Bulsal: Critiquing Shepherd Theology from a Vanuatu Indigenous Perspective

by Fr Anthony Ling

Date added: 28/06/2017

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Bulsal. Critiquing the shepherd theology of leadership from a Vanuatu (Melanesian) indigenous perspective, to address issues of dependency in the Church.

By Rev Anthony Ling, Anglican Church of Melanesia



Different imageries are used in the Bible to express what God is like and what God does. Sheep, shepherd and shepherding were common in the Ancient Near East and so among many other imageries, they were used to express the truths about God in the Bible. Theology, which is defined as “God talk”, explains to us truths about God. Shepherd theology talks about God as a shepherd and people as sheep. It utilizes the shepherd imagery to inform people that God is like a shepherd and God relating to his people as a shepherd relates to the sheep.

In this article, I assert that in the shepherd theology, there is, among many others, the notion of the shepherd feeding the sheep. This notion of feeding causes the sheep to depend entirely on the shepherd in order to survive. The shepherding theology, then reinforces the dependency syndrome that is affecting the Anglican Church of Melanesia (hereafter ACOM) and especially the Banks and Torres communities. I am offering the bulsal theology as one that should address the dependency syndrome within the Vanuatu Societies.

            The existing shepherd theology

Theologians throughout the ages have used images of what lies around them to explain certain truths about God. For instance, in using sheep and shepherding as a theology the tendency for the sheep to wander from the flock and become lost have been used to illustrate people who wander from the covenant life of the people of Israel. Thus Isaiah notes that “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). Psalm 23 is marked by the opening words “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps.23:1). In the New Testament, the imagery of the sheep and the shepherd are also utilized. John records one of Jesus’ saying as “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10; 11) and Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15: 3-7).

Shepherding became a pastoral care metaphor as notions of healing, sustaining, guiding and other characteristics of the ancient shepherd are integrated into the field of pastoral care (Oglesby Jr. 2005, 1164). Hence, even though people in ACOM are generally unaccustomed to sheep and shepherding, the shepherd theology has in the past and still continues to play a significant role in influencing the church as well as people’s lives. There are several aspects of the role of the shepherd that becomes apparent in the shepherd theology. However, I will only be dealing with the notion of feeding. 

            Feeding the sheep

One aspect of the shepherd theology is talking about what God does to his people as shepherds do to their sheep. In Ezekiel 34:2, God questioned, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” And in Ezekiel 34:13, where God says “I will feed the sheep on the mountains of Israel” implies that one of the roles of the shepherd is to feed the sheep. God is portrayed as a shepherd who feeds the people of Israel. According to the Psalmists, God was a shepherd to the people of Israel during the exodus. Psalm 77:20 Psalms 78:52 and psalms 80:1 all point to the exodus event as one where God led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the wilderness and then to their destiny in the Promised Land. The psalmists used the shepherding image to express their theology and it is quite obvious why they used the shepherding imagery to talk about what God did. In terms of feeding, God provided food and water for the Israelites. God provided potable water at Marah (Exod 15:22–26), manna and quail in the wilderness of Sin (Exod 16:1–36), water from the rock at Rephidim (Exod 17:1–7), quail at Kibroth-hattaavah (Num 11:4–15, 31–34) and water from the rock at Meribah (Num 20:1–13).

The Israelites did not have to fend for themselves because God provided for them when there was no more hope of finding food nor water. The author of Deuteronomy 8:3 states that God “fed you with manna…” implying the character of a shepherd who feeds the flock by actually providing food for the sheep. The Exodus story clearly shows the shepherding character of God as one who feeds his people. Without God, the people would not have survived the desert life that deprives them of food and water. They are totally dependent upon God for their survival. They cannot feed themselves, they cannot find water on their own. On their own they would starve or die of thirst. The people have to be saved by God who is not human like them. Likewise, the shepherd, is an outsider. He or she is not one of the sheep. The sheep, then are dependent upon this outsider for their survival.

            Some Background Information

ACOM, also commonly known as the Church of the Province of Melanesia is one of 38 provinces worldwide that make up the Anglican Communion. Like the other provinces, it is an independent Church that runs its own affairs under its own laws frequently referred to as canons. ACOM currently covers three countries, namely the Solomon Islands, the Republic of Vanuatu and the French Territory of New Caledonia.

This article has as its context the Banks and Torres group of islands in northern Vanuatu. Banks and Torres have a population of about 10,500 (Statistics for Development Division Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2015) people 85% of which are Anglicans. Within ACOM, the Banks and Torres Islands make up the Diocese of Banks and Torres. Within the Vanuatu government setup, the Banks and Torres Islands make up the Torba Province. Since I come from Motalava in the Banks group, I will be making references to my home island. Motalava is a small island about 15 Km long and 8km at its widest point. It has a population of about 1700 people.

            Shepherd theology and the culture of dependency

The fact that the sheep is wholly dependent on the shepherd for its survival, reflects the culture of dependency that now affects ACOM especially in the diocese of Banks and Torres. Dependency has not only permeated human lives, but the societal structures existing within the Banks and Torres society.  The culture of dependency has often caused people to sit back and depend on other people and institutions to provide for them and to meet their needs.

Dependence is when someone is heavily reliant on something or other people (Hornby 2000, 336). People rely on others or on something for their survival or to guarantee success.  According to Hau’ofa, dependence is associated with being “derogatory or belittling” and also “superiority and inferiority” (Hauʹofa, Waddell and Naidu 1993, 3). When one person or society belittles or derogates another, it deprives the society or a person from its value and may result in a person or people in a society feeling inferior. In the Pacific, the island states had for some time felt dependent upon Western countries because island states were viewed as small and unimportant compared to continents where there are huge land masses.  When the people in the island states feel inferior to those of other countries, they become hopeless and feel dependent on aid and handouts from ‘wealthier’ countries.

In ACOM, the culture of dependency among Church members stands as a setback in the progress of the work of the Church. For example, the people depend on the Church headquarters to receive grants from money invested by European missionaries more than 150 years ago in New Zealand to pay for minister’s salaries and finance the work of the church. Even the diocese of Banks and Torres struggles to get people to contribute financially to the diocesan budget to assist in the work of the Church. Moreover, the funds collected locally are next to negligible compared to the grants received from overseas. Although in Banks and Torres, people are very kind and hospitable, I think that throughout the years since the arrival of the missionaries, a culture of dependency has been developing. I am in no way claiming that dependency is the sole product of missionary activity, but dependence on foreign money, theologies and ideas have been brewing since the arrival of missionaries. Dependency has also been reinforced by the cargo cult mentality that affected many parts of Melanesia since the arrival of foreign soldiers during the Second World War. In the cargo cult mentality, people simply wait for the arrival of ‘cargo’ from outside Melanesia.

 In ACOM, to various extents, there has been dependency on foreign theologies. For example, in the Melanesian Book of common prayers, “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer is translated “food for today” recognizing that bread is a foreign food not regularly consumed in large parts of Melanesia.  Yet concerning the elements to be used for Holy Communion, the constitution of ACOM states that “Only bread and pure wine mixed with water may be used in this sacrament.” (ACOM 2014, 22). Even the remote parts of Melanesia that do not have shops still strictly use bread and wine for communion. The former archbishop of Melanesia David Vunagi alludes to this issue of using western elements for the celebration of the Eucharist when he states that although bread and wine are not everyday food in Melanesia, the Church still insists on using and actually still uses bread and wine for communion. He questions why coconut water and taro could not be used instead as they are a common food in Melanesia (Vunagi 2006, 126). It seems that the people in ACOM have been led to elevate bread and wine over and above local food like Taro and coconut water. In ACOM, when there are no bread or wine in any Church on Sundays, ministers conduct morning prayers instead of the Holy Communion service. Therefore, the Church depends entirely on foreign Eucharistic elements as the only element for the Lord’s Supper. Such dependence on foreign theologies leaves little room for contextual, indigenous theologies that are more relevant to our setting and enables the Gospel to speak to the people in their own context.

Ministers in ACOM use foreign vestments for Church services. These were introduced during the missionary era and has since been in use despite the hot tropical climate in Melanesia. The constitution of ACOM dictates the use of these vestments as follows, “The customary Eucharistic vestments will normally be worn when the Holy Eucharist is celebrated – Alb, Stole and Chasuble or Cope” (ACOM 2014, 22). The former Archbishop of Melanesia, David Vunagi also commented on the vestments stating that they are very expensive and unaffordable to Melanesian clergy and also “climatically unsuitable” for tropical areas. Vunagi recalls seeing chasubles made and dyed “locally from roots and barks of trees” (Vunagi 2006, 127). Liturgical vestments come with their foreign theologies and has remained with the Church since the missionary days.

ACOM recognizes and practices seven sacraments. One of these is the sacrament of holy unction (or holy anointing). Anointing using holy oil is done to the sick and the dying.  Holy oil is also used during the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. The oil used in these sacraments are blessed each year on Maundy Thursday. Despite the fact that the constitution of the Church states that the oil has to be made from a plant (ACOM 2014, 31), the practice is that only olive oil mixed with balsam is used. Both these oils are expensive and sold only in towns. The common oil used for massages and healing is coconut oil. Although this is readily available, the church still adheres to the practice of using blessed olive oil and balsam for sacramental use.

With the issues of dependency that I have raised within ACOM, I am suggesting a theology of bulsal as an alternative theology that I believe should influence the leadership and people of ACOM and particularly in Banks and Torres to address the issue of dependency.


Bulsal is a special type of friendship practiced in the Banks and Torres group of islands in Northern Vanuatu. It exists as an important component in the culture of the people. It is one of the first concepts of the pre-Christian period that early missionaries admired and mentioned in their historical record of the Melanesian Mission. With the introduction of Christianity, Bulsal became practiced in mission schools throughout Melanesia.[i]            

Etymologically, the word Bulsal comes from two root words, Bul and sal. Bulsal means a friend, comrade or one who has a common path. The word bul could mean ‘to stick together’ or ‘hold many things in the hand at once’. Bul is also spelt qul both having the same meaning. Bul or qul means ‘together or on friendly terms’.

Sal is also spelt hal. It means ‘Path’ or ‘road’ or ‘journey’.  Sal or hal can also mean ‘messenger’. The combination of the two words bul and sal combines unity and path. It refers to unity or partnership as a path or journey.

            Bulsal as friendship. 

The word bulsal when used as a noun refers to the bulsal friendship itself. Also, as a noun a person’s bulsal is his or her friend. Two people who befriend each other become each other’s bulsalbulsal can also be used as a verb to mean ‘to befriend’ or to ‘commence a journey of friendship’. Bulsal may be between members of the same or opposite sexes. Perhaps in English, a close meaning of bulsal can be ‘partner’ or ‘friend’, although I assume, the current use of the word “partner” denotes sexual relationship. It is quite common for people nowadays to refer to their spouses as their partners. A person may use bulsal to allude to their spouse, although their union as married couples transcends the normal bulsal relationship. Anyone can address his or her friend directly or indirectly as bulsal. Bulsal then is commonly used to refer to a particular special friend.

People begin this bulsal relationships by exchanging or giving gifts. Hence, exchange of gift and reciprocity are the main components of this bulsal relationship.

The word bulsal, when used as a noun can also refer to the relationship of a boy and his girlfriend or a girl and her fiancé. This kind of friendship has romantic love and sexual element attached to it.  However, it is important to note that having the opposite sex as one’s bulsal is kept secret since it is not openly practiced in the Banks and Torres islands.

Bulsal can also refer to the relationship between two people of the same sex who form a lifelong relationship. This form of bulsal relationship is one that is most commonly practiced and it is on this bulsal relationship that this article concentrates.

            Bulsal as a path or journey of friendship

The etymology of the word bulsal suggests to us that friendship is a journey. As a journey, the two people travelling come from a certain point and will journey to a common destination. Hence, bulsal could mean one who has a common path. From a Banks islands’ perspective, any path offers their own easiness and difficulties. There are valleys and hills to climb, creeks to scramble across and rocky paths to traverse.  Thus bulsal has its own challenges. It is the challenge of maintaining the special relationship of bulsal. Thus the path of friendship that people in a bulsal relationship travel has their own mountain-top highs and rock-bottom lows. But people travel the path of bulsal because bulsal is part and parcel of the people’s way of life. It is a way of life for them to form, maintain and repair friendships.

            Theology of Bulsal

One basic Christian belief is that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons in the Trinity relate to each other powerfully in love. The triune and relational God also relates to humanity. In Genesis 1:26, God said “Let us make humans in our own image…” This tells us that God is inherently relational. In Genesis 1:27, “male and female he created them…” also points to the relational nature of God. Furthermore, in Genesis 2:18, God said” it is not good for man to be alone…” These texts among many others in the Bible clearly states that humans are created to be in a relationship with God and with one another. This means that to resemble God is to live in relationship with each other.

            Bulsal (friendship) with God and Other People.

In John 15: 13-15, Jesus claimed that the greatest love a person can have is to lay down his life for his friends and he further refers to his disciples as friends. God is God and maybe cannot be reduced to a human friend. But Jesus uses ‘friend’ to perhaps express the close, intimate relationship between himself and the disciples. ‘Friend’ is translated into the Motalava language as bulsal. Friendship with Jesus or God is like bulsal with God. As in human bulsal there is reciprocity and exchange of gifts, so with God the same thing occurs.  God creates humans for relationships and humans reciprocate that gift of life with right relationships with God and other people. Right relationships with other people means a right relationship with God. In Mathew 25: 31-46, Jesus said, when his hearers feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked and give drink to the thirsty, they do it to Jesus (v 40). Therefore, all aspects of a bulsal relationship with God such as reciprocity and exchange of gifts are fulfilled when we establish a bulsal relationship with God.

When we as Christians give to God or other people, it is part of reciprocity in a bulsal relationship. We give to God because God first gave. God gives us life, God gives us resources in the air, land and sea and God loved us so much that he gave his son to die for us (John 3:16). God gives himself to us in the sacrament of Holy Communion and gives us his grace channelled to us through the sacraments[ii] and the list goes on. We give to others because God first gives to us. And when we give, God promises to give more. In Malachi 3: 10, God says “put me to the test, bring the full tithes to the store houses and I will open the windows of heaven and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. In Luke 6:38, Jesus said “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put onto your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” This text clearly implies reciprocity as in the case of human bulsal relationships.

Our bulsal relationship with other people reflects our bulsal relationship with God. Forming bulsal relationship with God is done through bulsal with our neighbours. Maintaining our bulsal relationship with God is done through maintaining our bulsal relationship with our neighbours or our bulsal. Mending or repairing our relationship with God happens through mending our relationship with other people. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus emphasised the mending of relationships as a prerequisite to offering gifts to God. Bulsal is a journey. As such, it is not only a journey with other people, but also with God.

            Some Implications of bulsal theology

Bulsal theology involves healthy bulsal relationship between people and their leaders. When people regard their leaders as bulsal rather than shepherds, they form a relationship in which the people are no longer solely dependent on human leaders such as members of parliament to hand goods out to them. In a bulsal theology, human relationships are healthy because people are interdependent on each other. In the Church, the people can have a new and revitalised relationship with their leaders. People can then assist the Church in different ways, such as assisting the church find new ways of financing the church rather than solely depending on funds from overseas.[iii] This can bring people’s mentality out of dependency they are currently soaked in.

ACOM became an independent Church in 1975, however, much of the theologies are still from outside Melanesia. We still depend on foreign food for the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, We still depend on the use of foreign form of vestments that are climatically unsuitable for Melanesia. We still depend on foreign oils which are blessed for sacramental purposes. A bulsal theology should enable us as Melanesians to discover what God has given to us and develop our theologies so that instead of depending on foreign theologies and spiritualities, we can develop our own indigenous theologies that are more meaningful in our context.

Bulsal theology involves bulsal relationship that occurs not only between humans but also between humans and the environment. For example, on Motalava, every year people grow yams during the dry season.[iv] After growing yams on a certain spot for two seasons, they leave the land for about five to seven years to regain fertility before cultivating the area again. The fallow period that follows the use of the plot of land is a reciprocal action between the farmer and the land. The land gives food to the farmer. The farmer in turn leaves the land to regain its strength to support human life when the time comes for the area to be cultivated again. In this sense, humans are not only dependent on the land, but the land also depends on humans for its good health. There is interdependence on the part of humans and the land. The bulsal theology encapsulates the fact that God, who breathed into humans giving them life, also sends the same Spirit (breath) to create and renew creation (Ps 104: 29-30). Therefore, creation and humans are bulsal (friends) to each other and journey along the same path of life.

Our bulsal relationship with other people does not only mean with our immediate neighbours, but it also means that we also care about future generations. In our Vanuatu context, the land, the sea and all resources within them are owned communally. Therefore, having concern for future generations ensues sensible and responsible harvesting of resources and responsible use of land and the sea that allows future generations in their time to enjoy the resources. This means that concern for our bulsal (friends) involves concern for our future generations as well. This involves bulsal (friendship) with the environment so that later generations have their share of our God-given resources.

Instead of entirely depending on the earth’s resources for human survival, bulsal theology enables us to realise that the resources depend on us for their survival. For example, overharvesting of sea cucumbers from particular areas have actually cause them to totally disappear from those areas.



In this paper, I have attempted to address the issue of dependency in ACOM and in particular in the Banks and Torres Islands. I do this by offering a critique of the shepherd theology through the notion of the sheep being fed by the shepherd. The flock totally dependent on the shepherd to be fed. In ACOM this shepherd theology reinforces some ideas of dependency upon outside or foreign. I offer an indigenous theology of bulsal as a way of relating to God and to each other that I believe takes away the element of dependency. In the light of bulsal theology Christians are invited to revisit, reassess and perhaps renew their relationship to God, to each other, to institutions within their society and to the environment.





Anglican Church of Melanesia. 2014. The Manual containing the Constitution, Canons & Standing Resolutions of the Anglican Church of Melanesia. Honiara; Anglican Church of Melanesia.

Hornby, A. S, and Sally Wehmeier. 2000. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hauʹofa, Epeli, Eric Waddell, and Vijay Naidu. 1993. Our Sea of Islands in A New Oceania. School of Social and Economic Development, The University of the South Pacific in association with Beake House, Suva, Fiji.

Oglesby Jr., W. 2005. Shepherd/Shepherding. In: Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counselling, 1st ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Statistics for Development Division Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2015.

Vunagi, David 1998. Liturgical Spirituality under the Southern Cross: A Study of the Impact of the Anglo-Catholic Tradition on the Anglican Church of Melanesia. Degree of Master of Theology. Vancouver School of Theology.



[i] Some historical books on the Anglican mission in Melanesia use the word pulsala, instead of bulsal. Pulsala isword from Mota, a language of the Banks Islands, used by the Anglican mission as its Lingua Franca throughout Melanesia from the mid-1800s to the 1950s. Pulsala and bulsal have the same meaning.

[ii] ACOM recognises seven Sacraments.

[iii] ACOM operates largely from funds generated from investments made by early European Missionaries in New Zealand.

[iv] The dry season is from May to October and the Wet season runs from November to April.

Fr Anthony Ling

Fr Anthony Ling



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