Unreached Network

Decolonising Apostolic Ministry 2: Centring the Local

In this series of blog posts I am asking the question, “what would it take to decolonise the doctrine and practice of apostolic ministry today? Read Post 1 in the series.

A key aspect of decolonisation is the bringing near of authority. Post-Soviet decolonisation in Central Asia has resulted in a flourishing resurgence of local languages, a celebration of local identities, and an impulse for local government. The capacity to make decisions is brought closer geographically (Baku or Tashkent or Almaty rather than Moscow), linguistically (Kazakh or Kyrgyz or Tajik rather than Russian), and culturally (people like us who understand us and are among us make the decisions, rather than distant bureaucrats who do not understand our unique context).

The Christian gospel has an inbuilt liberative instinct which should make the hearts of postcolonial people everywhere sing for joy.

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, with the sign of languages, affirms this celebration of indigeneity:

“How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8). Or, to more precisely translate, “each one in his own dialect wherein he was born?”

Christianity was never supposed to have a geographical centre, a holy city, a majority culture or language, although Empire, at times, has co-opted religious control, centred in an HQ in Constantinople, or Rome, or Canterbury. As Lamin Sanneh argued, translatability is fundamental to the gospel, because language is power.

Hierarchy, that form of government which pyramids “upwards” from the local church to an external bishopric, and ultimately to an Empire-sponsored archbishop, is a word actually derived from ieras or priest. This word entered English, and many other European languages, through a layering of spiritual authorities away from the local towards a headquarters somewhere removed from the local scene. This does not seem to have been the apostolic intention.

Quite the opposite. One of the Christian church’s great sources of resilience, right from New Testament practice, has been a centring of spiritual authority in a local body, represented primarily in the appointing of local elders.

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

These communities of faith, only a few weeks or at most several months old, needed local elders to shepherd them. These were not professional clergy who had received training. These were not outsiders brought in. These were local men from among the community of believers in those locales. Paul and Barnabas, in newly planted churches, were centring authority locally.

For those committed to a restoration of New Testament practice, hierarchy must be among the vocabulary assigned to the trash can of history. Part of cross-cultural church planting should be local elders as soon as possible. Failure to recognise those God has given locally arises from either from ethnocentric bias or from a refusal to relinquish control. “Apostolic extension” in this sense is an unhelpful phrase – apostles do not plant new churches in order to extend their network or brand or influence into a new place, but rather to release local leaders.

Roland Allen, writing 100 years ago in colonial conditions whilst fighting for ecclesial decolonisation, still resonates today:

“They may not administer it at all to our satisfaction, but I fail to see what our satisfaction has to do with the matter.”

Yet even this carries a note of otherisation and superiority, implying that a foreigner could do a better job, but we need to lower the bar in order to give local leaders a chance. No, no and no again! The pattern that God, in his wisdom, has given, is for local churches to exercise local agency. Only the local can figure out heart-level contextualisation of the gospel. Only the local can articulate the freedom of the Spirit within an instinctive idiom. Only the local is sustainable in the longest term.

Jay Matenga, a Maori missions thinker, calls this centring the local:

“I have heard and experienced enough from the underside of missions to say that a misplaced sense of authority is indeed a persistent norm, and not one restricted to those who serve from traditional sending nations. I am not just talking about ethnocentrism here. It runs much deeper than a superior view of one’s own culture. Regardless of their country of origin, transboundary missionaries carry an implicit sense of superiority of self that is not scripturally warranted because, while we may be sent and go, we are not all Apostles (with the upper-case A). It is time to flip the script and centre the local. To put authority in the hands of the recipients of the gospel and allow the gospel to take root and grow endemically, indigenous to its new context.”

In a postcolonial world, honouring local identities is key. Postcolonial narratives are, I believe, helping the Church to rediscover God’s original design, which was always centred locally. That governance at distance was never God’s idea is integral to our understanding of the incarnation – the Word must become flesh within each culture in each generation. The church has within her DNA and within her Scriptures the capacity to centre locally. Local, Holy-Spirit-appointed elders have the context-relevant skills to resolve pastoral challenges, to read and apply Scripture in relevant ways, to navigate the myriad complexities and challenges of being a Christ-following community in a hostile world. Local eldership is absolutely key to centring the local. We can talk about apostles and how they serve local eldership later, but it’s certainly not hierarchical, and it certainly should not undermine local-church confidence in her God-given local leaders.

Read Post 1 in the series.