I am blessed to live and minister among the Dagara people of southwestern Burkina Faso. They are an animistic people group with a syncretistic religion so varied they often attract European tourists who seek New Age or pagan experiences. God’s Spirit is mightily at work among them, though, as over 100 village churches have been planted with approximately 11,000 Christians among them since 2004.
While I love most aspects of my job (excluding, of course, the power outages and distance from air-conditioned restaurants), one of my favorite parts is diving into applied theology alongside my Dagara brothers and sisters. I get to walk with these new Christians as they encounter God’s word, discern what it says, and attempt to apply it to their lives and culture. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes ugly, working out the nuts and bolts of hermeneutics in a young church planting movement is always interesting! I will share three instances of these young Christians discerning what Scripture means in their context.
We’ll begin with The Ugly, an instance in which a young preacher obviously made some glaring errors in his interpretation and application of a text. At the urging of a local leader I’d been training, I headed out to a new church plant in a village I had never before visited along with our summer interns (it’s always nice to have an audience for these kinds of moments). This fledgling church had been planted by a third-generation student—the student of my student’s student.
Worship began in typical Dagara-church fashion. After an hour or so of waiting, several different people attempted to start singing before things finally took off when one of the usual song leaders arrived. We enjoyed a mixture of singing, praying, and Bible reading for well over an hour before they asked to hear from me. I shared with them the thoughts I had prepared and more singing began, this time even more raucous than before (perhaps in celebration of my sermon being over?).
About then, the young evangelist who had planted the church came puffing up on his bike, having repaired a flat en route. Since we had only been meeting a couple hours and only heard a few chapters of Scripture read and only one sermon, there was obviously plenty of time for one more! He asked another local leader to read Romans 5, and then began his exposition of the second half of that chapter.
He opened by reminding us what Paul meant when he said that all sinned. His recap of the fall story from Genesis 3 seemed a little heavy on Eve’s guilt over and against Adam’s but was otherwise an effective summary. He then moved on to discuss how Jesus is the New Adam in opposition to the Old Adam. He reiterated Paul’s language in saying that although we all died in the Old Adam, we can all live in the New Adam.
He then hung his head in defeat, and said, “All but for Eve . . . we could all live but for the women in our lives who continue to lead us to sin.” He went on to explain that Paul’s main idea is that, just as Eve led the Old Adam to sin, so our Eves lead us to sin today, even under the New Adam. He went on to tell of a friend who would be a Christian but for the fact that his wife keeps telling him not to. He even added that he was late today because his wife had borrowed his bike, gotten a flat tire, and left it for him to fix.
At this point, my main question was when exactly to interrupt. Should I let him finish first and then offer my thoughts, allowing him to save some face? Should I interrupt immediately and ask what other people think? Or maybe I should leap off my chair and shout down the false prophet? Fortunately, as so often happens, the decision was taken out of my hands.
A younger woman in the church, sitting among several other young mothers who were getting more and more fidgety, finally jumped up and told him that he was wrong, that more often than not it is Dagara husbands refusing to allow their wives to become Christians. She asked him to look around and count how many women had come in defiance of their husbands because their Adams were not yet convinced of the truth in Christianity.
The young evangelist seemed a bit taken aback by her willingness to speak out in opposition to his message in front of everyone but, while not being rude in any way, refused to budge from his interpretation. He pointed out that he wasn’t sharing his own words, but those of God.
At this point the whole crowd got a little rowdy as conversations broke out all around the circle. An older Christian woman finally commandeered the floor. She explained in no uncertain terms that this was not the point of the reading. She said that the point was that even though we are all—men and women—guilty, Jesus has come to make us all new. Death enters when we sin once; life comes through one sacrifice. It has nothing to do with marriage or what men and women do to each other. It is entirely about what Jesus has done for us all.
As is so often the case, truth was spoken in community.
The Peace of Christ
Despite having been a textual major as an undergraduate, I am compelled to confess that I usually skip the introductions and conclusions to the epistles in the New Testament. To-whom’s and from-whom’s seem to my hurried ears only to get in the way of the meat of the letter.
This is the same kind of thinking that damages the witness of many western missionaries serving in the majority world. For my Dagara friends, the hello’s and the goodbye’s and the please-greet’s are just as important in a conversation as the so-called meat. I live and minister in a relationship-oriented rather than a task-oriented society. With whom and for whom one lives today matters more to them than how many items are checked off the to-do list.
Consequently, for my Dagara brothers and sisters, the introductions and conclusions of the letters are vitally important passages. They establish relationship and are the grounds upon which the writer can speak into the recipients’ lives. When Paul opens with “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and ends with “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 1:2; 4:23), never does he sound more Dagara!1
The Dagara live out these scriptural greetings daily (probably hourly), but never more clearly than on Sundays. No matter what is happening at worship or how late you have arrived, you are expected to greet every member of the church upon your arrival. At the end of worship, we greet each other with the Peace of the Lord (Soore yawn-maaro), at once a prayer, a challenge, and a blessing.
The beautiful thing about this lived-out hermeneutic is that it goes beyond mere words. Bringing peace into a troubled life is one of the main benefits of becoming a Christian for Dagara believers. More specifically, almost every Dagara man, when asked to deliver his testimony, will at some point speak of the peace God brought into his life. My dear friend Maal-kono, one of the gentlest West African men I’ve ever had the privilege to know, says this:
Before I became a Christian, I was unkind and loved to fight. Like everyone else, I thought nothing of hitting my wife when she made me angry. I used to get angry so fast and never felt peace in my heart. Now, thanks be to God, I have peace. Jesus has brought peace into my life. I am now a person of peace and bring a blessing rather than a curse to those I meet.
While I might still be tempted to skip over them occasionally, I thank God that he, in his infinite wisdom, allowed the greetings at the beginnings and endings of New Testament epistles to remain to this day.
Referring to this final instance of missional hermeneutics as “The Bad” is a bit of a misnomer. What I mean is that the discussion was difficult, took a good deal of work, prayer, and reflection, but was ultimately successful. It is only ‘bad’ in the sense that it was challenging—and still is!
The Dagara are traditionally polygamists. This occurs for a number of reasons:
- a levirate marriage upon the death of a brother;
- a bride returned to her husband after having been called home by her family, and him having taken another wife in her absence;
- the first wife urging her husband to take a younger second wife to help with housework as she ages;
- or a man simply wanting another wife.
Regardless of how they arrive at the situation, many middle-aged and most older Dagara men are polygamists.
As one can imagine, this almost immediately presented a challenge to the nascent Dagara church movement. As polygamists come to know Christ, can they be baptized? Can their wives? What about their children? Must they divorce all but one wife? If so, which wife? What is then to be done with the divorced woman and her children? These questions and others were running throughout the network of the first few Dagara churches.
About this time, our team began encouraging area-wide leaders’ meetings. We wanted to provide opportunities for leaders who might otherwise never see each other to interact. They would be able to encourage each other, share ideas and new songs, and discuss sticky topics like polygamy.
Our first leaders’ meeting was set around the theme of family: What does a Christian Dagara family look like? We took Ephesians 5:21–6:4 as the basis for our discussion. The leaders present readily acknowledged that, in general, the number one desire for a man is to be respected by his wife, and that for a woman it is to be loved. Children obeying their parents and fathers not exasperating them also resonated. That, of course, was the easy part.
As the conversation then turned toward polygamy, our team stepped more into the role of resource people, that is, living concordances, pointing them to passages throughout Scripture that might speak into their discussion.
- We looked at creation, what the world was meant to be, and the fall, what it wound up being.
- We considered the patriarchs, of whom two of three were polygamists, and for whom their polygamy caused all kinds of problems.
- We looked at what Jesus had to say about marriage. His interaction with the Sadducees found in Mark 12:18–27 (and its parallels), while not explicitly about polygamy, particularly struck our brothers and sisters. They noted that Jesus did not take this opportunity to condemn levirate marriage, but rather accepted it and used it to address another point.
- We also considered Paul’s (the Single Guy) discussion of marriage in 1 Cor 7. This was ultimately the decisive passage for our leaders. When Paul said, “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him,” (7:17) they interpreted that to apply to polygamists.
Having considered these passages and discussed the issue in what seemed to us an endless circular fashion, the leaders arrived at several decisions. First, they asserted that monogamy—one man with one woman—is God’s original and best design for marriage and what we should all strive for. Second, they decided that those who are already polygamists when they come to know Christ ought to remain so, for to divorce their other wives would definitely be a sin. They have their work cut out for them, trying to die to themselves for each of their wives as Christ did for the church, but that is their assigned place in life. Third, they are to take no more wives (that is, monogamists should remain so, and polygamists should not add any further wives). Fourth, they are to teach their children God’s original design for marriage so that, with the passing of time, Dagara marriages will come to resemble what God would have them be.
After a challenging two days, a reasonable decision was reached that acknowledged and dealt with the present reality while planning for a better, godlier future. Was this the end of Dagara reflections on Christian marriage? Absolutely not, and rightly so! The Dagara are still working out in their homes and within their churches what authentically Dagara Christian men, women, and children should do on a daily basis. Their original hermeneutical discussion has given them a good foundation upon which to build, but much of the structure remains to be built.
I thank God on a regular basis that my salvation does not depend on always being right; were that the case, no one would stand a chance of seeing heaven. Rather, our salvation depends upon the righteousness credited to us because of what Christ did for us. That said, working by the Spirit to interpret the word of God within our lives is a vital part of what it means to be the people of God. Walking alongside my Dagara church family as they learn, both by instruction and intuition, the basic principles of exegesis and hermeneutics is one of the great privileges of this missionary life. I am grateful for all that the Spirit is doing as the Dagara press on through the good, the bad, and the ugly of missional hermeneutics.
Andy Johnson has been privileged to serve among the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso since 2002. Married with three children, he holds degrees from Abilene Christian University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Scrpture quotations are from the New International Version.