The Old Testament Can Help Us Navigate Culture in Africa

This blog was originally written by Zacarias Simbo and posted on TGC Africa.

Africa is known for many things. But not all of them are good. For example, many people associate slavery with our continent. Many others think of abject poverty and poor education when they think of Africa. Still other people associate Africa with cults, religious fanaticism, and animal sacrifices. Within this context, the light of Christianity has been shining for centuries across Africa. Preaching Christ isn’t an easy task here. Perhaps it will come as a surprise to many, but I firmly believe that Africa will be greatly helped by more regularly turning to rather than running from the Old Testament.

Considering Our Past, Immediate Context, and Culture

Before making my case, we need to pause and consider the past. Due to colonialism, Christianity came to Africa in a variety of ways, as missionaries arrived from Europe. For example, in countries colonised by the Portuguese Empire, like Mozambique, the Roman Catholic Church introduced statues, crucifixes, and the saints. Since then, these have been part not only of family life but also culture broadly, even among those who aren’t practising Christians. At the same time, traditional African religions are also rooted in Africa. They also contribute significantly to the daily practices of most families.

We cannot ignore history or culture. Paul didn’t when he preached in Athens (Acts 17). Therefore in countries like my own, where there is a blended and long-running influence of Catholicism along with African Traditional Religion, we must work hard at communicating the gospel for our specific context. That is, our theology and teaching must be dialled into our setting. Furthermore, as I’ve already said, the Old Testament can be a powerful tool for the church’s task in Africa. I’ll outline three reasons why I believe this is the case.

Present God, Not a Statue

Every culture distorts perceptions of God. Therefore introducing the one true God is always challenging. Particular to my culture, outlined above, is the challenge of statues. For the Roman Catholic Church introduced God and Jesus with them. However, throughout the Old Testament we encounter a God who is spirit. This explains God’s insistent prohibition of idols or statutes (Exodus 20:4-6).

Remember when Moses met God, before the exodus. His main question was in which ways he should present God to the people. God’s answer: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Statues, icons, and idols—however well-intentioned—can prevent us from meeting God. They become a distraction. Worse still, we start to venerate them, like small deities themselves.

The Roman Catholic Church leaned on those visual representations because they thought they’d be more effective among the uneducated. But we shouldn’t look to those same shortcuts, where people can get lost. We must present God as he is, either eternal and invisible or in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ.

Present the Sacrifices, Anticipating Jesus

As a part of many African religions, animals are sacrificed in order to attain a favour from the gods, ancestors, or spirits. We must do better than merely condemning such acts, as unacceptable ways of Christian living. Again, the Old Testament provides us with a useful lens.

Yes, Israel’s life in the Old Testament centred on the temple; sacrifices were indispensable to their worship. However, these were always pointing to and have been fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44). The book of Hebrews makes this point at almost every turn. Or consider the picture we’re given in Genesis 22:1-19, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, but at the last minute sends a lamb to die in his place.

This means in Christ we can turn from the pictures and promises to a person. Sacrifices are no longer necessary. “If the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

So we must preach the Old Testament sacrifices, but always with a proper correlation to Jesus’ self offering.

Present Joyful Devotion, Not Obligation

Offerings are one of the most complicated issues to deal with in African churches. Because of poverty, some churches don’t talk about it at all. But we can’t ignore this part of the Christian faith and practice. An important qualification, however, is necessary: church leaders and administrators shouldn’t demand more than what the members of the church can afford. We cannot be indifferent to the economic challenges of members.

At the same time, generosity is called a fruit of Christian faith (2 Corinthians 9:6-8). Similarly, throughout the Old Testament God commends those who give out of devotion rather than obligation. Tithing should be an overflow of joy. God sees the heart and he knows your situation. He isn’t won over by showy offerings or deep pockets (Luke 21:3-4). So we must cultivate joyful generosity and devotion instead of operating out of obligation.

Use the Old Testament to Address Culture in Africa

To proclaim and witness to Christ we must understand our audience. This will mean being sensitive to culture and history, our context generally. If, like me, you live in an area of Africa with a history of Roman Catholic missions and traditional African religions, then the Old Testament will prove a useful place to turn to in God’s word. There we see why God forbids idols and how sacrifices always pointed to Christ. As those living after his coming we meet in him, learning how to live an unburdened but generous faith before those around us.

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