Ruth Padilla DeBorst
Theologians are sometimes perceived as dry, dusty eggheads, but that image couldn’t be more wrong where Ruth Padilla DeBorst is concerned. A leading Latin American voice in a movement that aims to make theology more relevant to everyday life, Padilla DeBorst has worked in mission extensively and lives in an intentional community.
Some say that 20th century evangelical Christians did not do enough to address the world’s social problems. John Stott is credited with inspiring modern evangelicals into action on the ground: he was strongly influenced by Latin American theologians such as René Padilla, who proposed an integrated theology, which takes thinking, being and doing scripture as one whole.
The region’s liberation theology – which stems from the Catholic tradition – is better known, but some say it is tainted by associations with Marxism. In contrast, integral mission was birthed in evangelicalism and takes scripture seriously. The movement provides a theological grounding for the many social action projects that take place in our churches today.
Padilla DeBorst and her father are both well known within the Lausanne Movement. Her influence grew when she was president and then general secretary of the Latin American Theological Fellowship (FTL in Spanish). She also ran Christian Reformed World Mission’s work in El Salvador and has held various positions within World Vision. She is now on the leadership team at the International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation.
While the family used to joke that Padilla DeBorst was once known as ‘René’s daughter’, her growing theological influence has led to him being increasingly known as ‘Ruth’s father’. But she has never sought attention or recognition. Although generous with her time, talks and writing – ‘It is not mine,’ she says – there isn’t an ounce of self-promotion in our interview, and she is remarkably friendly and down to earth.
Padilla DeBorst’s faith and theology suffered the worst kind of test in 1997, when she and her two young children witnessed the murder of her first husband during a robbery. She was carrying his third child at the time. This terrible experience has inspired her with greater faith and compassion for the suffering world, and a determination to do something about it.
Her family can truly be described as multicultural. Born in Colombia to an American mother and Ecuadorian father, Padilla DeBorst grew up in Argentina. She and her second husband Jim, an American with Dutch roots, live in a house with 13 other people, seeking to thrive in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. They share meals and pray together, grow vegetables, recycle through composting and use their shower and bath water to flush their loos. Some members of the commune help to mentor children in the surrounding neighbourhood, many of whom would struggle to finish school without support, while others focus on supporting local immigrants.
Can you explain the kind of theology you have helped to create?
To me, theological work is not abstracted from life. It grows out of life and feeds into life, so it’s a cycle of praxis; of seeing God in the daily things; of sharing our cooking and wondering who does the cleaning in the house to the bigger issues of global justice and climate change.
It’s really about seeing theology not so much as an academic field, but more as a practice: the doing of theology for the sake of holistic or integral mission.
Is integral mission more than just combining evangelism and social action?
I wish we didn’t have to say integral. It should be par for the course to conceive of mission as having to do with all of life. The model that we have is Jesus. Jesus spoke, Jesus healed, Jesus preached, Jesus walked among the people, Jesus chose to be with certain people and to affirm and engage with them. So really, integral mission has to do with all of how we exist in the world.
What is the gospel to you?
The gospel has to do with recovering the vision of good news for the whole of life. That has to do with people; it also has to do with the rest of creation. People were placed to care for the rest of creation. Too often, the understanding of the gospel has been reduced to thinking about salvation and heaven and eternal life, and forgets about the fact that it has to do with the ‘already’ that has broken into history through Jesus Christ and demands our loyalty; our surrender to Jesus as Lord in every dimension of life.
Some people would say that the ‘now’ is about peace in our hearts. Is that too limited a version of the gospel?
The privatising of faith, making it exclusively an individual thing, is more a result of a humanist enlightenment modern mindset than of the good news of Jesus Christ. Actually, Jesus – and the culture in which he moved and taught – was about a much more communal ethos than our contemporary, especially Western, cultures allow.
And so yes, there is a personal dimension. Yes, I have to surrender my personal life and find my purpose and value and identity and my relationship with God. But at the same time, we find that true identity as we re-establish new, reconciled relationships with others. Those others are God and self, but also our fellow human beings and the rest of creation.
Christians from other cultural settings – Africans, Asians, Latin Americans – for them it’s a more natural reading of the gospel, because that’s more of the cultural milieu in which we move. It’s a harder transition in a culture that values the individual so highly, to the detriment of valuing community. Some of the Western appreciation for the individual has contributed to things like human rights, so it has been a gift to the world, but it can get overstated when it’s not put in the context of community.
Would you be able to put any of the Western theological labels on yourself? Do you identify as Reformed? Anabaptist? Emerging? Evangelical?
I shy away from labels, because one of the inevitable dimensions of any label is that they’re subject to interpretation. Different contexts will interpret the same label in very differing ways.
I tend to identify as a follower of Jesus Christ. In certain contexts I don’t even use the word Christian, to be honest, because to some ‘Christian’ means bigoted, insensitive. There are all these connotations, and it relates more to Christendom and the allegiance of Christianity to power. I want to follow Jesus. If I want to be known as anything, I would like to be known as someone who is humbly, brokenly and falteringly following Jesus.
My husband has a line about denominations. He says: ‘The good thing about denominations is that you can grow up in one denomination and recover in another.’
I think there’s a richness in the diversity of denominations. So I probably don’t fit many boxes.
In the West, the label ‘Reformed’ often means complementarian: that it’s not a woman’s role to lead in church, for example, which is something you do. How do you understand the Bible verses used to argue that?
This issue of egalitarian versus complementarian is a category that has been created in Western, Northern [thought]…a small corner of the world, actually. Where I come from, people wouldn’t even recognise those terms. I think it is problematic that people in one corner of the world impose categories and polarisations and controversies from that small corner of the world on the rest. It can be poisoning.
I know there are certain passages that are the choice ones for people who want to make an issue out of this and fight about it. They all need to be interpreted in their historical, social context. The call to mutual submission means all of us to all of us: men, women, young, old, whoever. We’re all called to submit to one another and live as Christ did.
The fact that throughout scripture, and in the ministry of Jesus, women are given an inordinate amount of attention and affirmation given their historical context, that to me is evidence of God’s calling and affirmation of women’s role in ministry. I don’t feel that I need to make a point of fighting about this, but I’m also absolutely convinced I’m called to use the gifts that God has given me to build the Church as part of God’s mission in the world.
Your late husband was shot in front of you and your children. How did you manage to make sense of such tragedy?
There’s a way in which you don’t makes sense of it. Our world is so messed up; we can’t explain everything. What I can say very confidently is that in the midst of the brokenness and distorted values of our world, God is present. He makes his presence known through the Spirit and through his people.
It is one thing to be compassionate or feel for somebody in pain, and another thing to hurt with that person. God in Jesus Christ takes on the pain of the world. So it’s not just that God is compassionate about our suffering, but God suffers. To me, that’s a lot of the meaning of the cross: God taking upon himself the pain and brokenness and suffering of the world. Especially unjust suffering.
Working through the grieving and the questions that came up with the loss and senselessness of this violence, I had a whole new encounter with God and his claim on my life. I also had a new awareness of injustice and sense of the need for us – if we’ve been sent as Jesus was into the world – to enter in[to] people’s suffering.
You have talked about how theology is practical, and the need to live it out on a day-to-day basis. What is your advice on how to do this?
It’s the work of the Spirit, so it demands submission, prayer, seeking and yearning. But a lot of the problem is that so much of our teaching has just been about ideas. We don’t have models of people living it out together. So we can do the Sunday thing and have a fantastically intellectually stimulating sermon, and then we go back and continue in the way we relate to our spouse or neighbour or children or co-worker as if nothing were any different.
Paul does talk about the renewal of our minds, but that has to do with more than ideas. It has to do with posture and attitude and stance. Are we centred on Jesus and others, or are we centred on ourselves? Is my life my own, or do I owe it to Jesus Christ and God’s purposes?
That’s difficult for anyone, but it must be very hard with 13 people living in the same house. Can you give an example of something that’s been challenging to you in that context?
I’m a pretty organised person. I have a high sense of aesthetics. I like things being somewhat orderly and pretty. I can’t rest when things are in a mess; I need to tidy up a bit to enjoy the place and relax. Different people have very different standards of what a mess is. Some of us have a lower threshold and others have a much larger threshold for stuff and clutter.
GOD PROVIDED A NEW PARTNER IN A TOTALLY UNEXPECTED WAY
That’s something I’ve had to learn to release…but I also need to voice my preference...There needs to be personal sacrifice, but it’s also about developing rhythms and capacity to negotiate the needs of the community. It’s about communication with God and inviting the Spirit into the most daily kind of nitty-gritty issues, and then communication with the rest of the community.
Can you tell me about something amazing that God has done in your own life?
When my husband died…I imagined myself bringing up my children alone. But God provided a new partner in a totally unexpected way, who shared a lot of my experience of pain and suffering for other reasons. He was also bringing up three children on his own, had a passion for God’s work in the world, and experience and commitment in Latin America.
It’s not been perfect; there have been all kinds of issues to work through – with the children and the blend [of the two families] – but it’s been such evidence of God’s provision that we can be partners in family, ministry and vision. He’s amazing in his way of supporting and sending me out, although in the models of our world you would expect the man to be the prominent one on the platform.
I see that as God’s provision, and he’s a great dad to all our kids.