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A Biblical Theology of Teaching in an African Context


In as little as eighteen months, I will be standing in a poorly-lit, hot and packed classroom filled mostly with second and third-generation Christians from the Chewa peoples of Malawi, Africa. Due to my education, my position as “professor,” my age, my perceived affluence, and – tragically – perhaps in part because of my skin color – many of these bright young students will look to me with eager, hungry expectation.

After a word of prayer, some pleasantries and exchanges of names, I will open my Bible, pick up a piece of chalk and…what? What will I say? What can I say? What human words could come close to meeting the responsibility vested in me?

The answer is as complex as it is simple: as a Christian professor, I must teach the Bible to them. But what does that mean? Should I simply dictate Scriptures to them? But then what am I doing that they cannot do themselves? Should I teach theology? But then am I really teaching the Bible, or mere traditions of men? And what shall I do to inculturate the message within their context?

The answer is that Biblical theology teaches the truth of God concerning reality and ethics in a culturally-understandable way, inviting humanity into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.


What is Truth?

            The answer to this perennial question (John 18:38) is given in the very first chapter of the Bible, where we are first introduced to reality – God and Creation (Gen. 1:1), then to Truth (Gen. 1:2). Truth is a statement which accurately describes the reality which corresponds to it (e.g. Gen. 2:17). A lie inaccurately corresponds to reality (e.g. Gen. 3:4).

All truth depends upon perception of reality. Since all human perception is limited, all human truth is relative. Since God’s perception of reality is unlimited, His Truth is absolute – as it is written, “let God be true but every man a liar,” (Rom.3:4, KJV).

God had infinite and exhaustive knowledge of all potential and actual worlds[1] outside of time: thus, for God Truth preceded reality. Further, His act of speaking Truth created all reality (John 1:1-3). God’s Word is not – like our words – dead, but is alive and active (Heb. 4:12). He is God’s Son, Jesus Christ (John 1, Phil. 2:1-18, etc.). Jesus is also the Truth of God (John 14:6), since His is the only Word which perfectly corresponds to Reality, and it was this Word through whom and Creation was made (Col. 1:16, John 1:2).

The Word of God and Scriptures

            God speaks to create new realities, and to reveal existing reality to His Creation. In the past, He spoke to and through His prophets (Heb. 1:1). In His incarnation, He spoke audibly and visibly in His person (Heb. 1:2). After His ascension, He spoke to and through the Apostles (2 Pet. 3:16). The utterances of the Prophets and the Apostles – as well as the inspired record of Jesus’ life and words on earth – are collected into inspired, sacred Scriptures. The church is built upon the OT (prophets) and NT (apostles), but the cornerstone is Christ (Eph. 2:20).

Scriptures are not less than the Word of God, but the Word of God is more than Scriptures. All of Scriptures are ultimately written about Christ (Luke 24:27, John 1:45, 5:40, 46): however, once one meets with Christ, one may not dispense with Scriptures – for this was never His purpose (Mat. 5:17).

Scriptures operate on a three-fold level, leading us to Christ (Luke 24:27, John 1:45, 5:40, 46). On the first level, they reveal God’s Character (Rom. 1), His Law (Rom. 7), condemn sin (Rom. 7:13), and reveal God’s redemptive plan (Rom. 16:25-27).[2] On the secondly, Scriptures invite the reader into what Karl Barth famously called, “The strange new world within the Bible.”[3] In this place, the reader is invited to view reality from God’s perspective. It is within this new and terrifying place that the reader is invited to meet with the Living Word, Jesus, who against all probabilities has come for us, the sinner, and died for us, the enemy (Rom. 5:6-11) to reconcile us to God, the Just (2 Cor. 5:20).

Data and Personhood Within the Word of God

Some have seen a contradiction between the idea of a living God, and that of a static, and unchanging Scripture.[4] However, there is no such contradiction: as J. Gresham Machen writes, “Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma.”[5] We may observe this data to operate on three levels. First, there is a certain core of bare facts about an individual. I am a 28/Male/Caucasian Canadian. If you believe you are friends with me, but would describe me as 39/Female/African American, I would politely inform you that you are mistaken: that is not me. On the second level are character facts. Before entrusting his daughter on a date, a loving father will demand that a young man provide evidence that he is kind, self-controlled, honest, faithful and the like. On the third level are opinion, plans and ideas. Before hiring a person to a professorship or pastorate, a search committee would inquire into such facts. An abbreviated summary of all three levels of information could be provided for every person who has ever lived. Of course, relationship is more than such data – but I is not less than it, and such data creates the foundation for relationship.

To the extent that God has revealed Himself in Nature and Scriptures and Christ, such information is also possible for God.[6] The main difference is that while the facts about a human person are in a continual state of flux, there is no change to the eternal nature, character, demands, ethics, or plans of God.[7]

This information is to become a part of the content of Biblical teaching, in order to lead persons to a personal relationship with God.

Further to this information about God, the Word of God has revealed information about Creation,[8] and He has revealed His ethical requirements, and His plan of salvation (what we would now call “the Gospel”).

Christian information divides naturally into two halves: right thinking (doctrine), and right living (command). Such information forms the content of Christian teaching.


Of Black, White and Grey

            All Christian teachings are not created equal. It is not correct either to say that all matters are “black and white,” nor that all is “grey:” rather, they are revealed with greater and less clarity in Scriptures, and they have greater or less importance for the Christian life.

From Orthodoxy to Triviality and Speculation

            The most essential doctrines about God and Creation relate to: 1) the bare facts about God and His character, as discussed above, and 2) the essence of His redemptive plan through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. These details are also very clearly revealed through Scriptures. This information provides the hard core of theological orthodoxy.

There are a great number of other truths about God, Creation and God’s redemptive plan. These have been revealed with greater or lesser clarity, and have a greater or lesser importance to the Christian life – however, a person could be saved while being in error on these points.

From Orthopraxy to Triviality and Foible

            All sins are equal in that they all make the sinner utterly sinful before God, (Rom. 3:23). However, not all sins are the same in other ways: specifically, they are arranged in a hierarchy according to the clarity with which they are taught in Scriptures, the consequences associated with them, and the attitude of the sinner.

There are three levels of ethical clarity: 1) that which is clearly and explicitly mandated or forbidden in Scriptures – such as the Ten Commandments; 2) that which is stated clearly enough, but Christians struggle to understand, and come to different conclusions on – such as divorce/remarriage and pacifism, 3) that which is necessarily situational, and will be right or wrong in every situation – such as eating meat sacrificed to idols, and circumcision. These categories correspond to: heretic, denominational difference, and personal conscience, respectively.

Further, there are two levels of seriousness associated with sins: 1) grave sins are sins which have devastating consequences, and will – among other things – disqualify one from ministry leadership (1 Cor. 9:27, 1 Tim. 3:2); 2) venial sins cause less pain and devastation. Thomas Brooks rightly identifies the confusion of these two categories as a deadly snare of the devil, and an excuse for sin. Rather, although all Christians sin continually,[9] mature Christians have “overcome the evil one,” (1 John 2:13-14) and not lapse often into grave sin.[10] It is possible in Christ to live a life free from grave sins.

Further, sins may be divided into three categories, according to the attitude of the sinner: 1) mortal sins are those sins of which a sinner does not repent, and in which they walk intentionally. They are mortal, because there is no sacrifice for unrepentant, willful sin (Heb. 10:26). Mortal sins are equivalent to “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” (Mat. 12:31), since a continual grieving of His convicting work (1 Tim. 4:2) cuts one off from effective grace (John 6:44, John 16:8); 2) habitual sins are cycles of sin which keep a Christian bound up within them, though they struggle to be free – and by God’s grace can be free (1 John 2:13-14); 3) occasional sins are those sins which all saints fall into time to time, and repent of quickly.[11]

The Content and Order of Christian Doctrine

            A faithful and sensible teaching of the Word of God will thus begin with the most clear and important of the Doctrines and Commands of God. From there, the teaching will move outwards to – as much as possible! – create a Christ-centered worldview.


Are We to Have Teachers?

            In developing a theology of teaching, we must necessarily wrestle with the tension between Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:8-10, “call no one on earth teacher,” and Matthew 28:18, “go…teaching them to obey.” The tension is resolved by reading the context of the latter: “and lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age,” (Mat. 28:20).

The Living Word of God must be permitted to speak. God has chosen to speak through us (2 Cor. 5:20). However, it is Christ who speaks through us – and even He did not speak on His own, but revealed His Fathers’ will (John 8:28).

For this reason, it is both true that Christians have no need of an earthly teacher (1 John 2:27), and that they have need of teachers (Heb. 5:12): true Christian teaching is nothing more than allowing the Word of God to speak through one’s self.

A teacher must be careful to “not surpass what is written,” (1 Cor. 4:6), neither adding to nor subtracting from the Word (Rev. 22:18-19). Rather, all teaching is merely, “explaining the law of God…translating to give the sense so that [the people can] understand the meaning,” (Neh. 8:7-8).

Tradition and the Word of God

            As soon as a teacher begins to explain the sense of the Word of God, they have introduced a third entity to the equation: that of dogma, or tradition. It is necessary to create such traditions, and to pass them along to pupils and disciples so that others may receive the benefit of being taught by Spirit-filled teachers.

However, the very tradition which was intended to explain the Word of God can begin to mute it, when people prefer the tradition over the Voice of God Himself. This is a dire sin, for which Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (cf. Mk. 7:9-13). The solution to this problem is that teachers and their traditions must continually be tested against the Word of God (Mat. 7:15-16).

Testing of Teachers

The first test of a teaching or a teacher is that of Scriptural faithfulness. Any reader should be able to see the clear and direct correlation between the tradition or dogma being expounded, and the Scriptures which it purports to explain. The only way for this to be a normal reality in a church is if the public (1 Tim. 4:13) and private (Josh. 1:8) reading of Scriptures is a continual practice for every believer. This will enable the students to, on the one hand, “[receive] the word of God with great eagerness,” and to also, “[examine] the Scriptures daily to see whether these things [are] so,” (Acts 17:11).

The second test of a teaching or a teacher is that of fruits. Jesus warned that appearances may be deceiving – but that we will know false teachers by their “fruits,” (Mat. 7:15-16). In Biblical vocabulary, “fruits” pertain to conversion of non-believers (John 12:24), answers to prayer and a life of obedience and service (John 15:7-11), repentance of sin (Mat. 3:8-10, Lk. 3:8-9, 13:1-9), obedience to the Father (Mat. 7:21), and a genuine heart-transformation resulting in an obviously different life (Gal. 5:17-23).

The test of fruits operates on three levels. First, we are to directly observe and test the lives of teachers. Those who cast aside “faith and a good conscience” will shortly suffer shipwreck in regards to their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). Secondly, we should look at whether their teaching and ministry builds up the church, or tears it down (2 Cor. 13:10)? We should especially take note of factitious peoples (Tit. 3:10), who stir up controversy out of a “morbid interest in controversial questions,” (1 Tim. 6:4). Third, we can examine the long-term impact of the teaching or ministry. Sometimes, a flaw in one’s teaching may not become evident until several generations of progression towards the logical conclusion – but a skilled co-laborer could identify the error early, in time to take corrective action before the error takes root (2 Tim. 2:17).

The purpose of such testing is not punitive, but remedial,[12] and should be done gently (2 Tim. 2:24-26). A Spirit-lead teacher will be grateful rather than defensive when taken aside and gently corrected (Acts 18:26), since his ultimate desire is to create a permanent legacy (1 Cor. 3:11-13), and knowing that as a teacher they will incur a stricter judgment (Jas. 3:1), and that God’s anger burns against false teachers (2 Pet. 2, Jude).


Authority for Teachers

The ultimate foundation for this authority is reputation (Gal. 2:9): a potential elder is to be “first tested,” and after they have been found to be trust-worthy (1 Tim. 3:10), and has been found to have a good reputation inside and outside of the church (1 Tim. 3:7) they are then to – perhaps after some sort of formal or informal ordination process – have other elders lay hands on them and formally commend them to the ministry (1 Tim. 5:22).

However, there is no infallible office of dogmatician within the church: even the Apostle Paul was to be scrutinized (by the “laity” no less! Acts 17:11) and to be absolutely rejected if his words did not accord with the Truth (Gal. 1:8). Peter was able at one moment to speak the Word of God by the Holy Spirit (Mat. 16:17), and to speak the words of Satan in perhaps the very next breath (Mat. 16:23). The very least (1 Cor. 15:9) has the authority to oppose the greatest – even to his face! – when the latter is not walking according to the truth (Gal. 2:11).

Fathers and dogma of the church

The very act of testing teachers and tradition implies that there will be not only a rejected portion, but an accepted and rarified portion of tradition. So, it is that although the church is not to have any fathers (Mat. 23:9), Paul is a father to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 4:15) and to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:2) and Titus (Titus 1:4). Further, Paul commends to his disciples a body of teaching – apparently separate from Scriptures – for their instruction and guidance (1 Tim. 1:10, Tit. 1:9).

When teachers have surpassed all the tests of fruitfulness, and their words have been found to have enduring significance for the church, they are – by reputation – informally or formally placed in a position of a “Father” (or mother) of the Church. This designation does not make their words infallible, but only that many have found them helpful in the past, and that the Church commends their words to Christians in the future. Further, when traditions have been often tested against Scriptures and continually found to be accurate, as well as helpful to the church, these traditions become enshrined as “dogma” of the church. Again, this does not make such dogmas infallible.

The Church relies on the Scriptures – but without the Fathers or Dogmas of the Church, every generation of believers would be like children, expected to learn math without the multiplication table, or chemistry without the periodic table. Due to the assistance of many faithful Christians of the past, the church can avoid the pitfalls of ancient heresies, benefit from the wisdom of long-dead sages, and pray alongside the faithful from ages past.

The church is “reformed and reforming,” however, in that it will never consider the canons of the Fathers or Dogmatician to be complete or perfect. Rather, like true scientists of the Truth of God,[13] they will always and continually return to Scriptures, to see if these things are so (cf. Acts 17:11).

The Creeds

            The Creeds of the Church have a unique and precious place within the Tradition of the Church. First, next to Scriptures they pass all the tests of doctrine more thoroughly and faithfully than any other bit of tradition. However – and more importantly – they (unlike other bits of tradition) arise naturally, as Creeds, from Scriptures themselves. As has been said, not all Scriptural doctrines are equal: some are delivered “as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3), while others are brushed over for reasons of time constraints (Heb. 9:5b) or the limitations of the recipients (John 16:12, Heb. 5:11). After careful research, J.N.D. Kelly writes that it, “may be accepted as demonstrated fact,” that the NT church already possessed the Creeds, “in the broad sense of a recognized body of teaching.”[14] This information they did not see themselves as inventing, but as receiving directly from God (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3, Gal. 1:12).

Taking its lead from Jesus, who taught the church to baptize, “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” (Mat. 28:18), the NT church began to express this core of belief in creed-like statements such as “Jesus is Lord,” and to compose sacrosanct summaries of the life and work of Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-26, 15:1-11, Phil. 2:1-8). These Creeds were not to be tested and questioned like the rest of the Apostles’ teaching – rather, they were to be associated with the sacraments of Baptism (Mat. 28:19) and Communion (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and were to be the test of a true Christian (1 Cor. 12:3) and the benchmark of true Christian teaching (1 John 2:22). Thus, the impetus to form creeds was not a fourth-century, but a first-century idea – received from Jesus Himself. Although the Creeds all vary slightly, they all proclaim the same God, and tell of the same work of grace – or, in my categories, they express the essence of Christian orthodoxy.

The most difficult aspect of the Creeds is that they contain also some bits of Christian doctrine which – although important – is not essential, and about which Christians disagree, such as the filioque and the Christological descent into Hell. This is by no means a small matter. However, perhaps it is best to say that on matters where the Creeds do not overlap, they do not express essential, but only non-essential portions of Christian doctrine.



Overview of Missions

            Missions is the work of God to reconcile a fallen world to Himself.[15] God’s salvation was prophesied immediately after the original fall of man (Gen. 3:15), and in God’s promise to “bless all the nations” through his seed (Gen. 22:18, cf. Gal. 3:16).

In the “fullness of time,” God brought His plan to fruition by sending His Son, “born of a woman,” to redeem and adopt His own (Gal. 4:4-5) and to begin the work of summing up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10, Phil. 3:21).

After His birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus invited His disciples and the Church into His work, promising to work alongside and in them until its completion (Mat. 28:18-20).


Telos and Attitude of Missions

            In Revelations we catch a vision of the telos of missions: that “from every tribe and nation and people” God will have ransomed people (Rev. 5:9) to surround His throne and worship Him joyfully and loudly (Rev. 7:9-13). This is the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Gen. 22:18).

The Methodology of Missions


            The mission of God is fundamentally a mission of movement. Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself and came (Phil. 2:7). The disciples were not to keep the Good News to themselves, but to disseminate it throughout Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). After a little prompting, they went preaching the gospel (Acts 8:4), and this good news has travelled and passed down even to us. Whether going across the street or across the globe, missions compels us to movement.

Make Disciples

            The primary invitation of Christ to a non-Christian is not “come, believe,” but “come, follow me,” (Mat. 16:24, 19:21, Mk. 8:34, 10:21, Lk. 9:23, 18:22, Jn. 22:21, Rom. 4). Jesus invites the world into a committed relationship of submission and obedience to Him alone.

Of All the Nations

There is a direct and indirect application of this aspect: directly, what this means is that we must evangelize every last corner of the globe before the Great Commission can be considered fulfilled. The second application is less obvious: however, it becomes even clearer when viewing again the telos of missions: to initiate a redeemed host to Heaven “from every tribe, language and people,” (Rev. 7:9). The implication of this is that a missions agenda which explicitly attempts to assimilate tribes, obliterate language, and conquer people is contrary to the intentions of God.

Baptizing Them

The full meaning and purpose of Baptism cannot be discussed here: however, at least one aspect of baptism, in this context, is that the mission movement should create a community of people who are visibly self-identifying with Christ. Not all who call Jesus Lord will be saved (Mat. 7:21): however, none who deny Christ will be affirmed before the Father (2 Tim. 2:12). Christianity is not meant to be a secrecy cult, but a visible religion – often necessitating great sacrifices and family tensions for new converts (Mat. 10:36).

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

This new identification with Christianity is not to be doctrine-less or user-defined. Rather, new converts are to affirm allegiance to the essential doctrines of the faith.

Teaching them to Obey all that I Commanded

Right orthodoxy can be creedally expressed and affirmed: however, ethics requires more subtlety and precision. Obedience to the commands of Christ in a specific culture requires great discernment and wisdom. For example, in the NT church, the Jewish Christians struggled to maintain their Jewish identity – including feast days, kosher laws and circumcision – without legalism. On the other hand, the Roman Christians struggled to maintain their Roman identity without compromise to hedonism and sensuality. There are no clear-cut, simple and quick answers to complex questions such as these – they must be enfleshed and worked out within a culture and a situation. Sometimes, the answer to the same question will be different for two separate groups of people. Acts 15, Romans 14-15 and 1 Cor. 8-9 contain the guidelines for how to wrestle Christianly with these matters.


Christianity in Malawi

Since the arriving of Protestant Missionaries – lead especially by David Livingstone – in the late 19th Century, Christianity has grown to over 82% of the population of Malawi (which is 16 million).[16] However, this rapid lateral growth of the Gospel in Malawi has often not been matched either with a real depth of Christian maturity, or with any up-growth of Christian leadership. Synchronism is common – in part because the pastor-to-Christian ratio is as little as one pastor to 12,000 Christians.[17]

A ministry of Bible-teaching inMalawiwould consist of teaching the truth of God on reality and morality by means of the Word of God, in concert with the local and global/historic church. Although the content of such teaching would not be different in Africa than in Canada, a teacher may prefer a more narrative style of teaching, rather than a systematic, or linear style, to better communicate with the non-Western students. Also, there will be some new challenges presented by the need to answer questions arising from the unique religio-cultural context of the Malawian church.

History of Nyau and Chinamwali

            Nyau is a religio-cultural ceremony involving ornate masks and dancing, historically associated with funeral rites. Historically, Nyau was the religious practice of the powerless. At the height of the Maravi kingdom, Nyau dancing was tightly legislated by the ruling class (the Phiri) and dancers were forbidden to enter the rain-shrines, which were the highest places of worship. Also, the Maravi people have historically been a matriarchal society.[18] A married man was referred to as “the man who belongs somewhere else,” and such men had almost no power or voice within society, and his wife’s brothers had more authority over his children and his wife’s possessions than he.[19] Hendrina Kachapila theorizes that Nyau gave married men a place of belonging – as well as a passive-aggressive outlet for frustration, since they could satirize a person of the tribe through their dance or masks – and could act with impunity when dressed in Nyau attire. As the Maravi kingdom collapsed, and as the Chewa peoples were repeatedly raided by slave-traders then ruled by British imperialism all Chewa became powerless, and Nyau gained a more global appeal – especially as the rain-shrines were destroyed and, for the most part, not rebuilt.[20]

In the matriarchal society, chinamwali was a secretive female ritual surrounding the initiation of a young girl into puberty. Historically, the men would be allowed to even see the women being initiated. However, as Chewa society began to collapse, the women leaders of villages began asking the male leaders of Nyau to participate in Chin. One elder said that the purpose was to discipline girls who were not taking their tribal beliefs seriously enough, but publicly mocking – and sometimes pinching or lightly buffeting – offending parties.[21] Concurrently, the sect of Nyau opened up to all males – and young men began participating in a chinamwali service of their own.[22]

Currently, the practice of initiating tribal youths into adulthood through a combination of Nyau and chinamwali is a common practice in Malawi. These dances are also performed to receive power and control events, and to communicate with the dead, as well as aiding departed spirits on their journey to the afterlife. European-style popular stage has been in South Africa for over a century, and has affected how Africans think of dance and drama.[23] The (secular) government employs a dance troop, and village dance troupes often compete with one another, or perform upon demand for audiences. Dancers are usually paid, and Nyau has become a significant source of income for some people.[24]

Historically, missionaries and indigenous Christians alike have tended to reject outright nyau and chinamwali. The primary reasons for this are as follows: 1) Nyau dancers sometimes danced virtually naked, 2) the practice of chinamwali often includes the teaching – by demonstration and participation – of sexual intercourse to the initiate,[25] 3) even when emptied of its sexual connotations, the dancing is “not merely cultural,” but is religious, attempting to call on spiritual powers and to perform spiritual activities.

A Biblical Response to Nyau and Chin

            As a foreigner, I would not see it as my responsibility to find an answer to the issue of Nyau and chinamwali participation. Rather, I would try to equip theMalawi peoples to grapple with these issues themselves.

The issue, as I see it, is how can the Chewa peoples worship God through their art and culture without at the same time compromising their morals or worshipping demons?

The first guideline is that obviously, any form of sexual immorality – including immodesty (although this is culturally defined) – should be completely renounced (Eph. 5:3, 1 Tim. 2:9).[26]

Secondly – and more complexly – the Christians need to be careful that they are not, by their rituals, becoming, “partakers of demons,” (1 Cor. 10:20). This is by no means a simple matter to discern! In the NT church, one person could do the same action (eat meat sacrificed to idols) and be a partaker of demons, while another could do so giving thanks to God (). The same is true in our own culture: one person may knock on wood, throw salt over their shoulder and distain walking under a ladder as a joke or an innocent habit. For another, these taboos may be deadly serious: the difference is not in the actions, but the intentions.

There are several categories of spiritual actions forbidden in Scriptures. Perhaps the best course of action would be to carefully teach students these categories of Biblical prohibitions, and allow them to make up their own minds as to whether these rituals should be allowed, redeemed, or prohibited.

Necromancy or Remembrance?

Death is always an intruder, and mourning is a normal human response that even Jesus did (John 11:35). Communal mourning is nowhere prohibited and often practiced in Scriptures (Amos 5:16, Luke 7:23). Ceremonies may take place as well, such as lighting an honorary bonfire (2 Chron. 16:14) and embalmment (Gen. 50:2).

However, any form of necromancy is strictly forbidden, as is divination, omens, spells, and the like (Deut. 18:10-11). Also, there is no indication that a deceased person needs assistance moving from one spiritual state to another: mourners should concern themselves with the living, not with the dead, since their fate is sealed one way or another at death (Heb. 9:27).

To put it in practical terms: one is free to mourn in a culturally-appropriate way, and receive emotional benefits from such ceremonies. However, if they believe they are giving or receiving spiritual benefits from these ceremonies they are in error, and are in danger of becoming partakers of demons.

Skill or Sorcery?

The Nyau art of mask-carving and dances are intricate and secretive. In themselves, intricacy and secrecy are not sins – but again we must look to motive. Again, the question must be asked, “Are you seeking to bestow or receive spiritual power from these proceedings?” If so, one is in danger of committing sorcery – even if one believes that the power is drawn only from inanimate objects, or “safe” spirits (such as ancestors) or the universe as a whole. The only spiritual power open to the Christian is the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8)

Right of Passage or Religious Indoctrination?

It is virtually impossible to have any form of art without a message – and all messages are ultimately related to religion. For generations, animistic beliefs have been handed down through cultural ceremonies and stories. Some of these stories are innocuous, or teach common sense, or even point to God’s invisible attributes. Much of the traditional art and stories may be redeemed. However, there will always be a certain amount of content which is “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), “lofty things raised up against the knowledge of God,” (2 Cor. 10:5), through which Satan has for long ages enslaved people to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26). A great part of Nyau and chinamwali seems to be the preservation of culture. As has been mentioned, this is an essential feature of missions which needs to be encouraged and strengthened. However, a Christian needs to carefully weigh the actual messages of the dances and ceremonies they are partaking in, to be sure they do not re-enforce false doctrines which would cause them confusion, or, far worse, cause a younger Christian to be shaken in their faith (Mat. 18:6).

The Weaker Brother

Because matters like these are so highly subjective, it is normal for Christians to land at different places regarding these. I am assuming that with over a century of ferment on these issues, there are a myriad of perspectives. Paul divides Christians on such matters generally into two groups: the “stronger” and “weaker” brother. The former can practice a wide variety of practices without wounding his conscience, while the “weaker” brother cannot. We must remember that Paul spends the latter and greater portion of his discussion of disputed matters issuing careful commands meant to guard against causing any offense or stumbling to the weaker brother. Paul’s conclusion here is that he would rather not eat meat than to cause someone to stumble, since if he did so, his freedom would thus become judged (1 Cor. 10:29).

Thus, a great part of the instruction on these matters should concern careful sensitivity to the beliefs and taboos of ones’ fellow Christians. As grievous and undesirable as it may be to curtail or loose a part of one’s culture, a fellow Christian is of infinitely greater value. Paul could be paraphrased at this point: “ThekingdomofGodis not about dancing and carving but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom. 14:17).


            Perhaps twenty-seven months from now I will be nostalgically packing up my Bible and books, pacing back and forth in the now-empty classroom and praying individually for each former pupil who has sat under my care for a year. What will I have been doing for that span of time? What will I have said? What will I have accomplished?

By God’s grace, I hope that I have faithfully proclaimed the Word of God to them, by carefully teaching them the essential doctrines pertaining to God, His creation, and His commands and redemptive plan. I hope that I have carefully and joyfully lead students to participate in a deeper and more joyful relationship to Jesus Christ. And I hope, too, that I have lead them into a fuller knowledge of God by expanding outwards from the essentials, to see how the Truth of God interprets, redefines and redeems all of life.

I hope, ultimately, and gloriously, that I will someday be surrounded by a Heavenly host of witnesses. Not just a host of those who have gone on before, and have passed the faith to me. But also of those who have come after, and to whom I have passed on the faith (2 Tim. 2:2).

And I hope, above all, to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” applied to myself, and to my teaching ministry inAfrica.


Aguila, Laurel Birch. “Metaphors, Myths and Making Pots: Chewa Clay Arts.” African Arts, (Spring 2007).

Augustine, Aurelius. Confessions. Book VII. Chap. 14-17. trans. Henry Chadwick. Saint Augustine Confessions.  New York. NY:OxfordUniversity Press. 1991.

Augustine, Aurelius. On the Proceedings of Pelagius. Chap. 26. [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 5 Mar. 2012.

Barth, Karl. “The Strange New World Within the Bible.” in The Word of God and the Word of Man.  Pilgrim Press, 1928 . [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 28 Mar. 2012.

Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline.  New York. NY: Harper TorchBooks. 1970.

Barr, Sydney. From the Apostle’s Faith to the Apostle’s Creed.New York,NY:OxfordUniversity Press, 1960.

CIA. The World Fact Book. “Malawi.” [document on-line]; available from countrytemplate_mi.html; Internet; accessed 15 Feb. 2012.

Machen, J. Gresham. Liberalism and Christianity.  Grand Rapids.MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2009

Magalasi, Mufunanji. “Malawian Popular Commercial Stage Drama: Origins. Challenges and Growth.” Journal of Southern African Studies. 34. (March 2008).

McCreary, L.L. et. all.. “Rural Malawians’ perceptions of HIV risk behaviors and their sociocultural context.” AIDS Care. Vol. 20. No. 8. Sept. 2008.

Merry, Dan. “Clergy Shortage.” Merry Missionary Journal. (online blog). 26 Jan. 2005. [document on-line]; available from file:///D:/Chewa/journal_012605.htm; Internet; accessed 17 Feb. 2012.

Probst, Peter. “Expansion and Enclosure: Ritual Landscapes and the Politics of Space in Central Malawi.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, (2002).

Kachapila, Hendrina. “The Revival of Nyau and Changing Gender Relations in Early Colonial Central Malawi.” Journal of Religion in Africa. 36. (2006).

Kelly, John .N.D. Early Christian Creeds. Third ed.London, Eng: Longman Publishing Group, 1972.

Willis, Avery T., Jr. The Biblical Basis of Missions.  Evangelical Church. PCUSA: 2012. [document on-line]; Available at The%20Biblical%20Basis%20of%20Missions.pdf. Internet. Accessed 15 March 2012.

[1] This is an allusion to the doctrine of Middle Knowledge, which I cannot expound here.

[2] This information is necessary to salvation (Rom. 10:14), but knowledge alone does not effect salvation (Jas. 2:10f).

[3] Karl Barth, ‘The Strange New World Within the Bible,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man, (Pilgrim Press, 1928), [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 28 Mar. 2012.

[4] This tension, it seems to me, is brought about by a basically existentialist view of humanity, which militates against the older notion – which I am here propounding – of seeing as intrinsic to personhood.

[5] J. Gresham Machen, Liberalism and Christianity, (Grand Rapids,MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 98.

[6] It is possible to learn of God’s invisible attributes through nature (Rom. 1:20), and many facets of His nature, character, and will from the OT: however, He is only perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:3), who is the interpretive key to both nature and Scriptures.

[7] But God is both outside of, and within/throughout time. Within time, He is grieved, changes His mind, repents, incarnates and is crucified. However, outside of time, He is eternal and unchanging, even in His crucifixion, cf. Rev. 13:8.

[8] All reality originated in the mind of God, and still finds its true and ultimate reality in relation to God. For this reason, there can be a guarded interchange between Platonism and Christianity, since the Mind of God functions almost equivalently to Plato’s “world of forms,” but Augustine notes many ways in which Platonism must be redeemed by the Christian worldview, not least of which is the scandal of the incarnation of the Word. Cf. Augustine, Confessions, Book VII. Chap. 14-17, trans. Henry Chadwick, Saint Augustine Confessions, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), NY: 121-124. But history has produced some much-needed critiques of even Augustine’s chastened Platonism, especially in that he made the spirit holier than the body.

[9] Augustine notes – in contradiction to Pelagius – that if Christians did not sin, they would have no debts to continually request God’s forgiveness for (Mat. 6:12). Cf. also 1 John 1:10. Augustine, On the Proceedings of Pelagius, Chap. 26, [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 5 Mar. 2012.

[10] Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 1646, [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 23 Jan. 2012.

[11] This discussion of the gradation of sins is a rejection of the “all sins are equal” dictum common within my Evangelical/Fundamentalist upbringing. I am self-consciously interacting with and qualifying the Catholic categories of “mortal” and “venial” sins, cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ed., Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York, NY: DoubleDay, 1994), 507-9.

[12] The purpose of it is to prevent the punitive judgment of God, Mat. 18:6, cf. Mat. 18:9-10.

[13] Cf. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, (New York, NY: Harper TorchBooks, 1970), 9-10.

[14] John .N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds. Third ed.London, Eng: Longman Publishing Group, 1972, 13.

[15] Avery T. Willis, Jr., The Biblical Basis of Missions, (Evangelical Church, PCUSA: 2012), [document on-line]; Available at, Internet. Accessed 15 March 2012, 8.

[16] CIA, The World Fact Book, “Malawi,” [document on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 15 Feb. 2012.

[17] Dan Merry, “Clergy Shortage,” Merry Missionary Journal, online blog, 26 Jan. 2005, [document on-line]; available from file:///D:/Chewa/journal_012605.htm; Internet; accessed 17 Feb. 2012.

[18] Hendrina Kachapila, “The Revival of Nyau and Changing Gender Relations in Early Colonial Central Malawi,” Journal of Religion in Africa, 36, (2006), 319.

[19] Ibid, 327.

[20] Ibid, 322-327.

[21] Kachapila, “The Revival of Nyau,” 334.

[22] Kachapila, “The Revival of Nyau,” 332-333.

[23] Mufunanji Magalasi, “Malawian Popular Commercial Stage Drama:

Origins, Challenges and Growth,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 34 (March 2008), 161-162.

[24] Kachapila, “The Revival of Nyau,” 336.

[25] L.L. McCreary notes this is a significant factor leading to the prevalence of AIDS in Malawi, noting especially that it is often a much older – and thus higher-risk – male who is invited to participate. L.L. McCreary, et. all., “Rural Malawians’ perceptions of HIV risk behaviors and their sociocultural context,” AIDS Care, Vol. 20, No. 8, (Sept. 2008), 947.

[26] This is a word which the Western Church needs as well – since art, including paintings and movies – are often used to excuse sins of the eyes and of the heart (Mt. 5:28).


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