I Timothy 6:6-11
How To Get Saved In Igboland
Authored by Mike Furey
In the book Barbarians At The Gate: The Fall Of RJR Nabisco, I was amazed at the greed people had, how badly they wanted to make money and how greedy people could be for power.1 One idea that came through was the concept of the noncompany man. The noncompany man or woman is a person who wants to make bucks, megabucks. They will step on anybody they have to, they will do whatever they have to to get money, they are not loyal to anyone, just self. Then I turned this idea to our church. Are people in our church being hurt by the greediness of banks, businesses, or relatives? Or maybe someone in the church is being greedy and inflicting their avarice on others? I am happy today God is looking not for noncompany persons, but kingdom persons. Kingdom persons are people who will sign up for God and live lives obedient to the gospel and seek the rule of God in their lives.
What really bothers me is our society is built on making money. Our society is not concerned with meeting human needs. We are not concerned about people getting sufficient food.2 Why don't we have a society which is concerned about everyone receiving a nutritious meal? Why don't we have a society that is geared, that is engineered towards making sure everyone has a home to live in? Why don't we have a society that is concerned everyone has sufficient clothes? Our society is geared toward making bucks and we manufacture poverty in this country. We make poor people in this country.3 We build things in this country we don't even need. We build luxury cars we don't need. Our whole throwaway society is pathological. It's sick. It's greedy. And Christians are getting caught up in it.
I asked myself is there a place in the world where people are more concerned about people than they are about money? I don't think such a place exists. But I found a place where money once had no meaning. Old Africa. Not the new Africa because they are chasing industry and Western-style wealth creation. They are becoming like us, becoming hungry for the power that money can bring. I became fascinated with Old Africa. I started looking at how both churches took their forms in the New Testament and in Old Africa. The context of First Timothy gives us clues as to how the early New Testament church had been shaped.
The apostle Paul is writing to Timothy. The best scholarship believes Paul wrote this letter. Paul had to write it during his last years. He wrote it at a time when the church was becoming an institution. The wonderful thing about the gospel that Jesus and early Paul proclaimed is the liberating message of freedom in Christ and not religion. They proclaimed a brand new society, a brand new age, a new kingdom. In a book, Prophecy And Order by Jeffrey B. Russell, the author speaks of two spirits moving through time.4 The spirit of prophecy and the spirit of order. When Jesus came he preached a prophetic message, he tore down the system of the day, the order of the day. Then Paul came and preached the free gospel, but as he neared the end of his life, he saw the need for order and began to institutionalize the message and set up house. We see then in the Christian life there is a tension between prophecy and order, between the freedom offered in Jesus Christ and doctrine, between the relationship we have in the Lord and propositions. In Timothy we have an emphasis on "the faith once delivered to the saints." We have an emphasis on tradition, on a hand-me-down religion. We hear it said "This is a faithful saying." It does not give us a fresh interpretation of the truth but it says we're living in a day in which all kinds of preaching is going on, all kinds of messages are going out and we want to have a crystallization of the faith, we want to know where we stand and therefore pronounce a doctrine. Paul wants to give some hard and fast things to believe and to act upon. One of those things Paul gives is this saying, "Watch out for the love of money." Because of the ministers of the day, the Timothys of that day, the new leadership coming into the churches are starting to be enticed by the money. There is a lot of money going around. At Ephesus where Timothy is there is a lot of money as you recall how the idol makers were angry over the loss of their business during Paul's visit.
This is a paradox of the Christian faith. The message must be reduced to words and must be crystallized for a contemporary culture. On the one hand we have the glorious liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. On the other hand we have this tendency for doctrine and we must set up rules for living. For example, we must teach our children right and wrong in simple form and then spend the rest of our lives clarifying, updating, and reinterpreting. Is it wrong to lie? Yes, it is a command from God to not lie. Then why did Rahab the harlot lie and hide the spies and then was called a heroine in the book of Hebrews? Lying is not wrong in every case. Hiding Jews from Hitler's Germans is a good lie to tell. On one hand we have this liberal faith that is growing and exciting and cannot be pinned down; it is like love. On the other hand we have to pin it down because the forces of evil are encroaching and would try to fight against the gospel. Paganism and secularism are beating against the people of faith and we have to be able to say this is the truth. But at the same time we have to have a progressive revelation, an ever reforming set of doctrines. The main anchors we have are the resurrection and the lordship of Jesus; all other doctrines are not absolute. So that's the problem. The problem of orthodoxy amidst heresy. The problem of growth and renewal versus stability and stagnation. In the day of evil, when trouble comes we have to have some controls. You have to have "facts." You have to have some anchors for the masses who don't like to live their lives as Socrates would suggest in an examined and enlightened manner. Christians are no different and just want to be told what to do and satisfy their pastor rather than the Lord through an engaged mind. So Paul is writing to a time period when the new pastor Timothy needs help to pastor his church. It is a day when the church is being heavily assaulted by every side and a day when people do not need change but stability. It is a day when people do not need a prophet with a new word, but a priest with a system. In the books of First and Second Timothy and Titus we have some pretty organized material, some pretty wooden stuff compared to the creative scriptures. We have some hard and fast religion. Paul says, "Watch out some of you folks are falling in love with money." And that's the point I want to emphasize. Paul mentions about six warnings but I want to emphasize his caution about greed.
The love of money is the root of all evil. A Christian must have money on his or her mind, but not on his or her heart. Paul gives Timothy and Christians an anchor for their rapidly changing world. Don't love money.
In our greedy society we see a love for money everywhere. In contrast, in African thought, people were the priority. In African thought, reality starts with the human being. In their way of believing the African says I am important because other people are important. Their philosophy is "I belong, therefore, I am."5 An old time African didn't see himself or herself as all alone. The individual saw himself or herself among other people. In Africa the family used to be the social security system. If one person hurt, the other persons hurt. If one had a sore, the others had a sore. If one has a need, the others had a need. So if one has money, the other can take your money. And that doesn't work too well for Modern Africa! (The "liberated" families are fighting over who stays back with the children and who goes off to work.) I looked at Africa and saw some important values for relationships and faith. But I also ran up against a large problem.
As I chose to study Africa and its relational habits and to adopt them for our context, I found there are two thousand different tribes and eight hundred languages in Africa. I chose to zero in on one African culture as a microcosm, which does provide a representation of the macrocosm. I chose the Igbo people of Nigeria in Western Africa. However, I found that you cannot just take African culture and customs and import them into an American setting; that is exactly what our missionaries tried to do to them. They did not bring just Jesus over to Africa. They brought a blue-eyed blonde Capitalist Jesus and imposed Western ideas onto the African person. We just can't transpose ideas and habits, only the basic philosophy. Let's examine the thoughts and history of these Igbo people before and after they encountered Christian missionaries in 1906.
The primal traditional religion of the Igbo people is curious. What they believed before missionaries came was that life is the most important concept. Life is the central concept of salvation. Being alive here and now is central. How we live here and now does affect us in the future, but life today is more important than life tomorrow. In this life one needs to have children. One cannot make it into ancestorhood without children. The dead ancestors are really alive watching our lives and participating in our world. Wherever we go there are three things out there in the world. There are ancestors, gods, and a personal spirit of destiny. So the African is conscious of three things in the "spiritual" world, but it is all one world. There is no dichotomy between sacred and secular. It is very important for the African to have children. If he or she doesn't have children, he or she cannot receive a proper burial in order to attain ancestorhood. So it was important how the father treated his children who would administer the proper burial since only children could perform the rites. The African did not believe in the forgiveness of sins. If an African sinned he or she believed he or she would incur the wrath of the gods, of the ancestors, and of his or her special spirit. So the African wanted to live righteously and justly. Righteousness is a critical theme in the Igbo peoples' life. Being upright and moral were important. But when an Igbo sinned they had certain rites they could do to make sure that the god's anger would be deflected. They could cast spells, offer sacrifices like blood sacrifices, or they could take all their sin and dump it on a goat or a human slave. They could dump all their sin on a slave. The slaves were treated as outcasts. The outcasts of society lived on the fringe of the village. They could also wear amulets, good luck charms. Whatever way they could divert the evil would be considered power. If evil keeps coming into a person's life, they could go to a fortune teller and say, "Look, what do I gotta do to get things fixed up? I can't figure out what I've done wrong." The fortune teller would tell them what to do, and if they followed all the procedures and evil still came or sickness was still there, then that person could take on another god. Since that old god had no power, he didn't deserve any gifts. Since that god no longer had power, an individual was free to take on a new god. So power is a second important theme. Whatever brings life is right. Whatever brings power to life is right.
So what happened was the missionary came in and right behind the missionary were the guns of the capitalists or colonialists. The Igbo person wouldn't see the difference between the missionary preaching the gospel and the capitalist wanting to make money and wielding a gun. What the Igbo sees is the new God is powerful, our arrows can't keep up with their guns! Our gods are falling asleep or dead. So there was a full scale "conversion." The Igbos wholeheartedly embrace the new God in Christianity. Their African theology permitted and required them to. They take everything lock, stock, and barrel in 1906-1936.
Now here's the little boy growing up. He sees his dad embrace this religion and they benefit by it. But the little boy is going to the new school that the Christian missionary runs and he learns everything but when he graduates, he can't get a job, he's not the equal of the missionary. The missionary is part of the system that oppresses the people and keeps them down. So the second generation Igbo says this religion is not helping us enough. It doesn't give us the power we need for life. It is not enhancing us, so in effect, they adopt both religions. They keep Christianity because they have the good schools that may lead one to a government job and modern life. It is not saying the second generation Christian is not truly converted, but it does describe the meaning of humanity and the conversion process. Their African mentality, their Igboness is deep. They live out of both worlds subconsciously. The problem is the mainline church is not really in their world. When the young African goes up to his white Anglican priest he will say, "Hey, my wife is not having a baby for me, what'll I do?" The Christian church, the Anglican church, the Roman Church do not have the answer for him. The African religion had several answers! They had certain procedures to help them, and so they go back to them. "Why can't I have two or three wives? Abraham had more than one. David had more than one. Why can't I? What about the Levirate system of marriage?" The African started seeing that the white man had a certain way to read the Bible. The white man was greedy. Out of that, the third generation of Igbo Christians emerges.
They are hard core Biblicist, Literalists, Fundamentalists, Pentecostals. They have their own interpretation of the Bible. They have broken from the mainline Euro-American churches. There are over six thousand independent churches in Africa, not just Igboland. These are starting anew. However, they are coming up with wild doctrines, perhaps heresies. They need the book of Timothy. African theologians suggest the future fourth generation of Christians will have to say, "Okay, we've taken the gospel. We've owned it, but we also have to tap back into the orthodox traditions. We are getting too wild and free. We need traditional Christianity, but we also need to tap into our Africanity. We need to be Igbo people and Christian Igbo people."
The point is the Igbo people need to hear Timothy's warning and so do we. When the white man first came, he offered them a wealth of ideas and goods. Also, the missionary offered them the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. But then it became a system attended by colonialism and capitalism that oppressed, a system led by a human church that kept the Igbo people in bondage. Then the Igbo people broke out and now the Igbo people are on fire going all over the place and have strange beliefs cropping up. So now the Igbo people need a tap back in. That's where First Timothy comes in. Timothy taps the errant church back into the right truth, and the right leadership amid crisis and instability. Sometimes we need orthodoxy over inspiration. How does this greedy verse fit in? The gospel says yes, our religion has got to have power. I first trusted Jesus because I had a need, I had an inner vacuum. I didn't know what to believe in, I didn't know what to think about reality, I didn't know what life was all about and Jesus came into my life and he said he was the truth, the way, and the life. I was no longer philosophically bankrupt. But then, as time went on, I changed and I had a new need. A need came into my life, could Jesus Christ meet this new need? What good would my faith in Christ be if he could not meet the new need that I have today? And the need that I have when I'm fifty years old. Sixty years old. And each time of crisis or change in life! Like the Igbo people we must look for the power element in religion. The Bible says for I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation.
The point is yes we have to have power. In your Christian life do you experience the power of God? Is God hearing your prayers? Many of us are really turning to money. When we have a money problem, we pop out the credit card instead of depending on God in prayer for this day's need. Many of us think money can meet our need. If we have money, we don't have to trust the living God; we have enough money to pay the doctor. If we have money, we don't have to worry about getting fashionable clothes because we can buy them. If we have money we won't be one of those poor people getting trampled on by our sick society.
So how do we get saved in Igboland and in any land? We get saved by the power in Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus has the power to deliver us from evil in this life and the world to come. Yes, Jesus will help us in our troubles and afflictions. Jesus answers prayers. But there is a big no. We must not equate favor and blessing, health and wealth with religion. We must not have a lust for power. We must not be consumed by building up a pile of riches and an earthly kingdom. One of the main problems in religion is the equating of blessing and good times with righteousness and godliness. One of the commonest superstitions which masquerades as religion is the idea that godliness is a means of gain. God does not promise wealth and money. God is not a lucky rabbit's foot. This is where the Igbo need to work on their theology and so do many of us. God does not promise us his power just for our sake, but his sake. God promises that if we be his company man, his company woman, if we be kingdom persons, he would see to it that we had what we needed. Matthew 6:33.
How do we get saved in Igboland? Seek the kingdom of God and his power, not our personal power, not our personal kingdoms.
In times of adversity, the church needs to be priestly. The church needs to bring order into our powerless lives. When we have problems and doubts, we can anchor onto some of the doctrines and propositions in the Bible.
In times of prosperity, the church should become prophetic, to offer change, renewal growth, and challenge to the systems of this world. This is the tension we see in the context of Timothy, Igboland, and our own Christian lives.
Don't love money. Love God and love people. Don't trust money. Trust God and work with tradition. For some people their only denomination will be green.
1 Byran Burrough and John Helyar, Barbarians At The Gate: The Fall Of RJR Nabisco, (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).
2 Dieter T. Hassel, Social Ministry, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), pp. 48-74.
4 Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History Of Medieval Christianity: Prophecy And Order, (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Reprinted 1986).
5 Yusufu Amef Obaje, "Reflections On Certain Aspects Of Traditional African Concepts Of Extended Family," speech at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, N202, VT 1893, recorded February 17, 1989.
Other sources used but not endnoted:
p'Bitek, Okot. African Religions In Western Scholarship. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1970.
Dibelius, Martin, and Hans Conzelmann. The Pastoral Epistles. Ed. Helmut Koester. Trans. Philip Buttolph and Adela Yarbro. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983, Third Edition.
Dickson, Kwesi A. Theology In Africa. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.
Fortes, Meyer. Religion, Morality, And The Person: Essays On Tallensi Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Genly, Fred D., and Morgan P. Noyes. "The Pastoral Epistles." In The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 11. Ed. George A. Buttrick. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982.
Greer, Gary M. "The Rites Of Passage In Traditional African Societies." In Exploring The Ethos Of Africa. Ed. John N. Jonsson. Louisville: Nilses Publication, 1990.
Imasogie, Oscadolor. Guidelines For Christian Theology In Africa. Achimota, Ghana, West Africa: African Christian Press, 1983.
Jonsson, John W. Calabash Religion: The Ethos And Kerygma Of Africa. Louisville, Nilses Publication, 1990.
Kelly, J.N.D. A Commentary On The Pastoral Epistles. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1963.
Oden, Thomas C. First And Second Timothy And Titus: Interpretation. Ed. James L. Mays and Paul J. Achtemeier. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989.
Okorocha, Cyril C. The Meaning Of Religious Conversion In Africa: The Case Of The Igbo Of Nigeria. Vermont: Gower Publishing Company, 1987.