SBTS grad teaching in region dominated by religious syncretism

Communications Staff — January 6, 2006

(Editor’s note: The specific country and seminary in which Merkle is laboring is not named in the following story due to security concerns).

Ben Merkle has to look no further than his own neighborhood to see syncretism’s silly side.

Hard on the shoulder of a main thoroughfare near Merkle’s Southeast Asia home sits a drive-thru Hindu temple where one may make a two-minute stop to have his new automobile ‘blessed’ by a great pantheon of pagan gods.

Such a blessing ostensibly frees participating vehicle operators from the curse of crumpled sheet metal and resulting bodily harm.

“People on the island who buy new cars stop off there all the time to get the cars blessed because they believe it will help to protect them from automobile accidents,” Merkle said. “Most of them aren’t even a part of the Hindu religion and aren’t even Indian people but feel like, ‘if this works, then I want to give it a try.’

Such is the spiritual environment where Merkle, who received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2000, now serves as a professor of New Testament at a Baptist seminary in Southeast Asia.

Syncretism in both its strange forms— drive through Hindu temples—and its serious forms—worldviews mixing Christianity with local naturalistic religions such as Buddhism and Hindu— is a ubiquitous reality in the region in which Merkle and his family now labors and lives.

“That’s the tricky thing about sharing the Gospel here,” said Merkle, who has returned to Louisville for a few months to teach classes at Southern Seminary.

“It is really easy to get them to add Jesus to the mix of gods they already believe in, especially if they believe Jesus can bless them. A lot of times the first response (to the Gospel) is, ‘Oh yes, Jesus is good.’ Because there are so many gods they are not afraid to adopt another one. They may just try Jesus as well. Someone sharing the Gospel there has to be careful that they are not just affirming it and adopting another one of their gods.”

A native of Lodi, Calif., Merkle has been teaching at the seminary there since 2002. Just as the dominance of syncretism demands a careful, clear and patient articulation of the Gospel and the biblical claims of the exclusivity of Christ, the Southeast Asia Christian culture has caused Merkle to make slight revisions to his classroom approach, taking deep theological truths and making them practical.

Merkle, who teaches New Testament and hermeneutics classes in both English and in the native tongue, says his approach must be somewhat different than in American seminaries because all of the students are going to be pastors and many of them already are pastors.

“I’d say 99 percent of my students are already working as pastors,” he said. “They are not there to someday become pastors if things work out; they are pastors. Most of them are in their early-20s or late-20, so many of the students are relatively young. Most of them have a lower education level and most of them don’t have any college background at all.

“We tend to make things very practical. Whereas in a lot of seminaries you are writing an exegetical paper that is aimed more at scholarship, we don’t skimp at all on theology and doctrine, but have to make it practical because most of these guys are going to use it immediately in their preaching.”

There has also been the adjustment of learning the local language. Merkle and wife, Marian, attended the International Mission Board’s language school for eight months prior to beginning work in the seminary. While he has caught on to the language rather quickly, Merkle says reads the Bible and practices the language aloud almost daily to help his classroom and pulpit communication.

Holding a Ph.D. Merkle says, has made him an attractive pulpit supplier for local Baptist congregations, some of which have as many as 2,000 members. Though he is involved in a local church in his own community, he often preaches—both in English and the local language—in Baptist churches on his Southeast Asia island.

“Learning and getting used to using the language has been an adjustment, which is to be expected,” he said. “To preach a 45-minute sermon in English is already a lot of work and to try and do it in another language is mentally draining. To teach an intensive course four hours a day in another language will just about kill you.”

The Merkles also faced a more immediate adjustment during their early months on the mission field when the size of their family increased by 33-percent; Marian gave birth to two sons in a little over two years. The Merkles, married 11 years, now have three sons and a daughter: Brandon, 7, Mariah ,5, Jaden, 2, and Cameron 1.

“When you already have two children and you add two more, it is a challenge to try to keep everything balanced, especially for my wife who stays home with the children,” Merkle said.

Missions work has been in Merkle’s field of vision since his late teen years. He did not attend church until he was 12 but was converted at age 17. Once he became a Christian, Merkle developed an insatiable thirst for the Word of God and learning about theology.

Merkle joined the local church in which he was converted and began to ask his pastor for Bible commentaries and doctrinal books to satiate his growing spiritual appetite.

“My pastor said, ‘Wow, I‘ve never had a high schooler ask for commentaries before,’” Merkle said. “When I was first converted I had a great hunger for biblical truth because I didn’t know anything.”

“Shortly after I became a Christian, I realized I wanted to serve God in some way full-time and so started to pursue going to Bible college and seminary.”

He attended Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he obtained a bachelor’s degree. From there, it was on to Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif,, where he graduated with a master of divinity.

In 1997, Merkle moved to Louisville to complete his theological education in the doctoral program at Southern Seminary. During his years at Southern, Merkle was able to hone his classroom acumen by teaching first-semester Greek classes.

While Merkle says he has learned much in his three years on the mission field, most of all he says that he has gained an appreciation for Paul’s words regarding “becoming all things to all men that by all means I might win some.”

“I think when it comes to bringing the Gospel to another culture, I favor keeping it in much in line with their culture as possible,” he said. “Because, as far as the peripherals—the non-essentials—what sort of place you meet in, what sort of music you listen to, and this sort of thing, the Gospel is essential.

“I think with Paul, you become all things to all people, to them you would preach different. In Acts 17 he preached differently to the Greek philosophers than he did elsewhere. I think the key is the Gospel message, the message of Christ and that is obviously not going to change, but in these various cultures, you want to present the Gospel in a way that the offense is the cross of Christ.

“And so in a lot of ways the (Western) missionaries to these groups (in Southeast Asia) did a good job. They built a church structure that was less like a Western structure and so they were able to embrace Christianity as something that was part of their culture and yet the Gospel was not compromised.”

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