A fascinating scenario from Paul G. Hiebert, not sure what publication, for my intercultural ministry class. Here, you can read the scenario and my response essay. Also enjoy this photo I found of the forest in Borneo.
Mark looked at the chief and elders before him and at the more than two hundred men, women, and children crowding behind them. “Have they all really become Christians? I can’t baptize them if they don’t each decide for themselves!” he said to Judy, his wife.
Mark and Judy Zabel had come to Borneo under the Malay Baptist Mission to start a new work in the highlands. They spent the first year building a thatched house, learning the language, and making friends with the people. The second year they began to make short treks into the interior to villages that had never heard the gospel. The people were respectful, but with a few exceptions none had shown any real interest in the gospel. Woofak was always around and had been from the beginning. In time he had become a believer, but few of the others took him seriously. He was something of a village maverick. And there had been Tarobo and his wife and four others. By the end of the third year, the worship services were made up of these seven baptized believers, Mark and Judy, a few passersby, and a dozen children.
That year an epidemic had spread through the highlands. For weeks Judy and Mark went through the villages, praying with the sick and dispensing medicines, until they thought they could go on no more. They wept with families faced with death and told them of the God who loved them and had conquered death itself. One village in particular had suffered greatly from the disease. Though the people seemed to appreciate the love shown by the two missionaries, they had shown no particular interest in the gospel.
Three months later, two elders from this village had come to the mission home, wanting to see the missionaries. “Can you come to our village and tell us more about your God?” they asked. “We want to know more about him.”
Mark and Judy were excited. Their many hours on the trail in the rain and the weary days of ministering to the people were bearing fruit. Taking some food, water, changes of clothes, cots and nets, they set out for the distant village.
It was almost dark when they arrived. The village chief invited Mark into the men ‘s long house where all the adult males of the village were gathered. Judy joined the women, who sat in front of their huts discussing the decision the village elders were about to make. She sensed that there had been much discussion in the village before she and Mark had been invited to come. Now there was a feeling of excitement and uncertainty in the air. Some of the women wanted to know more about this new God. Others said that it was best to stay with their ancestors who cared for them in the spirit world, and with the tribal gods who had helped them to be victorious over their enemies in the past. In the long house the chief asked Mark to tell them more about his God. For three hours Mark told the men about the Jesus Way and answered their questions. Then the chief asked Mark to sit down on a log. Mark noticed that the men broke up into smaller groups, each made up of men from the same lineage. For half an hour there was a loud debate as men argued for and against following the new God. The arguments died down, and then the leaders from the various lineages gathered with the chief. Again there was a heated discussion. Finally the chief came to Mark and said, “We have all decided to follow the Jesus Way. We want to be baptized like Woofak and Tarobo.”
Although it was late, neither Mark nor Judy could sleep after the meeting. The decision of the village, especially the way it was made, had caught them totally by surprise. They knew that tribal people often made important decisions, such as moving their villages or raiding neighboring tribes, by discussion and group consensus. But they never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god. All their theological training in their church and Bible College had taught the young missionaries that people had to make personal decisions to become followers of Christ. Here the group leaders had decided for all. What did that mean? Was it a valid decision, especially when it was clear from the debates that some had opposed the choice? How could they baptize the whole village when not all were agreed? Then again, what did it mean in Acts when the jailer believed and Paul immediately baptized him and his whole household? Moreover, if they did not accept the villagers as Christians, the Villagers might return to their old gods. Judy and Mark knew that they had to do something before they left the next day. . .
As Mark and Judy searched for an answer, suddenly the great spirit gong in the men’s long house rang out. Hurrying over to find out what was going on, Mark found the chief and asked him why they were summoning the tribal spirits, now that they had become Christians. “Don’t worry,” the chief said. “We are calling them to tell them to go away because now we have a new God.
Judy and Mark were still uncertain as they finally fell asleep, bone-tired and knowing that they would have to give the chief and the village an answer in the morning.
Hiebert’s scenario involved a missionary couple converting a tribe. The tribal council elders, through much debate, decided to follow the missionary’s (Christian) god rather than the ancestral spirits. Conflicted with the implications of “group conversion,” the missionaries face a dilemma: do they baptize the village, and so assume that each tribe member has been saved? Or, do they wait until each person professes faith in Jesus, and then baptize each person individually?
The dilemma facing this missionary couple depends on two factors, one anthropological, the other theological. First, why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? Second, what is the purpose of the baptism the missionaries have offered? Quickly it becomes apparent that the first question raises meaningful theological questions, and the second meaningful anthropological questions, thus betraying the distinction between these categories in the first place.
Why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? The Hiebert case study characterizes the decision process of the tribe as “a loud debate as men [not women] argued for and against following the new God,” followed by “a heated discussion.” This model of “group consensus” seemed alien to the missionary couple, who “never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god.” The missionary couple resists contextualizing the gospel to the tribe’s collectivism. If salvation is primarily a born-again experience in which a single person makes an individual decision to make Christ their personal lord and savior – notice, “a single person,” “an individual decision,” “personal lord and savior,” clauses littered with adjectives stressing the solitary nature of salvation – how can the tribe choose together? Notably, the tribe did not even begin to consider conversion under these terms. It did not occur to them that each and every tribe member could convert, but not all at once. This means that the difference is one rooted anthropologically in the way the tribe is culturally structured.
The missionary couple brings a gospel steeped in individual language not because such framing is necessary to the gospel message, but because their own context has so mediated it to them. Why is salvation a “personal” “choice” to “accept” Christ “into your heart”? Where is that language found in the New Testament? Of course, it is well known that the Sinner’s Prayer is a modern invention, but does the individual salvation upon which it rests also come from modern times? It does. The New Perspectives on Paul movement has gone to great pains to show several closely related ideas about Second Temple Judaism and its social context, relevant here. First, in Second Temple Judaism, Jews did not have “works righteousness” as Protestants are common to claim, in which a person’s good deeds or bad deeds earn their standing before God. Rather, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, and sin rendered one ceremonially unclean so that they could not enter the Temple, and so they were considered “out” of society. This is why the Levitical code contains not only moral injunctions but also chapters upon chapters of instructions on ceremonial cleansing and ritual impurity. Second, from this, it becomes clear that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not “non-works righteousness” in the sense that God has nullified the old system and so now we ourselves individually do not have to work to earn God’s favor. That would nullify a system that never existed. Rather, the nullification is of the legal system itself, so enabling Jews who had the Law and Gentiles who did not to both share in the people of God, the Kingdom of God. This community is a body mediated through the bodies of its members (a concept later stolen and secularized by Hobbes) rising together into one reified being, for which Christ will return.
As a result of this communal understanding of salvation – we enter into a community, which is saved, rather than each person being saved, and then forming a community of the saved – the language of accepting Jesus as “personal lord and savior” or “individual” decision does not make sense. This has not addressed the other outstanding theological problem: that an individual “decision” has been made by “accepting Jesus” as personal lord and savior. (The quotes have been switched from the previous sentence). The simple answer to this is that people do not decide their salvation though it manifestly appears that they do this on the surface. Ephesians 1:11-14 (a passage well understood as collective salvation in the above sense) speaks to God’s choosing, predestining plan to redeem the elect, which manifests itself in our believing upon hearing the gospel and so being marked by the Holy Spirit as a seal. The reason that the New Testament does not use “accept Jesus into your heart” language is because by the time a person does so, Jesus is already in their heart, having orchestrated their accepting him in the first place. The combination of these two perspectives – that salvation is not individual, and salvation is not a decision – should, if thoughtfully considered by the missionary couple, shift their categories in way that reduces their hesitation to baptize the tribal people.
Baptism remains. Could the missionary couple’s understanding of baptism be what holds them back? What other perspective on baptism would rectify the problem? There an irony in the debate between paedobaptists and credobaptists. The former baptizes as an infant, and then does confirmation to be included in the life of the local church; the latter does parent dedication, and then does baptism to be included in the life of the local church. However, baptism in paedobaptist churches and parent dedication in credobaptist churches have similar functions: infant baptism signals God’s promise of election upon that child, into which they will grow as they are raised to be a Christian; parent dedication signals the parents’ promise to raise the child as a Christian along with the congregation’s help. In both cases, the event that takes place at about 1 year old signals that the child will live under the authority of a Christian household and be raised in the local church; the even that takes places around 15 or 16 or so years signals that him himself or she herself will be a participant in that local church on the basis of their profession of faith. The similarity is striking, really, and is the reason why paedobaptist and credobaptist churches do not differ in practical ways as a result of their position on baptism.
My suggestion to the missionaries is that the tribe is not being credobaptized, but paedobaptized, despite being adults. This seemingly askew category choice is appropriate because the only claim that can be made about them is that they are about to be subject to the authority of the local church (presumably run out of the Chief’s office). The promise of God’s election is being declared over them, into which they will grow as they are raised to live to follow Jesus. Since the tribal council decision was not about personal faith, but about whether to continue using the village spirits or the new God, it only makes sense to understand the council’s decision as one of official structure and committed religion.
In this response, I have shown that three aspects of evangelical Revivalist theology fail to meet the needs of the tribal people in Borneo to whom the missionaries were sent. Rather, by adopting a confessional, paedobaptist, Reformed theology, the missionaries could articulate the gospel clearly to the tribal people, without hesitation as the legitimacy of baptizing them together. We have seen that the anthropological question of individual vs. collective cultures is solved by a theological route (understanding Pauline justification and election), and the theological question of paedobaptism vs. credobaptism is solved by an anthropological route (understanding how church ceremonies actually function), betraying the assumed distinctions between the fields.