Tag Archives: ministry

Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

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.