Some final musings on how strongly held beliefs can become destructive narratives of power and control and how self-doubt is not only healthy but intrinsic to Christian spirituality.
This post will focus on Paul and leadership.
A while back I had dinner with someone who said he’d virtually given up reading Paul. He still loved and read the Bible but he’d gone off the apostle. The main reason, I think, was years and years of experience of evangelical obsession with Paul – in preaching, teaching, atonement theory, models of mission etc etc to the neglect and exclusion of Jesus (!) and the gospels, of OT wisdom, and of other voices in general within Scripture.
I guess it’s like tiring eventually of listening to the same singer all the time – I mean sometimes I even have to take a break from St Bob on car journeys between Dublin and Belfast and listen to someone else – just for a while.
Paul can be seen as beyond criticism alright, especially within Protestant evangelicalism. After all, isn’t Paul the man who is the ‘worst of sinners’ (1 Tim 1:15); who lived a life of selfless sacrifice for the gospel; who called his flocks to imitate his example? Who is a model of pastoral leadership, exponent of justification by faith and theologian par excellence?
And, along these lines, in the last post I mentioned the pre-conversion Paul as a ‘no-doubter’ who wished to eradicate the heretical early Jesus movement but was transformed by his experience of God’s grace.
For these reasons Paul tends to put up on a pedestal of perfection, as virtually free of human weakness or frailty or less than 100% pure motives.
So it can be a bit of surprise when someone says they’ve had enough of Paul. Or a bit threatening when you start to read other takes on Paul that are, shall we say, less than adulatory.
Far from being someone who modelled a benevolent leadership style of service and loving persuasion, Paul, some argue, was manipulative, controlling and power-hungry.
I’m riffing here from a fascinating article I came across by Marion Carson, who taught (wonderfully well) with us at IBI for a while, in Themelios 30.3 ‘For Now We Live: a study of Paul’s Pastoral Leadership in 1 Thessalonians’.
Critics (such as Elisabeth Castelli, Stephen Moore and Graham Shaw) take a Foucaultian position on Paul. Look underneath the surface and what you find is a grab for power; a desire to control others via a narrative of subtle manipulation.
So, in 1 Thessalonians, underneath the surface story of Paul’s love and concern for the church; his encouragement to persevere under pressure and affliction just as he himself had done, and just as the Lord Jesus had done so that they might endure suffering and go forward in perseverance and hope, the critics see an alternative reality.
Paul’s converts are to imitate (mimesis) him; they can never be his equal. They should do as he does. This, the critics allege, is a power-play that squashes difference, makes recipients passive and benefits the one in power who tells others how to behave. Moreover, this is all God’s will so they have little or no space to question this hierarchical power structure.
This is fascinating and significant stuff. It gets to the heart of ‘What actually is genuinely Christian leadership?’
Is leadership and a passionate committment to gospel truth inevitably going to trump both other’s views and their good?
Marion argues that while power relationships in the ancient world were hierarchical within a highly stratified social context, what you actually get with Paul is a subversive view of power and leadership.
Most times when Paul talks about imitating him it is a call to suffer and to support himself through hard work. He rejoices when others also become sources of imitation. His desire is Christ-likeness not Paul likeness.
And as Marion comments, a key test of other-focused leadership is trust and transparency. He does not micro-manage or control. His instructions are consistently to care for the weak and poor – the very people an oppressive leader will see as a waste of time and resources. He encourages the Thessalonians to gain the respect of outsiders and integrate within Graeco-Roman culture. This is not the strategy of someone obsessed with tight control or secrecy.
Hard like flint, controlling others and dismissing them contemptuously if they do not follow? (thinking John Mitchel here).
Or porous like pumice stone, willing to absorb difference of opinion and work for other’s good?
All this is not to say that Paul is somehow above strategies and politics – he spend considerable energy defending the divine authority of his calling and mission.
Any leader has to be politically astute, wise, at times effusive in praise and at times warning of disaster. He / she has to have a good sense of people – but this is different from being impervious to other’s thoughts and feelings and oppressive in forcing on them his own agendas.
Comments, as ever, welcome
The previous post, prompted by the utterly uncompromising figure of John Mitchel, ended up musing on the value of (self) doubt.
Mitchel took his lack of self-doubt all the way to the sacrifice of, in effect, most of his family and his own (prematurely shortened) life.
By doubt I had in mind a ‘space’ in our convictions that gives room for alternative interpretations of reality; other points of view; corrective voices and / or critical self-reflection. Which leads to not taking yourself too seriously – which leads to self-depreciating humour.
Self doubt is a willingness to acknowledge that we might have it wrong; a self-awareness that all we know is finite, limited and culturally conditioned. That we have much to learn from others.
Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:
By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:
By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:
With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:
A master’s degree deepens that specialty:
Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:
Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:
You push at the boundary for a few years:
Until one day, the boundary gives way:
And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:
Of course, the world looks different to you now:
So, don’t forget the bigger picture:
So, all those years of hard work to produce a tiny pimple :)
I guess pimple creation is inspiring in its own way. But even in that act of creation, the bigger picture brings even the successful PhD candidate to a place of humility and self-awareness of his / her own narrow and tiny area of expertise.
Without that sort of self-doubt a student becomes unteachable because they know it all already.
A celebrity begins to believe his / her own publicity (not a pretty sight).
A politician boringly and predictably keeps banging the party drum. (When’s the last time in a political TV debate you heard someone pause, reflect and say ‘That’s a good point, I’ll have to think about that’?) The political party line is defended at the cost of any real learning and genuine debate. I guess that’s one reason for voter apathy – impervious ideologies are all just so predictable and self-interested.
And, as Michel Foucault would have said, ‘no doubt’ narratives can easily become tools of power and violence – be like me, believe what I believe or there will be negative consequences.
But, to return (finally!) to questions at the end of the last post, isn’t the Church a place where narratives of power and even violence have often been sanctified and blessed? Where there have been very negative consequences for those who have dared to doubt the party line?
I think any honest reading of history would have to admit ‘Yes – Christianity can and often has taken the form of a narrative of power, of control, of squashing dissent and silencing alternative voices.’
Most often this happened when the Church got mixed up with political power, status and money. And that’s a pretty large chunk of church history.
So, some implications of these musings:
1. Self-doubt is not only useful, it is necessary for individual Christian growth and maturity
2. Self-doubt fosters characteristics of humility, co-operation and sober self-assessment. It is a pre-requisite for repentance, confession, learning and change.
3. St Paul was a classic ‘no doubter’ willing to use violence to eliminate those who transgressed his boundaries. Yet it was Paul who wrote these words. He knew too well the damage a lack of self-doubt could cause and the need for God’s grace to break human arrogance and self-sufficiency.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3
4. We need, as Hauerwas likes to say, to speak the truth; to face our humanity and limitations honestly. And, as he would also say, we need to counter narratives of power, control and violence within the church with the upside down, weak and apparently foolish nature of the kingdom of God. (Well Jesus said that, Stan the man is just saying it again).
5. Prophets were often voices of doubt among the people of God. They were usually ignored, rejected, isolated and unpopular. Voices of doubt challenge the comfortable status quo that usually benefits the rich and powerful. Luther was a voice of doubt that changed history. At the very least this should give us evangelicals, who by definition are passionate about gospel truth, pause to do some self-critical reflection when we are critiqued by alternative voices.
6. To value self-doubt is not to promote a lack of leadership or celebrate uncertainty as a goal in itself. I think this is where people like IKON over-react against what they perceive as neatly packaged impervious ideologies of traditional Christianity. I guess this is what they are getting at with their ironically titled (anti-Alpha) ‘Omega course’ of how to ‘exit’ Christianity.
7. I guess this is why, at heart, I am a Christian first, secondly a Christian of evangelical convictions and lastly a Presbyterian. I find it hard to ‘get’ Christians who seem not to doubt their particular confessional distinctive – often in defensive and excluding ways – yet those distinctives are at best highly debated.
8. Self-doubt should foster a posture of listening and dialogue with the wider culture: combining a humble confidence in the gospel of God with appeal, reasoning, love and invitation: a distinct political community that is also willing to suffer persecution and weakness and rejection.
9. That willingness to suffer comes from having enough self-doubt to not want to be in power, to control the culture or believe that it is either possible or desirable to do so.
Comments, as ever, welcome.
The other night in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast Anthony Russell gave a lecture on ‘John Mitchel; less revolutionary than the average English shopkeeper?’. [for other posts on this most remarkable of relatives see here, here, here and here)
Russell has just published Between Two Flags: John Mitchel & Jenny Verner and it is a very good book indeed.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the rebel’s birth but it is passing largely unremarked. Mitchel, once one of Pearse’s ‘four gospels’ of Irish nationalist literature and inspiring hero to De Valera, has long since become an embarrassment for nationalist and republican Ireland – and in his lifetime of course was already an embarrassment for his Protestant and Unionist kin whom he tried, vainly, to win over to the republican cause.
Russell’s lecture title is taken from a critical assessment made by Emile Montegut exactly 100 years ago. At first glance it seems a rather preposterous notion.
Not sure what the politics of an average English shopkeeper are these days, but let’s assume Montegut had in mind a quiet, no-nonsense, small businessman happy to make a modest living from a local market of loyal customers.
What would such an icon of the status quo have to do with Mitchel the romantic, impetuous, ferocious, physical-force republican man of letters who rebelled against just about everyone and every movement he ever worked with? Who sacrificed his own life as well as two sons killed and one maimed in the uncompromising pursuit of political ideals in Ireland and Confederate America?
Well maybe more than you’d imagine at first glance.
What Russell brought out convincingly was how it was Mitchel’s fierce and violent tunnel-vison hatred of English rule in Ireland that was the driving force behind his elevation to rebel hero. At heart however he was no social or political revolutionary.
His was a classicist mindset of fixed hierarchies. Mitchel belonged in Rome where slaves remained slaves and social boundaries were maintained by a ruthless lack of sentiment. It was no accident that in his writings the English were the enemies of Rome – the Carthaginians
So negro slaves were to remain negro slaves – it was the good and right and proper order of things. The Confederacy’s way of life was to be preferred and defended (whatever it cost Mitchel and his family) against the industrial barbarian North. Likewise, lower-class convicts in Van Diemen’s land would be better off hanged. Epidemics were inevitable and natural ways to rid the world of the weak and the sick.
The Ireland he dreamt of seeing one day ‘free’ was, as Russell puts it,
“a rural hierarchical Ireland, peopled with fair landlords and well-treated tenants, an Ireland were crime and misdeeds were to be punished with the lash, if necessary.” (212)
This unlocks why Mitchel so despised capitalism and industrialisation. His vision of an independent liberated land was a romantic, classical, rural and simple pre-Enlightenment Ireland of “innumerable brave working farmer rising from a thousand hills” who would never trouble themselves about “progress of the species” and such worthless ideas. (213) Sound familiar? De Valera’s famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech is pure Mitchel. It was no accident that De Valera went on pilgrimage to visit Mitchel’s cell on Spike Island in Cork Harbour – the last place he was imprisoned before his transportation.
Anthony Russell described Mitchel’s one ‘moment of doubt’. As the Confederacy stared defeat in the face in 1864, it was proposed that slaves could be conscripted to fight. Later in the Confederate Act of Congress freedom was allowed to be a reward for faithful war service.
Mitchel’s entire worldview was threatened by such notions. With typical relentless honesty he reasoned
Now, if freedom be a reward for negroes – why, then it is, and always was, a grievous wrong and a crime to hold them in slavery at all … If it be true that the state of slavery keeps these people depressed below the condition to which they could develop their nature, their intelligence and their capacity for enjoyment, and what we call “progress,” then every hour of their bondage for generations is a black stain upon the white race.
But this wasn’t so much a moment of doubt as self-reinforcing rhetoric. Mitchel knew (as always) the answer to his own question. The black slave should remain a slave because he is not fit for freedom or equal in value to a white person. Case closed.
He was a man entirely free of the awkward encumbrance of doubt. To his dying day he despised any form of negotiation or compromise on England’s presence in Ireland.
Now I don’t know about you, but as I have grown older, I value doubt more.
To be without doubt is to be like Mitchel – never wrong, completely sure of your own rightness whatever the cost, impervious to other’s opinions (and often feelings), not needing to say sorry, and certainly not to repent (turn around) from actions, attitudes or words. (Mitchel had no time for Christianity’s call to confession, humility and forgiveness. The life and teaching of Jesus, as far as I am aware never appears in any considered way in all of his many writings). An inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of self-depreciating humour make the no-doubter someone who will continually fall out with anyone who does not agree with him (and it usually is a him and that’s a whole other discussion).
Do you know some no-doubters? I suspect you do. In figuring out who I can work best with it is the no doubter I will avoid like the plague (if I can!).
No doubters can be personality driven – they are just right about everything by default. Mitchel, there is good evidence, was engaging, loving and loyal. He was more an ideological no doubter – and they are the most dangerous of all.
For an ideology without doubt can become a truly monstrous thing.
‘Hot’ nationalisms are a form of ideology that allow no doubt, no questions, no complicating alternative points of view that dilute their pure and simple utopian vision.
We’ve had our fair share in the last couple of centuries or so – British imperialism, American exceptionalism, German national socialism and the Holocaust, Serbian ethnic cleansing, Hutu ethnic genocide, Turkish genocide of Armenians, Communist eradication of millions of people in China and USSR for the greater good of the state, IS ethnic cleansing of Shia’s and any others outside their version of pure Islam, American and European no doubters who arrogantly thought they could bring Western democracy to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan, and various tribal, ethnic and religious cleansings in Africa, Asia and India …
Just to be clear, I’m not equating these morally. There are different temperature levels within and consequences of no doubt ideologies.
Back in Ireland, Mitchel helped to inspire Pearse and his ‘pure’ blood-sacrifice for Ireland on Easter Sunday 1916 – a centenary that I for one will not be celebrating next year.
Notice that the one thing in common with all political no doubt ideologies is violence. ‘No doubt’ legitimizes physical force. it did for Mitchel, it does for all others as well.
So, what do you believe in? How deeply and passionately do you believe? What room is there for doubt in your beliefs? What is doubt good for? Where does it become damaging?
When it comes to Christianity, believers are to proclaim and share the universal ‘gospel truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. What place is there for doubt in how Christians engage in this task? In how they read the Bible? In other words, is Christianity just another ‘impervious ideology’ or something else?
Comments, as ever, welcome.
After 25 years in the Republic of Ireland – 20 of those in theological education with Irish Bible School and later Irish Bible Institute – I’m moving North across the border to become Principal of Belfast Bible College.
It’s an honour and a challenge – one which is both exciting and daunting at the same time. BBC is one of the larger Bible Colleges in the UK and has a crucial place in broad evangelical theological education and training in Northern Ireland; it is linked with Queen’s University Belfast (post-grad and undergrad) and Cumbria University (undergrad); has earned an excellent reputation for Christian training; has a global missions perspective and has a very strong team, both teaching and support staff with whom I look forward to working and quite a few whom I know already.
The Board and staff have been very welcoming and my prayer (which you are more than welcome to join!) is that I will be a blessing to the college: in leading the team; in strategic direction; in teaching and working with students; and encouraging personal, academic and spiritual development.
That’s ahead. This post is looking back to say farewell.
Saying goodbye to many dear friends in IBI and in Maynooth Community Church is something that I didn’t think I would be doing. We were married in Tipperary, our children have been born and raised in the Republic, we were settled in work, church and community and I had no plans to return North.
But I am sure that God has been gently pushing, directing and then opening the door to BBC.
So this is a very fond farewell to students, staff, teachers and volunteers at IBI with whom I have had the privilege of working, laughing, praying, hoping, planning and sometimes lamenting with. I will miss you all deeply. It has been quite a journey and I pray for God’s generous provision and blessing on the Institute in the years ahead as it continues to serve a vital function of training and leadership development within the Irish church.
Also farewell, in a more drawn out way as I commute for a while, to fellow elders and members of MCC. You have been and are close family who enrich and bless our lives beyond measure. I am deeply grateful to have been involved in MCC since its inception over 10 years ago under the leadership of Rev Keith McCrory. We’ve gone through a lot together and it’s a place where God’s Spirit is at work doing what he does best – creating self-giving loving relationships.
And, at the risk of getting too verbose (again), this brings to mind how, about 26 years ago at London Bible College (now LST), little notes with a cryptic imperative appeared in the students’ pigeon holes. They said
“Take Care of Tomorrow’s Memories.”
No-one had an idea what they were about until the next chapel service when Dr Peter Cotterell (one of my favourite teachers and supervisor of my undergrad dissertation in missiology) spoke. The notes were his typically creative way of getting people interested and thinking beforehand (must have worked – I still remember it).
His text was Romans 16 and Paul’s long and rich list of people he has worked with. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the relational network of the apostle. We love to abstract and theologize Paul as if he was some sort of disembodied mind producing finely crafted systematic theology for scholars to write books about. But here he is commending, thanking, greeting and encouraging; talking fondly of numerous ‘dear friends’, co-workers, fellow apostles (including Junia) – as well as Rufus’ mother who had been like a mother to him.
Peter’s theme was the importance of loving, deep relationships at the heart of all Christian ministry. His cryptic imperative was always to keep working at relationships, not as an optional secondary aspect of ministry, but as the actual context in which authentic Christian ministry takes place. For how we relate today soon become tomorrow’s memories.
Thank you to all who have given me good memories to treasure.
This Friday and Saturday we are holding a two day conference on ‘Faith in the Real World’
Pastor Steve Vaughan has a post interviewing Sean Mullan, Damian Jackson and me about the event – good job Steve!
The quotes below give a flavour of the themes that we will explore together. If they capture your interest, book in and bring others in your church along as well.
“Jesus speaks to the world about everything that really matters in life. It is our responsibility to follow him and be with him in this difficult, delicate, and crucial work.” (Dallas Willard and Gary, Jr. Black, The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth)
“‘Mission’ is the calling of God’s people in the world to witness to the salvation accomplished in Christ in the whole of their lives. It involves every part of their life and is in life, word, and deed.” (Michael Goheen)
“Our increasingly complex society is one in which we operate in close proximity with people at work, in our neighbourhood, on the bus, in the classroom and possibly in the same house who regard our own world view as nonsense. We need to understand what we believe about God, ourselves, other people and the world around us.” (Simon Smart. A Spectators Guide to Worldviews).
“For this, in the end, is what the Christian faith as a prophetic religion is all about—being an instrument of God for the sake of human flourishing, in this life and the next.” (Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith).
“If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.” (Micah Declaration on Integral Mission)
The Spirit is first and foremost the eschatological presence of God in the here and now. A couple of quotes for reflection this Pentecost Sunday.
First from JDG Dunn
“for Paul the gift of the Spirit is the first part of the redemption of the whole man, the beginning of the process which will end when the believer becomes a spiritual body, that is, when the man of faith enters into a mode of existence determined solely by the Spirit.” Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 311.
Second from Max Turner
“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now. 155.
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.
The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.
There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.
Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.
In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.
As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.
Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.
Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.
In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.
This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.
The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.
All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.
It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.
The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.
Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.
It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.
Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.
There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.
Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.
Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.