However, one might ask, will that be an adequate measure in the long run, given the trends? How effectively would a project for 3 or 4 churches be a solution for the more than 500 Protestant congregations (according to the Straits Times report mentioned above) that exist in Singapore? A more profound solution, I think, have to come from Christians themselves.

For the past two thousand years, most Christian communities have their worship on Sundays. This goes back all the way to the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that the Christians gathered together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). Apparently, it was chosen because our Lord Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, and it is also the first day of creation (Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). In 1 Cor 16:2, the apostle Paul also indicates that the church gathered on “the first day of the week”.  At about 100 A.D., the Apostolic Father Ignatius also mentioned that the church met on a “Lord’s Day” (Letter to the Magnesians, 9). So, with some minor exceptions, Christians have gathered together on Sundays for worship since the earliest days of the church, as far as we know. However, can some adjustment be made to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in our churches?

Perhaps, in this regard, churches in Singapore should consider holding their worship services on Saturday evenings, in addition to Sundays. This is what some churches are already doing, in order to accommodate the growth in the size of their congregations. If we were to follow the Jewish reckoning of the day, our Lord’s day would have started on a Saturday evening, just as the Jewish Sabbath would have begun from Friday evening. In that way, Christians can still remain faithful to the significance of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday as a church.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I can in fact go one step further to take into consideration what Scripture says with regard to the question of worshipping on a Saturday evening. Regarding the keeping of special days, the Bible says that whether a person considers one day to be sacred, or everyday to be sacred, it is fine as long as he does so to the Lord (Rom 14:6). No one is supposed to make the observance of certain days a legal requirement (Gal 4:9-10), nor should Christians allow anyone to judge them on such a basis (Col 2:16-17).

Admittedly, the original contexts of these biblical injunctions are not whether a church can worship on a day other than Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the overall principle that can be drawn from these passages is that the specific day in which the church gathers is itself not the most crucial issue. In other words, whether Christians come together for their weekly worship on a Saturday evening or a Sunday, there is some room for flexibility. Then again, given the deep significance of Christian worship on a Sunday mentioned earlier (with Saturday evening being an acceptable time-frame according to the Jewish reckoning), I would not venture further to suggest that any day of the week would be acceptable. It is still important, in my view, for the church service to gravitate towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday) itself, which is how Christians have regarded it since the earliest times.

Given the long-term implications of the severe cost of land use in Singapore, it is time for Christians to rethink their use of the available church space. It is not just about using the church premises for running other community services like kindergartens during the week. It is also about allowing the church to accommodate a much larger number of believers. This must first begin with a renewal of our understanding of worship, and a reconsideration of what it means to come together as a congregation to render praise to God as a body of Christ, when we listen to the proclamation of his word. It requires a rethinking of our theology, and a recalibration of our set practices. This is something that the theologians from the West do not need to address, since it is not the situation their churches are facing! If churches in Singapore are able to make adjustments and seriously consider having worship services on Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday, it would contribute significantly towards alleviating our space constraints in the long term.

May the Lord grant us wisdom as we make decisions that would serve the interests of the kingdom of God and remain faithful to his sacred word! Amen.

Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).

The Politicisation of Science

August 2018 Pulse

The Swedish meteorologist working in the UK, Lennart Bengtsson, is without doubt one of the most respected climate scientists in the fraternity. In April 2014, Bengtsson joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that raised questions concerning the current ‘consensus’ on climate change based on data.

Bengtsson pointed out that climate change predictions that are based on computer models might not give the true picture of the actual state of global warming. ‘Since the end of the 20th century’, he said, ‘the warming of the Earth has been much weaker than what climate models show’.

Note that Bengtsson did not deny that global warming was occurring. He merely raised the scientifically valid question about the accuracy of model simulations and pointed out that observational results have differed.

Shortly after raising this issue, Bengtsson faced the ire of the climate community for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. He came under such unbearable pressure from his colleagues that he was forced to resign from the think tank.

‘I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable for me’, he writes. ‘If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety’.

He adds: ‘Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship, etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen’.

The politicisation of science is an inevitable fact, argues Roger Pielke in The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Politics is enmeshed in many of the hot-button issues raised by the biological sciences, including evolution, stem cell research and protection of endangered species.

‘The only time you can stay above the fray is when you are a grad student’, says Pielke in an interview. ‘The minute you have to file a grant proposal with NSF or NIH, you’re in the realm of connecting science with the world outside of science’.

That science should be the candidate for politicisation should not surprise us. In the modern world, scientific authority is replacing religious authority, and the pronouncements from the scientific community have achieved the status of dogma. ‘The scientists have spoken’ appears to be an updated version of ‘This is the Word of the Lord’.

Science has ventured beyond the laboratories and exerted its influence in almost every aspect of society. Science has pontificated on how parents should raise their children, how relationships should be conducted, how we should have sex and what food we should eat.

In an age of moral relativism, as politicians find it more and more difficult to justify their agendas and ideologies by moral arguments, science has become an invaluable ally. The authority of science is asserted surely but subtly in our habits of discourse across the disciplines.

For example, with regard to climate change, Sir David Read, the vice-president of the Royal Society, is reported to have said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change’.

The profound significance of the definite article before the word ‘science’ must not be missed. As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘“The Science” is a deeply moralised and politicised category’. Science is hailed as an authority that demands almost unquestioning submission.

The politicisation of science is an extremely complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

One the one hand, we have politicians commandeering scientific evidence – albeit selectively and at times even dishonestly – to advance their own political agendas. On the other, we also see scientists jumping on this bandwagon and aligning their scientific findings to certain ideological commitments.

Politicians and scientists could respond to the same published research in dramatically opposing ways, depending on which side of the political fence they happen to be situated. A case in point is the 2003 paper published in Climate Research that argued that from a millennial perspective climate changes in the 20th century are unremarkable.

Advocacy groups comprising politicians and scientists who oppose the Kyoto Protocol on climate change praised the paper as a sterling example of ‘sound science’. But the groups that supported the Protocol immediately denigrated it as ‘junk science’.

This example makes it painfully clear that issues like global warming are no longer of just scientific concern. They have become political causes. As Kim Holmes observes, ‘Political activism has so penetrated the science of climate change that one can barely tell the difference between a United Nations conference of scientists on global warming and a rally of political activists lobbying governments to adopt controls on carbon emissions’.

To make matters worse, there is also considerably bullying going on in the scientific fraternity. Those who dare to question the findings and conclusions of the majority or contradict the prevailing orthodoxy are sometimes humiliated and ostracised.

Such baneful attempts to shame and shun dissenters go against the spirit of science, which encourages open inquiry. But it shows just how politicised science can be in our modern world.

It should be noted that both the political right and left are guilty of the politicisation of science, even as they blame each other for this crime. So, if as Pielke points out the politicisation of science is a fact of life, what should our response to this state of affairs look like?

For the Christian, both science and politics are moral activities that should be carried out in the service of the truth. While the politicisation of science cannot be entirely avoided, one should nonetheless always strive for an ever-greater objectivity and truthfulness.

To begin with, scientists should be more self-conscious of their political commitments and scrupulously avoid conflating science with ideology in a way that is misleading.

In addition, scientists should also make it clear to the public when they are engaged in advocacy. And instead of merely championing a particular cause, scientists should clarify how the data allows for a variety of policy choices.

Pielke and others have argued that both scientists and politicians must understand the difference between politics and policy. The political perspective is necessarily narrow, limiting the range of alternatives as it pursues a particular agenda and desired outcome.

However, as Pielke explains in an article entitled, ‘When Scientists Politicise Science’, ‘For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision-makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices’.

One way in which science can be depoliticised, Pielke suggests, is to ‘ask scientists to participate in the process of connecting science with policy alternatives, to explicitly consider what alternatives are and are not consistent with scientific understandings in relation to different valued outcomes’.

Finally, both scientists and politicians need to achieve a more realistic appreciation of the possibilities and limits of science. Sobriety is the best response to scientism’s distorting portrayal of science and its alleged omnicompetence.

A sober appreciation of science would lead us to conclude that although science is helpful in many ways, it can never be the sufficient basis for solving the world’s problems. By itself, science cannot even resolve political debates on important issues.

To accord science with the competence it does not in fact possess and to use it for political ends is to court disaster for the human community.

As Daniel Kemmis perceptively argues: ‘… the repeated invocation of good science as the key to resolving complex ecosystem problems has itself become bad science. What is infinitely worse is that this bad science is all too readily made the servant of bad government’.


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

The Bible and Disability

August 2018 Credo

Secular scholars who write on disability are often critical of religious accounts mostly because of the latter’s allegedly negative approaches. They point out that in Christianity – for example – disability is often associated with sin and divine punishment.

To be sure, there are passages in the Bible that speak of God inflicting disabilities such as blindness as punishment for sin and disobedience. For example, we find in Leviticus clear warnings that disease and disability are some of the dire consequences of idolatry: ‘I will bring upon sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain your life away’ (26: 16).

In similar vein, the Deuteronomist lists insanity and blindness as possible punishment for disobedience: ‘The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28-29).

Not only does the Bible associate disability with sin, it even appears to exclude people of disabilities from participating in the worship of God in the temple.

For example, in Leviticus we read: ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand …’ (Leviticus 21: 16-19).

Judith Adams succinctly summarises this passage thus: ‘In the most perfect of places – that is, the temple – in the presence of the most perfect entity – that is, God – only the perfect of persons, someone of unblemished priestly lineage and perfect physical form, may offer up sacrifices (which must also be unblemished)’.

Christian authors like Nancy Eiseland have eschewed traditional interpretations of these passages and advanced a new hermeneutic – in her case, liberationist – in order to make sense of them. To Eiseland, traditional hermeneutics must be rejected because it is in subtle ways complicit in the unjust discrimination and ostracization of people with disabilities.

‘The history of the church’s interaction with the disabled’, she writes rather despairingly in Disabled God, ‘is at best an ambiguous one. Rather than being a structure for empowerment, the church has more often supported the societal structures and attitudes that have treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism’.

However, to focus only on what some passages have to say about disabilities and neglect the others is to fail to appreciate the Bible’s nuanced and complex treatment of the issue.

For example, alongside the passage in Leviticus cited above we have this remarkable injunction: ‘You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 19:14).

The juxtaposition of such passages should give pause to any reader who is inclined to conclude, all too hastily, that the Bible puts disabled people in a negative light or that it encourages their oppression.

The careful reader of the Old Testament cannot fail to notice that in the remarkable passages that speak of the restoration of Israel, the inclusion of people with disabilities are repeatedly (and quite deliberately) mentioned.

An example of such a passage is Jeremiah 31 where God reassures his exiled people that they will return to a restored Jerusalem: ‘Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest part of the earth, among them the blind and the lame’ (v 8).

In similar vein, in Micah we read: ‘In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame … and the lame will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation’ (4:6, 7).

Scripture does not only speak of the inclusion of disabled people, but their healing and restoration as well.

‘In that day’, Isaiah writes, ‘the deaf will hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see’ (29: 18). And again: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (35:5-6).

These passages about restoration and healing in the OT surely anticipate the ministry of Jesus himself, who in inaugurating God’s kingdom healed the sick and people with disabilities. The healing miracles of Jesus are signs of the divine kingdom that will be consummated when Jesus returns, a new heavens and a new earth free from sin, disease and disabilities.

To understand what the Bible has to say about disabilities, one must therefore go beyond the exegesis of individual texts and get a sense of the profound and comprehensive picture it presents – of creation, human beings as bearers of the divine image, the fall and redemption.

Most significantly, we have to glean what the Bible has to say about the eschaton, the consummation of the kingdom of God, the universal resurrection and the transfiguration of this sin-marred world into the new creation.

However, this eschatological vision – found in Scripture and taught by the Church – is seen by some theologians writing on disability not as a testimony of hope but rather as the basis for discrimination. This is truly regrettable.

But this stupendous vision of the things to come is indispensable if we are to achieve a realistic appreciation of the world in which we live.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg has put it: ‘Only in the light of the eschatological consummation is the verdict justified that in the first creation story the Creator pronounced at the end of the sixth day when he had made the first human pair: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Only in the light of the eschatological consummation may this be said of our world as it is in all its confusion and pain’.

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