There’s a practice I’ve observed in the Nigerian church several times. I’ve asked around and it seems like it is pretty common. At some point in an event, there is a time for the “appreciation.” For instance, after the bishop gave his keynote address at the fathers’ conference in Owerri, envelopes were distributed, a big bucket was placed in the chancel, and men came up and put their envelopes of money in the bucket.
Here’s the thing: as they did so, each person took the microphone, said their name, gave a little speech thanking the bishop, and announced how much they were giving. (The money goes to the fathers’ organization by the way, not the bishop.) There was applause based on how much money it was. At one point, the MC said, “No more speeches, please, we don’t have time. Just tell us how much and put it in the bucket.”
As I watched this and other similar events, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NRSV)
This practice of appreciation is clearly in direct contravention of an important teaching of Jesus Christ himself. Yet when I’ve brought this up with several Nigerians, I’ve gotten a shrug and the comment – repeatedly – “It’s our culture. That’s how we give.”
I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with this public giving. Maybe it encourages people to give more. Maybe it is necessary in a culture where corruption is rampant and the church tries to be as transparent as possible. But then I go and read something like the Jerusalem Declaration, the rather portentous statement that came out of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in 2008. (It is printed in the Nigerian prayer book.) The second point says, “The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the Church’s historic and consensual teaching.” At the 2008 all-Nigeria clergy conference, there was a session on human sexuality where the presenter said that in regards to Biblical interpretation, “our position is the position of the child who is literal and very objective.”
Given that, I cannot possibly see how Matthew 6 can be reconciled with the practices of the Nigerian church. Perhaps, however, the Jerusalem Declaration is wrong and that there are more factors at work in Biblical interpretation. I’m open to the idea that one could make an exception to this teaching based on Nigerian culture and the way the practice of giving has evolved in the church here.
Of course, you’ll see where I’m headed on this one. The American church finds itself, arguably, in a similar position as regards same-sex relationships. But, of course, there is not a similar leniency shown on that issue.
I bring this up when I talk to Nigerians about the practice of public giving. One person just shrugged and said he didn’t know why Nigerian church leaders couldn’t be similarly lenient on interpreting the sexuality passages. “But,” he said, “being opposed to homosexuality has become a test of whether you believe the Bible or not.”
“Why that issue,” I asked, “instead of public giving?”
He shrugged. “That’s just the way it is.”
What this shows, I think, is that the opposition to same-sex relationships is not based on fidelity to the Bible. That is merely a nice cover for something deeper.
What is that something deeper?
I have an idea but I’ll wait to roll it out until a later post.