Christian History in Cross-Cultural Perspective
A great deal of Donald A. McGavran’s insight can be traced to the unique advantage he had of growing up in India as a third generation missionary. by Ralph D. Winter
here before McGavran’s eyes were not only the expectable ethnic and linguistic divisions of the sub-continent (in which every given geographical area has its own area culture)—what is called horizontal segmentation. He early encountered the vertical segmentation of the world’s most rigidly stratified system of social classes. The very fact that India’s castes long constituted a highly visibly quasi-official structure meant that his perspective as he traveled in other parts of the world remained highly sensitized to social barriers (those barriers arising from other than racial and linguistic differences), even in places where no overt social categorization of such things existed. No wonder he has been accused of reading into a situation social differences that did not exist. In some such cases he has merely pointed out differences people wished to ignore. As a matter of fact, many nations too long have looked down on India’s overt social prejudice without recognizing their own covert castes. In any case, one of the durable common denominators among those associated with McGavran in the amorphous church growth school of thought is a parallel sensitivity to the central importance of the profound cultural diversity within the community of mankind. This sensitivity is the basis of what may be called here cross-cultural perspective. Cross-cultural perspective is what makes possible contextualization. Cross-cultural perspective goes to the very heart of Christian theology and historiography as these disciplines have developed across the centuries, since it sheds new light on the problem of unity versus uniformity in historic dimensions.
Examples of the Problem A number of years ago representatives of the Lutheran World Federation went to great lengths to persuade the Batak Christians of Northern Sumatra to subscribe to the “Non-Altered” Augsburg Confession. One millennium earlier, on another mission frontier in the middle of another island (not nearly as large as Sumatra) a small group of men earnestly tried to persuade a Celtic Christian leader that he ought to subscribe to the Roman way of acting out the Christian faith. In these two cases the external advocates of uniformity were only partially successful, since the group being persuaded possessed a good deal of autonomy and naturally preferred its own way of doing things. In both cases, unfortunately, the external advocates were not themselves readily able to distinguish between the universal and the particular elements in their own faith. Historically speaking, as in the period preceding the Protestant Reformation, advocates of a foreign formulation of Christianity are at first successful and do not until much later face the insurgent nationalism of the surviving cultural tradition which may eventually demand its own indigenous Christian formulation. In the Philippines, for example, the Roman tradition swept in along with a colonial power, and while the Roman witnesses to the faith are to be credited with the fact that a great amount of painstaking and quite enlightened mission work was conducted throughout the whole of the Philippines, there eventually came a time when an immense sector of the
Philippines church under Bishop Aglipay declared its independence from Rome in much the way that Luther had. To this day the Philippine Independent Church endures to this day as the largest non-Roman church in the country. These are only a few of many possible examples which demonstrate one of the most unique and surprising things about Christianity—that it is by nature a faith that both welcomes and encourages cultural pluralism. In this sense, if Christianity must be called a religion at all, it is the only world religion of this kind. This little understood...
Bibliography: Cook, Harold R. 1971 “The Celtic Church in Ireland” from Historic Patterns of Church Growth, Chicago, Moody Press D’Alton, E. A. 1913 History of Ireland, London, The Gresham Publishing Co. Hughes, Kathleen 1966 The Church in Early Irish Society, London, Methuen & Col. Ltd. Scott, William Henry 1967 “Celtic and the Conversion of Ireland,” International Review of Mission, Vol. LVI, no. 222 Thomas, Charles 1966 “Celtic Britain and the AngloSaxons” in The Dawn of European Civilization, edited by David Talbor Rice, New York, McGraw-Hill Co. Zimmer, H. 1891 The Irish Element in Medieval Culture, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons
enunciated the principles inherent in crosscultural perspective. The Irish from early times have never been a tightly knit society. The very existence of rival clans and tribes and perpetual feuding favored the development of a Christianity which was by no means perfectly uniform in Ireland itself. It was not the Irish who were perplexed about achieving any kind of uniformity. Pluralism would not have been hard for them to understand. Kathleen Hughes (1966:104) observes that:
Celtic clerics seem to have been untroubled by the diversity of practice. Why should they be? The church had endured such problems for centuries, and the popes had no clear official pronouncement. ‘Let Gaul, I beg, contain us side by side, who the kingdom of Heaven shall contain’ writes Columbanus to the Gallican synod. To him, even in the mist of the Easter controversy, there were matters which seemed of far greater importance in the life of the church than liturgical diversity.
The greatest irony of all—looking now beyond the Irish illustration to the experience of many other minorities encountered by the advancing wave of Christianity—is the fact that at about the time all of these questions seemed resolved in the Western world, the whole profusion of cultural diversity within the Christian Church has burst forth as the result of the missionary movement in the non-Western world. The angriest problems in the world today are not international imperialism but questions of conformity within national states—in a word, civil wars: Vietnam, Nigeria, Sudan, and (here we are again) Ireland. The question is how long the Amharas can dominate the Gallas in Ethiopia, whether the Kikuyus shall forever dominate the government in Kenya, whether a handful of whites shall run the country in Rhodesia, etc. The reason these problems are so nearly insoluble is the same: 700,000 Celtic people who speak Welsh do not feel that
Dr. Ralph Winter is President of William Carey University located in Pasadena California. He served as a professor of missions at Fuller Theological Seminary and also was a missionary to Guatemala .
[Editors Note: This essay is a revised edition of Chapter 17 of God, Man, and Church Growth (Eerdmans, 1973), edited by Alan Tippett, a festschrift in honor of the late Dr. Donald McGavran’s 75th birthday. Since the writing of this essay, a number of books have appeared which confirm the remarkable contribution of the mission scholarship of the Celtic Church. Note John T. McNeil’s groundbreaking work, The Celtic Churches, 200 AD to 1200 AD, and also Light from the West, and more recently the popular book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.]
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF FRONTIER MISSIONS
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