The New Paternalism in World Christianity

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

You may be familiar with the old paternalism. A white European or American missionary evangelizing and church planting in a “heathen” nation, with the help of “native assistants.” These native Christians, who often go unnamed in missionary reports, will someday lead the churches in their homelands but somehow they are never quite ready to do so… according to their missionary patrons. The missionaries hang on to leadership and control of local ministries for longer than they should, either in an official capacity or unofficially as their foreign money continues to hold veto power over local initiatives even after the reins of leadership have been formally turned over. The missionaries may give lip service to putting local Christians in charge, but in reality they doubt whether the locals will really get it right. So they hang on to control just a bit longer. In Western missionary circles today, that kind of overt paternalism is frowned upon, even if it continues to exist in various, more subtle ways, than it did the 19th and 20th centuries.

Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925
Missionary in Northern Thailand, 1925

But as the world has moved on from the era of European colonialism and the “white man’s burden,” new forms of paternalism are emerging. Issues of trust, power, and control are as relevant as ever in a globalized church where denominations and networks stretch across international boundaries and missionaries travel from everywhere to everyone, not just from the West to the rest.  Paternalism, in all its forms, hurts relationships, hinders healthy church growth, and dishonors God. Here are a few examples of the new paternalism in world Christianity.

Progressive American Disdain for Conservative Africans

In February 2019, the United Methodist Church (UMC), which has a worldwide communion, held a special meeting to decide the denomination’s stance on issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The church has been nearly evenly divided over whether to go forward with full approval of homosexuality, or to re-affirm the traditional Christian position that marriage is only between one man and one woman, and homosexual practice is sinful.  Many American Methodists have pushed for full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ agenda and have resented the threat to that agenda posed by African Methodists, the majority of whom remain conservative on sexual issues.  Conservative African Methodists resent that paternalism and sense of superiority on the part of progressive American Methodists, as evidenced in a speech by Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, professor at the United Methodist University in Liberia and an African delegate to the UMC special meeting:

“Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.” 

Let me assure you, we Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”

In response to the suggestion from some American Methodists that in the event of a church schism over this issue, the African churches would become financially unviable, Dr. Kulah stated that, “with all due respect, a fixation on money seems more of an American problem than an African one. We get by on far less than most Americans do; we know how to do it. I’m not so sure you do. So if anyone is so naïve or condescending as to think we would sell our birth right in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us.”

For so-called progressive white Christians, it looks really good to talk about the inclusion of non-white, non-Western voices, but when those non-white, non-Western brothers and sisters don’t go along with liberal theological and social agendas, paternalistic attitudes of racial and cultural superiority rear their ugly head. The full text of Dr. Kulah’s speech may be read here.



Nigerian Missionary Paternalism in Cameroon

Some may think that paternalism and attitudes of cultural superiority are only a white, Western problem and that the rest of the world is free from such problems.  After all, if you’ve thrown off the yoke of colonialism and white paternalism, why would you adopt the same attitudes and practices you’ve broken free from?

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Amos Chewachong who presented his research on how Nigerian missionaries from the Winner’s Chapel megachurch in Nigeria are establishing churches in Cameroon without giving local Cameroons real opportunity to lead their own churches.  Nigerian missionaries maintain control of the churches they start in Cameroon to the point that Cameroon leaders end up feeling like foreigners in their own country. The Nigerian missionaries are more respected and looked up to by Cameroonian church members, in part because they have a more direct connection to the blessing and anointing that comes through David Oyedepo, founder and pastor of Winner’s Chapel. Maintaining Nigerian control of Winner’s Chapel church plants in Cameroon and other countries helps ensure that the beliefs, principles, and practices of Winner’s Chapel are faithfully replicated in all locations.  It would seem that only Nigerians can be trusted to get the Winner’s Chapel formula right. This power dynamic between Nigerian Winner’s Chapel missionaries and the church members and leaders in other countries represent a new paternalism in world Christianity. This is not like the old paternalism of the white man over the brown man, if I may put it bluntly, but this Nigerian cultural hegemony in Winner’s Chapel missionary work is paternalism all the same. For the time being, this approach appears to be working for Winner’s Chapel, if we are to judge success by numbers of people and global spread, but in the long run, the dominance of any one cultural group in a global church denomination is bound to breed resentment, distrust, and schism.  The seeds of such discontent is already evident as some Cameroonian leaders in Winner’s Chapel churches in Cameroon are leaving to start their own churches, tired of never being trusted to lead their own churches, always playing second fiddle to Nigerians.

Worship Service at Faith Tabernacle (Winner's Chapel), 2005
Worship Service at Faith Tabernacle (Winner's Chapel), 2005

When it Comes to Contextualization, Missionaries Know Best?

One of the buzz words in evangelical missionary circles is contextualization.  There is a broad recognition that Western forms of Christianity shouldn’t just be copied into non-Western cultures, but rather the expression of the Gospel adapted to fit with local conditions. The core truths of the Bible shouldn’t be changed, but their expression or application should be suited to the local culture. Foreign missionaries should enter into partnership with local Christians in their host countries, deferring to their better understanding of their own cultures.  That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice, foreign missionaries sometimes advocate adapting Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious terminology and practices in order to make Christianity seem less foreign. The idea is that the less cultural distance there is between people’s culture and Christianity, the more readily they will accept Christ.  There is real merit to this theory.  Reducing unnecessary cultural barriers to understanding and embracing the Gospel is essential in cross-cultural ministry.  But when does contextualization cross the line into compromise of the Gospel?

Because there are so many barriers to becoming a Christian in most Muslim cultures, some missionaries advocate insider movements.  Simply put, an insider movement is when people believe in Christ and try to follow him while still identifying as another religion. So you would have Muslim followers of Jesus who still claim Muslim identity and go to the mosque, but they actually pray to Jesus.  Or it might be a Buddhist who believes in Jesus but still identifies as a Buddhist, lighting incense, and doing the Buddhist ceremonies that their family and friends do. If you get a bunch of people all following Jesus in this way, then maybe you can get a movement going that brings people to Christ but avoids the hostility and violent rejection that usually comes with openly identifying as a Christian.

But here comes the rub. The type of contextual adaptation that some missionaries want, such as insider movements, is often not wanted by local Christians. It is not that there aren’t any locals who might get on the missionaries’ hyper-contextualization bandwagon, but the majority of local Christians don’t want it. Why don’t they want it? Many converts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. would say that it is a compromise of the faith.  It is not Christianity.  Meanwhile, advocates of these highly contextualized approaches brush off the repeated objections of local Christians, claiming that they only object because they have been overly influenced by Western missionary Christianity.  Although it is not said directly, the idea is that foreign missionaries know better than the locals how Christianity should be expressed and propagated.  Is that paternalism?  Sure sounds like it to me.

For the record, I am not opposed to contextualization per se, but discussions of how to practice and propagate the Christian faith need to be done in partnership, and if a certain method is strongly objected to by the majority of local Christians, foreign missionaries need to take those objections very seriously.  If missionaries really want partnership, not paternalism, like they say they do, they may need to back off on some of their experimental methods and work harder on dialoguing with local Christians to find ways to work together for the Gospel that are both biblical, and everyone can live with.

Paternalism is Alive and Well

The examples I’ve outlined above are probably just the tip of the iceberg in the new paternalism in cross-cultural Christian relationships and outreach in the world today. A lot more could be said on each of the above examples and I hope that the reader will forgive any oversimplification of complex issues.  However, I believe these new forms of paternalism should be pointed out because paternalism is not just a sin of a bygone era of Christendom.  Paternalism is alive and well today in world Christianity.  Whether it reflects attitudes of racial, cultural, or some other kind of superiority, it is harmful to healthy relationships and church growth.  It dishonors God and hurts people in the long run.  Not everyone is guilty of paternalism but it is a specter that we should all be on the look out for them, not only in others, but most importantly in our own attitudes, practices, and church fellowships. 


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