Interacting with Christians from outside our own cultural context can provide valuable insights into Scripture. Christians who write online have unique opportunities to minister in this capacity. Online writing lowers barriers to communication, aids necessary corrections, paves the way for theological cross-pollination, and helps complete our joy.

Flourishing in Fellowship

On Wednesday nights, I teach the Bible. The women who attend my study are a diverse mix of ages, nationalities, and levels of spiritual maturity. Because of these differences, I’m always aware of a potential distance in our perspectives. While our lives share significant overlaps, I find that my practical applications have natural blind spots. Fortunately, through close communion with these women, I’m drawn from my narrow experiences, and as we hash through issues together, our mutual learning deepens.

This sort of symbiotic growth is precisely what makes studying the Bible in community such a beautiful enterprise; and what my women’s group demonstrates in microcosm, the global Christian community offers on a grand scale. While we can’t all afford to travel and worship cross-culturally during this lifetime, simply by going online we have unprecedented access to global theological conversations in which we can operate as both givers and receivers.

Sensing the Need

Christians in all cultural contexts are in danger of hermeneutic circles; that is, of reading their preconceived notions back into the text and walking away thinking they found Scriptural confirmation for their predispositions. American Christians are just as susceptible to this pitfall as any. This is less a criticism than a statement of fact. Notes Lesslie Newbigin, “No one comes to any text with a completely vacant mind…We come to it, inevitably, with the pre-understanding into which we have been nurtured by our culture. It cannot be otherwise.”[1] While in context Newbigin is referring largely to how generational traditions inform the hermeneutic circle, the principle applies on a broad scale.

The church is not only multigenerational but multiethnic and multicultural; therefore, our community encompasses not only believers from other times but also from every tribe, tongue, and nation. One benefit of participating in global theological conversations is that by witnessing Christians of diverse cultural backgrounds contextualizing their faith, we can become more attuned to the powerful pull of our own potential hermeneutic circles. For me, my tightest hermeneutic circle was my cultural blindness to the Scriptures’ teaching on shame.

The Blind Reading the Blind

In one sense, we come to Scripture on the same terms—all spiritually blind without the aid of the Holy Spirit. But even with his help, our sight is not complete. I love Paul’s figure of speech in 1 Corinthians 13:12—how Christians see dimly in a clouded mirror. It so accurately describes how I feel on most days: I can grasp the shape of things, but the details are blurred. Fortunately, this condition won’t last. One day, God’s people will know fully, as we are fully known. Meanwhile, however, though we are fully known and fully loved by God, we are still growing in in grace.

We can learn from what Jesus said about the blind leading the blind: when no one can see the road ahead, it’s easy to fall into a pit (Matthew 15:14). When those who are spiritual blind read the “wisdom” of those who are also blind, they’re not likely to stumble into truth. Such were some of us. But now, as co-heirs with Christ, with unveiled faces beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).We may be looking into dimly clouded mirrors, but we can see little by little under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and when we compare the details of what the Spirit’s revealing, we can build a stronger composite together than we could ever attempt on our own.

Opening our Eyes

While our cultural strengths lead us to address certain aspects of theology in great detail, our weaknesses blind us to other aspects entirely. Jackson Wu, a seminary professor working in the context of an honor-shame culture, has pointed out that though Scripture highlights the honor-shame dynamics of sin alongside a guilt-innocence dynamic, American culture does not recognize the complexities of honor and shame the same way that other cultures do.[2] Though shame is a universally experienced phenomenon, America’s scholarly theological writers have contributed little to this discussion–at least, proportionally so.[3]

This strikes home for me. Though I understood implicitly that Christ dealt with my guilt in the finished and sufficient work of the  Cross, I spent many years having no idea what to do with my shame. Since I had no “sense of shame,” I had no idea how to counsel other women whose shame overwhelmed them. In the providence of God, my theological blind spot was addressed initially through online theological writing. I remain grateful to my siblings in Christ and the way in which their written words ministered to me and strengthened my ministry.

Plumbing the Depths

Across the world, our siblings in Christ have developed rich theological traditions. In many cases, their theological development has been forged in the refining fires of persecution. The perspectives of these sibling saints are gifts to the global church, and in inviting communication to flow both ways, we rightly position ourselves as both givers and receivers of mutual grace. We open ourselves to share both necessary course-corrections and exciting theological cross-pollination.

Joining the Conversation

There are several potential barriers to open communication, however. One is persecution. In places where persecution persists, much of God’s work remains hidden from us. It’s not within the scope of this article to address this barrier. It would be prudent at this point, however, to stop and pray for our persecuted siblings in Christ.

Mindful of my current audience, I’ll address the natural barrier of language. Here in the States, publishers have not traditionally provided domestic consumers a wide array of options to help English-only speakers access global theology. Fortunately, the tide does seem to be turning, with internationally-sourced commentaries making their way Stateside.[4]

Since not everyone has the resources to invest in multiple expensive commentaries, though, the work of the online Christian writing community proves even more vital. Writers around the world share their insights online through professional platforms, curated sites, peer-reviewed journals, and personal blogs. Though the world is wide and the family of faith far-flung, unique and biblical perspectives are always just a few clicks away.

We must always exercise discernment when opening to a broad range of voices; but with prayer, persistence and perception, we can plumb the rich depths of global theology.

Fulfilling Our Joy

Toward the end of his life, the Apostle John attested that he found genuine joy not solely in the revelation he had received from the Lord. His joy was full only once he shared with others. 1 John 1:3-4, “What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us…We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.[5]

By engaging online with our siblings in Christ within the global theological community, we can challenge, comfort, and edify, participating in a system of symbiotic growth that will strengthen the Body of Christ on both the local and universal levels. Together, we can fulfill our joy as we minister to one another in love.

Moving Forward

It’s one thing to become convinced we can benefit from joining global theological conversations. It’s another to take practical steps. In closing, I’d like to make three simple recommendations.

  1. Travel. If your church partners with a sister church or supports international missionaries, inquire about visits. I’m not talking about a service trip, per se, but about a learning trip. Tell your hosts what you hope to accomplish and ask their recommendations for resources that will help you prepare culturally before you go and process theologically after you return. The Lord may even allow you to foster friendships and forge channels of ongoing dialogue that could last through this life and into eternity.
  2. Dialogue. Seek a sibling in Christ whom you suspect may be further along in this area than you are. Ask what they’re reading, the blog sites they follow, and the sermons they’d recommend. Start your journey by sampling their recommendations. You’ll have a built-in discussion partner!
  3. Engage. Learning outside your cultural box isn’t something that’s simply going to happen to you. If you’ve become convinced of the need to engage with global theology, purpose now that you will add books, sermons, and podcasts to your rotation. Follow blogs, make comments, ask questions–above all, abounding in love.

Start small, if you like.

But start.

References

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 51.

[2] Wu, Jackson. “Appreciation for D.A. Carson Comments on Shame.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2018/12/06/appreciation-carson-comments-shame/ (retrieved January 21, 2019).

[3] Wu, Jackson. “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame? How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame.” Themelios. http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/have-theologians-no-sense-of-shame (retrieved January 17, 2019).

[4] The Africa Bible Commentary and the South Asia Bible Commentary are two such resources.

[5] 1 John 1:3-4, emphasis mine.