Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

When Culture and Christianity Clash (1)

Most missionaries I know of reach a time when they need to struggle with the problem of culture and Christianity coming into conflict with each other, be it with traditional doctors (witch-doctors), traditional feasts or traditional customs. Frankly, I’m still not always sure how to handle this type of situation. I know of highly respected missiologists who feel strongly that these customs should be respected and not criticised. Personally I don’t hold this viewpoint. But to criticise the culture also has very little positive results. I remember in 1986 or 1987 that a certain pastor openly criticised the Swazi government for its Incwala ceremony, stating that this was just an excuse for immorality. The pastor was then imprisoned for a number of weeks, released, imprisoned once again and then deported and forbidden ever to enter the country again. As far as I know, his complaints had no influence on the feast. Personally I have decided that my calling is to proclaim the Biblical message of salvation, to teach believers how to live as Christians and to pray that they will make the right choices. Many Christians do not attend these traditional feasts as they have become convinced that it is not right to do so.
I have two distinct memories of times when I experienced this clash with the culture. A few years after I arrived in Swaziland I received news one morning that one of my elders had suffered a stroke. This came as a great shock to me, as we were very good friends with this family. He was a school principal at a school which our church had started, highly respected and very dependable. I drove out to his home and through some contacts I had we were able to have him start with physiotherapy almost immediately and he recovered remarkably in a short while. (Unfortunately, about ten years later he died after a second stroke.)
At our first church council meeting after the first stroke one of the church council members asked that the issue be discussed. What then came out was that, in the night of the stroke, the man’s wife took him to a nearby clinic where they helped him (these clinics are fairly primitive so I assume that the most that they would have done for him was to give him some aspirin). From the clinic the wife then transported him to the home of, what we would refer to as a witch doctor (Inyanga) where she got traditional medicine for him. When asked why she did it, she answered that she was so worried about her husband that she wanted to make double sure that he recover! Here I was, as chairman of the church council, trying to figure out in my mind how to handle this situation. On the one hand I was extremely disappointed and angry with the wife who had done this (her husband was in a coma at the time of this happening) but I had no idea how to resolve the issue. So I took the easy way out and said to the church council members that they would have to advise me how to handle this situation.
They had a long discussion on church discipline where various options were discussed. Eventually they came to a conclusion and decided that both the man and his wife would be put under church discipline, this meaning that they would not be able to partake in the communion until such time as they had repented of what they had done. I was flabbergasted! How could they put the man under church discipline if he was not even conscious when he was taken to the inyanga? The answer which the church council members gave to me was the following: The man is the head of the home. If his wife had made such a decision, then it means that he had failed to teach her correctly how she should live as Christian and therefore he is also partly guilty. Furthermore, because his faith is so important for the man, he would not tolerate that he remain under discipline. He would therefore speak to his wife about what had happened and he would ensure that she admit her fault so that the church discipline could be lifted.
What an amazing (and logical) argument! A few weeks later the man and his wife stood up in church one morning and together they confessed that they had made a mistake. They asked God and the congregation to forgive them and the discipline was lifted with great joy for all the parties involved. Somehow I sensed that the inevitable clash between culture and Christianity had been resolved in a way that really brought glory to God.
I’ll try and write the other story tomorrow.


Thursday, August 2, 2007 - Posted by | Culture, Mission, Swaziland, Theology


  1. Wow Wow Wow! I had the same reaction to their decision at first, but then when the explanation for their verdict came I was just amazed at their logic and the truth of it. Wow! I love this story.

    By the way, I read the article on BW that you sent me. I’m appalled at the open arrogance and ignorance of some people. Mistakes were made that didn’t need to be made. I have run up against people in the faith who one day say, “G-d told me to do this thing.” and when they meet up with difficulty or it gets painful for them to do it, they then say, “G-d has told me I’m done.” I find that AWFULLY convenient.

    Comment by Maya | Thursday, August 2, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks Maya. Watch this blog and I’ll share another story tomorrow.
    By the way: Congratulations! You have officially become the 1000th hit on my blog! No, I’m not in the numbers game, but I’m still deeply and humbly thankful for each and every person reading (and responding) on this blog. It’s like a newly found family that I’ve discovered.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, August 2, 2007 | Reply

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