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Our Ephesians Moment

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was reminded again of a book chapter I have come back to countless times over the years. I first came across it in seminary (now more than 20 years ago!) and it has easily been one of the most influential and formative pieces that has shaped my understanding of the mission of the church. It is a chapter entitled “The Ephesian Moment” by the renowned missiologist Andrew Walls in The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002). In it, he argues that we are currently in what he calls an Ephesian moment – a time in history where people from different cultures are converging socially as they encounter Christ in culturally distinct ways. He looks back to the primary social (and theological) dilemma the Apostle Paul was addressing in his epistle to the Ephesians, namely the conversion of Hellenistic Gentiles to Israel’s Messiah. He argues that the surprising conversion of Hellenistic pagans to Christianity created profound cultural dissonances that required both a radical commitment to the unity of the church while at the same time embracing profoundly different expressions of Christianity. He describes it this way:


Hellenistic Christianity was not a Torahless soft option for benighted heathen who could do no better, as some Jerusalem believers undoubtedly thought it. Nor was Judaic Christianity a system of legalistic bondage for people who had never known the benefits of a cosmopolitan culture, as some Hellenistic believers may have thought it. Nor was it the case that each was an authentic form of Christian faith complete and valid in itself, apart from the other. Each was necessary to the other, each was necessary to complete and correct the other; for each was an expression of Christ under certain specific conditions, and Christ is humanity completed … (Walls 78)


Walls goes on to show how because the early church allowed the gospel to cross a massive cultural frontier in going from a monotheistic Judaic context into a pagan Hellenistic one, it profoundly enriched the church’s understanding of the person and work of Jesus. I quote him here at length:


The … classical doctrines of Trinity and incarnation sprang from the need to think in a Christian way about issues that had arisen out of the cross-cultural diffusion of the faith. The first believers were Jews who saw Jesus in terms of Jewish history, tradition, and belief. But when they came to share that faith with Greek-speaking Gentile peoples, they found it was of little use to talk of Jesus as Messiah. The word meant nothing to Greeks, and needed endless explanation. They had to translate, to find a term that told something about Jesus and yet meant something to a Greek pagan. They chose the word Kyrios, “Lord,” the title that Greek pagans used for their cult divinities (Acts 11:19-21). Jewish believers … had long seen the title Messiah as key to the identity of Jesus, the truest expression of his significance. It was a rich term, full of biblical allusions and echoes of the history of Israel and pointers to its ultimate destiny. The transposition of a message about the Messiah to a message about the “Lord Jesus” must have seemed an impoverishment, perhaps a downright distortion. Was it not dangerous to use language that was also used in heathen cults, and that might give the idea that Jesus was one more of the “Lords many” of the eastern Mediterranean? And should Gentile converts be deprived of knowledge about Israel’s national savior? But it turned out that the transposition was enriching without being distorting. Employing a term used of Hellenistic divinities gave a new dimension to thinking about Christ … What Greeks wanted to know was the relationship of that ultimately significant Christ to the Father. Thus, inevitably, the language of ousia and hypostasis enters … To find out [how they relate] meant a process of exploring what Christians really believed about their Lord, using the indigenous methods of Greek intellectual discourse. It was a long painful process, but it issued in an expanded understanding of who Christ is … Translation did not negate the tradition, but enhanced it … Crossing a cultural frontier led to a creative movement in theology by which we discovered Christ was the eternally begotten Son; but it did not require the old theology to be thrown away, for the eternally begotten Son was also the Messiah of Israel.”


According to Walls, it was the cross-cultural diffusion of the gospel that provided the occasion for a profoundly enriched theological understanding that we now take for granted as orthodox, credal faith. The Ephesians moment did not water down Christian beliefs to a “lowest common denominator” theology. It provided a new depth and richness to traditional beliefs. This cross-cultural enrichment is what he refers to as “the Ephesians moment.”


Walls goes on to argue that our hyper-connected contemporary world – which is increasingly marked by bewilderingly diverse cities, genuinely pluralistic societies, mass migrations, and a truly global Christian church – is poised for what could be the most profound Ephesian moment yet. Yet that beautiful possibility also brings with it the same anxieties that many in the early church must have experienced. I quote him at length again here as he describes with incredible prescience our world in 2023:


… in our own day the Ephesian moment has come again, and come in a richer mode than has ever happened since the first century. Developments over several centuries … mean that we no longer have two, but innumerable, major cultures in the church. LIke the old Jerusalem Christians, Western Christians had long grown used to the idea that they were guardians of a “standard” Christianity; also like them, they find themselves in the presence of new expressions of Christianity … that have developed or are developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to display Christ under the conditions of African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Latin American life … There are two dangers. One lies in an instinctive desire to protect our own version of Christian faith, or even to seek to establish it as the standard, normative one. The other … [is] to decide that each of the expressions and versions is equally valid and authentic, and that we are therefore each at liberty to enjoy our own in isolation from all the others. Neither of these approaches is the Ephesian way. The Ephesian metaphors of the temple and of the body show each of the culture-specific segments as necessary to the body but as incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion, fullness, dwell … None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.


Walls' dual call to embrace diverse expressions of the Christian faith as it crosses cultural boundaries while remaining deeply connected and interdependent is an urgent call for the contemporary church. In a time marked by deep polarization across racial and ethnic difference, the dual temptations of either trying to establish our own version of the Christian faith as “the standard, normative one” or enjoying all expressions as equally authentic in isolation from all the others is extremely strong. Those who have traditionally been at the centers may be more tempted by the former; those who have traditionally been on the margins may be more tempted by the latter. Both, however, are an attempt to relieve the creative tension that, when held together, are the very conditions for a new Ephesians moment in our truly global moment.


Walls goes on to make one final point, a point that resonates deeply with us at Until Zion. He writes:

The Ephesian moment also announces a church of the poor. Christianity will be mainly the religion of the rather poor and very poor peoples … A developed world in which Christians become less prominent will seek to protect its position against the rest … Will the body of Christ be realized or fractured in this new Ephesian moment? Realization will have both theological and economic consequences. Perhaps the African and Asian and Hispanic Christian diasporas in the West have a special significance in the posing of the Ephesian question, and the United States, with its large community of indigenous believers and growing Christian communities of the diasporas, may be crucial for the answer that will be given to it.


This, in part, is why one of our core values at Until Zion is to center the perspective of the margins here in the United States. We believe that when we resist the temptation to protect the position of the developed world and instead center the perspectives of the kinds of diaspora communities Walls points to here, we position ourselves squarely in the creative tension of our new Ephesians moment. We believe the Spirit of God is doing something new in the midst of our current social and global upheaval. As someone once put it, “The future is already here; it is just on the margins.”


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