Todd Statham served in Malawi as a
missionary of The Presbyterian Church in
Canada from 2011–2014. He’s now the Christian
Reformed Church chaplain on the Okanagan
campus of the University of British Columbia.
As my wife and I embarked for Africa, the denomina- tion’s mission secretary gave us this advice: “When
you get there, keep your mouth
shut for the first six months.” He
knew from long experience Christian missionaries have often been
quick to speak and slow to listen.
So for the first six months I
worked at a seminary in Malawi, I
followed his advice during staff
meetings, and I have to say it saved
me from some blunders!
I wonder if Canadian churches
should heed similar advice as we
debate major issues such as homosexuality. What if each denomination were to ask its partner churches
in the Majority World what they
think, then zip lips and listen carefully?
Many Canadian denominations
find themselves divided over
whether to affirm nonheterosexual
(LGBTQ) orientations and reverse
longstanding prohibitions against
same-sex marriage. Such issues are
complex because they involve rethinking theological foundations
such as the role and authority of the
Bible, the human person, the nature
of the Church and even the role of
Can we do such theological
heavy lifting and not involve our
partner churches around the world,
to whom we are bound by longstanding friendships as well as
shared confessions and ethical
traditions? I think not.
When decisions to affirm homo-
sexuality were recently made by the
Church of Scotland, the Episcopal
Church, the (Lutheran) Church of
Sweden, and the Presbyterian
Church USA, partner churches in
the Majority World were offended
by how these Western churches
simply ploughed over the confes-
sions and traditions that formed the
basis of ecumenical partnerships –
as if no one else’s opinion mattered.
Christianity has become a truly
global faith, and the centres of
vitality and influence are no longer
in the West.
Today there are twice as many
Protestants in Nigeria as in the
birth country of Protestantism
(Germany) – and far more Roman
Catholics in the Philippines than in
traditionally Catholic nations like
Italy or France.
Indonesian Lutherans now outnumber several Lutheran state
churches in Scandinavia, and even
a Canadian homegrown church
like the Christian and Missionary
Alliance counts most of its membership outside North America.
There are single Presbyterian
congregations in Seoul larger than
the entire national membership of
the Presbyterian Church in Canada!
As Canadian churches debate,
let’s keep in mind some changes
that seem mainstream here can
actually sideline us within the
If we ask our partners for input,
we don’t have to agree with their
response, but at least we’ve made a
genuine effort to maintain unity
and take seriously the Christian
A recent Presbyterian Church
USA moderator shocked many
when she compared Christians in
the Majority World to teenagers
still “finding their way” toward a
mature faith and sophisticated
reading of the Bible. Her comments
were both racist and false.
Churches in the Majority World
actually have heaps of experience
negotiating how the Bible, culture
and Christian tradition fit together.
Like Indigenous Christians in
North America, Christians in Asia
and Africa have had to figure out
what the gospel means for their
culture, rather than what the Western missionaries who brought the
gospel thought it meant for them.
Many have dealt with challenging sexual norms of their own
cultures like polygamy and sexism.
We’d be foolish not to ask them to
share their wisdom.
We will find they also have wisdom about thinking biblically and
living faithfully from the margins
rather than the centre of culture –
wisdom we need in our increasingly
Christians in the Majority World
tend to hold more conservative
positions on sexuality, but don’t
think my proposal is just trying to
drum up foreign aid for the traditionalist side here in Canada.
I’d love to see Canadian denominations listen earnestly to their partner churches on a range of pressing
doctrinal, social and ethical issues.
Remember, honest listening does
not require agreeing. But as my
friend Joseph Thipa, professor of
theology at the University of Malawi, remarked to me, “An international church partnership permits
frank discussion about important
issues for both churches, especially
if they are done out of willingness to
learn from each other.”
Canadian Christians have a
responsibility to our own context,
yes. But we also hold bonds to the
global Church. Let’s not make major decisions without first consulting our partners in the Majority
Time to listen?
Sexuality and the global Church