David Zac Niringiye - "The Church: God's Pilgrim People"
9:14PM Jun 28, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
David Zac Niringiye
Today it is our privilege to be speaking with Bishop David Zac Niringiye. Bishop Niringiye is a retired assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kampala of the Church of Uganda. Bishop Niringiye is a fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Uganda Christian university, a theologian, mission leader, Pastor HIV and AIDS activist, and organizational development consultant as well. He is also the author of the text that we'll be discussing today, The Church: God's Pilgrim People, available from IVP academic in 2015. Bishop, Niringiye, thank you for being with us today.
Thank you, Jonathan.
As we begin, in the acknowledgments of your text, you speak warmly of john Stott as uncle john. What is it about john stone That allowed him to connect with Christians from such a breadth of cultural backgrounds.
I think that so many things I would say about uncle john, dr. john Stott, indeed. Firstly, his passion for the gospel, and not a doubt and understanding that the gospel and the people of God wherever they community in Christ, both in its historical manifestation as well as any geographic possible geographical spread, he, he was one person persuaded about it. And I mean, it's just amazing his love for Jesus, his love for God's people. He is an all of these, I do believe, was deeply founded in his passion and his love for Jesus and And of course, the Spirit of God at work in his life. So all these things that I think everything good about what we ought to be, I think it's something that you could see in, in Aqua journey, both his life, his writings. So I think that that's something that he really believed in Jesus, he really believed in God's people. He really believed the, the totality of the gospel and androids represented. He also believed that in order to get a sense of what God is doing, and know God, walk with God, you needed to interact, engage with followers of Jesus elsewhere. Because our walk with Jesus is only a perspective and I think he understood that to have a better grasp, to know God, to appreciate him more and more. I mean, whoever knows God completely, the growth of knowing him wants to grow to relate and connect with our brothers and see across the world, and I mean, he just didn't do this in terms of geography, you could say that that he was somebody deep, deeply committed to understanding history that people have got in various expressions historically. So, I believe that
I've been conducting nearly now. 200 interviews with theologians from around the world on the topic of global theology, and the name john Stott comes up quite often. Do you have a favorite memory perhaps, of uncle john?
And we were in Kampala, actually, it was my first meeting, you know, in terms of a personal relationship. I of course, had met him through his writings and I loved them. God's new society, amazing book, his exposition on on Ephesians was one of those that was really simply amazing. So Galatians I have listened to him speak at a pastors conference in Nairobi, then this is 1980 He came to Kampala. And I wasn't I just I was very honest, how deeply moved I had been by his walks. And now meeting him was just simply a phenomenal experience. 1980 I was a young lad. I hadn't yet gotten married. So I even say to him, I am amazed you are able to do all these things, and you seem to be fulfilled as a single man. No, I did. This was my facility. For this young man getting very possible, really, we would draw daddy looks at you. And he said, Yes, I am fulfilled God for fears. We have been fellowship and friendships that are very, very supportive. And, you know, and but then he said, but then he said, he said, but I still when I get home You know, I still wish it was possible for to be welcomed by a warm hug, you know? I mean, he spoke very passionately. And I thought, wow, you know, he says, Yes, there are moments when I feel lonely, you know? And I thought, well, I connected with him so deeply at the personal level. He is not just somebody who speaks such amazing truths, but he's actually really human has, you know, at the deepest level of being human. And I mean, that has never left me. I mean, I could tell several other stories about but that for me, it's stood out. And And from that day, 1980 he remained somebody and thanks be to God, he, we had a kind of a mentor mentee relationship. So he really has been somebody who impacted my life, not only in his walks, I mean, I've read loads of his books, his own biography, by Tim Douglas Smith, but the conversations the fellowship I think I should just mention the visiting is a little flat in London. That was amazing. Very, very simple now, john stopped or spoke about in his walks and, you know, public ministry about the need to live a simple lifestyle. And I mean, walking into his flat epitone of simplicity is a very highly loaded is loads of money if you wanted to leave, you know, extravagant view or even just a bit more, you know, he's med, he's one who had a lot of money from the royalties over his many books, but you know, he made a choice to leave simply one bedroom flat, very simple, you know, remarkable. And I thought, Wow, what a great example of a follower of Jesus.
Thank you so much for sharing those those delightful memories and very insightful Memories Thank you, Bishop, Nita Gaea in the writing of your book, the church, God's pilgrim people we understand this is a very personal journey for you. How is it that you decided to write this book?
impetus, you know, the impetus, the challenge, the encouragement, and the first of all, when I enrolled in a course in theology at Wheaton College, as a student being introduced to the whole theological enterprise, I had come to Wheaton College to study systematic theology. And therefore, you know, you are you are introduced to the whole introduction, introductory courses to theology, the various approaches, and I was very intrigued by that beginning point by many systematic theologians and, and broadly speaking, there would be many or start with the Lord. of God, you know the doctrine of God as the beginning point. And I think quite a number of the classic texts would begin with the with the knowledge of God, you know, the doctrine of God, I think it's here Metallica will begins with a revelation. So there's another group of theologians that began with the revelation, the doctrine, how do we know truth? And I kind of thought, actually, huh, neither of these for me walked because how, if you are to speak about the knowledge of God, the doctrine of God, how do you ever come to know God? You know, even the whole concept of revelation? So it became very clear to me that the place to begin theology, systematic theology and the theological work is really an understanding of the church. right because all that we are what we have received, even the biblical text has come through the agency of the church, you know, the people of God. So for me, the first thing was I was very persuaded that that is an important standing starting point for theological reflection to enter into. Because if you don't have an appreciation of who the church is, I think it's very, very easy to get on a trajectory of theological reflection, that misses the point. That was the first thing. So for me, as deeply theological. It rose out of a theological reflection in my in my in my study. Secondly, I had any very, very much a personal crisis of getting to grips with who their church really is. As you read the book, you get a sense that I've experienced the various expressions of church and they read the gospel, the New Testament, I read the Old Testament. I So for me it was it possible exploration. Who then is the church, you know, because there's all these manifestations both in history, as well as in the contemporary setting, that speak of themselves as the church. And for me, it was important that I get a sense of what is authentic church look like. It was very clear to me, not every community that names itself as church is really authentic church, there are many who are the very opposite. In fact, they bear the name of church, but they are the very opposite of what the what Jesus imagined his people would be. So Secondly, it was very important for me, so that I am able to locate myself in a place where I believe the Spirit of God is at work. Sadly, I mean, very pragmatically, we are part of a study group supported through the Lamb literature ministries I'm so weird Wait, what what we're working on a global cities global Christian library. So I was encouraged when I shared my passion, both theologically and in my own journey. So I was encouraged and assigned to do this work. So you I guess I would say those three things, what got me into the project?
Thank you, Bishop need India in chapters two and three of your texts you survey the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament beginning with Moses. What is it that we need to understand from the stories of the Old Testament in order to correctly interpret the teachings about the church in the New Testament?
First of all, it's the recognition that
the the notion church itself, although as as a as a as a as a Theme images a lot in the New Testament,
that God has a people
called by his name that God
has a people, he is happy to be identified with. God has a people equals his own, which is really what the end of the day the church is about. So you cannot appreciate who the new people of God are, unless you understand who they are the people of God, how God because God is the same, you know, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.
that, for me was very, very crucial. So, the study of Israel Therefore, as the people of God, very crucial, in order for us to understand our own walk and walk in God, so the entire story is there. Kennedy, you cannot understand the biblical narrative in the New Testament about the people of God, unless you actually delve into the material in the oral testament. Absolutely, you can't. And you, I was really, really fascinated by the truth. But even Genesis, the Genesis narrative is impossible to appreciate. If you don't understand Israel, the people of God, because the Genesis narrative is itself located is really a product is really it comes out of the life of the people of God in which comes out of the story of Moses, you know, absolutely. So if you don't appreciate that you can appreciate the entire public context. So it's huge. It's, it's the biblical text, it's the people of God, it's there. Of course, these are God walks with the people. Certainly, it's the Spirit of God. God is not present to his people that way he is present to us. Absolutely. Is there in Jeremiah, the, the new people of God, the presence of God by His Spirit. However, however, the same yesterday, today and forever, so to be able to know how God works, you've got to really appreciate how you walk through the people in the Old Testament. So all of these themes are very crucial in order to be able to have a sense, how do we, the people walk by His Spirit, the people who are followers of Jesus, how do we walk with him? In this new day, Bishop need and give.
Some are saying that in the 20th and 21st century, the church the western church, particularly is recovering a sense of ecclesiology. But it's surprising to us how much how little reflection we've given to the subject of the nature of the church, from your perspective as an African theologian, how is it that we forgotten about this doctrine of the Church?
I think in pot, which is, in my view, a tragedy is that It was taken for granted, just taken for granted. And for many in the western church today, because in some ways the church has become part of the culture, part of the culture, especially if you think about the history of the church, I mean, it's hundreds of years now in Europe, North America, much more recent. But if you think about the people church, in its conceptions, yeah, even in North America, it's really very much the people from Europe, you know, the pilgrim, those stories are told. So taking taking church for granted the assumption that we are the church, the assumption, the assumption. I think that's part of the problem, because I think I see many expressions of church. That's really, really distant from the idea the community that God imagine so I think that in my reading is, is one of the reasons, an assumption, an assumption, and secondly, that the church has become part of the culture. And and, you know, if you're in the woods you can recognize, you know, the distinctive, the distinct distinguishing features your part of the woods. And, and I think the other is that often the western church felt itself as a missionary church to the rest of the world rather than thinking of itself as part of what God is doing in his world, and the impetus for mission is not necessarily taking the church to the rest of the world because that's, that's God's business. I will build my church, the business of sharing the world. wouldn't have the gospel is really, really primarily about a being a part of what God is doing. Be seeing what God is doing, you know, being able to have this amazing wow moment as you enter, you know Latin America, Africa to various places, and you find God you see God. So the thinking that God has sent, you know, us to the rest of the, you know, this idea that we therefore, what, as missionaries to the rest, I think rather than so I think that all these things are part and parcel of that the challenge that so I think that the beauty of the church now, globally, is an opportunity for the church in the west to rediscover who it really is, even God in Christ, not just in the culture.
That's beautiful. Thank you for that reflection. Bishop nearing Gaea. In your text. You have a chapter entitled in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And you discuss the mission strategy of the first century church. How should the mission strategy of the church in Acts inform the mission strategy of today?
Oh, absolutely. Because why? Because Jesus says, I will build my church. So to get a sense of how he begins that process, by the Spirit is at the heart of it. And it amazes you the surprising way in which it happens in Acts of the Apostles is phenomenal. It's amazing. You see the walk of the Spirit. In fact, I think you know, that, I guess others have that, in many ways. The acts of the apostles could have been a better named the acts of the Holy Spirit because it was really an amazing the acts of the Holy Spirit or the apostle or something like that, because it's really the work of the Spirit. And you get this deep sense that the apostles quickly realized the added followers of Jesus quickly realized that it's not about how they seek to strategize to reach the world, the most crucial thing is to ask, What is God doing in his world? What is the spirit wanting to achieve to accomplish in his world? So they spent loads of hours seeking God listening to him, walking in him, listening to him, and it's not listening to him in the prayer room in the closet. There are some people who think that you listen to God in prayer and fasting Yes, in prayer and fasting, but actually, it's on the way it's, it's out there
in the in Korea, it's
out there. I mean, the experience in Antioch, Korean you know, all these So it's absolutely I think you get, because it's all that's why we tend to the scriptures. Yeah. So we don't want anytime to the Scriptures to get the truth in the sense of propositional truth, which, again, I think is a challenge in the window the western church. The Bible is seen as a depository of propositional truth in which we must go and get some clear doctrines. Now, there is actually a study, which is our study, it is our study. So, the Acts of the Apostles, the acts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, is our story. The only way to understand where we live now, our story today is to get a sense of that story. It is our story, which actually takes us back to why Israel, that story of Israel is Our Story. It is our story, because we are the people of God. So you you the only way you it's a it's a grasping the study that it does Study in which we read, the study that defines who we are. And acts of the apostles is the beginnings of that, certainly in understanding the work of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus, so very, very crucial.
And as we look at the first century model of mission and then move to the to the present moment, what does mission today mean in this globalized world that we're newly living in?
As I've argued,
I believe that mission, our mission is primarily about participating in God's mission. So our mission is to participate in what God is doing. Our mission is to be drawn into God's story in what God is doing. I mean, that prayer, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven in many ways for me, that's pretty defines what our mission is about is this cry, all the journey, Your kingdom come desiring, seeing God walking with God? Put it differently. I think very often we've felt that mission is about being, you know, the grid Commission, the grid commission. Personally, I think that it's much more the grid invitation, rather than the grid commission. Because God invites us into what he is doing in his world, bringing about his kingdom, ours is to cry, may we be a manifestation of people of the kingdom, wherever or God. So it's an invitation, wherever we are, into the various spaces that are God's spaces. You know, the earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of it. You know, east, west, north and south cultures in their history, their manifestations, they are is the Lord's so I think it's important that we understand mission as being the drone into God's story, God's mission, God's work. And we are simply excited the opportunity in participating in what he's doing. That is why we must learn other people's languages, not because we must learn them to be able to tell them better about the good news of Jesus, that too, but actually much more principle, to be able to an upgrade to have an appreciation for what God is doing. God works in all sorts of languages. There's a sense in which if you only understand one language,
you only speak one language.
It's really not the other people whose language you don't speak. robbed, you are robbed of the opportunity to be able to hear the amazing things the walks of God in other languages. That's the study of Acts chapter two, the praises of God in all languages, you know the speaking in tongues. Remember, those are not unintelligible times in the Acts of the Apostles in chapter two, it's its languages and it says something. Look, God is at work in all these languages or these cultures. So mission is being drawn into his story. Mission is participating. Mission is being the people of God, experiencing God wherever we are. Our mission is being invited, being invited into what God is doing. So we're excited to go out there. Mission is being grown by the comparison of God's love. You know, God's love for his people, God's love for his world for his world. It's not our love for the world. We have absolutely nothing to share, but as we are grasped by his love, we cannot actually, you know, that love draws us. So I think that these are themes that I gained some of the most themes in understanding mission today, you know,
thank you so much for that beautiful reflection. That's just marvelous. Bishop Nita and Geeta, as a former student of Avery Cardinal Dulles, I appreciated the fact that you do discuss Dallas's models of the church in your text. And yet the model that you settle on, as it were, as most apt to describe the nature of the church is the pilgrim people of God. Would you be willing to unpack that metaphor just a little bit? Why did you settle on the pilgrim people of God as the principal metaphor for what the church is?
But I guess as you you read,
Dallas, you you innocence, you would say that I take both, because he looks at
a murderer, the people of God, right. And then, in the last he speaks about the pilgrim people, so there's a sense in which it's people, God's people and period image. So the two people pilgrimage, God's people pilgrimage, and one, reading the biblical narrative, it's very clear that the work is not finished. We, as I argue in the book, you get the sense that the biblical text is not a text that we study. Rather, it's the text that studies us why it's a story in which we leave from the beginning of time, to the end of time. So, we live in that story. We live in that. So we are on this journey, because the Bible itself is clearly a journey from the beginning of time to the end of time to the consummation. So I get the sense that that is actually this whole concept of pilgrimage Jenny Not only is it represented there in the understanding of who God is, in the old story, the people of God in your testament, you simply get the sense of pilgrimage. It's right there, you know, people journeying with God, never fully grasping who God is, but on a journey to experience Him to know him, ah, sometimes losing who, you know, he is, and, you know, and God, you know, because God is seen as passion of God is for us to know Him and experience Him as He truly is. And when we stray into idolatry, and you know, God seems to do amazing things to ensure we return to Him. So it's this whole concept of pilgrimage is both as I argued to you, earlier or theologically, the pilgrimage narrative story. I think it's a very important theological, epistemological way. To understand that the truth of the gospel is narrative, pilgrimage story. That's, as I read the scriptures, that's the way the Bible comes to us. Because it's not the actual text books you read, you know, you compare with others. No, it's the story in which really, how do we live in it? It's not just us, you know, it's those who have gone before us. So our pilgrimage is connected to each other. And so if you understand this pilgrimage, and so it's because of my passion, commitment to the whole idea of story as a way of understanding truth, as a way in which we can be able to grasp or put it differently, as a way in which truth grasps us, you know, the way in which we really need to think we can grasp the truth, that truth grasps as I believe in that so. So pilgrimage, therefore, seems to me a very important and gives you the sense
It's not all over. You know,
it's it's we are genuine. And again you read it in the New Testament very clear.
Jesus invites his disciples to me, you know, as you follow me, come as I get the book, amazing. Jesus, his first words to Peter personal words is follow me. Jesus. His last words to PETA is for me, actually, it's amazing. He says the last words to PETA is not go it's for me. You know, it's this invitation into a journey into because it's about experiencing God and this we don't experience in a different way except from the gentleman here. And we are not alone on this journey. We're You know, this is not a preoccupation with me myself. My walk with Jesus excuse me, hello. No, no, it's it's together.
We bc is a people are people.
So, we our journey together in God with God
and it's not yet over.
That's marvelous. Thank you for that Bishop near and get one of the issues that you wrestle with throughout this book is The confounding number of institutional forms that churches take. How do we define the church? Are there certain institutional or formal elements that are non negotiable that must be present in the church in order to be a true church? What's your view sir,
institutional forms of church have been much steeped, a reflection of cultures, you know, because they are forms forms and forms our cultural forms our cultural and therefore forms change forms change but forms embodies substance in both the substance and as absolutely there are aspects of that substance that will remain, what are some of these
definitely get a sense that
leadership, you know, the concept of leadership is there and we can interrogate the various institutional forms by asking us to whether they embodied this substance, this substance as to whether they embody these, this way of experiencing God. So, leadership, you can see that in the New Testament itself, there is not a particular structure of leadership. Not Not at all, you know, there will be some who argue that the Episcopal Are they piscopo forms of leadership? Are there? Yes, they absolutely they're in the text, but so is the Presbyterian forms. So is the congregation with the house judge, they're all there. They're all there. But in all of these, the common factor, the common denominator is a very is a leadership. There is a leadership is formed by spirit. And it's a team. It's a team, the whole concept of a team. You can see it or so leadership leadership, the centrality of the study of the Scriptures. Absolutely. as that which informs Of course, it does then comes as to as to how do we read? You know, how do we read? And as I always argue, the way to test how we read the biblical text, is the extent in which we allow that text to read us. How do we let that text Form who we are becoming, that's the read how it reads us. So, yes, absolutely the centrality of the biblical text and how that is applied. So, in every every culture, every context, there needs to be clear ways in which that the biblical text is being fleshed out in ways in which the different cultures can identify. So, I personally think that liturgies are extremely helpful ways of applying experiencing. So, I definitely I see to the both in the Old and the New Testament, you you see liturgies developing, you know, ways in which these forms hopefully everybody.
Jesus says, where you are gathered in the the Acts of the Apostles, the communion, you know, the bread, the wine, the people gather around the remembrance of the suffering across the resurrection, the body, the blood, the bread and the wine. And in Uganda as we experienced, it doesn't have to be white and white. You know, it's a Greek. It's but it's the idea is that that gathered people. So yes, I do believe that these these elements, the gathering around the communion table, bread and wine in Uganda in some of the tough times that people use the cassava, you know, yes, cassava and, and rocket drink. In other places. Actually, there was a time when it was cassava and Pepsi Cola, you know, Coca Cola, you know, it did creep. But it's, it's not that drink or the bread, that type That you are a people got that in his name for the remembrance of that story, the story that shapes who we are so, absolutely, I do believe that that is that is key, the waters of baptism, the waters of baptism, the symbolism of that. So yes, there are it seems to me certain symbols that are transplanted with a true to be visible in any of these forms. They were they applied to be different, because different cultures have a different way of appreciating how these what the meanings of these and all of those meanings are ours. I don't think we need to, we get too preoccupied in identifying who is right who is wrong. But it seems to me that these cultural expressions of these symbols, so yes, in that sense, I'm very much persuaded that the communion table otherwise called the Lord's up, and I scored it the Eucharist you do? I think it does. Those are visible. And leadership, pastoral leadership, gathers people around the story of Jesus. And that's why I think the communion table becomes a high point in the life and experience. And then of course, the communicating remember the idea of gathering under scattering, gathering under scattering, if you have forms, institutional forms that do not enable gathering and scattering in Jesus name, gathering and scattering as representatives of the kingdom, you know, gathering and scattering and experiencing God's word, there's something absolutely wrong. There are too many churches institution that are structured around the governing only completely. And that's it. Now, I don't think that that no, no, no, no. So these must always be that gathering under scattering, you know, which is what you see. So I think that there are these these You know, PCs have this substance that needs to be embodied by any and every other form, whose manifestations themselves and never set in stone. Why? Because the study of Jesus is a story that is told in all the languages. And the vision we have of the new heaven and the new earth is the celebration of all these expressions of who Jesus is, in its vastness, and in its diversity and its beauty.
We shouldn't even get, I can ask one final question that I've been asking all of the people we've been interviewing on this program, and that is this. What would it mean today for the church to be united? How would we recognize this unity and what can we do as Christians today to pursue the unity of the church?
We I think we start with again, Paula, the act of the apostle the acts of the Holy Spirit when we start there we discover that unity is not something we work on. Unity is something that is given. The way we walk on it is to maintain it, because it seems policies we could fracture it we could mess it up. So unity is given a beta spirit. That is one body, there is one fee, there is one baptism, there is one Lord there is, you know, by the same spirit. This is the Unity given in Christ. And it's amazing to me, East, North, south and west, as I've traveled whether it's Africa, Asia, Latin America, UK us always amazes me that you don't have to the people of God recognize each other because the Spirit of God at work in them
a cause within each one of them.
So, how do we maintain? How do we maintain that unity? One? I think it's the way we structured gathering, gathering, how do we gather and I think the governing only around the denominations, fractures does not enable unity. Because gathering only in our denominational is gathering only in our specific cultures, we need to find a way of God that in that enables us to experience that diversities that God has given to us. Let me put it bluntly here,
coming here to North America, there is a growing movement of ethnic based churches, whether they're white, African American, Korean American and I'm not on none of that's not a problem. We need to gather in the languages Go with the people with whom we eat the same food precisely within when we speak a second language. But if you only gather that way, you are simply
a cultural community, you must find other ways in which you'll gather with those who don't eat the same food. So you are able to learn how to eat them because their food is your food, their language is your your language is the language learner way in which so we need to be able to gather that in a ways that we are able to experience the diversity. Consequently, these gatherings that bring us together, let me put it this way, in the cities, cities, there needs to be a way in which churches in a city have a way in which they got that together as a churches. That way the city begins to see all
these Presbyterians, these Pentecostals in their diverse culture.
There is something much more profound that unites them. Jesus's name, they speak different languages, they bow differently. So that way we begin to reflect something of the unity. So, this is only one illustration of how we are able to maintain the unity of the body. Otherwise, let me tell you we reduce
Jesus we reduce the story to a tribal story.
We reduce it to the story of my African people, we reduce it to
you know, the cry
of the people of God in your testament, how shall we sing the Lord song in a foreign land? And yeah, I will say is, wait a moment, there's no foreign land to me. Yes, you sing my song in any land because every land is mine. So this is the point for us witness of the gospel in the Middle East, for example,
is to have like Jew and an Arab,
Arab from Palestine, Jew from Palestine,
from Israel, from Lebanon, Jew from these different places, and they together they stand. Yes, I am. I am Drew. We are one in Christ. That's the witness of the gospel. You know.
I mean, the witness of the gospel in this
polarized world between Muslim wild and
yes, you know, Western world and know, that witness of the gospel is to see this American together with some Arab follower of Jesus American photo of Jesus going into Iraq,
together, you know, together
that is the weakness of our unity in Christ.
And we need to see more of this.
So I, my argument is this, our ethnic tribal churches nominations, speak less of that unity. We see the Unity more when we see the diversity expressed in a unity that doesn't
crush the diversity, but celebrate that diversity in which the
amazing works of God as celebrated in this diversity. So it's how we ensure that God remember scattering reflects this diversity that is ours, because then it is evident. It's the Spirit of God at work, not us.
It's been our delight today to be speaking with Bishop David Zak, nealon, Gaea, the retired assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kampala, of the Church of Uganda and also the author of the texts that we've been discussing the church God's pilgrim people. Thank you. Bishop nearing here for being with us today.
Well, thanks to Dr. Armstrong and it's truly been a pleasure engaging with you of these very