Church HistoryEcumenism

World Christianity or Global Christianity?

As part of my ongoing quest to develop a more systematized theological background, I recently completed the coursework to earn a certificate in theology and ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary. Among my theologically conservative friends, I caught some flak for this choice: traditionally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church–USA (PCUSA), Princeton Seminary has long been accused of heterodox theological liberalism. Indeed, such institutional trends impelled then-professor J. Gresham Machen to found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. While my theological sensibilities remain largely unchanged, I’m grateful for the program’s insights into mainline Protestant thought, and I found the final course of the sequence—World Christianity—to be uniquely powerful.

A common theme on Conciliar Post is the multidimensionality of Christianity across oft-overlooked cultures, and indeed among Christians themselves. This theme was undoubtedly stressed by the course faculty and required readings—which included, memorably, some beautifully evocative poetry authored by a Ghanan Christian hymnodist. And beneath a veneer of occasionally Marxist political sensibilities (and repeated invocations of the institutionally-decrepit World Council of Churches), the course contained a number of profound insights that members of more conservative traditions might do well to take to heart.

Most notably, the professor recommended using the term “world Christianity” in lieu of “global Christianity.” The term “globalism” traditionally refers to the advance of economic neoliberalism, international multilateralism, and political constitutionalism—an unbroken intellectual tradition proceeding outward from Europe and America. Accordingly, the term “global Christianity” suggests that Christianity goes hand-in-hand with these developments, rather than taking root in local cultures in different ways (“world Christianity”).

This concern arises from the felt (and legitimate) need to reject a “colonial” approach to mission work: Christianity ought not be established at the point of a sword (whether literal or economic). Instead, contextual theology—essentially, the use of images and concepts already familiar to a given culture—ought to be employed wherever possible to communicate Christian ideas. In so doing, the argument goes, the individual engaged in mission work recognizes the value and legitimacy of traditions not one’s own.

Given how intriguing this issue is, I found myself disappointed that the course generally avoided engaging with the central question at the heart of contextual theological analysis: at what point must clear boundary lines be drawn to maintain the continuity of Christian doctrine vis-à-vis other expressions of spirituality? (This topic has previously been discussed here at length). By necessity, all religious traditions cannot be of equal doctrinal validity. If this idea is phrased in the language of universal human rights, even most secularists would agree—all concepts of “human rights” are not functionally interchangeable.

On a superficial level, the question of cultural contextualization doesn’t seem that hard. No one in my class would’ve contended that non-Western Christians should be urged to read only the King James Version of the Bible, speak only English in worship, and wear only a particular brand of vestment. These are clearly inessential matters without serious theological implications.

But where, then, are doctrinal lines to be drawn? NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, among others, has discussed the necessity of boundaries as elements of group cohesion, and this social principle isn’t obviated in religious contexts. To adopt a label (i.e., “Christian”) necessitates defining oneself against things that are not that label: even the theologically liberal United Church of Canada, for example, recently voted to defrock an avowed atheist minister. For groups to retain continuity and a distinct identity, “inclusivity” can never be absolute.

Rather than attempting to formulate some new test for theological continuity, I suggest that the critical academics’ underlying concern—that an emphasis on orthodox theology risks becoming a form of neo-imperialism—is ultimately misplaced.

To claim that orthodox doctrine must yield to heterodox local theologies is to assign “Western-ness” to a set of foundational doctrines that never really was a product of the modern “West.” Put another way, to say that the orthodox Christian doctrinal tradition is per se “Western” is to appropriate it from those who shaped it in its earliest days, and to delegitimize longstanding forms of world Christianity (e.g., Ethiopian Orthodoxy) by implicitly deeming them “not indigenous enough.”

Christianity emerged from the Middle East as an oppositional force in the Roman Empire, and exercised an authority upon its adherents that originally clashed with the imperial cult of emperor worship. According to longstanding traditions, Christianity took root in Africa (see Acts 8:26-40) and India (see Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707), long before it was officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire. Against this backdrop, ecumenical councils met to resolve complex questions of doctrine.

The formative days of Christian theology, in short, occurred within a context that was decidedly multicultural and non-Western, despite later associations of Christianity with the broader concept of “Western civilization.” The longstanding theological distinctives of Christianity (framed with an eye to the history of the ecumenical councils and the Nicene Creed) are not themselves products of Western imperialism, and treating them as such devalues their place in the heritages of non-Western cultures. From its earliest days, the faith has been transcultural—and even centuries of colonialism cannot change that reality.

Moving forward, I submit that an explicitly anti-Western, purgative approach to contextual theology (often framed in the language of “decolonizing”) ought to be rejected in favor of a constructive approach to theology. Such an approach recognizes the roles played by non-Western theologians, both past and present, in developing a distinctive doctrinal identity. Christianity has never been exclusively the property of “Western imperialism,” and defining it as such is both historically improper and needlessly inflammatory.

Accordingly, Christians of every political stripe should have no problem preferring the term “world Christianity” over “global Christianity”—it’s simply an acknowledgement of historical reality. And while questions of contextual theology are undoubtedly thorny and difficult, sincere concerns for theological orthodoxy ought not be construed as reflecting a latent colonial impulse.

At the earliest dawning of the Church, the Holy Spirit spoke in the languages of many nations, from Egypt and Libya to Asia and Arabia (Acts 2:5-12). Historically orthodox Christianity never belonged only to the West, and it never will.

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett

A native of Dallas, Texas, John currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.