The question of “spirituality” for Ethiopian & Eritrean churches

Original Post: Thursday, August 17, 2016
By: Samson Tilahun
Providing a coherent framework for biblical spirituality is increasingly becoming a must, especially among the habesha community. It feels that we are standing at a cross road in history. It would make me captain obvious to rehearse the issues that we are facing. I don’t want to be captain obvious. Rather, I would like to attempt contributing a solution to the problem. Yes, all of us do have our own perspectives and opinions. However, our subjective opinions and popular church models aside: What does true spirituality look like from the perspective of the scripture? How did the eternal God envision His church to live out this granted life? What are the means that he graciously provided for us in order to bring about life and godliness? What does this ambiguous word ‘spirituality’ could mean to contemporary readers of scripture? Such an exercise, in my opinion, not only nourishes our own Christian walk and the life of the church as community of the redeemed, but it also has paramount implications for how we look upon others. Sometimes we judge other Christians ‘unspiritual’ just because they don’t ‘conform’ to our form of spirituality (who nonetheless would be judged by Christ as ‘my faithful ones’ —remember Christ’s letters to the seven churches.) The issue then is not that we pass judgement on others’ spirituality. Somebody has to judge. As a matter of fact, spiritual-maturity has all to do with setting aside the worthless and clinging to that which is good. This requires some degree of judgement and discernment, unless otherwise we adapt postmodern-spirituality. The real solution then must begin with our definition of spirituality. What is it? Definitions do matter. We all define things before we relate with them. For instance, the answer that we give to the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ —implicitly or explicitly is beside the point— but it has real consequences. And we all do it. How else Christians could nurture racist tendencies against fellow image-bearers or even worst, against those blood-bought believers in Christ? History has shown us that Christians could be blinded by a system of belief that they themselves demised. In Galatians 3:27–29 Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” This text has everything to do with spirituality just as much as Ephesians 5.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, las Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph. 5:1–2) “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:15–21
In the past, I would answer the question, “what is spirituality?” in a more reductionist manner. That is to say, I would be providing a somewhat narrow/focused answer to such a complex question. For instance, “true spirituality is to love God with all your heart” or “true spirituality is being fervent in prayer”, “…being filled with God’s word”, the list goes on and on. All of these are absolutely important. But they are parts of something bigger and not the whole. The question of spirituality is as big as God is, for the foundation of spirituality is God himself. The local church inevitably devotes much energy and focus to this very important question than any other institution that God established. It is in the church sinners find salvation in Christ, become infants in the Lord, and join the family of God. Everything about them begins to be redefined. Their old familial and social status becomes a passé. They look around for a model to imitate in the Church, to guide them in the way of the Lord. Thus the dynamics of spirituality is more caught than taught. As such, it is built within the very structure of discipleship. It is impossible to separate the life of the believer from the life of the church. Spirituality is lived out in the church. There is a communal aspect to it as much as personal. Therefore, bad definition of spirituality leads to bad form of spirituality. Inadequate model of spirituality (a model of spirituality that does not take the whole scripture to bear upon it) produces unsustainable spiritual life. As such a generation of believers emerge with a certain form of spirituality. Today, the spirituality of the habesha churches is centered around existential issues. Certain activities are given place of prominence in our churches at the expense of something very important. That is to say, the cart has been placed a head of the horse. Things have been reversed for such a long time. We all have contributed to this. As such, it takes all of our prayers and contrite spirits to restore things to their scriptural orders. All the humility in God’s grace is in order.

The Great Divorce between Doctrine and Life-Application: what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate

He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. (Tt 1:9-11)

One such problem that exist in the habesha churches is a model of spirituality that merely assumes deep theological truths (doctrinal convictions) but focuses on christian living. At the outset, we must insist that everyone has a theology of some sort. The question is whether what we have is sound or not. The undeniable strength of our churches is this focus on christian living. However diagnosis and prescription are inseparable if the goal is healing. If diagnosis is made without a prescription, then the patient knows his or her sickness but there is no solution. If prescription is made without diagnosis, it would be useless at best or worse dangerous. Theology is the diagnosis. Prescription is life-application. On the one hand, to stretch our metaphor a bit more, prescription without theology fosters legalism and paganism. The God we worship is a God who revealed himself to us. We cannot improvise on God. One of the major differences between classical music and Jazz, is in its bountiful ability for Jazz to improvise on a simple 16 bar arrangement. God is not Jazz. God is not generic. He is not open ended. He is a personal God. He is a talking God. He says “I AM.” As such therefore, knowledge of God is only attainable if we could hear what he has told us about himself in scripture. On the other hand, theology with out prescription/life-application makes God out to be an empty theory. God is not a theory. Israel’s prophet accused the people for their lack of the knowledge of the LORD and for their religiosity (routine without understanding). On the one hand they don’t have adequate knowledge of God to obey him. They have attention deficit to let God finish his thoughts. Remember King Saul. He claimed to have obeyed God. But God is not looking for any obedience so to speak. He requires obedience out of understanding, to listen is better than the fat of rams (1 Sa 15:22)We can provide countless New Testament examples for our proposition. First of all, the New Testament was not written to teach a doctrine for its own merit. They were not written as a professor would publish an academic paper on “the timeless eternality of God.” The New Testament, (also the OT), were occasional documents. That is to say, they were written to a real people, living in real history in order to address their real and specific crisis in mind. As an example, we see Jesus’ statement on watchfulness, “what I say to you I say to all” Mk 13:37. What Jesus said to his disciples is exactly God’s Word for us. As such therefore, what we have in the New testament, such as the letter to the Galatians, is a doctrine-in-action. Doctrine and christian living are so wedded together, it takes careful reading of the letters to see how a specific doctrine is applied to the life of the church. Nevertheless, doubtless is the fact that there is one there, even to the most novice reader of the scriptures. If I ask someone to provide me an evidence for Jesus’ equality with God, I would get an immediate response: “Philippians 2:5-11”. That is correct. However, Paul’s purpose in writing that magnificent portion of scripture, was not to teach the deity of Jesus. It was to teach believers the path of humility.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:3-5)
This part is christian living. This is life-application. But what is being applied? It is the doctrine of the person of Christ as a model. Here comes the theology part.
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Phil. 2:6–9)
The Apostle’s mind is so steeped in the doctrine of Christ. What we have in Philippians is a great doctrine of Christ applied in action. It takes surgery to parse what is being thought and what is being prescribed. Jesus was fully divine. He was in eternal bliss of glory. But he was humble enough to suffer for sinners by taking upon himself something unfit for his Person: a human nature, in the form of a slave, even death- death on the cross. But God exalted him. The implication is clear. If Jesus, the possessor of glory, humbled himself, why do we mortal beings (sinners saved by grace) seek vain glory? Why do we bite and devour each other? why do we struggle to forgive others? why is it difficult to love one another? Why christian unity is such a wishful thinking for us? The problem is that we forget to apply Jesus. If we too humble ourselves like Jesus, and consider others worthy of our honor, we too will be exalted in due course. Christ-likeness is then the purpose of this chapter. Theology and life application are inseparable. Rejecting theology is stripping ourselves from the life line of godliness. In summary, what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. Our definition of spirituality must incorporate theology-in-action. Otherwise, the current trend will continue to epic proportions.


But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people [people of the Spirit], but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” (1 Co 3:1) (what is in parenthesis is mine)

In scripture, the adjective “spiritual” could be construed or transliterated as Spirit-empowered. The original behind this word is “pnuematikos.” BDAG, a Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, provides us three catch-all meanings for the word spiritual/pnuematikos. ① The first meaning is pertaining “to spirit as inner life of a human being, spiritual.” This usage is what we conventionally mean by the word ‘spiritual’— seen in contrast to the physical. Worship, prayer, meditation of the word, fasting, are spiritual. Shopping, going to work, visiting friends, vacationing, schooling, cooking, house chores, are physical. Such use of the word, for our astonishment, comes to us by way of extra-biblical usage. For instance, Ignatius writing to Polycarp at the beginning of the second century reads:
“I urge you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press on in your race and to exhort all people, that they may be saved. Do justice to your office with constant care for both physical and spiritual concerns.”[1]
What does Ignatius mean by spiritual, he writes
“Focus on unity, for there is nothing better. Bear with all people, even as the Lord bears with you… Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have. Keep on the alert with an unresting spirit”[2] Tell my sisters to love the Lord and to be content with their husbands physically and spiritually.[3]
However, there is more profundity to the antithesis. After going through every instance of ‘physical/spiritual’ and ‘flesh/spirit’ uses in the letter of Ignatius, we can see that he sometimes uses it to refer to Christ’s human descent and divine origin, or human nature/ divine nature, or material/immaterial.
“You are both physical and spiritual in nature for this reason, that you might treat gently whatever appears before you; but ask, in order that the unseen things may be revealed to you, that you may be lacking in nothing and abound in every spiritual gift.[4]
Likewise, Philo —an Alexandrian Jew living during the second temple period—employs the word spiritual in his writing diversely, but mainly as immaterial, impersonal force with different degrees. This outlook of reality from dual perspectives, the spiritual vs. the physical, would become an issue for Christianity down the road especially in its Gnostic tendency. In summary, this use of the word “spiritual”, referring to the inner life of the person as oppose to his or her physical life, is not in use when the word describes christian living. Thus we are in need of a better one.② In the great majority of cases having to do with the (divine) spirit, caused by or filled with the (divine) spirit, pert./corresponding to the (divine) spirit. This second definition of the word spiritual is what we find in Scripture laid out before us. This usage suggests, among others, the Spirit of God as the source of the activity. As quoted above, the majority of its use is found in 1 Corinthians, written to astonishingly self-contradictory church. They have supernatural gifts at work in their churches. They have the Spirit, but Paul could not address them as spiritual people. They are infants. Let’s look at another instance of the word spiritual from Ga 6:1. Paul writes:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
Both words “spiritual” and “spirit of gentleness” are a lot nuanced than many bible translation committees made them out to be. ‘spirit’ with a lowercase would suggest the attitude Christian should have when restoring the brother who’s caught in transgression. However, many scholars have pointed out that Gal. 6:1 is in direct solidarity with the previous chapters— the antitheses between flesh vs. Spirit. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Ga 5:25. Thus the ‘Spirit of gentleness’ can be construed in such a way to mean gentleness that flows out of the Holy Spirit. This way of reading, in my opinion, captures both ‘motive’ and ‘means.’ Paul’s main line of argument, in the book of Galatians, could be gleaned from Gal. 2:15-16 and 3:1-5. Paul stood against Peter, the pillar, and other prominent Jewish leaders, including Barnabas at Antioch. He says “for I saw their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” That is to say, Paul and Peter didn’t have a doctrinal disagreement. Peter was not a heretic. Peter was a hypocrite. He was not consistent in his theology. He flipped-flopped at Antioch, to borrow from the political discourse. They both knew that no one can be justified before God on the basis of the works of the Law. The implication cannot be stated more powerfully than Gal. 3:1-5 when Paul finally turns his countenance from the leaders of the church to the Galatians themselves: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Paul’s pointed questions shows us the real issue at stake: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish?” (Ga 3:2–3) He can’t be more blunt. It only takes spiritual blindness to epic proportions in order for a person to be persuaded by those who preach a different gospel. This is why he asks such rhetorically charged questions, of which the most helpful is verse 3. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” From Paul’s assessment of the situation, the many house church in Galatia are now tempted to incorporate ‘works of the law’ in the equation of their Christian maturity because of the persuasion of the circumcision party. Therefore, going back to our discussion of Gal. 6, the comparison is life in the Spirit vs. life in the flesh. It is a daily decision to follow Christ as people of the Spirit. The marks of people of the flesh are stated in chapter 5 in detail. A person of the flesh approaches the man caught in transgression with a certain pride, as if he is above temptation and stood by his own resources. However, the spiritual or the person with the Spirit or the person who walks in step with the Spirit, restores the man with gentleness from the resources of the Spirit. Fee ably puts it as follow:
This is another of those phrases, spirit of gentleness, in Paul that is extremely difficult to put into English. On the one hand, …the “gentleness” here invoked describes those who are doing the restoring. Thus it is with an attitude of, from a stance of, gentleness. On the other hand, given the presence of Spirit language throughout and thus its appearance here in a context where πνεῦμα [spirit] has always and only referred to the Holy Spirit, it is difficult to imagine that this connection would have been lost on the Galatians themselves.Consequently, as elsewhere, I have opted for the inelegant “S/spirit” as a way of catching Paul’s nuance. In any case, the context rules out altogether translating it “a gentle spirit. (Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 462)
Here is for a start, the question of spirituality must have the nature and person of God as its framework (i.e. the Truine life mediated in Christ and the Spirit). Think of spirituality, the Christian life, as a building.
  • The being of God who is life, light and love is the foundation of this house. This naturally flow to the question of salvation and redemption. How else sinners could be able to stand before a holy creator? The Triune God has given us the solution to our plight. Trinitarian
  • God has united us with Christ, baptized us into one body the Church, on the basis of His Son’s finished work on the cross. Christological/ Christ-centered.
  • This is made a reality in us through indwelling Holy Spirit that we might live the life of the age to come, the life of eternity, in this present evil age as community. Eschatological
  • In doing so, that we shine as living witnesses of the grace of God, the gospel, So that the mission of the Son and the Spirit may find its intended end through our testimony until He returns. Ecclesiological and missional
  • So that ultimately that God may be glorified in all our existence as people of the Spirit. God-Centered
This is easy said than done. This requires deep theological truth expressed in action. To be continued
[1] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 195.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 197.
[4] 195–197.

Samson Tilahun Facebook Note


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