Friday, 8 June 2012

Of Translation, Vernacularization, and Appropriation: Re-Evaluating Bishop Ajayi Crowther in Yoruba Spirituality


S. ’Jide Komolafe


The philosophical exploration of religious beliefs and practices is evident in all cultures. Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. Consequently, when an alien religion makes an incursion, it is not surprising that it lives off the conceptual religious capital of its host, adding very little, save a certain empirical enrichment.  Even then, both are often uneasy yoke-fellows, each at times feeling it a duty to combat the other. The attempt by Remi Oyeniyi to offer corrections to the place of Esu in Yoruba cosmology and the reaction this has generated so far advance further this inevitable proposition (“Esu: The Revenge of Bishop Ajayi Crowther”

Following Prof. Funso Aiyejina, Oyeniyi would like to shift our attention from Esu’s representation as “the equivalent of the Euro-Christian Devil/Satan who is out to undermine the work of the Almighty God.” Instead, we should reincarnate his classical place in Yoruba cosmology as “the enforcer of the Will of Olodumare.” Oyeniyi prefers the imagery of benevolence, blaming Bishop Ajayi Crowther for the demonization of Esu as “an act of vengeance against his own Yoruba people whom he felt had sold him into slavery.” He projects an ethical obligation to uphold the Esu in Yoruba cosmology while being deeply opposed to “the ‘New Esu’ created by Bishop Crowther and his overzealous, vengeance-seeking and indoctrinated past and present followers of Euro-Christianity.” Much of this strikes me as a reactionary agenda to either emphasize the indigenous roles or diminish the process of appropriation in praise of Yoruba religious ingenuity and spirituality.

It does not seem to me irrational that his claim has been vehemently confronted by Ayo Turton in his response “Esu Is Satan Re: Revenge of Bishop Ajayi Crowther” ( Turton upholds the duplicity of Esu, using Oyeniyi’s own submission that Esu is, even in Yoruba cosmology, “a divine trickster, a disguise- artist, a mischief-maker, a rebel, a challenger of orthodoxy, a shape-shifter.” It is not my intention to duplicate what Ayo Turton has already addressed. What is problematic is the deliberate misrepresentation of “the greatest Yoruba work ever recorded in history” as a projection of a malicious intent. Admittedly, Remi Oyeniyi is one of the few writers I enjoy reading especially for his insights and style. But I think his evaluation of Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s translation prowess as a vengeful enterprise is a grievous error of judgment lacking any proof of meticulous investigation or logical analysis. On the contrary, Bishop Ajayi Crowther did much more, not only in advancing the theoretical spirituality of the Yoruba but in bringing empirical enrichment to the conceptual capital of Olodumare and His created order.

What I have, therefore, set out to do is to attempt a reevaluation that addresses the philosophical, religious and intellectual legacy of Bishop Ajayi Crowther. Even then, I make no claim to be exhaustive but rather cursory. To claim otherwise is to insult the memory and work of the erudite linguist, Bishop Ajayi Crowther. 

The wider issue on the extent to which Yoruba Christian spirituality developed a theology of its own cannot be discussed without recognizing the commitment of the missionaries to the translation enterprise. In Nigeria, as in many parts of Africa, the translation enterprise was the centerpiece in the machinery of mission. As Sanneh has pointed out, missionaries often acted as vernacular agents and by so doing, acted as a means of cultural renewal. In the case of Nigeria, for example, the vernacular exposition of the Scriptures heralded a new era for the Yoruba with far-reaching consequences. It provided the platform for the natives to share the missionaries’ intellectual heritage by connecting them with the most important literature in the Christian faith, the Bible (Lamin Sanneh, 1989:147).

In Nigeria, the vernacularization process received its most rigorous affirmation through the indigenizing principles of Henry Venn, CMS secretary from 1842 to 1872. However, the African impetus came from Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first African bishop and the able linguist who remained “the most important influence” in the production of the Bible in the Yoruba language (Andrew Walls, 2002:42). Crowther was equally a pioneer in translating substantial literature into the Yoruba language. The significance of this vernacularization of Scripture for the Yoruba has not always been appreciated.

The existence of a vernacular Scripture became a powerful factor for the African initiative in Christian expansion. On one hand, it provided a forum to evaluate and question certain theological ideas taught by the missionaries. On the other hand, and undoubtedly more important, it opened the way for a “Christian reaffirmation of some ancient aspects of African religion that were not part of missionary Christianity at all” (Walls, 2002:130).

These ancient aspects of Yoruba religion are the revelatory phenomena of dreams, visions, trance, and ecstatic utterances that have formed part of the “effective canon” of Yoruba Christian spirituality as exemplified by the Aladura. For the Yoruba, “the missionary adoption of vernacular categories for the Scriptures was in effect a written sanction for the indigenous religious vocation” (Sanneh, 1989:159). It is against this backdrop that the role of Bishop Ajayi Crowther in Yoruba Christian spirituality has to be understood. For example, the Yoruba (African) initiated religious group known as the Aladura read Scripture in a certain way, so persistently that this indigenous reading has become the template through which they view all of Scripture. Unlike the mainline mission churches, the Aladura are not merely given to an intellectual systematization of Scripture. Rather, their reading and interpretations of Scripture are conditioned by presuppositions arising out of their Yoruba cultural context and how it speaks into their life situation. While we can claim that the Scripture is central to their beliefs and practices, it is nonetheless, a theological reflection largely influenced by their local situation.

Perhaps the criticisms of Bishop Crowther and indigenous spirituality have to be put in perspective. The tendency to read the Scripture in a certain way is not peculiar to the Yoruba, but representative of the Christian community. David Kelsey’s work on the use of the Bible in theology is most helpful in pointing out this critical component in scriptural interpretation. According to him, there is no single, standard interpretive scheme to which all must subscribe. Rather, every faith community brings its own hermeneutic to Scripture.

Arguing his case by analyzing the writings of seven Protestant theologians, Kelsey concludes that the art of theologizing is not based solely on a close study of biblical texts but on a prior decision in which we imaginatively try to authorize theological ideas. This “prior construal” of Scripture, Kelsey argues, determines which patterns or aspects of Scripture are more meaningful to us than others (Kelsey, 1975; Cleophus J. LaRue, 2000).

There are historical precedents to justify Kelsey’s claim. A case in point is to recall that the Anglican litany grew out of the particular situation and needs of England towards the middle of the sixteenth century. It was a theological enterprise that grew out of the need to address a succession of troubles, bad weather, diseases, and wars (Harold Turner, 1967:166). Be that as it may, then, it can be said at this point that the Yoruba, despite being Christian converts, also see a pattern of Scripture to which they ascribe wholeness—all of life’s problems. In a context where afflictions of various kinds are presumed to be caused by evil forces, it is not surprising that the sine qua non of Yoruba spirituality and of Aladura theology is prayer and spiritual power. We need to look further at these domains of beliefs and practices.


Aladura churches are well-named. The extensive practice of adura (prayer) and the belief in its efficacy for every eventuality is the keynote of all their doctrines and the one single factor which characterizes the whole movement. Prayer does not function merely as incidental reference to Olodumare, but establishes divine communion and a potent point of contact with the spiritual realm. It is the medium whereby the supernatural power of Olodumare most decisively meets human need to subdue evil, gain specific guidance or infuse divine vitality into human life.

This pragmatic view of prayer is in direct contact with Yoruba spirituality. In Yoruba religious and cultural beliefs, prayer is central to all areas and seasons of life. There is no artificial boundary separating the sacred and the secular. The primary concern of Yoruba prayer is to obtain benefits from the orişa, the agents of Olodumare, in matters of spiritual guidance and self-actualization. To enlist the help of the orişa means a constant recourse to divination (Ifa) and sacrifice (ẹbọ).

Divination plays a crucial role as the medium through which hidden things and personal problems that are not easily perceptible are brought to light. The complement to divination is sacrifice (ẹbọ). This religious act is oriented toward changing the course of things to one’s advantage. In this sense, ritual speech and action have performative force because for the Yoruba, “prayers and offerings not only say things, they are supposed to do things” (Benjamin C. Ray, 1993: 280-281).

The Aladura have adapted this element of Yoruba religious consciousness by giving it their own distinctive Christian interpretation. In this shift from traditional belief, divine intervention into daily life is not sought through intermediaries but by directly “talking with Olorun” in prayer (ibaọlọrunsọrọ). This is the conviction of most Aladura leaders. The explanation given by Emmanuel Adejobi, the late Primate of the Church of the Lord (Aladura) bears witness to this:

It [prayer] is an act of praise and worship. It is the resort of the soul, a revitalization of spiritual strength. . . . Yea, it is a meeting place with God where the creature talks with the Creator, and communes as friend to friend . . . where all wants and poverty are laid bare for Divine abundance and blessing. It is a meeting place of heaven with the earth. It is a place where the forces of darkness are put to flight and Satan’s power disarmed. There a Christian perceives heavenly visions; eats and drinks of heavenly manna, and wine. . . . Prayer is the mighty power house of a believer (ibid.)

Construed in this way, prayer does not only greatly intensify the sense of the immediacy of the presence of Olodumare (or Olorun as both are interchangeably used to refer to God) it also represents an aspect of both communicating with and of eliciting a response from Him. Granted this conceptual transformation, solution to problems that would have otherwise been sought in a pseudo-scientific manner through Yoruba rituals is sought, instead, in the moral-religious milieu of Christianity.

Eliciting a favorable response meant that the communication had to be done in the “right way.” In Yoruba oratory discourse, praise-singing (oríkì) is employed for just this purpose. These are evocative utterances which are believed to capture the essential qualities of their subjects, and by being uttered, to motivate them to act (Karin Barber, 1991). This is why Aladura prayers are heavily punctuated with the element of adoration and praise epithets for Olodumare. These are a deliberate attempt to move the divine hands of Olodumare. It needs to be mentioned, however, that the instrumentality of evocative epithet is not what brings about an answer. The prospect of a favorable response is totally a divine prerogative. The most the Aladura can do is to “compel” Olodumare to act favorably on his or her behalf.

Spiritual Power

The approach of the Aladura had enough points of contact with local idioms to give their religious activity serious consideration by ordinary people. As Peel has noted, “the search for power, individual or collective, was the dominant orientation of the Yoruba toward all religions” (J.D.Y. Peel, 2000:217). This is especially important when we consider that the Yoruba are given to cosmo-historical presuppositions where spiritual powers exist and tensions between good and evil are always in focus. These forces of evil are organized under the control of the enemy of Olodumare and of human welfare, the devil or Satan. To defeat him and his cronies, therefore, requires gaining access to a higher alternative, to the limitless powers of Olodumare whose very name denotes fullness or superlative greatness.

The response of the Aladura must be seen as taking on a strong local initiative in offering a greater power in the battle with evil. In fact, the Aladura consider themselves to be the special recipients of spiritual power (agbara ẹmi). Their God is the Alagbara (Dispenser of Power) through whose power (l’agbara Ọlọrun) things can be done. The revival of the 1930s was a vindication of the charismatic claim of the Aladura. Joseph Ayodele Babalola, the most prominent of the revivalists, was reported to have ministered in such a great power that miraculous events were common sights in his meetings. Further demonstrations of the supremacy of the God of the Aladura were the numerous confessions of witches either in the Aladura revival meetings or as a result of drinking water that was sanctified by an Aladura prophet (John Odunayo Ojo, 1988; Adeware Alokan, 1991).

The source of Aladura power is the God of the Scriptures whose power is identified with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is viewed as the all-embracing, pervasive power of God who, in turn, “fills people with power.” To be “filled with power” requires one to earnestly seek after the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Most indigenous churches organize “tarrying meetings” for this purpose. The witness of baptism is validated by spiritual power; and demonstrated by the ability to prophesy, speak in tongues, heal, exorcize demons, have visions and dreams, and live holy lives. This promise of Holy Spirit power to meet existential needs and to provide protection from the devastation of evil forces is compelling reasons for Aladura membership. The Apostolic Church and Christ Apostolic Church know this and do not fail to instruct new members on the importance of the Holy Spirit, as the source of transforming power in the life of the Church.

Therefore, to allege as some Western critics like Temples and Beyerhaus have done that Africans conceive of the “power” of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal and manipulative force is an argument that belongs in the 1960s (P. Temples, 1959; P. Beyerhaus, 1969). Today, we know enough about the pneumatology of African spirituality and Pentecostalism than to unfairly represent their views and doctrines. Yet, the paradox is that the Aladura model, whose primary appeal was to offer a Christian faith that is contextually appropriate, has negatively impressed those who insist that it is “this worldly” in motivation. To these scholars, “the Aladura have transformed the other-worldly, spiritual and ethical character of Western Christianity into this-worldly ends of traditional Yoruba religion” (Ray, 1993:269).

Perhaps the hermeneutical key to appreciating Aladura Christianity is to come to a clearer and a more definitive idea of what is “this-worldly” or “other-worldly” in Yoruba spirituality. The Yoruba, and more generally Africans, conceive of time and space as cyclical and so is their concept of “this worldly.” In Yoruba cosmology, “this worldly” does not mean simply the material-phenomenal universe, as is often the case in Western thinking. Rather, the two worlds function in a symbiotic way, the crossroads between life and death and also between the spirit and the physical. In other words, the two worlds are in a constant state of interaction and influence.

The unnecessary dichotomy that has been ascribed to African cultural beliefs, and indeed to Aladura Christianity, is alien to Yoruba sensibility. The Aladura are not inhibited with using terms and categories that espouse their understanding and practice of Christianity. In fact, their way of “doing church” bears witness to the incarnate character of Christianity and of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not simply interested in telling stories about the Kingdom. He demonstrated in practical ways that the kingdom had entered human history by attending to the physical and spiritual needs of his listeners. At other times, he told his listeners that the kingdom of God has come upon them (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 10:9-11). Consequently, the Aladura preach a Christ who is also the healer, the protector, and the friend of those who live on the fringes of human society.

The false dichotomy and, indeed, the intra-ecclesiastical debates that continue to characterize Western theology can no longer be imposed on a context like Africa where gospel and culture have been brought into a creative and dynamic encounter. Modern day citizens, and, indeed, Nigerian Christians, are inundated with many options to accept any one religion rather uncritically. What is in a religion that offers the promise of another world when it is inadequate to address the concerns and aspirations of this world? What the Yoruba have done in their practice of Aladura Christianity is to proclaim a holistic gospel and to offer a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is able to save both eternally and materially. As Ray has put it, “for the Aladura Christians the eschatological Kingdom of God, which they also call ‘Heaven,’ has come into the world. It is not only transcendent, it is also immanent” (Ray, 1939:273).

So far I have focused on the thought-world of Yoruba culture and on the reordering of worldview as a positive consequence of the indigenous reading of the Bible. Despite its alien (Western) origin, the wonders of Christianity must be attributed to its incarnate character, reflecting both time and specific contexts. This is the reorientation that resulted from the Yoruba translation of the Bible by the eminent churchman and linguist, Bishop Ajayi Crowther. And I dare say the single most important factor responsible for the success of the missionizing efforts of the 19th century. It domesticated Christianity to Yoruba sensibility by giving us the Aladura model of church that exists today.

And contrary to a vengeful portrayal, Bishop Ajayi Crowther was, in fact, the most steadfast defender of the Yoruba race. He constantly argued against orthodox and rigorist emphasis that undermined the “minimum qualifications necessary for salvation”:

We use our discretion that such practices which the laws of the country allow, but not being among those in immediate requirements necessary for salvation, but which Christianity after a time will abolish, are not directly interfered with (Crowther to Venn, Jan. 3, 1875. CMS, CA2/031. CMS Archives).

For Crowther, the Society’s approach to local culture should be sensitive and sympathetic. Convinced that “Christianity does not undertake to destroy national assimilation,” he was known to advise that reform should be introduced with suavity and tact (ibid.). The life and works of Bishop Ajayi Crowther remain indelible for all times and for as long as there are Yoruba and African Christians. This is no arbitrary eclecticism, superficial theory-mongering, and sheer intellectual confusion. The cultural dimension of Bishop Ajayi Crowther attests to this fact. It denotes a historically and culturally transmitted pattern of faith embodied in indigenous language and symbols. His legacy is one of spiritual conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which Yoruba continue to communicate, perpetuate, and express their spirituality and attitudes toward life. 
“You Must Be Born Again”: Re-Visiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics (Part 2)


S. ’Jide Komolafe

(Continued from Part 1)

Born-Again Christians have been understood primarily in terms of their most visible behavior, glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” Even when attempts are made to understand deeper issue of their theology, attention becomes focused, almost exclusively, on pneumatology, especially Spirit baptism and the gifts of the Spirit. It is only later that so-called “prosperity gospel” became a popular theme of the Born-Again practice. Even then, this has been influenced largely by the American televangelism scandals of the 1980s. After the flush of the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigerian people felt the economic decline of the 1980s. The popularity of prosperity preaching in the USA in Pentecostal circles caught on like wildfire in Nigeria, along with the extremes and scandals it was known for.

Suffice to say that the attempt to define the Born-Again movement in Nigeria has been done “in an operational rather than normative manner” (Kalu 1998:8). While this approach has its value, this approach does not do justice to the distinctive gestalt of Born-Again theology. While not ignoring their practice of glossolalia or their emphasis on Spirit baptism, I will focus on the underlying theological categories, namely, salvation and power theology.

“That You May Be Saved”

Nigerian Born-Agains teach the evangelical doctrine of fallen humanity in need of a Savior. Nevertheless, their understanding of the “good news” of salvation does not stop with the cross. Rather it emphasizes fuller aspects of the Christian life such as health, victory over demonic forces, and liberation from poverty. Salvation, in a word, is holistic. It is objectified as spiritual and material realism and is experienced on both the individual and social levels.

Salvation as “Good News” of the Kingdom

Nigerian Pentecostals believe that the historical Jesus was the result of a divine plan to provide a Mediator between an offended God and a sinful humanity. The evangelicalism which undergirds their theology, therefore, is a simplified message of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. To be “born-again” means the individual acknowledges his or her sinful nature, and shows conviction through repentance and “self-surrender” or “giving your life to Christ.” This is considered the essential feature for accessing divine pardon and developing a relationship with God.

To be “born-again” also means that the believer must reorder his or her life to demonstrate the “new life in Christ.” In other words, true conversion requires the reforming of one’s life to the image or likeness of Christ. Such conformity to the likeness of Christ requires a radical rejection of other forms of religious and social identification. It also implies abandoning old, unacceptable behavior, such as lying, stealing, quarreling, bribery, drinking, smoking, and all forms of sexual immorality. Within the strictures of this personal renewal, converts must restitute by making amends for past sins or pay recompense where necessary. This is to ensure that the process of linear growth towards salvation is tempered with moral responsibility.

This close correlation between religious conversion and its ethical expression is a major emphasis in some Pentecostal churches with affinity to the holiness doctrine. A good example is the Deeper Life Bible Church of William Kumuyi with reputation for holiness and evangelical piety. Kumuyi exemplified the practical need to sustain holiness with testimony of his own restitution to the West African Examinations Council (Kumuyi, “The Good Old Days, n.d., pp.2-3).

The emphasis on personal salvation, notwithstanding, Nigerian Pentecostals reflect a duality of opinions on the pattern of salvation. There are those who reflect the Wesleyan Holiness tradition of a three-stage pattern of regeneration, sanctification, and Spirit baptism. The order and relationship of these three categories continue to represent points of tension with the vast majority who subscribe to the two-stage pattern of salvation. This second group affirms that “conversion” is the first act of grace, which reconciles the “born-again” to God. This experience, according to them, must be followed by a second life-transforming event generally called “the baptism of the Spirit.”

The two-stage pattern of salvation distinguishes between the “converted” (“the born-again”) and those who have, in addition, been “sanctified” (“baptism of the Spirit”). The sanctification experience is understood as a process which continues throughout life and may be lost through breaches of conduct and moral compromises. Again, Pastor Kumuyi of the Deeper Life church exemplifies this by encouraging his followers to be separate from those who may not subscribe to the church’s expositions of biblical teachings on sanctification:

      After God has told us what he will do, He tells us what we should do. We are to come out from among people who will defile us. We should be separate. It is some years since I came across this passage that instructs me to come out from among people that will defile me; from among habits that destroy and defile (“Holiness Made Easy,” 1983:16).

      In spite of the duality of voices on the pattern of salvation, Nigeiran Pentecostals share a common conviction that “conversion is less an event than an ongoing process whose underlying structure is linear and teleological” (Marshall-Fratani 1998:285). On the whole, to be saved requires a new perspective on life. It requires a complete transformation of life that must necessarily break with the past. As Gerard Roelofs has put it, “the reinterpretation of the past, which forms an integral point of conversion, produces new starting points and prospects for the present and future” (1994:219).

Salvation as “Good News” for a Healthy Living

For much of Protestantism, the concern to maintain orthodoxy means that the “good news” of the gospel has been limited to a message of spiritual salvation for the individual. In Pentecostal theology, however, the message of salvation stretches beyond this intellectual religious domain to include practical experiences of salvation in other areas of life. For them the “good news” also involves instances of divine healing as externalized forms of salvation. Such a theological position enables the Born-Again to integrate God’s salvific work in the spirit as well as in the body.

In Born-Again spirituality, the experiences of healing are very personal, dramatically intense, and are usually wide in scope. In its metaphorical and salvific application, healing encompasses the spiritual, physical, demonic and emotional aspects. With copious scriptures such as those that “…wish above all things that you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers” (3 Jn. 2), Pentecostals operate on the divine desire for good health as a powerful theological motif for their numerous programs of action on healing. It is little wonder that many have devoted extensive teachings and crusades to witness to this physical benefit of being a Born-Again.

They operate through the implementation of healing sessions which promise to enhance the quality of the believer’s life. Apart from the power of corporate prayer, the leader demonstrates his anointing as the “man of God” to heal with or without the laying on of hands. He also demonstrates his democratic access to the throne of God through an express command and expulsion of the indwelling demons from the believer’s life. This is termed “deliverance.”

Healings and miracles can be obtained by believing in the words and authority of the “man of God.” When not physically present at a revival meeting or crusade, the same faith can be exercised through the mediatory role of the television set. All that is required is to simply follow the instructions of the preacher, for it is through him that the anointing which casts out demons and heals the sick is made active. In the hands of the ‘annointed’ electronic media can work its own special miracles (Marshal-Fratani, 1998:295). For Pentecostals, these divine healings authenticate the spoken message. They also serve as a sign for the Spirit’s presence to the believer and a form of witness to the unbeliever.

Except for the fact that Pentecostals rely on the “anointing of the Holy Spirit” rather than the use of objects such as candles and consecrated water, healing and “deliverance” in their theology have the same restorative goals as those of the Aladura. In the context of urban popular language, the Born-Again program has reformulated the theology of divine healing to create a new opportunity for those who are not able to neither afford expensive private medical care nor receive adequate medical services from ill-equipped public health establishments.

Salvation as “Good News” for the Poor

The reinterpretation of the meaning and nature of salvation as expressed in Pentecostal theology may represent a fundamental shift in traditional discourse. Yet, their understanding of salvation as “good news” to the poor lay firmly anchored in Jesus’ ministry to the poor and marginalized. To them, Jesus brought the gospel in reality to what it is already in principle, the “good news.” In the context of the deep economic crisis of the 1980s in Nigeria, mistrust of political ideologies could no longer be merely assumed but needed to be demonstrated by turning to the religious realm. As a result, the radical perception of the gospel as “good news” became a theological innovation. It allowed Pentecostals to provide an alternative source for articulating and providing practical solutions for individual survival and success.

This alternative source of empowerment is not simply a case of false consciousness. Rather, it reconceptualizes the redemptive action of God in the lives of the poor. The liberating rule of God is understood as involving all parts of the created order—persons, human civilization, and even the nonhuman creation. Consequently, the reality of the reign of God in the world is the experience of its transforming power. Within this transformed cosmic order lays a corresponding divine destiny for the people of God. This destiny points towards fulfillment and anything that denies this to people—unemployment, sickness, social and individual problems—is directly opposed to the will of God. 

For Born-Again Christians, the gospel is the liberating word that frees people from the compulsion and control of evil powers, and from the apathy of the empty life. It invites people to open themselves to the undisputed reign of God, and to receive the enabling power of His Spirit to assail every form of contradiction, resistance and antagonism to life’s success. Responding to this invitation gives the believer a new sense of direction and a call to mission in life. Rather than feel guilty or engage in self-pity, the confidence in the divine power infuses practical steps towards risk-taking initiatives and the restructuring of life altogether. The Born-Again seizes the opportunity to improve his or her economic situation by moving from one realm of reality to another.

The new realm of reality conceives the born-again as being destined to have all that is necessary for a full and prosperous life. According to David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church, this prosperity “is a state of well being in your spirit and body. It is the ability to use God’s power to meet every need….In prosperity, you enjoy life of plenty and fulfillment. Prosperity is a state of being successful, it is life on a big scale” (1989:3). Thus, what Born-Again Christianity has done is to set in motion a new thinking by which members can confront and respond to contemporary situation. This response is carried out in a set of contrasts: “from empty to full, from destroyed to prosperous, from humiliated to respected, from depressed to happy, from anguish to peace, and from loneliness to life in the community of the church” (André Corten, 2000:146).

“You Shall Receive Power”

The high incidence of the word “power” in Born-Again theology brings together the traditional construct of a world imbued with ambivalent powers. This framework of thinking is diminished by the mainline churches as both defective and superstitious. But quite to the contrary, the distinguishing element of indigenous ecclesiology is its breadth of variety and crosscurrents on “power theology.” On one hand, “power” in Aladura classical Pentecostalism offers a realistically obtainable freedom from poverty, witchcraft, sorcery, sickness and death; although the techniques employ tend to render this Christian prophylaxis rather cultic. In the emerging Christianity of the Born-Agains, on the other hand, “power” expresses the heart of their mission. It seeks to recover the theology of the Holy Spirit as well as cause to resurface the impact of the charismata in everyday Christian life. 

Confronting the Powers: Born-Agains and Supernatural Forces

Nigerian Born-Agains construct reality with binary opposites and image a tension-ridden world of the good versus the evil. In this way, misery and suffering can be explained, just as the means with which to neutralize abnormal experiences. At the most basic level, this rigid division of the world between the forces of God and those of Satan provides a ready-made ideological premise for explaining the struggle that is happening in the world. In Born-Again theology, the existence of Satan is responsible for the tragic and irreducible predicament of individuals who undergo despair, disease and death. And on the social level it exposes institutional forms of oppression as the ongoing effort of the devil to dehumanize people.

This confrontation of the good and the evil forces flourishes on a basis of traditional spiritual syntax. The traditional Nigerian culture nourishes the operations of the occult for the enhancement of human powers and personalities. The possessors of such powers are the human agents of Satan who can inflict pain and misery at whims. Born-Agains accept the reality and power of the old gods. However, they look back to Christ’s victory on the cross as a reassurance that God’s power is greater and that the devil will be ultimately overcome. As a result, the old gods are demythologized, stripped of their powers and stereotypes, and are demonized as malignant elements that have to be exorcized. The consequence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit for Born-Agains, therefore, equips and inspires them to resist and fight the powers of Satan. This tragic struggle is not a confirmation of disorder but one that demonstrates moral courage and the inevitable presence and power of the Holy Spirit. By seeing themselves as God’s unwavering soldiers, Born-Agains are able to enlist collective insurgency to push forward the decisive termination of Satan and his cronies both in individual and collective experiences.

Power for Victorious Living

The above seems to define Nigerian Born-Again Christians as “turbo-Christians” who constitute human arsenals of God on earth. This is rightly so. But beyond that, “power” also serves to sum up the whole impact of a renewed Christian life. The conversion experience, and the subsequent experience of the Spirit, helps the Born-Again to embrace a rupture from a sinful past, bolstering the resolve to set off on a new path of moral vision and life goals. In the words of Ogbu Kalu, the Born-Again religiosity “starts as an inner odyssey that brings the force of the transcendent into everyday life” (2002:6). It is not surprising, for example, that the “Deeper Life Bible Church” is so named. In the words of founding Pastor William Kumuyi, “the prop and hub of our ministry is holiness of life and conduct…the gospel needs to change our lifestyle deeply and impressively in whatever ways may be appropriate to our context” (1998:249).

The other side of this “inner odyssey” is its characteristic power to enable the Born-Again live an abundant life in spite of the precarious socio-economic and political situations. The experience and power of the Holy Spirit become the believer’s source of life and hope, giving the power to make it through each day. The indwelling Spirit fills the void of emptiness, and turns that loss into a hybrid realm of a “power-packed optimism” to aspire for upward mobility in life. Consequently, the inward gaze of the Born-Again now beholds everyday realities through the “eyes of the Spirit.” This helps to remove temporal limits of personhood so that the believer reinvents personality as a “new creature” with immeasurable power to accomplish in life (2 Cor. 5:17; Phil. 4:13). Although the “prosperity preachers” have hijacked this truth, Ogbu Kalu is right when he declares that, for most Born-Agains, “prosperity is predicated on the quality of inner life” (2002:7). Those who have prostituted the essence of the gospel for the personal gains of the “prosperity” message constitute the loudest and, unfortunately, the malcontents of Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity.

It is reasonable to summarize that Africa has indeed emerged as a major heartland of global Christianity. Yet our quest must be open to the impulses that have given momentum to the faith on the continent. Christian expressions in Africa are as varied and diverse as the intra-ecclesiastical debates that have preoccupied Western Christianity. One thing that is characteristic of African Christianity, however diversely expressed, is that it emphasizes the experiential character of the Christian faith in contextually appropriate ways. By continuing to respond to the existential questions of those within and outside the church, Africa could very well determine the direction that a relevant church in the world should take.

This is the reorientation that has resulted in the Born-Again model of Christianity. Along with the fact that the story of Nigerian Christianity is one of change, the last couple of decades have witnessed new gains in influence and respectability as a center of remarkable Christian engagement. The determinants of this phenomenon, without doubt, are the new paradigm churches represented by the Born-Again element of the Nigerian church. The allegation of “sheep-stealing” by the mainline denominations makes it an open question whether they represent a “reconfiguration of existing churchgoers or a significant expansion into the unchurched population through effective evangelistic outreach” (Eddie Gibbs, 2000:18). Nevertheless, by using contemporary cultural forms that connect with the experience of broad sectors of Nigerians, these churches are creating a new genre of churches that appeal to people who otherwise would probably be only marginally interested in the church, if at all.

Ironically, the Born-Again paradigm, whose primary appeal was to offer a Christian faith that is “modern” and contextually appropriate, has negatively attracted impressions of a bastardized model of church practice. While Born-Agains have become defensive, claiming instead to bring rehabilitation and hope for the future of the church in Nigeria, the entire edifice of Christian expressions epitomized by the mainline churches, query their adequacy about the future. Either way, a fundamental question that must be asked at the outset is how we are to conceptualize this future? The distinctive contours and boundaries of the future, as of yet, are not fully comprehensible. Yet it is absolutely urgent to envision how the church will face the future in light of the precariousness of today’s Nigeria and of the misgivings about Born-Again Christianity. If we are to learn any lesson from history, it is clear that even though the future may be an extension of the present, it will also be a new alternative, with the possible challenge of superseding the past. It is to this aspect of the Nigerian church that we now turn in the next series.

(Next series, “Beyond Triumphalism: Challenges Facing the Nigerian Church”)
“You Must Be Born Again”: Re-Visiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics (Part 1)


S. ’Jide Komolafe

To focus on Nigerian Pentecostal rhetorics as the next series seek to, is invariably to re-focus as things change. Starting on the fringes as a peripheral movement in the early 1970s, the Born-Again phenomenon constitutes the single most important sociocultural force in Nigeria today and is equally responsible for the religious intensity and vigor that have become synonymous with Nigerian Christianity over the past decades. But speaking of “rhetorics” in the plural form may be uncharacteristic, it nevertheless acknowledges that while Born-Again pastors may invoke the claim of Missio Dei (God’s Mission), the pondering is primarily about human instrumentality in God’s mission. Human ideas, structures, especially church and social structures, and resources are the trails of the Pentecostal phenomenon.

Its use in the plural form acknowledges the varying degrees of Pentecostal idioms. Also, its singular-plural possibilities establish the conditions for how we discover not only the available means but also of innovative forms of communicating the Christian message in “corrupt or ruined religious and political traditions.” It provides an avenue for people to overcome existential challenge by helping them reconceptualize and live their lives as a future and a past in the present. Thus, Nigerian Pentecostal rhetorics provide the paradigmatic example for heuristic methods of skillful and persuasive usage of language for problem solving, interpreting, and re-discovering. In other words, not only do these Pentecostal rhetorics provide intellectual and psychological framework for making sense of Nigeria’s political and sociocultural particularities, but through them the spiritual rebirth of the self is appropriated.

The explosion of conversions to Pentecostalism, and by implication Christianity in Nigeria, is a radical development that is transforming the world’s largest religion. The paradox is that while there has been remarkable growth of Christianity in the non-Western world, it has been declining in the West. Yet, any analysis of religious engagement in the non-Western world, particularly Africa, is misleading if it fails to account for the principal contributing factors of the massive growth of the church there. The phenomena that characterize African Christianity are full of dramatic movements and sub-movements that are both radical and often controversial. These movements, epitomized by the emergence of the independent or Ethiopian churches at the turn of the twentieth century, show clearly African creativity. The concern of the present series is to highlight how Born-Again Christianity uses language, especially the idiom of the new birth, to reach agreements that permit coordinated efforts of some sort in restructuring reality.

Elsewhere, I have acknowledged that Pentecostalism in Nigeria is packaged in three different varieties: Classical Pentecostals (1918-1941), The Charismatic Movements (1944-1980), and Neo-Charismatics/Neo-Pentecostals (1980s-2000s). Even then, constant mobility of Nigerian churchgoers makes any demarcation between Pentecostals and Charismatics a difficult enterprise. In the same way, the increasing concern with globalization and transatlantic connections compound any attempts to grasp the outlines of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Regardless of the nomenclature of choice, it must be stated that Charismatics are Pentecostals operating within the mainline churches; so, a helpful approach is to refer to both as Pentecostals in our survey of the forms, nature, and extent of the phenomenon and its influence in Nigerian Christianity. And for the purpose of this series, both Born-Again and Pentecostal will be used interchangeably to refer to the phenomenon. For lack of space and given other considerations, I will discuss Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria broadly as a phenomenon highlighting its peculiar character, shape and form.

Setting the Stage: Born-Again Christianity in Context

Any discussion of Christianity in Nigeria leads to the conclusion that variety is the main characteristic of the churches.  This variety helps us understand that each strand has been an attempt to bring the Christian message in line with the specific socio-cultural and historical context. This contextual adaptation of the gospel and Christian ministry accounts for the populist character of the church, giving the image of one that is vigorously attempting to both reflect and respond to the deepest longings of common people. Admittedly, responding to a more modern context and with all it offers, Born-Again churches clearly outperform their predecessors by providing a dizzying array of messages in idioms and techniques that are popular in chaotic urban culture.

Renewing the Context

Beyond the conflation of categories arising from analyzing the Pentecostal phenomenon in Nigeria, there are yet lines of cultural and historical continuity with mainline churches. To this extent, Born-Again Christianity represents a “continuum” where the past, with its older traditions, flows together with the contemporary as the older forms are modified by current trends. The implication of this is that the Born-Again program of cultural renewal must be understood against the old forms as a contextualized version of the continuing quest to explain the mysteries of life. It is appropriate to say, therefore, that Born-Again Christian expressions about supernaturalism are not that different from their predecessors except that they go further to clarify what these predecessors did not confront or left vague.

Nigerian worldview assumptions highlight the centrality of the spiritual realm and the forces that are behind events in the physical world. Human beings are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival in a world dominated by forces over which they have no control. The African world is dominated by dark forces and by agents of chaos and destruction that force humans to act in hostility, one against another, and against everything that is good. Pentecostals, therefore, attempt to correlate the Christian message with the human situation in order to show the concrete effectiveness of Christianity within the cultural milieu.

The Born-Again conceptual framework confronts the cosmic hostility between Christ and Satan as the basis for order and power in a chaotic world. The victorious death and resurrection of Christ is witness to God’s cosmic superiority over Satan and his evil cronies that have enslaved men and women. Hence, salvation takes on a new meaning. The presence and power of Christ guarantees victory to believers over demonic forces. Born-Again Christians view themselves as witnesses to the continued presence and universal lordship of Christ over the cosmos. This enables them to create a community of the redeemed and liberated on a new ideological and institutional base. Thus, their approach to problems raised by culture is not “through a wholesale rejection of the past, but through an engagement with it; refashioning history and domesticating it at the same time” (Marshall-Fratani 1998: 291).

The Community of the Saved

Theological reflection presupposes the church to be the fellowship of Christ’s disciples. It is a unifying impulse that extends beyond the church itself and places its existence firmly “in Christ.” The facilitator of this connection is the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of the new birth through which believers become co-heirs with Christ in the family of God (Rom. 8:14-17). This invitation to participate in the community of the triune God raises the church’s awareness as God’s eschatological redeemed community. It presupposes the church’s fundamental calling to be the foretaste of the imago dei (“image of God”), determining its proclaiming, reconciling, sanctifying, and unifying in the world (Grenz 2000:323).

Born-Again believers see themselves in this perspective. Hence the desire to transform the religious landscape by constructing a “born-again” community springs from the willingness to be responsive to the higher calling of the Holy Spirit. It is in this light that we can articulate the separatism and exclusivist purity of a “holiness” church like Deeper Life. This Church sees itself not as “new” but as a model of the New Testament church in a way that questions the ecclesiality of previously existing churches. To be a member of the Deeper Life, for example, is to recognize that one belongs to a community that sets strictly Christian standards and recognizes a higher call.

On the whole, the born-again community crosses regional, ethnic, cultural, and even national boundaries with extraordinary ease. This unprecedented transformational fluidity presupposes that one is first a “born-again person” before any ethnic particularity, whether Yoruba, Igbo, Edo or Nigerian. The born-again community is characterized by a surprising degree of egalitarianism where the old form of kinship is replaced by a new one, that is, a “brother/sister in the Lord.” Important decisions of life like marriage that would have otherwise been negotiated along ethnic lines now become subordinated to the higher biblical teaching that Christians should not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Marriage must be solemnized with a born-again brother or sister with little or no deference to ethnicity.

Born-Again communities also form conglomerate networks that extend beyond the local church to include other born-again churches. These networks, both spiritual and material, offer members the opportunity with which to reinvent themselves in an atmosphere of fraternal support. Members are provided with “material benefits such as employment opportunities, exchanges of goods and services, and even access to officialdom without the usual costly red tape and inevitable ‘dash’” (Ruth Marshall-Fratani 2001:85). In other words, the born-again prefers domestic or office helps who are likewise born-agains. General clientele with privately-owned institutions such as hospitals, schools, and businesses are also within the born-again community. The overriding logic is that born-again institutions and companies are more reliable and trustworthy. By constructing communities that have developed a stronger sense of identity, Born-Again churches are responding to and helping resolve the fear and uncertainty of chaotic urban life and social relations.

Evangelism: Propagating the Word

The fervor and harmony that bring Born-Again churches into a visible spiritual unity also inform most of their activities. With the understanding that previously existing mainline churches have practiced “powerless” Christianity, the rock on which Born-Again churches are founded is evangelism. This central belief can be set in a wider framework. In terms of biblical mandate, they believe that the work of evangelism is in obedience to the express command of Christ as recorded in Matthew 28:19-20. In its wider context, their apocalyptic and millennialist beliefs add urgency to evangelism, requiring dynamic participation in the business of the Kingdom.

Overall, winning souls for the Kingdom is a religious preoccupation that is undoubtedly regarded as the most important work for the born-again. In the words of William Kumuyi of the Deeper Life Bible Church, “soul-winning is the greatest work you can ever be involved in. It’s the most rewarding enterprise you can undertake. It’s a work that gives joy in this life and brings reward in the world to come. It is a work of the greatest consequence” (1975:7). This significance of evangelism can also be weighed against other important facts. These include the understanding that the struggle for territory between the agents of God and those of Satan mean that evangelism be directed towards conversion. It also means that evangelism opens the way for men and women to be freed from the forces of evil.

Propagating the Word through multi-media is novel, effective and breaks with past traditions by facilitating ministry in the modern urban setting. This means the use of speech, print, audio-visuals and open-air ministry. While providing the most effective approach to evangelism in Nigeria today, these modes of evangelism do provoke harsh criticism from those who are not favorable to born-again ideology and who see Pentecostals as invading unwelcome spaces.

On one hand, Pentecostals are well known for recounting numerous testimonies to miracles in their meetings. Claiming a close correlation between religious experience and “right doctrine” enables them to demonize or disparagingly label other religions, even other churches, as “dead” or “false.” On the other hand, the use of the media also “allows for the multiplication of narrative forms and the delocalization of messages” (Marshall-Fratani 2001:94). Even more important is the fact that the evangelical packaging of these messages “is designed to reach beyond the saved, to incorporate a theoretically unlimited group of potential converts” (Marshall-Fratani 2001:92). As a result, conversions of those who are not born-again, especially of Muslims, are highly prized. For the Pentecostals, the advantage of using all technological facilities is to have the greatest capacity for evangelism. But for non believers, especially the Muslims, the proselytizing appeal of the Christians, directly offered and electronically mediated by Born-Again preachers into the privacy of one’s own home, is both threatening and intrusive.

(To be continued)


S. ’Jide Komolafe

(Continued from Part 1)

The Theology of the Church

Millard J. Erickson has done a great service to biblical ecclesiology by exposing the attempt of contemporary transformers to develop a doctrine of the Church based mainly on “empirical presence” in isolation of its “theoretical essence” (1998:1036-1045). It is indeed a fact that our culture is dynamic and changing fast. This, however, begs the question as to how “dynamic” the Church should be in order to keep up with our fast-changing culture? The Church is in many respects analogical to the two sides of a coin. It is a true witness when it is concretely and historically recognizable in the world (existential/empirical) and normative to the extent it remains connected to biblical truth (quintessential).

It suffices to say, therefore, that a wholly existential/empirical perspective is intrinsically iconoclastic while a wholly quintessential framework is at best provocative. Neither is the only option in developing a doctrine of the Church for the twenty-first century. Any discussion of what the Church “concretely is” or “is becoming” must be guided by what the Church “really is” or “ought to be.” Our insights need to be guided and correlated by a theological understanding of the Church. There is no better place to begin than to allow the imagistic language of Ephesians to inform our understanding of the nature and function of the Church.

The Case for a Metaphorical Ecclesiology

What are the criteria for distinguishing the true Church in the face of changing times? This is a highly complex issue and undoubtedly involves many factors. As Hans Küng has observed, the nature given to the Church “was given it as a responsibility.” This nature must be constantly “realized anew and given new form in history [since] changing times demand changing forms” (1968:263).

The credal attributes have been the traditional point of departure for examining the “marks of the church.” While one may not dismiss this approach as improper, the fact that the creed has assumed different interpretations and understanding in different ecclesiologies undercuts the credal approach as the one way to determine the marks of the true church. This is not to suggest that the Church should not aspire to oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. On the other hand, the Church is more a community of symbolic manifestation and can only be “true” to the degree that she lives and expresses fully the reality of that which she manifests.

Speaking of the Church as a community of symbolic manifestation conjures up literary genres such as images, symbols, and metaphors. As imagistic language, they call into question their adequacy in bridging the gap between thought and life. That is to say that one expects to see the metaphoric process progress naturally from describing reality to that of constructing a corresponding reality. Therefore, the important thing is to note at how many points the symbol corresponds to the thing symbolized.

The choice of a metaphorical approach in understanding the nature or “marks of the Church” is prompted by the conviction that metaphors are like an index finger pointing to a reality or something we know little about. M.H. Abrams has said it so descriptively that I will quote him at length:

Any area for investigation, so long as it lacks prior concepts to give it structure and an express terminology with which it can be managed, appears to the inquiring  mind inchoate—either a blank, or an elusive and tantalizing confusion. Our usual recourse is, more or less deliberately, to cast about for objects which offer parallels to dimly sensed aspects of the new situation, to use the better known to elucidate the less known, to discuss the intangible in terms of the tangible. This analogical procedure seems characteristic of much intellectual enterprise. There is a good deal of wisdom in the popular locution for “what is its nature?” namely: “What’s it like?” We tend to describe the nature of something in similes and metaphors and the vehicles of these recurrent figures, when analyzed, often turn out to be attributes of an implicit analogue through which we are viewing the object we describe (1953:31-32).

The concern of this series is to inquire about the nature and task of the Church. Ironically, nowhere in the Bible do we get a finite definition of the Church. However, what we do find in the Bible are images, like the ones in the epistle to the Ephesians, which “are not simply pictorial comparisons but modes of expression which simultaneously depict the reality of the Church” (Schnackenburg, 1991:295). Without any attempt to be exhaustive, I must limit myself to only a few of the images that have dominated ecclesiological thought in the development of a doctrine of the Church.

In Ephesians, four metaphors are used for the Church: the Church as a building, the body of Christ, the bride and wife of Christ, and as a brotherhood. These metaphors are distinct yet interconnected. More importantly, they are clearly used as a corresponding formulaic motif to bring the doctrine of the Church closer to our understanding. For the purpose of this series, I will explicate the metaphor of the Church as the “Body of Christ.” This does not mean that the other three are any less significant. Rather, as the most distinctive metaphor that is related to reality and filled with reality, an understanding of its use can secure for us an appreciation of the other metaphors. Even then, it would be a bold claim to think that one can exhaust the depth of ideas that the “body” metaphor offers us in our attempt to better understand the meaning of the Church as the body of Christ.

The Church as the Body of Christ

Although there are wide-ranging theories regarding the exact source of the concept, “the body of Christ,” it is beyond any doubts that it is the most pervasive metaphor for the Church. In the indisputably authentic Pauline letters, the body of Christ refers to the individual congregations with a call to Christian solidarity (Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12). In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul draws upon the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ to establish the need for unity and Christian harmony. The Church is one body but composed of individual parts that are uniquely endowed for specific tasks. In Romans 12, Paul reinforces the same principle of Christians’ relation to one another, but the relationship to Christ is expressed in more intimate terms. Here, believers are not just “the body of Christ,” but are now “one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5). This emphasizes not just the connection of the Church with Christ, but “stresses the fact that Christ is the source of its unity” (Robert Banks, 1994:61).

In both cases, the metaphor is incidental and emphasizes the primacy and continued affirmation of the corporate body above any individualism or self-enhancement. The importance of the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, therefore, stresses a fact that there is a horizontal relationship that connects every member of the “body” one to another, as well as a vertical relationship “with Christ who is the ‘body’ that they are all members of” (Barbara Field, 1992:90).

In Ephesians, however, there is a new dimension which puts a different spin on our understanding of the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ. Unlike Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 where the congregation is the total body “of Christ,” Ephesians injects a new line of thought that gives the Head a special, characteristic position with regard to the body. This differentiation of Christ as head of his body, the Church, suggests a new reality in our attempts to understand the mark of the Church. The accent is not on the Church as the body which represents the head, but on Christ as the head who imparts the body, the Church, with the power to grow. Two important insights are identifiable from the use of this metaphor in Ephesians: the differentiation between the Head and the body and the conditional growth of the body in relation to the Head. 

First, the specific differentiation of the superiority of the head over the body corrects the misunderstanding that the body constitutes the head and is primary vis-à-vis him. There is truly a relationship between the head and the body, but it is a relationship of faith in which the body’s position is more precisely a subordinate one. To describe the relationship between the head and the body in an exclusively organic way is also to undermine the preeminence of the head. There is no ontic identity since the head is not a member of the body as any other member but one that occupies a place of pre-eminence. The body is totally dependent on the head for its existence, vitality, and growth.

It is imperative to apply theological understanding to this head-body image since in Ephesians 1:22-23, Christ is the head, and he remains the head at every level of reality. The connection between Christ and the Church is one to be understood theologically as Lord over the Church. This way, Hans Küng’s observation is an accurate one when he declares, “the Church receives from Christ its life and at the same time his promises and his direction, or rather his promises and his direction, and therefore its life” (1968:236-237).

Implicit in this notion of head-body relationship is the complete dependence of the Church upon Christ for its ministry in the world. It follows from the understanding that the domain of Christ’s headship has both ecclesiastical and cosmic realities (Eph.1:21). Consequently, as Christ’s body, the Church also receives the “fullness” (plērōma) of his Spirit and power so that it becomes the instrument of Christ in the world.

This spiritual endowment does not mean that Christ has abdicated his ecclesiastical and cosmic headship to the body, the Church. Neither can the Church play the continuing life of Christ or a permanent incarnation. Rather, the head has endowed the Church, with the “fullness” (plērōma) of himself so that through the activities of the Church in the world, his established reign is continually revealed in its “fullness” both to the world and to his defeated celestial adversaries. To this end, Küng’s advice is worth emphasizing that “it is of vital importance for the Church that it allows Christ to be its head; otherwise it cannot be his body [nor function effectively as his body]” (ibid.).

The second important insight that is unique to Ephesians in the head-body metaphor is what I have identified as the conditional growth of the body in relation to the head. Just as precisely as the body depends on the head to exist, so also does it depend on the head for nourishment that brings growth (Eph. 4:15-16). This explicates the interior life of the body in two ways. On the one hand, the body grows towards its head as she comes closer to him in everything, grows into him, reaches towards Christ in love (4:16; 5:24). This means that the growth of the body, the Church, is only possible in obedience to Christ who is her head. The body cannot move in flagrant disobedience to the head and expect to grow. It can only dry and wither away. As Küng has observed, “the Church does not grow automatically and ontologically . . . real growth in the Church occurs when Christ penetrates the world by the activity of his Church in history” (1968:238).

On the other hand, not only does the body derive nourishment by being obedient to the head, it is also important that “the members interchange their blood, their energies, their assistance [so that] by the life-giving virtue of the Head, the whole body has within itself its own principle of development and of growth” (Emile Mersch, 1938:119). The importance of this “interior life,” by implication, is that the body increases unto its own up-building but not without assistance from Christ who is the source of its growth and up-building. As the Church moves in faith in Christ and in love toward one another, the reign of Christ is not only established within her, but it also becomes a distinctive mark that differentiates the Church from other well-meaning institutions. What we can infer, therefore, is that the Church is not to be confined to the strictures of an organization (no matter how convenient and tempting this might be) but must be considered an organism. Even then, its unity, whether with Christ or its constitutive membership, should not be perceived as merely organic, but as one that is distinguishable by its spiritual dimension.

These past series have focused on the Church during the apostolic age as documented in the New Testament. The churches in Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, and the universal ecclesiology of Ephesians present the framework, not only for understanding what the Church is, but of all other questions regarding the introduction of theology and our practice of church today. I have shown the individual environment from which these apostolic churches arose as the temporal framework and the material from which they gained forms of expression. Overall, I have expressed that despite being influenced by diverse contextual situations, apostolic responses upheld a community that was still separate, thus disrupting any direct continuity with an old way of life both in thought and in practice. Apostolic theological claim has revealed that the Church is true to the extent that it functions in obedience to Christ. Biblical understanding gives us but one major hermeneutical approach. The ecclesiology of the New Testament is founded on its central focus on Christology. In Christ alone is summed up the totality of what the Church should be and can ever aspire to be. The Church is not only incomplete without Christ, but more precisely, without Christ there would be no Church at all.

Two thousand years on the Church is still advancing and in such a forward momentum that is as remarkable as the missionary optimism of the apostolic era. In Nigeria, as in most of Africa for example, the pattern of church expansion is out of the ordinary: the exploding numbers, the scope of the phenomenon, the cross-cultural patterns of encounter, the variety and diversity of styles and forms, the wide spectrum of theological views and ecclesiastical traditions represented, the ideas of authority and styles of leadership that have been developed, the process of contextualization that fosters liturgical renewal, and the production of new religious art, music, hymns, songs, and prayers. All of these are featured on Christianity’s breathtaking African face today. Despite this phenomenal growth, we do well to pause and reflect whether or not our contemporary understanding or practice of church depicts the reality expressed during the apostolic era.    

Perhaps, a good starting point is to revisit the humorous reappraisal of the church during the petrol price hike embroilment in Nigeria early in the year. The incongruous and unexpected association of the normally unrelated contexts (church and subsidy) in semantic contortions such as “Jehovah El-Subsidy Ministries,” “Ijo Mimo Subsidy Lati Orun Wa,” “CAC, Oke Subsidy” reflects the state of the church in relation to the deeply conflicted subsidy removal itself and the associated corruption of our environment. As I have said before, the proliferation of churches in Nigeria, embodied by these distinctive church name variations, becomes the humorous reappraisal distancing authentic apostolic Christianity from the upsetting scenario of today. This presents a serious challenge and a transformational change that can be found only in turning to the apostolic churches as hermeneutical key to biblical and contextual ecclesiology. In the next few weeks, I will be turning my theological searchlight on the new paradigm of post-denominational Christianity in Nigeria, looking particularly at its distinctive contours in our quest for a biblical, contextual and missional ecclesiology.

(Next series, "You Must Be Born Again": Revisiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics)