Some thoughts on love and God (and theological education) (2)

Following up from yesterday’s post on God and love, here is a wee article  I wrote for our recent IBI Newsletter on a similar theme, this time relating God, love and theological education:

Faith working itself out in love

Let me ask you a question. Do you see yourself primarily as an individual; free, autonomous and solely responsible for all your beliefs and actions? Or are you primarily a member of something bigger than yourself; one person within a wider network of relationships, with built-in obligations and responsibilities to others? Obviously I’m generalizing here, but how you answer will likely depend on where in the world you are from.

A story illustrates this well. In a fascinating book, Christianity Rediscovered, Roman Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan tells the story of his ministry among the Masai tribes in East Africa. For an hour each morning for an entire year he met with all the members of one tribe with the aim of simply communicating the Christian story. When the year was up he asked them for a response – would they decide to follow Jesus and be baptised? And he added that he would not baptize those who had missed lots of sessions or showed little comprehension of the gospel. At this point the tribal leader responded and said:

Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn out and drive off the lazy ones with the ones with little faith and the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe.’

For many of us in the West this seems an alien story because we tend to prize individualism. I haven’t got time to trace the origins and development of individualism in Western thought, save to say that the exaltation of individual rights has become the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm of our culture.

A couple of years ago I attended a wonderful conference on the theme of community and theological education.[i] It was attended by Christians from all over the world including Africa, Asia and South America – continents from which the majority of Christians globally now come from. Many there agreed that Western societies have gone too far in the direction of individualism and this has infected the Western church as well.

For example, evangelicals have always rightly insisted on the necessity of a living personal faith. But this all too easily can be distorted into what missiologist David Bosch called a ‘shabby’ me-centered narrow gospel.

If this is true, a vital question for places of theological training like IBI is how can we help and challenge students to recover a proper place for community in their Christian life and thought? There are at least two places to begin to answer this:

1. The Bible and theology

The most important way for us to recover the role of community in the Christian life is to understand and take in deeply what the Bible and theology teach. Here is a short summary:

(i) God works in plurals

Right from the beginning, community is at the heart of God’s purposes for humanity. He creates Eve because ‘It is not good that man should be alone’ (Gen 2:18). Male and female are in perfect relationship with each other and with God. In many ways the story of the Bible from Genesis 3 onwards is a story of relational breakdown and God’s redemptive purposes to bring healing and wholeness. In my first year theology class we talk about how sin breaks relationships in four directions: relationship with God, with each other, with the self and with creation. All of these need healing and the good news (gospel) is that this is exactly God’s agenda in and through his Son, Jesus Christ.

This means that we need to understand the wonderful breadth and depth of the gospel. Salvation is NOT just about saving spiritually the individual (though it includes this). It encompasses the redemption of fractured relationships and the restoring of the whole creation (Rev 21).

I like to say that ‘God works in plurals.’ In the Old Testament, God’s focus is not on saving isolated individuals like Abraham or Moses but on forming and redeeming a whole nation. Israel is his loved and chosen people through whom blessing to all nations is to come. In the New Testament the church is also consistently understood in ‘plurals’: laos (people); hagioi (saints); the elect; the Israel of God; ekklesia linked to qᾱhᾱl the congregation of Israel; ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12); ‘the family of God’ (Rom 8:15ff); ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (Phil 2:1); and in 1 Peter 2:9 four communal metaphors for the church are combined; race, priesthood, nation and people.

Do you get the sense that God values community and relationships!? But this relational priority does not just drop out of nowhere. It is rooted in the fundamentally relational nature of God himself.

 (ii) ‘I love therefore I am’

Christians worship a triune God. This is a deep truth with many implications, but perhaps the most important is that God in himself is relational. The one God is eternally three persons. Father, Son and Spirit delight in and love one another. If God himself is a community of love (1 Jn 4:16) and humanity is made in his image, then we are created to love. If God is a trinity of joyful love, real joy comes from loving others.

It is no accident therefore that love fulfils the whole purpose of the Law (Mt 22:37-40). It is the primary work of the transforming presence of the Spirit. Love is the sign of authentic and deep spirituality and without it all Christian activity is completely useless (I Cor. 13:1-3). Paul even puts it this way, “The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love.” (Gal. 5:6). That’s strong stuff. To paraphrase René Descartes’ (1596-1650) famous dictum (“I think therefore I am”), Christians can and should say “I love therefore I am.”

2. Working out some implications

This theology of relationships, love and community raises profound questions and challenges for Christians living in an intensely individualist culture like ours. How can a place like IBI integrate and enhance the place of community and relationships within our training programmes?

Answering this sort of question would take another article (or three!). I don’t pretend that we have the solutions but these are some things we are trying to do within the community of IBI. Do please pray for us and the students in this process.

We are not a residential college but relationships can be prioritized by intentionally developing a community ethos:

– students and staff belong to small groups where life can be shared honestly

– students are asked to work in teams and to do some joint presentations to counter an inbuilt individualism

– a ‘head, hands, heart’ ethos is emphasized where the quality of relationships are as important as grades

– references give equal weight to character as to academic ability

– models of leadership are taught that focus on biblical themes of servanthood, equality, love and plurality rather than on impersonal techniques or performance skills

– staff are appointed not just because they have the right academic or technical skills but also their spiritual and relational maturity in Christ

– an atmosphere inside and outside the classroom with is interactive, non-hierarchical and demonstrating mutual respect among faculty, administrative staff and students

– the Mentoring and Apprenticeship Programme (MAP) is a core strand of the degree

– a Pastoral Care team gives opportunities for students to talk through issues and develop self awareness

I’m not saying that we have ‘cracked’ the problem of individualism. But we hope that these sorts of things will help develop students who don’t just view training as a means to an end. Men and women who know the Scriptures and have the skills and academic ability to think, reason and engage with wider culture but also people who do so in self-giving relationship with others.

For let me say it again; love is not a pleasant optional extra that may or may not accompany someone’s theological training, it is the whole purpose and goal of the enterprise. 


[i] The story of Vincent Donovan and the Masai comes from a paper given at that conference by Bishop Hwa Yung of the Methodist Church of Malaysia called ‘Energising Community: Theological Education’s Relational Mandate’ presented 5 October 2009 at the ICETE International Consultation for Theological Educators, Sopron, Hungary.

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