Does Church Stifle Spiritual Growth? (2)

In the last post we linked to an article written a few years ago by John Wilks called ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008). To the question whether church life can actually become an obstacle to spiritual growth his answer is YES, it often can. And the evidence says that many people struggling with or walking away from church are mature, committed believers. Their church experience is one of feeling stifled or constricted. This post surveys his argument and his proposals.

Wilks engages with the research of two authors in the 1980s and late 1990s.

Alan Jamieson: A Churchless Faith

The first is Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith: faith journeys beyond the churches (2000). Based on interviews with over 150 people from evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (EPC churches) mostly in their 30s and 40s, this New Zealand pastor developed several categories to describe their journeys.

1. Displaced Followers

About 18% of leavers. Left due to frustration and negativity towards a particular local church and/or its leadership. Not a rejection of faith per se, these remain committed believers. Only about a quarter return to church life somewhere else, most work out their faith apart from a church community but linked in with wider resources of relationships, teaching, books etc.

2. Reflective Exiles

These leavers exit around questions and issues primarily concerning foundations of Christianity itself. It may be questions concerning the love and justice of God, or perhaps these days we can imagine it being around Christian teaching on sex and gender. Regardless of the precise reason, few of such leavers return to church, but few leave Christian faith altogether.

Jamieson talks of these are ‘counter-dependent’ – they find faith expression outside EPC communities. This can be a destabilising process of deconstruction since their faith has been integral to self-identity. They are in unknown new territory with all the uncertainty that brings.

3. Transitional Explorers

This group can be seen as having moved on from Reflective Exiles towards a place of integration – through deconstruction towards reconstruction. This typically has involved a lot of indepth questioning and debate and/or a personal following of intuition of what feels most right. Most remain believers, a small number become agnostic.

4. Integrated Wayfinders

Jamieson came up with this description to try to capture a sense of completion – a new place of integration. Further on from the previous group to a point of finding a clear way forward – a new expression of faith that works. Their leaving of the church is symptomatic of an exploration where they have found more freedom and depth, often with others, outside the confines of church.

The point to note of these 4 groups is that very few are rejecting Christian faith. They leave church because they feel it has become an obstacle to spiritual growth.

James Fowler: Stages of Faith

The second author Wilks discusses is James Fowler and his examination of stages of faith (Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981). These go from birth to death so Wilks just talks of stages 2-5. Fowler’s work is dated now and has been critiqued but is still useful.

The key idea here is of a linear progression, linked with age and experience, with later stages associated with older believers.

Stage 2: The Literalist

This is what Fowler calls a straight-forward, even simplistic faith (he puts 20% of adults here). Characterised by a belief in literal interpretations, this faith is largely unexamined.

Stage 3: The Loyalist

Most church members are at this stage. Fowler describes it as an uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs of the church. Questions like ‘Why do we do this?’ tend not to be asked. A strong sense of belonging, identity and purpose are all connected with church life.

Stage 4: The Critic

This stage sees a shift towards questioning beliefs and practice. Answers that just appeal to tradition (this is the way we do things) or authority (accept what you have been told) do not satisfy. Critics want to work things out for themselves. Values and beliefs are reassessed, uncertainty about cherished positions can bring turmoil but also new discovery and growth.

Stage 5: The Seer

Fowler sees this as a place of peace and resolution – the believer has reached a place of integration – even if that means accepting ambiguity and a lack of easy black and white answers. (I don’t like the term ‘seer’ – it carries too many gnostic associations of arrival at a higher spiritual level). What Fowler is trying to capture is a sense of being beyond the turmoil and disruption of the critic.

Wilks’ Analysis

Wilks sees the two separate pieces of research mapping on to one another with leavers overlapping primarily with stages 4 and 5.

He outlines a few implications:

  • There tends to be a linear progression of faith development
  • There tends to be a gradual order of progress that comes with experience and reflection – people do not jump from the first to the last stage
  • Moving from one stage to another is far from easy – it often involves much angst. It is only when remaining within a stage becomes impossible that someone will transition. But such a shift may well mean leaving behind previous certainties and embracing new uncertainties.
  • Wilks argues that the research suggests that faith development cannot be reduced down to learning more information. Of course it includes this, but it also embraces feelings – around meaning, purpose, questioning, and working out things for oneself.
  • Neither Fowler or Jamieson are arguing that one stage of faith is superior to another. This is not some gnostic ladder of ascent to a higher plane of faith. Movement through the stages is not inevitable.
  • Very few people leave churches due to loss of faith. For Jamieson it was 1%. 81% left because they felt unable to develop spiritually within an EPC church.

Implications for Evangelical / Pentecostal / Charismatic Churches

Wilks is honest in saying there is a temptation to avoid the realities of this discussion within evangelically minded churches. It is difficult, he says, to ask these questions. He says he tried writing the article doing this but couldn’t do it. Obviously what he concludes is not necessarily true of every church, they are general trends. What follows is a summary of three questions and his answers.

QUESTION 1: “Is Evangelicalism a movement which caters for people in a small number of these stages? [His answer ‘Yes it is’]

Jamieson concluded that EPC churches shaped worship, teaching and role models around Stage 3 (loyalists) to encourage and reinforce belief but leaving little space for exploration, questioning and doubt. Wilks agrees with this. It does not tend to welcome self-criticism. Those who ask critical questions can often be seen as disloyal, divisive and ‘un-sound’ and are therefore not listened to or are dismissed. (My comment – this can be true within a local church or a broader denomination. Religious institutions can be incredibly effective at silencing or marginalising dissenters).

If this is often (not always) the case then Wilks concludes that it’s not surprising people feel increasingly marginalised and eventually leave when they enter Stage 4.

QUESTION 2: Is it possible to make a faith journey and remain an Evangelical at all stages of the process? [His answer ‘Only just – but it is not easy]

Fear of questioning is understandable. It may be seen as undermining the leadership, or leading others astray. This can include questions about science and the Genesis creation accounts for example. Or same-sex marriage, or sex before marriage, or the role of women in leadership or penal substitutionary atonement or the exclusiveness of Christian salvation, or the trustworthiness of the Bible, or the historical reliability of the resurrection or the deity of Jesus etc etc

And sure the New Testament does reveal a need to teach truth and reject both doctrinal error and un-Christian behaviour.

But here’s the paradox.

The more questions are either shut down to ‘protect’ the church and its leadership, or are never seriously addressed in the preaching and teaching, the more likely it is those in Stage 4 on will be unwillingly squeezed out.

Jamieson’s work shows that they don’t want to go. They aren’t leaving because they don’t believe any more. They are leaving because who they are – what they think and feel, what is important to their faith and life – has no place in their church community.

So Wilks argues church leadership needs to respond with

“‘Bring it on’ … bring your questions, doubts, uncertainties and let us debate them vigorously and robustly, with respect and rigorous deliberation. Let us reject all half explanations and simplifications, let us look at the difficulties with all their complexity and confusion”

QUESTION 3: Is there something about Evangelicalism that means it deliberately prevents people from attempting to make a faith journey?” [His answer ‘There shouldn’t be, but I think there is.’]

Linked to that last quote, Wilks argues that there is nothing inherent within evangelical faith that means its members can or should remain in Stages 2 or 3. Quite the opposite should be true. There should be nothing to fear from questioning.

But it’s one thing saying this and another facing up to Jamieson’s findings. Wilks challenges leaders to respond, not by avoiding the issue or seeing people who question as problems, but rather actively to encourage believers to “investigate this for yourself.”

“We need not reject our stage 4 disciples and eject them from our churches …. none of us should need to reject the desire to question and investigate.”

“Are we willing to change our perception of stage 4 as a crisis of faith most likely to lead to a loss of faith to one where we view it as a positive period from which we can expect growth?”

My Comments

Recall that Jamieson did his research c. 2000. Wilks wrote in 2008. Today every Christian with access to the internet has access to information and teaching on pretty well anything you can think of. Leaving aside the fact that it’s hard to sift the wheat from vast amounts of chaff, this has two consequences.

One is that long gone are the days when it was actually quite difficult for someone to do even basic biblical and theological research for themselves. Only leaders/clergy were trained and were generally recognised as experts. Now at a few clicks there are excellent teaching, preaching and written biblical and theological resources are available.

Trying to close down questions locally reminds me of a lovely wedding our family watched on Zoom the other day. Due to the pandemic It was outside and the bride ‘entered’ the ‘aisle’ via double doors, built into a frame in the middle of a field. It was a nice image of a church wedding but with no building in site. You’ll get my point – what works as an image in an outdoor wedding won’t work with questions in modern church life. Shutting the doors in the middle of a field means that people will just walk around them.

In other words, not giving space for critics to be listened to, respected and heard, and for their questions to be addressed means that they will most likely continue seeking answers somewhere else. Wilks puts it this way:

“Let us face honestly and seriously the consequences of ignoring this problem. There is a leakage of people through the back doors of Evangelical churches. They are not peripheral people, people who were not converted properly or who have lost their faith. To the contrary, they are often key people, people who put years of hard work into making the church happen and work, and who feel that their spiritual needs simply are not being met. As they move from a stage faith to one in stage 4, where they are now questioning and evaluating everything, they discover that they are no longer welcome in the typical Evangelical church. After gradually sliding out of their areas of responsibility they slip away.”

Another is that, for good or ill, authority has been radically decentered. I say for ‘for ill’ because I happen to believe that authority matters. Church tradition and doctrine has historical and theological weight and should be respected. Theological and biblical expertise matters. Church is not an individualist ‘free for all’ where every half-baked Bible interpretation has equal merit.

But it is ‘for good’ in that faith should never be ‘second hand’ – just accepted unquestioningly on someone else’s authority. Such faith has thin foundations, especially in a secular, pluralist, post-Christendom culture like ours. It is not good enough today – if it ever was – for leaders or denominations just to appeal to authority in the face of critical questioning. It is, in effect, saying ‘the church is not the place for you’. Leadership that has confidence in God and his Word trusts him, it welcomes questions, especially from experienced committed believers who want to grow and develop in their faith and worship of God.

Does church stifle spiritual growth? (1)

In our local church we are in the process of a ‘Listening’ exercise. It is linked to coming out of lockdown – Ireland had the longest amount of time in lockdown I think in Europe. As a church we have not been able to meet physically since March 2020, mainly because we do not have our own building.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, of which we are a part, provided resources to churches to help them hear what their people are thinking and feeling as we emerge from lockdown.

We adapted these into a questionnaire, answered via a google form, around 5 questions. The first asked about personal faith and sense of connection to the church community.

The next four followed this traffic light system suggested by PCI. Here’s a clip of the form. This was all public domain so no problem sharing here:

We gave three avenues for feedback to be collected. Via written individual submissions, by group discussion and notes taken at Bible study groups, and a community ‘Townhall’ event on Zoom.

The idea here was to give people different ways to communicate, and also the option to hear from others in the process.

A couple of things stand out to me so far.

One is how welcomed the process has been. Most people participated in one way or another. We are a small community, but the amount of feedback is significant. An overwhelming sense, made in verbal and written comments, is of appreciation of the process. Appreciation of the chance, given by the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, as a church to pause, review and reflect what we are about as a community.

It is this openness to ask the questions (and hopefully to listen well to the answers, especially when what is said is difficult to hear) that people have appreciated. It will take some time for us as leaders to process and act on.

Another is how rarely these sorts of questions tend to get asked in churches (at least in my experience, maybe yours is different).

Asking questions is risky. We may not expect the answers we get. We may not like the answers we get. But without giving space for people honestly to express their views we will never really know what is going on.

But here’s my theory – it is actually the answers we find most troubling, or disagree with the most, that we need to be listening to the hardest because they are likely challenging our own perceptions and assumptions of what is going on. That’s why we find them threatening or unreasonable.

But rather than finding them a threat or dismissing them, we should be welcoming them as answers which can help us see things differently. It’s the temptation to close down critical voices that should be resisted because to do so is a form of not listening.

This all reminded me of an article written a good while ago by Dr John Wilks in the journal Evangel which made quite an impression on me when I first read it and which I have kept to hand. I had the pleasure of corresponding now and then with John when he was book review editor of Evangelical Quarterly.

The title of the article is ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008)

The question mark is significant. He’s exploring the question of whether there is an innate conflict between growing spiritually as a Christian and being in an evangelical church community.

In other words, does church stifle spiritual growth?

His answer is, a lot of the time, ‘YES’

Now that should be a troubling and perhaps puzzling answer for most of us in church leadership of one sort of another. It’s an answer that we may not want to hear, or a question that we have never really thought about. After all, doesn’t active participation in church life – worship, Bible studies, mission, service, teaching, various ministries – show in itself that someone is doing Ok spiritually?

Wilks says actually things are a lot more complicated than that. And that for many Christians, despite appearances of active church involvement, church is a place of frustration, alienation and boredom.

And here’s the key thing – such Christians are NOT young believers or half-hearted disciples. They tend to be committed, long-serving and mature Christians who are not ‘losing their faith’ or ‘falling away’. But they are walking away from church.

So what is going on? Come back for part 2 to find out !

Character and Virtue in Theological Education (2)

A while back I posted a book notice about Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

The promised series got sidetracked by pandemics and such. To get going again, here is a pre-publication version of a book review I did for Evangelical Review of Theology, April 2020.

Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel by Marvin Oxenham

Carlisle: ICETE/Langham Global Library, 2019

Pb., 393 pp., index
Reviewed by Patrick Mitchel, Director of Learning, Irish Bible Institute, Dublin, Ireland

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. … This book argues that it is time to arm our slings with the stones of virtue and character and reclaim portions of lost territory that are rightfully ours” (p. xv). So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a radical reimagining and restructuring of contemporary theological education. In this review, I will unpack each of those three adjectives in turn.

Regarding creativity, as the title hints, this is no neutral, detached academic analysis. Oxenham develops his case in the form of a fictional correspondence from a Christian educator in the West to his friend Siméon in the majority world, who is working to re-envisage and re-launch a ‘Theological Academy for Character and Virtue’ in his context. Each chapter/epistle contributes to articulating Oxenham’s overall vision (Part 1), theological and historical underpinnings of virtue (Part 2) and proposals for practice (Part 3).

This creative move is not without risk; it could feel a bit artificial to have such a one-sided conversation consisting of ‘letters’ that are primarily academic and theological argumentation rather than personal epistles. But overall, the risk pays off at a number of levels. First, the dialogical tone makes the book a pleasure to read (this is also due to Oxenham’s gift for clear prose). Second, the epistolary structure gives the book a sense of unfolding narrative as each chapter carries the conversation forward. Third, the letters help to root the discussion in the nitty-gritty realities of theological education—for example, persuading a sceptical seminary board of the central place of character and virtue in the theological enterprise, or how to re-imagine teaching and assessment in that scenario. Fourth, the conversation with Siméon repeatedly opens up the importance of context. Oxenham has written before on the particular challenges facing higher education in the West within ‘liquid modernity’ and, given his global experience, is acutely aware of the dangers of uncritically exporting a Western model of theological education to the majority world. He candidly acknowledges that he wished he had more space to integrate learning from rich traditions of character and virtue in non-Western cultures.

In terms of scholarship, Oxenham covers a wide range of complex academic territory related to virtue, theology and higher education with the assurance of a well-travelled guide. There are many fascinating conversations to enjoy en route. Some of these cover the difference between spiritual formation and character and virtue education; a critique of loose assumptions of what constitutes Christian discipleship, accompanied by a case for more coherent integration of character and virtue within discipleship paradigms; a critically astute apologetic for an Aristotelian framework to underpin character and virtue education in theological schools; his ‘reading Romans backwards’ (à la Scot McKnight’s recent book of that name, but written independently of it) as ‘a comparatively straightforward invitation to character and virtue’ (p. 211); the author’s familiarity with and critical assessment of the virtues in the classical tradition; and a rich description of the virtues themselves. In addition, as a fan of Stanley Hauerwas I appreciated Oxenham’s frequent engagement with and acknowledged indebtedness to this Texan’s distinctively Christian approach to virtue.

Running throughout the book are extensive footnotes, often in the form of quotations or expanded discussion. I am glad that the publisher did not eliminate these footnotes, which constitute a rich resource for the reader who wishes to take a detour (or ten) along the way.  

The passionate nature of Oxenham’s treatise leaves perhaps the most lasting impression. His analysis of the death of character and virtue in theological education will likely be recognized by most of us working in that field—and by many churches. Oxenham clearly writes with a sincere desire to be of service to fellow theological educators across a theological and geographical spectrum who share his concern to restore character and virtue to the heart of their discipline.

This goal becomes especially evident in Part 3, which explores what actual implementation of Oxenham’s vision might look like at the level of criteria for hiring staff, community ethos, curriculum design, teaching virtue, module content, assessment and quality assurance. He contends that much of what he writes is globally transferrable, yet is keen to emphasize that his work is not a textbook but a work of fiction, designed to inspire and resource his peers in their God-given calling to develop graduates of virtuous character who will serve God’s people with integrity. The book succeeds admirably in achieving that goal. At my institution, we will certainly be reflecting on this book together as a team.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (11)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On pp. 86-87 you rightly note that agape rarely occurs in the LXX of the OT and where it does occur, it does not refer to God’s love. And yet agape and its cognates are all over the NT– quite the contrast. You suggest this is to be explained by the fact that a deeper understanding of love, presumably due to the Christ event, led to the preference for a term for love that didn’t carry previous baggage or issues with it. Can you say a bit more about this?

PATRICK: This is an argument from silence, but I think it makes best sense of the facts that you have summarized. I rely on Leon Morris’ classic 1981 study Testaments of Love here. The facts are striking. In the NT agapē appears 116 times and philia (friendship) just once. Of related words, agapaō occurs 143 times and phileō 25 times; adjectives agapētos (beloved) 61 times and philos (friend) 29 times. In total, agapaō words appear 320 times and phileō words 55 times. Other Greek words for love like storgē (affection) and eros (passion) do not appear in the New Testament at all.

So why did the NT writers start using what was effectively a new word for love? I find Morris persuasive – he suggests that it is not so much that agapē creates a new meaning for love, but that the revolutionary gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ so transforms previous understandings of love that a new word is needed to express it. (I think this sort of thing goes on quite a bit in the NT in light of the Christ-event. Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’ fills that concept with new meaning in line with his unique understanding of his messianic mission; Paul and other NT writers ransack the OT and Greco-Roman culture for metaphors and images to explain the cross; John fills logos, a word known to Jews and Greeks, with revolutionary new Christological significance).

BEN: I love your chart on p. 105, and with your permission would like to nick it and use it for my students. The interesting thing is that John and 1 John are the texts with the most references to agape love, and after that Ephesians and then Romans. Pondering this for a moment, you hold up the notion that Paul should be seen as an apostle of love, as much as say the Beloved Disciple (whoever he was— but that’s a discussion for another day. Bauckham and I agree it’s not John Zebedee). What strikes me is that Paul and the BD are also the very ones who talk the most about conflict with others, being hated by others, judging the sins of various persons other than one’s self, and justice issues to some extent. It seems we’ve have swallowed our culture’s message about real love being tolerant, non-judgmental, not demanding when it comes to various ethical mores etc. What is your diagnosis as to why this has so infected or affected the church itself, rather than us being a change agent for real agape on the cultural notions ? How can we go about reversing these trends?

PATRICK: You are welcome to nick the chart of appearances of agapē in the NT Ben! It comes from Robert Yarbrough’s BECNT commentary on 1-3 John. Before trying to answer your question can I point to the surprising fact that Acts is the only book in the NT where agapē does not occur – not once. Connect this to all those gospel sermons in Acts and a good case can be made that ‘God loves you’, while true, is not how the first Christians understood the gospel. The gospel is preached in Acts without mention of God’s love. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day …

To reply to your actual question (!) I think Paul and John talk so much of love because they understand from pastoral experience, and from theological revelation, that love is the essential requirement for their new communities to survive and thrive. They are anything but naïve. In the letters of 1-3 John there seems to have been communal tension and external pressure and this is pretty well everywhere in Paul. We struggle to appreciate just how unprecedented were the first Christian communities in the ancient world. It had never seen anything like Jews, Gentiles, slaves, slave-owners, men, women, Scythians, barbarians, Roman citizens, rich and poor belonging together in relationships of mutuality and equal status before their God. Such diversity is difficult and requires costly love; it means the ‘strong’ making space for the ‘weak’ (Romans), it means putting others first, it means leaving your ‘worldly’ status behind (1 Corinthians, James). It means being accountable to one another – including disciplining each other if necessary.

There is a spectrum in the contemporary church here. At one end are churches made up of a loose coalition of Western individualists with all their assumptions around autonomy, rights, liberty and self-sufficiency. This will be a church where the depth of mutual accountability pictured in the NT seems pretty alien. It’s doubtful such a church is going to go anywhere costly and difficult. At the other end of the spectrum are some missional churches who have confronted this head-on in creating ‘total church’ communities that demand very high levels of buy-in. While effective in countering Western individualism and rightly focused on mission, they can have a downside. Recent reports in Christianity Today recount the fall of one well-known leader over a bullying style and serious relational damage done in the churches and organization he led. Strong leadership without love is also a dead-end.

Love and mission, love and truth, love and accountability need to be held together – that’s a challenge of leadership and vision.

On Leadership

The January 2020 edition of VOX is out. As usual the team of Ruth Garvey-Williams, Jonny Lindsay and others have done an excellent job.

There is a range of articles on leadership, mission, homelessness (see http://www.irishchurches.org/homeless for small groups study resources), restfulness, music, winter and personal stories. If you are in a church in Ireland that does not receive VOX why not get in touch with them and help widen the circulation.

Irish Bible Institute is one of VOX’s partners and it’s a privilege to be involved personally. My ‘Musings’ column is on leadership in the New Testament and I’ve clipped it in below.

On Leadership

I feel ambivalent about the word ‘leadership’. I’ve been involved in leadership for a long time in Christian organisations and in church. I’m no expert, have made plenty of mistakes and am continuously wrestling with the unique character of Christian leadership. Unlike any other form of leadership, Christian leadership is shaped by life in the kingdom of God.

Modern Leadership

In our culture the word ‘leadership’ often carries with it images of a courageous individual forging a path for others to follow. Leaders discern priorities and set vision for the direction an organisation should go. They decide how it is going to get there and so the ability to evaluate, plan and make things happen is seen as intrinsic. This understanding of leadership requires the leader to be a particular type of person: a charismatic personality; a skilled manager who can co-ordinate resources and people to achieve strategic objectives; a creative communicator; and decisiveness in determining the way forward.

In other words, this sort of ‘take-charge’ leadership is all about exceptional people who have superior ability to achieve organisational goals. Such leaders are given significant power and are trusted to use it for the benefit of the business.

The trouble is that pretty well none of this describes leadership in the New Testament. My ambivalence comes from the feeling that much Christian leadership practice is shaped more by modern leadership’s preoccupation with the unique individual getting results than it is by the Bible.

What Christian Leadership Is Not

Jesus warns against leadership within the kingdom of God aping the Gentile world’s leaders who use their power and status to ‘lord it’ over others (Mark 10:42-43). Instead he deliberately inverts any hierarchy of importance, ‘the greatest among you should be like the youngest’ (who had least status, Luke 22:26). While Paul has plenty to say about leadership, he is also deeply counter-cultural and fully in line with Jesus. It’s remarkable how Paul consistently does not address leaders of the churches to which he writes, even when the church has serious problems. Rather he talks to the whole community, teaching them to act with one mind together as disciples of the Lord (e.g. Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians). In these churches Paul never tells church members to fall in behind the vision of their leaders nor does he ever exhort leaders to take charge and sort things out. In fact, like Jesus, he deliberately rejects controlling leadership, valuing significant achievements of individuals or trusting in the power of a magnetic personality (1 Cor. 1:18- 2:5).

What Christian Leadership Is

It is surprising just how little detail the New Testament has in relation to what leaders actually do. They are to be able to teach (2 Timothy 2:24-25) and provide oversight (1 Peter 5:2; Hebrews 13:17). Most detail comes in Ephesians and even there the emphasis is not on any natural talent of the leader but on Christ’s gifting of specific people to ‘prepare God’s people for works of service’ in order to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Rather than modern leadership’s obsession with the unique ability of an outstanding individual to get things done, the New Testament is far more concerned about who leaders are as examples of mature Christian character (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3) living out kingdom-life in their homes, work and community. They are to be trusted, composed, hospitable, gentle, free from greed and ambition (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

There is nothing unique about Christian leaders – they are simply to display kingdom qualities. Paul commands all believers to ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21). His overriding concern in his letters is that believers unite as one in Christ under his lordship – it is Jesus they follow not their leaders. Every Christian is first and foremost a follower – and that includes leaders. The New Testament authors are of one voice – there are no levels of superiority and status within the body of Christ. [And all of this means that there is absolutely no logical reason why leadership should be gender-specific. Women, just as much as men, are called to display exactly the same kingdom characteristics].

What does ‘Success’ in Christian Leadership Look Like?

Such leadership is simply unparalleled in the world. Rather than ‘success’ being measured by achievements such as the size of our churches or whatever other quantitative metric we use to measure ‘progress’, the job of Christian leaders is to use their God-given gifts to help the church to grow and ‘build itself up in love as each part does its work’ (Ephesians 4:16). Love is the church’s most fundamental purpose and calling and is therefore what Christian leadership is all about.

That’s a vision of Christian leadership I’m not ambivalent about!

Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

Here’s notice of an important, carefully researched and very well written book.

It is by Cynthia Long Westfall, entitled Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.

Professor Craig Blomberg, who teaches with us in IBI on our MA Programme on a regular basis and is not a card-carrying egalitarian, says this about it,

“After the deluge of literature on gender roles in 9780801097942the Bible, can anyone add anything distinctive and persuasive to the discussion? Cynthia Long Westfall has demonstrated that the answer is a resounding yes. This is one of the most important books on the topic to appear in quite some time, and all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration. The approach does not replicate standard contemporary complementarian or egalitarian perspectives but charts a fresh course in light of first-century cultural history and informed linguistic and discourse analysis. A must-read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.”

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Westfall explores Paul and Gender through multiple angles:

1. Culture
2. Stereotypes
3. Creation
4. The Fall
5. Eschatology
6. The Body
7. Calling
8. Authority
9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Conclusion

I’ve written a lot on ‘Women in Leadership’ on this blog over the years – this link takes you to many of those posts. This is probably the best book I’ve read.

Some seriouslys coming up: it takes the biblical text seriously, it takes Paul’s context and culture seriously, and it takes the factors that shape biblical interpretation seriously.  Note Craig’s two seriouslys:

all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration

it is a must read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.

My context is Ireland:  I would love to see Irish evangelicals take Craig’s two points seriously. I’m sketching why below.

  1. Evangelicals, if they are to live up to their name, need to be engaging with Westfall’s arguments

John Stott called evangelicals ‘Bible people and gospel people’. To live up to that description is to always be open to reformation and hearing the Bible speak afresh.

Please note what I am not saying. I’m not saying she must be agreed with. Nor am I saying that anyone who holds to male only leadership / preaching obviously lacks a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture or is obviously wrong. I am not saying that those who are not persuaded by Westfall are ‘un-evangelical’, lack a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture, or are mistaken.

I am simply appealing for a serious discussion and review of established interpretations and practice. For any pastor / church leader / denomination / network of churches to ignore the increasingly powerful and compelling challenges to old paradigms and to keep doing things this way because that’s ‘obviously the biblical way’ – is to fail to be evangelical enough.

To be consistently evangelical is to engage fairly and constructively with Westfall’s arguments and to face searching criticisms of traditional interpretations of Paul as being inadequate and inconsistent. Such has been the weight of significant evangelical scholarship on this issue over the last few decades, that those who hold to tradition and custom without rigorous self-critical engagement on how Paul is being interpreted are failing to be open to semper reformanda.

Evangelicals should, in theory, be the last people who resort to custom and tradition before considering serious biblical exegesis that challenges accepted paradigms. Isn’t that exactly what the Reformation was about?

I have no problem with churches and networks who have seriously thought about and had open transparent debates about this issue.

Networks like New Frontiers in the UK for example. While I don’t agree with people like Andrew Wilson’s innovative and (to me) unconvincing and arbitrary defence of teaching with a ‘big T’ (‘doctrinally definitive’ teaching, open to appropriately gifted male elders) and teaching with a ‘small t’ (‘quoting. explaining, applying Scripture’, open to invited people), you can’t say there hasn’t been a thorough and informed examination of questions of exegesis, hermeneutics, culture and gender. You also can’t say that there isn’t a real desire to explore every way possible to encourage and release women in ministry within parameters of how Scripture is understood. As Wilson says

I believe in women in leadership. Not many people don’t, to be honest: I don’t recall ever coming across a church where women don’t preach the gospel, or lead worship, or speak on Sundays, or disciple people, or run events, or train children, or lead areas of ministry, or serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team, or prophesy (and they do all of those things at the church I’m part of). I believe in women in ministry, the equality of men and women, and the importance of releasing women to be modern-day Phoebes, Priscillas, Junias, Marys, Lydias, Euodias, Syntyches, and so on.

This from what is otherwise a very traditional approach to a male only elder / Teacher interpretation.

In contrast, in Ireland, apart from some isolated examples, I’m not hearing much vigorous informed debate. I’m not hearing of reassessment of established patterns of ministry, many of which appear purely cultural and have little thought-out rationale. I’m not hearing a passion and desire to explore every way possible to release women into ministry and use God-given gifts.

In fact more the opposite.

In much of the church it feels more like a culturally conservative holding on to the status quo as somehow clearly biblical against a perceived advance of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ rather than a serious open-minded discussion of the issues.

What I continue to hear from many women in different churches in Ireland is light years away from even what a  male-elder-only traditionalist like Wilson describes. Many women continue to have no opportunity to preach the gospel, speak on Sundays, serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team. Some are not even allowed to lead a Bible study in a mixed-gender setting.

I’d love to hear if I am wrong – but are there serious discussions happening reflecting a desire to release women into ministry as far as possible? Is this happening in Baptist circles, in many independent evangelical churches and networks, in Pentecostal networks, in many ethnic church networks etc?

Even within a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland of which I am a part, which decided to ordain women elders back in the 1926 and women ministers back in 1973, there has been a conservative retrenchment. In 1990, in response to a move by a minority resistant to the official position of the denomination, the Church’s Judicial Commission issued guidelines that allowed “Those with personal conscientious objections” not to participate in services of ordination of a woman. In effect the 1990 Guidelines have fatally undermined the Church’s own democratically endorsed official policy. They have given the green light for many churches to refuse to call a women minister and many male ministers to fail to support women candidates for ministry from within their churches. In that sort of climate, it is remarkable that there are any women ministers emerging at all – and there are only a very few. It does certainly not feel like a culture which wishes to explore every possible means to encourage and release women into ministry. This all in the absence of open transparent theological discussion of work like Westfall’s at formal church level (again glad to be corrected on this one if there has been).

Westfall argues that no interpretation of Paul and gender should be automatically privileged. At the end of the book she proposes this – and it is worth reading carefully for traditional assumptions and practices ARE guarded as a sacred citadel to be defended.

I exhort the evangelical community to make a crucial distinction between what a text is and what has been assumed about the text in the process of interpretation. I encourage evangelicals to then “trust the text.” Place the actual biblical text above the interpretations of the text and the theological constructions that have gained a dogmatic foothold among so many.

The traditional interpretations and understandings of the Pauline theology of gender should not be guarded as a citadel and treated as a privileged reading of the texts that must be incontrovertibly proved wrong with hard evidence before considering other options. Rather, they should be placed on equal ground with other viable interpretative options and treated with comparable suspicion because of the history of interpretation, not in spite of it. I invite serious scholars and students of the text to go through the discipline of carefully identifying the information, assumptions, and inferences that have been imported into the texts, extract them from the reading, and then read the texts again with hermeneutics that are consistent with the best practices for interpreting biblical texts and language in general. Seek to weigh the contexts in which the text is placed and consider how they affect interpretation. Utilize sophisticated tools to determine the meaning of words in a linguistically informed way, because that is a major arena in the argument. (314)

  1. This is a crucial topic

The second reason is related to the first. It is not only a question of taking the Bible seriously, it is also an issue with significant pastoral, theological and missional implications.

Too often I have heard from (male) leaders – whom I have great respect for – that women in leadership is simply not a priority issue. It is a ‘secondary matter’, historically and theologically a peripheral issue, far less important than evangelism, mission, preaching, discipleship etc.

I have also heard pragmatic responses. It is just too difficult and potentially divisive to risk rocking the boat by opening up this particular can of worms. It is an issue better left alone.

While these responses are understandable to a degree, they are inadequate. Blomberg is right – it is a crucial issue. It impacts half the body of Christ. Those unwilling to engage seriously with the weight of scholarship like Westfall’s need to consider the implications of being mistaken: to consider the impact on women in their church network; to consider implications for faithful obedience to God and his Word; to consider the unnecessary limits on the gifting and work of the Spirit within the body of Christ.

[Yes, I know such questions cut both ways – again my point is not to assume Westfall is obviously right, but to say that her arguments need serious engagement].

Men in positions of power need to consider seriously Jesus’ command to ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’. They need to try seriously to put themselves in a gifted woman’s position who feels a sincere call to leadership.

For example, at one point Westfall refers to John Piper talking about his ‘call’ to ministry.

A man’s personal call to the pastorate and other ministry is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s sense of his own call …. John Piper serves as a an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry … which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.” Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach. When a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace that he is given.

However, the role of variety and experience in the realization of calling is either explicitly or effectively discounted for women. When a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusions as Piper, she is told that her navigational system is broken. (213-14)

Men need to try to imagine having your desire to pursue that call NOT being automatically welcomed, celebrated, affirmed and encouraged. They need to try seriously to imagine it automatically being treated as a problem, a form of mistaken ambition, an embarrassing awkward situation that hopefully will go away – all quite apart from your Christian maturity, gifting and desire to serve Jesus. I suspect all men just can’t really imagine what that feels like – however hard they may try.

At the very least, therefore, ‘to do to others’ means to sincerely, seriously, open-mindedly and compassionately engage with arguments like Westfall’s.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

The value of (self) doubt (3) : Leadership, Paul, Control and Manipulation

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.

I like to think of it this way: is Christian leadership impervious or porous?IMG_6551

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.

For, as Marion concludes, good leadership is about mutuality – the leader can only lead with the consent aIMG_6550nd support of those he /she is leading. Each one needs the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The unique contribution of theological education?

This post is prompted by a day of oral presentations recently given by final year students at the Irish Bible Institute reflecting critically on their own learning journey during their studies.

It was a fascinating day. There were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers for which students would get better grades (including being complimentary or not about the staff and teaching at IBI). The focus was on the process of critical reflection itself.

Obviously I can’t name names or get into detailed specifics , but the presentations highlighted for me the distinctive and powerful contribution of formal theological education in preparing and better equipping men and women for the demands of Christian ministry.

Bible studyI’m aware that some may disagree, but I think that the focused scope and content of many things the students talked about just would not happen in any structured way in the messiness of daily life and/or in church ministry.

Nor will it happen in the same way within an ‘in-house’ church discipleship programme.

And this is why I’m convinced that giving dedicated time to theological education is a powerful and transformative process that remains virtually indispensable for those that would lead and minister.

Please note that I’m not saying that such things can only occur at a Bible Institute / College / or Seminary. In each point listed below, I have used words like ‘greater’ or ‘increased’. Theological education builds on what is already there in the life of a Christian.

But I am suggesting, from experience, that time at such a place is powerfully transformative in a way that almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. Student after student said it was a life-changing experience.

These are the sort of things (in no particular order) that students identified as happening within their own experience of theological education and training:

  • The value of formal constructive criticism – in academic work, in personal accountability and so on. The value of having a mentor.
  • Greater clarity of the need to train and disciple others and the skills to do so
  • Deeper awareness of one’s own learning style and taking appropriate steps in response
  • How to handle the Bible better: skills in biblical exegesis and appropriate application
  • Training in pastoral care: practical skills, theological framework and the importance of knowing your limits
  • Deeper self-awareness of one’s own theological assumptions, biases and prejudices;- this particularly highlights the value of diversity within theological training. Such diversity will tend to be flattened out where all teachers and students are from one tradition.
  • A stronger foundation for Christian faith: one that has been explored, questioned and examined critically in dialogue with various alternative voices
  • The importance of dependence on God and on others rather than independence: the power of a diverse community of learners.
  • Improved self-esteem coming out of a stronger theological understanding of being made in the image of God
  • A holistic (rather than a previously dualistic) understanding of life and ministry. All of life and work is ‘holy’ and Jesus is Lord of all.
  • Improved skills of communication; oral and written. Like any skill, practice leads to improvement.
  • A deeper ability to integrate theology with everyday life: not easy or automatic, but a call to faith and trust in the goodness and providence of God in the face of suffering and fear
  • A clearer sense of the primacy and importance of love within all Christian ministry
  • An enhanced understanding of the context and challenge of Christian mission within a post-Christendom culture: earthed and worked out in discussions with interviewees.
  • A clearer understanding of self-identity within the greater mission of God. Salvation is not just ‘all about me’ but how I can love God, serve others and shape my life around the mission of God.
  • Increased humility (I know how little I know) and less dogmatic: and therefore more compassion for others
  • More able to teach; less focused on narrow ‘what does this mean to me?’ interpretation but on wider context and theology of the text.
  • A greater understanding of the place and importance of the church within the redemptive plan of God
  • An increased appreciation of the whole Bible and the importance of the OT for contemporary life and ethics.
  • More awareness of the importance of listening: to other points of view; to non-believers; to the wider culture – and a sharper sense of the alternative story of the Christian faith.
  • A deeper faith that is concerned about much more than personal happiness, but can face suffering, persecution and rejection.
  • A sharper awareness of personal and corporate (church) failure and sin – and the need for grace, compassion and good news in everyday Christian life and ministry
  • A clearer sense of personal gifting and calling to specific areas of ministry emerging out of critical reflection, mentoring and constructive criticism
  • A more positive and holistic view of life in general and an ability to enjoy the good things of God’s creation with gratitude and thanks
  • A greater sense of urgency in mission
  • A committment to every member ministry in light of the gifting of the Spirit to all believers
  • A sharper awareness that Christianity, and the Bible, is centered on Jesus with all sorts of implications for discipleship, teaching, evangelism, preaching and so on.

Hearing these sorts of things was very encouraging.

I’d be interested in your opinions on this list – anything strike you in particular?

Do you think that formal theological education does have a unique contribution to make to the church? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

 

 

Musings on love, knowledge, the cross, arrogance, and the church as family

What is the church? What is the essence of the Christian faith?

A couple of events this week:

In one, after a church service last Sunday, an older man enthused joyfully to me how he loved this church. After decades of mostly bad church experiences, this was a place of inclusion, welcome, respect and acceptance. A community that was like a family to him.

In the other, a group of people met at our home – agenda, decisions etc – and as they left it struck me how close we were – like a bunch of brothers (for they all happened to be men). Brothers who had different personalities and opinions and perspectives, but who ‘belonged’ to each other at a fundamental level.

This links to the place of love in Paul’s ethics. Take the problematic bunch of ex-pagans in Corinth: pride, arrogance, jealousy, division, condescension – they were leaders in the field.

site-under-constructionPaul’s response in 8-11 is to picture the church as a building under construction.

While arrogance, based on a puffed up opinion of one’s knowledge, leads to destruction of the building (arrogance wreaks relational havoc), love builds up (8:1).

The central place of love in his ethics puts Paul at odds with the rest of the ancient world. And he gives two images of the sort of love that is at the core of Christian faith.

Family:

For Paul the new community of the Spirit brings believers into a fundamentally new identity: a common Father, a common Lord, a common experience of the Spirit. They now belong together in a new ‘household’ – the household of God.

There is ‘brother’ language all over the place in 1 Cor. 8 and the issue of whether to eat food offered to idols. For example, those with ‘knowledge’ are to use it responsibly, carefully, lovingly with regard to their (weaker) brothers to that they would be built up not torn down. If they use it to serve themselves, insist on their ‘rights’, or dismiss those with whom they disagree, they may think they win the argument but will ‘destroy’ their brother (and the community) in the process.

This is why Paul peppers the letter with telling questions like ‘Do you not know?’ Their use of knowledge shows they don’t actually know much at all.

One of our students, from a different culture – naturally and joyfully calls others in IBI ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. For her they are not just words, but a deep theological orientation and praxis that the church is a community of brothers and sisters. Language matters; spoken truth makes a difference. Saying ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is a speech-act that teaches and incarnates truth.

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that we in the West tend to shy away from such language – or use it ironically. We minimize church as family. We are individuals first who might (or might not) add ‘church’ to our busy lives. We easily divide and ‘leave’ family behind – as if we are not really related at all.

Cross:

The cross is the second image that gives form to Christian love. A fellow believer is not only a brother or sister, for one for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:11). Christian love is self-sacrificial, a giving up of one’s own rights for the good of the other. And the whole of 1 Corinthians 9 is Paul’s extended application of this principle in his own apostolic ministry. Church and ministry is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements.

So … while our wee church has plenty of faults and weakness I’m sure, I’m encouraged that familial love, sacrificial love, is not just an ideal, it is present and real. I’m also encouraged to see deep bonds of love being formed at IBI between students of all sorts of different ages, churches and cultures.

I hope it is in your experience as well. Feel welcome to share a story..!

In fact, as I reflect on being a Christian for over 30 years, this for me is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘moral formation’ or ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ – however you describe it – is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for ministry.

It’s why the relational track record of someone in ministry is of primary not secondary importance. And it’s why it sometimes astounds me that leaders who leave trail of relational destruction behind them can be massively popular.

For without love, I’d go as far as saying that God is dusting off his prophetic word to Malachi and telling us it’s better we close down our churches and theological colleges for they do more harm than good.

Comments, as ever, welcome.