Total Church 12: Theology

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 10 is on theology

As someone who teaches theology and is heavily involved in a local church, I was particularly interested in this chapter.

There are three sections and I’ll throw in some comments in bold after each summary:

Word-centred theology

‘Theology, properly understood, is an encounter with the living God in his word’. And this revelation of God in ‘the Word of Christ and the word of the Bible’ is not something that we sit in judgement above, but it ‘scrutinizes us’. The Bible gives us truth to believe and to live. The authors go to 2 Timothy to argue that Paul is sure Timothy has all he needs to conduct his ministry, rebut error and equip God’s people for the Christian life.

What does a ‘word-centred’ theology look like in actual practice? Any examples come to mind? Sure most Christians will say they want to be word centred but actually the word can be peripheral in how they pastor & preach. Some discussion with practical examples would have helped here.

Mission Centred theology

The authors say that any theology worthy of the name is practical theology – it’s the fruit of speaking and following God and is not just an academic pursuit, but belongs to the local church and to ‘ordinary’ Christians. Each believer is a theologian, in that they speak the truth of God to one another and to the world.

Theology here is seen as all about living life for the glory of God – and the healthiest form is theology worked out in mission. For this keeps it grounded and focused in real life – rather than becoming abstract, academic in a negative sense, and often so obscure only a few professionals can understand what’s being talked about [and the authors mention some evangelical journals (not by name). I agree, some are so opaque I have no idea what article titles mean, let alone what the content is on about – and I do know at least a wee bit about academic theology].

All theology needs to be seen in terms of mission – we need a missional approach to doctrine, to biblical studies, to church history, to ethics, to pastoral care etc.

So theology needs to be engaging with contemporary culture with missional intent. At a local level this means that the most important task in the local church is to ask theological questions about issues that arise in life and ministry. Otherwise we are driven by pragmatism or tradition.

I’m convinced they are right to link theology with mission in the context of the local church. Where I work at IBI we are committed to this – all staff are engaged in local church ministry as well as teaching within an academic setting. This is busy and demanding – but it is a theological commitment we arrived at a long time ago. Theology proper belongs in the local church. However, again I would have liked some examples of theological questions getting asked in a local church and what the answers look like. A frustration of this book is its patchiness over ‘earthing’ the theory. Sometimes the stories are very good, but as with this chapter they are missing altogether.

Community Centred Theology

The authors make the case here for an Anabaptist approach to communal interpretation of Scripture. Whereas the Catholic approach has been the Magisterium of the Church decides; the Protestant reformers cited the priesthood of all believers – each individual decides. This led to Protestant fragmentation of everyone being their own pope. And this led to what we have a lot of today – the ‘popery’ of elite scholarship that ‘really knows’ the truth. And in liberal theology, it ‘ran to seed’ with man sitting in judgement over the Word.

As an alternative the authors suggest something like the Anabaptist approach to communal interpretation of the Scriptures. Where we learn far more from discussion and engagement around a text. So a suggestion for leaders to plan and discuss together – rather than the traditional model of the lone expert preacher spending long hours in his study only with books for company. And once this is done, the whole community are encouraged to study the text together during the week for meaning and application.

I like the community aspect of learning from the text. Educationally, in theory and from my own experience, is that students learn much more when they verbalise and reflect together on issues rather than sit passively taking in (some) of what is being said from a monologue at the front. I like the idea of a local church reflecting together on what is preached on Sunday. We’ve tried this in MCC and I think it focuses groups together and help integrate Sunday into real life. But this takes consistent focus and effort to work well.

On preaching, I like the idea of a teacher not only being open to feedback AFTER the sermon, but engaging in dialogue DURING the preparation! Now all that takes work and time and energy – it demands much more from the teacher to be well ahead of schedule in prep time. It demands an openness from the ‘expert’ who is likely the one ‘professionally trained’. But it is also a really good mentoring and training idea for helping others engage in the process of Bible study, sermon prep and doing the tough thing of connecting it all to real people’s lives. It also, dare I say, challenges the ego of ‘the preacher’ – he (for it usually is a he, especially in Irish evangelicalism) being the one alone who interprets & applies the word of the Lord for the people of God. This removes that ‘elevation’ of the gifted individual and locates them within a community teaching team.  Do you think this can all work in practice? What are the pitfalls as well as these advantages?


2 thoughts on “Total Church 12: Theology

  1. You should ask Chris Kennedy your question on preaching. We have had a QnA after sermons for some time and i know he appreciates the way in which this forces him to think through what he has said and face up to shortcomings in his faith. Recently he has started to give his sermon to our staff meeting on a tuesday before the weekend and i also know that this has resulted in changes for him.

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