BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Sometimes spiritual terms taken for granted by American Christians may hinder the progress of world missions, missiologist Ralph Winter said during a teaching assignment at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Ala.
Even such widely used terms as “Christian” and “Christianity” are not always helpful in other cultures, Winter suggested, adding the Bible does not require the use of either term.
“For at least 15 years after Pentecost, the word Christian wasn’t even known,” said Winter, director of the U.S. Center for World Mission, Pasadena, Calif. “It’s not essential as far as the Bible is concerned.”
Winter, who taught a course on “Missions Futures” at Beeson, Jan. 13-24, observed the terms Christian and Christianity are not universally accepted around the world, even among some followers of Christ.
“We have to be willing for Jews who want to follow Christ to call themselves ‘Messianic Jews’ and not insist that they call themselves Christians,” Winter said.
Another case in point would be India, Winter said, where virtually all who call themselves Christians are automatically classified as “dalits.”
In Indian society, dalits were once known as “untouchables” — a term now illegal to use in English-language publications in India — but the cultural stigma remains, Winter observed.
“Dalits are meat-eating people; they are not vegetarian,” he explained. “They are not, strictly speaking, Hindus at all. They are completely outside the caste system. They’re involved in the more gruesome trades, like skinning animals and rubbish people and so forth.”
Winter related the story of an Indian man who became a follower of Christ and initially called himself a Christian, which outraged his parents.
Soon the new convert became keenly aware of the biblical mandate to honor one’s parents and felt he had failed to do so.
“His mother used to depend on him to buy flowers so she could put the flowers on the idols in their home,” Winter said. “He refused to do that now that he was a Christian.”
Eventually, the man apologized to his parents, stopped identifying himself as a Christian and resumed buying flowers for his mother again, Winter related. “It was up to her what she wanted to do with them, he felt, and they were delighted at his change of attitude toward them.”
But the man continued his life as a follower of Christ, though not using the label of “Christian,” and later saw his grandfather also become a believer, Winter said.
In an interview, Winter addressed a broad range of topics related to world missions:
— alcohol abuse in Western nations. Neither devout Muslims nor devout Hindus drink, and both groups are aware of the large number of deaths due to alcohol in the United States, Winter noted.
“The alcoholic consumption in the usual Muslim country is lower than in the usual Christian country,” Winter said. “Many people across North Africa become ‘Christians’ in order to be able to drink without criticism.”
— an overemphasis on who will enter heaven. Evangelicals
often give too much attention to the issue of who will make it to heaven, Winter said.
“The Bible is more interested in the integrity of the heart,” Winter said. “The implication may be that those are the people that get to heaven. It’s not a bad question, but it’s the wrong question to emphasize.”
— an underemphasis on the implications of Acts 16:31, in which a Philippian jailer was told, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
Winter noted churches in the United States do not receive families into church membership but individuals. A new American convert would probably be puzzled if a church strongly expected other family members to join simultaneously, Winter suggested.
“But that technique falls to the ground when we go into a society where families are still whole or still together,” he said.
— the minimum beliefs to which a believer must subscribe. Winter said followers of Christ have been writing creeds for centuries but have “never arrived at a consensus about what you have to know to get to heaven. … We look at the Bible and the Bible doesn’t stress knowledge but virtue. It stresses believing in order to know rather than knowing in order to believe.”