A theological-ethical investigation of the influence of Christian mission on moral values in South Africa

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Christian mission played a significant role in South Africa. The Christian faith was established at the southern tip of Africa with the arrival of European immigrants. There are, however, many different opinions on whether mission was beneficial to the different communities among whom it was established. The concept of mission has changed much through the years. This change has had implications for how mission is regarded and its influence on the community, especially regarding the moral and ethical life of communities.

Earlier, Voetius described the goal of mission as the conversion of the unbelievers, the planting of the church and the glory and manifestation of the grace of God. Livingstone emphasised the three C’s of mission, namely commerce, civilisation and Christianity. The emphasis was still strongly on conversion.

At present the concept of missio Dei plays an important role in the explanation of mission. Dawid Bosch’s (1991) magisterial work Transforming mission inaugurated the concept of a new paradigm in mission, namely an ecumenical approach. Different aspects have to be taken into account and missio Dei becomes the essential aspect of mission. From the missio Dei the mission of the Church, missio ecclesiae, and mission of humanity, missio humanitatis, are presented. God is the primary source and proclaimer of mission. As God sent his Son, so the Son sends the Church.

Bevans and Schreuder (2005) emphasise mission as constant in context and explains the value of mission in the present world. Wright (2006), in his important work The mission of God (2006), explains how mission should be understood from the perspective of a grand narrative in the Old and New Testaments with implications for the whole community. Newbigin (1989:222) asks how the gospel can still be relevant in the present (especially Western) world and suggests that the Church should become a missional Church in her very existence.

The question of mission theology comes strongly to the fore in all aspects of mission. In considering how mission determines moral and ethical life, the full meaning of the missio Trinitatis in the community and human existence will have to be investigated. Mission will also affect all aspects of a person's moral and ethical life. This does not mean that the Church has exceeded its space in society. The Church approaches the other, who are part of the societal relations, from the missio Trinitatis with the necessary humility but never different from in the service of God. Mission comes in brokenness and in service to the world.

Certain challenges have emerged over the years concerning the mission of the Church.

Dualism has been a serious problem. In this regard Van der Walt (2003:514) writes:

In the case of Christianity the implication was that the all-encompassing kingdom of God – wide as creation itself – was restricted to only one area, viz. man’s cultic or confessional life viewed as inherently sacred or holy. Or, to turn the statement around: church life was absolutised so that it encompassed the kingdom of God. Such a limitation of the kingdom of God in principle excludes the possibility that His kingdom might embrace the whole world. Having first tied the Bible, religion and God’s kingdom to the church, one cannot give genuine biblical witness in the other areas of life.

There have also been cultural challenges. Bosch (1991:344) indicates that the enlightenment significantly influenced the mission movement in a way that led to Western superiority and prejudice. This influenced various aspects of the mission movements.

Van der Walt (1972:31) indicates that South Africa’s religious-cultural heritage had not been recognised.

Moorhouse (1973:326) writes in this regard:

The missionaries were curiously incapable of rethinking their own morality, even when such experiences with their own converts might have suggested that they should at least attempt a form of compromise in the values they had imported from Europe and the Americas (Moorhouse 1973:326).

Economic and political challenges have also occurred over time. Matters such as the alleviation of poverty, economic restoration and political renewal did not received full attention within mission. Renewal on economic and political levels have been neglected (Bosch 1991:408). Missionaries have sometimes overlooked obvious mismanagement, which has led to great misery in the communities (Moorhouse 1973:336ff).

Mission, however, still has important implications.

Van Niekerk (2014:3) writes:

It seems that the emphasis has shifted in the missional approach. Manifesting the glory of God remains paramount, but the planting of the churches and the conversion of people are now accommodated within the goal to call for the radical application of Christ’s kingship over the whole of life and the goal of addressing people in their total environment, and not the other way round.

Concerning an ethical approach, Heyns (1982:8) regards ethics as the treatment of a person with regard to the question of good and evil. This view can be broadly understood to include the whole community. Smit and De Villiers (2008:245ff) refer to an important article on Gustafson’s view on four locutions, namely relating to the prophetic, narrative, ethical and policy. Although Gustafson indicates all of these locutions as legitimate, Smit and De Villiers (2008:259) are of the opinion that there could be illegitimate applications of these locutions. Theology’s task is thus to discern illegitimate locutions from the moral locution (2008:260).

Pannenberg (1981:8) shows that John 18:33 and 36, about Jesus’ kingdom that is not of this world, were understood in the Middle Ages as the sovereignty of the Church, and by Luther as two realms. He (1981:8) explains: “Christ’s kingdom, however, does not abandon ‘this world’ to its own devices, but claims sovereignty even over the political order.” Pannenberg (1981:20) regards pluralism and tolerance as central concepts in the manifestation of ethics.

Moltmann (2012), linking to his theology of hope, also wants to describe ethics as the ethics of hope. The eschatological expectation suddenly becomes clear. Hope is therefore more than just an expectation; it indicates the coming of the kingdom. Moltmann (2012:36) writes:

Because the kingdom of God is the future of all history, it transcends the historical future and all anticipations within history. But in this very way, the kingdom will become the power of hope in history and the source of these anticipations with which we prepare the way for the coming of God.

One can agree with Hollinger (2002:61ff) who regarded a Christian worldview as the basis for ethics. This means that the significance of the Christian and the worldview of considering ethics should be emphasised. God determines the ethical. Hollinger (2002: 67) writes:

When we think of God as the norm of ethics, it is important to recall that He is the Triune God. Certainly the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son, is the most visible expression of God in human history and plays a significant role in Christian ethics. Followers of Jesus are called to reflect his likeness. (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49)

The will of God is expressed in the commandment of love. To live within the commandment means that a person must live with God. Only when it is understood that God determines the ethical, can one reflect on it sensibly.

Heyns (1982: 89) considers the triune God as the basis of ethics. According to Heyns (1982: 225 ff), love must be based on the Trinity.

However, it is not always so obvious. The way it should be done is not only by capturing timeless truths, but by understanding how a moral orientation in a postmodern time can be formed from theology and an understanding of communities, (Koopman and Vosloo 2002). The question to be posed is, if it is indeed not in God's law that God determines the relationship with humans in its moral orientation, where should it be? There must be a certain principle determining the structure of the relationship between God and humanity. A mere rejection of the law as the central principle is unacceptable.

How should this renewal then proceed?

Some guidelines are provided:

  • The nature of the mission should be renewed with a totality approach from within the Christian worldview.
  • Dualism must be rejected. The fullness of life must be renewed from the Christian worldview.
  • Following the history of mission, ethical life is promoted from within the Christian worldview.
  • The Christian worldview seeks renewal of the community on levels of narrative (Word of God), rationality (systematic theology) and ritual (church); cf. Hollinger (2002).
  • The Church must indeed exist "in mission" as a missional Church seeking the message of the gospel as conversio. The community's renewal cannot be established unless there is total salvation in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Keywords: ethics; mission; moral values; law of God

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: ’n Teologies-etiese oorweging van die christelike sending en die invloed daarvan op morele waardes in Suid-Afrika

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