Have We Become Crypto-Christians?
History reveals the hidden dangers of always seeking relevancy.

To my knowledge this blog hasn't tackled too many issues of church history, so this post may be more "Out of Place" than "Out of Ur." Still, I have found that the past often illuminates my understanding of my faith and the times we all inhabit. In fact, I often use historical illustrations in my sermons. Not long ago, while doing some sermon prep, I was researching Christianity in 16th century Japan (stop yawning). The story of a small group of underground believers caught my attention.

In 1549 the Jesuit missionary Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. As the church grew rapidly to 300,000 the shoguns became uneasy with the European influence over their country. In 1641, the missionaries were expelled from Japan and Christians were required to register as Buddhists or Shintoists. Those who refused were pursued and executed. The brutal persecution cleansed Japan from virtually all Western influence.

Unknown to the shoguns, however, some continued to hold to their Christian faith. Known as Crypto-Christians, or Kakure, their external lives were indistinguishable from other Japanese. They adopted the practices, forms, and appearances of non-Christians to ensure survival. The Crypto-Christians even constructed Buddhist shrines in their homes with secret compartments where Christian icons and statues were hidden and prayers were offered to the "closet god."

The strategy of adopting Japanese cultural forms to mask their Christian faith continued for 240 years, but this survival plan backfired.

Over time the Crypto-Christians confused their Christian beliefs and their Japanese disguises. The result was the emergence of a hybrid religion no longer resembling the orthodox faith of the missionaries. When Europeans regained entrance to Japan in the 19th Century they were astonished to see communities of hidden Christians returning from the hills around Nagasaki.

This amazement waned, however, when they discovered the faith of these forgotten Christians was hardly Christianity. As one historian notes, "Although the faith followed by the underground Christians had the outward appearances of Christianity, the vital content and spirit of the religion evolved into something entirely different?It would be more accurate to call it a folk religion altogether Japanese in spirit and content."

Thousands of Kakure still exist in Japan today, and at least 80 house churches continue to worship the "closet god" by reciting rituals in an indecipherable amalgam of Japanese and Latin. When Pope John Paul II visited Japan in 1981 he met with the leaders of the Kakure community to welcome them back into the fold of the Catholic Church. "We have no interest in joining his church," one Crypto-Christian said; "We, and nobody else, are true Christians."

January 05, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 31 comments

Michael Rew

January 17, 2007  6:20am

"For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise" (2 Corinthians 10:12 KJV).

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January 14, 2007  10:16pm

I think the comment by the Crypto-Christian who said that, "We, and nobody else, are true Christians" has some truth to it. We all have a cultural component in our churches. We have to try hard not to let the culture of the community get in the way of the purpose of church. It makes me realize that we need to keep the main thing the main thing. I find it interesting that many Christians do not feel comfortable talking about their faith. However, they have no trouble talking about the local high school football team. The church is the house of God. It's the place we go to worship God.

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January 12, 2007  10:33pm

So instead of American cryptos should we become Greek cryptos? At what point in history do we decide that culturalizing wasn't appropriate? Isn't the bulk of our theology cultural versions from the Middle ages or the Renaissance or the Industrial age? In recovering "ancient traditions" I assume you don't mean Jewish practices, because that's the only "Biblical" culture. Maybe if we continue on for a 1000 more years, our American ways will become Tradition too and it will be just as appropriate as Luther's culture, or Calvin's culture, or Aquinas's culture. Indeed, it seems that culturalizing to a certain degree, becoming all things to all people, is precisely the model of the earliest communities which allowed for significant variation in form and questions depending on the specific culture. Otherwise, it's just picking and choosing which "culture" we think had it right, and making everyone else act like it. Which was partially the problem in Japan. Western missionaries wanted Western Christians, and provoked a cultural crisis.

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January 11, 2007  8:07pm

Brilliant article, thanks for the challenge. Interesting stuff with the Kakure. Couple of thoughts. Firstly, as an Australian Christian, I think that any discussion regarding the state of the American church needs to be done with an external reference point e.g. the Western church as a whole or the thriving church in Africa/Asia/South America. Looking at one thing and comparing it with itself, (even if over a period of time) is not a useful measure. This is what some of the comments appear to do in response to Bruegemann's quote. Secondly, culture is always humanistic. All culture, whether Australian, North American, or African, there are elements that are intrinsically flawed, and fallen that require redemption. By comparison, true kingdom culture is counter cultural as Don noted. The macro picture is a reflection of the micro. If enough individual believers are living lives that reflect the Lordship of Christ, then the culture of a town, city, state or nation will be affected by that. When we see a reversal taking place (the western dilemma) it is indicative of the need to return to a grass roots level. This becomes cyclic in nature (ala Israel) as the people of God move away from God, only to eventually return to Him. My prayer and hopefully the prayer of every Christian is that the western nations will return. Lastly, Gordon Moyes, an Australian pastor, notes that God is no longer "white". Two-thirds of the global church is now non-western which means that we need to think of the church differently. Perhaps part of our unease is not just the state of the nation around us but also the fact that God is moving in a different nation more than He is in ours. That God is blessing that person/church/place more than me/mine. What a challenge!

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January 11, 2007  4:34pm

Two things: it seems that in our country, major issues come up around the differences between religion and culture. We call ourselves a "Christian nation" but I am less inclined to think that it is a religious distinction and more of a cultural one. Once we confuse the two terms, then we also confuse our faith with our culture. The Greek form of the word "church" means "called out." Who are we if we are only cultural? Secondly, I personally love the idea of reclaiming ancient tradition and ritual, only breathing new life into it. I am in my late 20s and in conversations with not only people in my generation but others as well I have discovered that I am not alone. People are constantly intrigued by tradtional meaning of practices we already find in our Protestant churches. Not only that, but more and more people seem to be wanting to reclaim the oldest hymns and traditions of the church of the past. Something about the continuity with the past itself is appealing. Connection not only to people within a congregation, but to people across the centuries. What can I say, those advertisements that say "time-tested" are not only helping the product sell, but it is enforcing an already germinant idea that the past is important. Can relevance be redefined as a way to bring tradition into our present life... to breathe that new life and spirit into dead and dormant rituals? I would surely sign up for that!!

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January 11, 2007  12:20am

An excellent book dealing with this issue is by Os Guiness "Let God Be God - Dealing with the Idols of Our Age". Any and every generation and culture of faith is led by the world system, principalities and powers to create idols - substitutes for God's design. We struggle to see them for what they are because these idols stroke our convenience or greed or self-interest or ego's. We must be in perpetual reformation mode- like the Bereans re-re-examining what we are being told to see if it is true.

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Warren Lamb

January 10, 2007  10:03pm

No longer does the Church say, "Silver and gold have I none..." but then, rarely does the Church say, "Get up, take up your mat, and walk."

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Paul R. Waibel

January 10, 2007  11:21am

Karl Marx is often quoted by Christians as having said that religion is the opiate of the people. He was wrong. It is materialism that is the opiate of the people, even Christians. One has only to look at the bourgeois Christianity of today's evangelicalism in America to see that the real opiate of the masses is materialism. Christianity in America is often little more than just another product to be marketed. Market forces, not a biblical faith, are its guiding principles.

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Salam Shorrosh

January 10, 2007  10:46am

Interesting questions and discussion. Here are some other questions I have: 1. Would Naaman have been considered a Kakure, as he went home and continued to kneel before the god of his king? 2.Did the Jesuits create the problem because they were using their dogma to enslave yet another culture to their control? 3. Were the Kakure given access to Bibles translated into their own language? 4. If contextualization is synonymous with acquiescence, does translation of the scriptures into languages other than the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek)constitute giving in to the culture? If so, how do we deal with Paul and Steven quoting and referencing the Septuagint? How do we explain John the Revelator quoting apochryphal books and pagan myths? And, how do we justify giving foreign nationals a Bible translated into their own tongue? Also, how does someone justify choosing a KJV Bible as the only correct translation (the Muslims, too, insist that only a Koran read in the classical Arabic is valid and that only heretics read translations)? 5. Paul established a concept for reaching enculturated people when he used the "unknown god" as a point of interest from which to begin. How does this method relate to reaching today's culture? Was Paul a sell out or was he using contemporary things of his day to reach the lost and then trusting the Holy Spirit to guide the individuals who came to Christ? Thank you for sharing the topic, it gets the mental juices flowing and opens up additional levels of discussion.

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bruce southerland

January 09, 2007  2:21pm

Only a contemporary American church that is largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism can have any power to believe or to act as representatives of the counterculture of God's kingdom. Contextualized evangelists, like their Master, will always be criticized for compromising the gospel. Aloof critics mistakenly think they can understand culture and the gospel from a safe distance. The contemporary church has learned to conceal and reveal the gospel "out in the open". Only the enculturated church experiences a good mix of celebrations and crucifixions for her coterminous countercultural beliefs and actions.

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