Learning before reproving: The practice of elenctics (2)

Previous article in this series: May 15, 2019, p. 382.

The zealous Christian witness who would reprove the man of this world, with the desire that he might be gained to Christ, must learn about that man and his religion before reproving him.

“It is clear,” writes the Reformed missiologist J. H. Bavinck, “that elenctics must first of all begin with the precise and calm knowledge of the nature of the religion with which it is concerned.”1 The Presbyterian mission­ary John Young writes, “Such a refutation [of a false religion] will of course entail a knowledge of the native religion, not only its surface manifestations but its basic principles, motives, and aims.”2

You, dear brother or sister in Christ, are a witness of the one true God and Jesus Christ our Lord in the midst of this world (Is. 43:10). You encounter the man and woman of this world in your life, as I do in mine, sometimes only in passing but sometimes on a regular basis. You and I are called to love that neighbor as ourselves, which means above all that we desire his salva­tion. Therefore, we desire an opportunity to speak to him about our salvation in Christ. Part of that witness is elenctics. Elenctics is not the only aspect of our wit­ness, nor is it the most important aspect. For if we only rebuke the man of this world for the sinful things he is doing with God, we have not yet spoken of the wonder­ful works of God in Christ. Yet elenctics is an essential aspect of our witness, notwithstanding the spirit of our age which calls us to be “affirming” of every religion and lifestyle. Moreover, my dear fellow witnesses, be­fore we utter a single word of reproof to that man of the world, we already know that he knows something about God and has been doing something with God. We al­ready know that there are no real atheists, but only fools who say in their hearts, “There is no God,” and men who suppress the knowledge of God and change the truth into a lie. For God has revealed Himself in the immensity and complexity of the cosmos and imprinted His “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” on the conscience of every man. But there are many things that we do not know about that man: what exactly he has been doing with God, the specific lies he has been taught, and the specific idols he worships. Therefore, we must learn as much as we can about that man and his religion before reproving him.

For us missionaries in the Philippines, there are things that we need to learn before we can reprove the unbelieving man whom we might encounter here. The Foreign Mission Committee (FMC) of the Protes­tant Reformed Churches required us to spend several months studying the language and culture of the Philippines before moving here. We were already prepared by our Protestant Reformed Seminary to refute Roman Catholicism, the religion of the vast majority of Filipi­nos. But there was more for us to learn before we would be ready to contend with the specific kind of Roman Catholicism here, which has been called “folk Catholicism.”3 Before the Spanish conquered the Philippines in the sixteenth century, the native people believed and practiced animism (a religion centered on spirits). There was a belief in a supreme god, but people tended to fo­cus on the lower spirits who controlled the affairs of daily life, such as relationships, pregnancy, sickness, weather, housing, travel, farming, hunting, fishing, and so on. Roman Catholicism replaced the belief in that supreme god, bringing an emphasis on the ultimate con­cern of salvation and imposing its corrupt sacramental system. But it tolerated the pagan beliefs and practices of everyday life, which centered on the spirit world. It even embraced many of those pagan beliefs and prac­tices and simply put new ‘Christian’ clothing on them.

But even Protestantism, which began to enter around 1900, often simply replaced Catholicism and unwitting­ly left the animism of daily life untouched. Thus, in my witness to a lost Filipino man, I must not only refute the errors of Roman Catholicism (the mass, Mariolatry, etc.), but I might also have to contend with his pagan beliefs and practices concerning the everyday concerns of sickness, business, travel, and so forth. I must also give a positive witness concerning the sovereignty of God and dominion of Christ over every single concern of life, both ultimate and daily concerns. According to our Reformed brethren here, we must watch out for the Filipino superstitions especially among those who live in the rural provinces outside of Metro Manila.

Thus, when seeking to refute ‘folk Catholicism’ and to preach the gospel to Filipinos, especially in the prov­inces, there are things we Western missionaries need to know. There is the fearful belief of many Filipinos in the aswang that might take the form of a pig, a dog, or some other animal, which seeks to devour its vic­tims at night, even plucking babies out of their mother’s womb. There is the belief in the manananggal, which can detach the top part of its body and fly around at night seeking to satisfy its hunger for human flesh.4 One who would protect himself from these evil spirits must have salt available or obtain special amulets called anting-anting. One might use a crucifix instead or put over the door of his house specially blessed palm leaves in the shape of a cross. Or he might have the priest sprinkle holy water on his vehicle and keep an image of the Virgin Mary or the Holy Child inside.

When someone gets sick, he might explain it with physical or spiritual causes. He might believe his sick­ness was caused by germs, bad food, or harsh weather. In that case, he will go to the doctor for medicine. But if the ailment seems inexplicable, he might believe it was caused by a mangkukulam (sorcerer) who was hired by someone to put a curse on him out of revenge. In that case, he might go to an albularyo (witch doctor or med­icine man) who would prescribe a mixture of physical and spiritual remedies to counteract the curse.5 Or he might make a panata (vow) to do something extremely difficult, such as allowing himself to be nailed to a cross or walking many miles uphill from Manila to Antipolo (alay-lakad), if only the Lord will take away his or his loved one’s sickness.

As a missionary in the Philippines, these are some of the things we need to learn before reproving the lost whom we might encounter. In fact, before I can reprove that man, I need to know whether he personally believes such things and practices such superstitions. Bavinck writes, “In practice I am never concerned with Bud­dhism, but with a living person and his Buddhism, I am never in contact with Islam but with a Moslem and his Mohammedanism.”6 I might read many books about the superstitions of the Philippines and fill my head with knowledge. Then I might encounter a man here in Ma­nila in the course of my labors and begin reproving him for his supposed superstitions. But I might then be quite embarrassed to learn that he does not even believe or practice any of those things, for through higher educa­tion he has adopted a modern scientific worldview! I need to learn the specific beliefs of the specific man to whom I desire to witness.

Furthermore, before I can reprove that man and teach him the truth, according to Bavinck,

I must feel a community or a fellowship with this man; I must know myself to be one with him. As long as I laugh at his foolish superstition, I look down upon him; I have not yet found the key to his soul. As soon as I understand that what he does in a noticeably naive and childish manner, I also do and continue to do again and again, although in a different form; as soon as I actually stand next to him, I can in the name of Christ stand in opposition to him and convince him of sin, as Christ did with me and still does each day.7

I must not try to pull the mote out of my brother’s eye until I have first cast the beam out of my own eye (Matt. 7:1–5). Similarly, I must not try to reprove the man of the world until I first humble myself and admit that I am no better than he by nature. I must marvel with Paul that, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gen­tiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) and confess, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). When I was the pastor of First PRC in Holland, Michigan, an old believer who is now in glory used to say to me that he could only witness to his neighbor if he first made abundantly clear to that neighbor that he was not one whit better than he—an indispensable requirement for all witnessing.

The Christian witness must learn before reproving. Then he may discover a “point of attack.”8 When the apostle Paul went to Athens, having already a great deal of knowledge about Greek religion and philosophy, he discovered a point of attack on Mars Hill, an altar TO THE UNKNOWN GOD (Acts 17:23). That was not what some call a “point of contact” in the sense of a common area of truth between Christianity and pagan­ism by virtue of a common grace of God. But it was a point of attack from which Paul could launch into his elenctic message against the idolatry and superstitions to which the city was wholly given over. There are no points of contact in heathen religions, ancient or mod­ern, from which we can easily and gently guide the man of this world into the pleasant pastures of Christian faith. There are no bridges from the darkness into the light. There are no areas of common belief upon which we can build the structure of Christian and Reformed theology. For even the glimmerings of natural light that man still has are changed into darkness and twisted into lies. There must always be a call to repentance, a re­proving of sin, and a turning to the living God from idols. The Roman Catholic Church tolerated the super­stitions of the Philippines, rather than reproving them. Modern man would have us affirm and celebrate the religions of all, refuting nothing, and allow their god Science to bring eventual enlightenment. But all true Christian missions and witnessing must reprove the world of sin.

There are points of attack that we can discover by way of listening, learning, studying, and observing. Paul said to the Athenians, “Ye men of Athens, I per­ceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” He discovered there an acknowledgement of ignorance on their part. He did not build on that acknowledg­ment, but he used it as a point of departure for his mes­sage in which he rebuked their worship of other gods and declared, “The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to re­pent” (Acts 17:30).

You too should listen, learn, and observe the man of the world in your life who is doing something with God. What is he doing with God? What does he believe and where does he seek comfort and why? What kind of re­ligious practices does he have and why? Some actions of our neighbors require swift reproof, such as blasphemy on the jobsite or drunkenness in the neighborhood. But even then, if we would desire the man to be gained to Christ, our humble rebuke must be followed by words of the free forgiveness and amazing hope that we have in Christ. For we seek not only to rebuke the man of the world for taking the name of God in vain, but to refute his deepest beliefs and point him to Christ. Therefore, there is a need for conversation and interaction with the man of the world whom you encounter day by day. Rev. J. Kortering writes,

If we snub him, look the other way, avoid him, refuse to talk to him, we are sending out clear signals that we don’t want anything to do with him. If the neighbor picks up on this, he will conclude that we don’t care about him at all, about what he does, about what are his values, about what are his struggles in life—nothing. Even if our reason for this attitude is our judgment of him that he is evil and a great sinner before God, such response at this point is wrong because it is premature. We have not attempted to deal with him and his faults in a proper way.


Another action toward the neighbor might be that we jump on him with severe criticism every time we notice that he is doing something we see to be wrong. There is, of course, an important place for correction in the process of evangelism, but we do well to remember that in our initial contacts we ought to hold our mouth until we can build some trust. This is not compromise or unfaithfulness; this is wisdom, as we learn the art of communication and influence.9

In other words, we need to take the time to listen to our neighbor and learn about him before reproving him and bearing witness to the truth. We must be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” also in our witness to the man of this world (James 1:19). As we listen, ob­serve, and learn, let us pray and wait on the Lord to give us an opportunity, to show us an “altar to an unknown god,” so to speak, in that man’s life.

When that time comes, what should we say? How do we perform the hard task of confronting and refuting the most personal beliefs of our neighbor? Let us consider this further in another article.

1  J. H. Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1977), 240–41.

2  John M. L. Young, Missions: The Biblical Motive and Aim (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant Publications, 1962), 51.

3  Rodney L. Henry, Filipino Spirit World: A Challenge to the Church (Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature, Inc., 1986), 4–35. This book is a very helpful study of the beliefs and practices of many Filipinos in regard to the world of spirits. My Tagalog lan­guage teachers and some of the pastors and elders of the Protes­tant Reformed Churches in the Philippines (PRCP) also provided significant insights on this subject.

4  We believe, according to Scripture, that there are in this world many spiritual beings, angels and demons. We know that angels are mighty spirits sent by God to minister to the heirs of salva­tion (Heb. 1:14) and demons are spiritual powers in high places which blind the minds of the lost and seek to destroy the servants of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12). Some believers here in the Phil­ippines report that they have seen phenomena that can only be explained as the work of demons among the lost.

5  God forbad the children of Israel to practice sorcery: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord” (Deut. 18:10–12). Paul on his missionary journeys rebuked and contended with such evils too (cf. Acts 13:8–11; 19:13–19).

6  Bavinck, Introduction, 240.

7  Bavinck, 242–43.

8  Bavinck, Introduction, 140.

9  Jason Kortering, Evangelism in the Established Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Evangelism Committee of First PRC), 24.