What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

The Message of Love (3)

This is the last of a couple of posts about The Message of Love, which was published this week.

A flavour of the chapters

Each chapter was a challenge and joy to research and write and gave a distinct contribution to an overall theology of love in the Bible.

Introduction

What is love? Contemporary beliefs about love. Reasons for the book.

Part I: Love in the Old Testament

Much of Part 1 explores divine love – God’s covenant love for his people. How does he respond to human failure? Divine love and judgement. Chapters 4 and 5 shift to human love: love for God (ch 4) and the Bible’s unrestrained poetic celebration of the joy of sexual love (ch 5).

1. Abounding in love, punishing the guilty               Exodus 34:6-7
2. God’s love for the outsider                                        Deut. 10:12-22
3. God, the betrayed, yet persistent lover                  Hosea 1-3
4. Love the Lord Your God                                             Deut.6:4-25
5. Erotic love                                                                     Song of Songs 4-5

Interlude

This sets the scene for interpreting love in the New Testament including the shift to agapē language.

Part 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ

Given that the sending of the Son is the climax of the triune God’s redemptive action in the world, Part 2 focuses on how the NT talks about Jesus’ mission, and particularly the cross as God’s supreme demonstration of love.

6. ‘You are my Son, whom I love’                                 Mark 1:1-15
7. God is love                                                                   1 John 4:7-10
8. Love and justification by faith                                Romans 5:1-11
9. God’s great love                                                          Ephesians 2:1-10

Part 3: Love in the Life and Teaching of Jesus

Jesus does not talk that much about love, but when he does his words carry enormous weight and profound challenge. Part 3 examines the searching demands of ‘discipleship love’ – utter commitment to Jesus; the command to love enemies; a beautiful story illustrating what wholehearted love for Jesus looks like; and how remaining in God’s love is linked to obedience.

10. The cost of love                                              Matthew 10:34-39
11. Enemy love                                                     Luke 6:27-36; 10:25-37
12. A woman’s great love                                   Luke 7:36-50
13. Remain in my love                                        John 15:9-17

Part 4: The Church as a Community of Love

Love only exists in relationship with others. The majority of love language in the Bible is about the church and its calling to be a community of radical, counter-cultural love. Part 4 unpacks the searching character and supreme importance of love; the connections between humility, faith, love and the Spirit; how love is God’s weapon in a spiritual war; and how Christian love within marriage subverts the world’s assumptions about status and power. A major theme in the Bible is idolatry – where God’s people love the wrong things. A final chapter looks at a modern example – the love of money and the relentless persuasive power of consumerism.  

14. The searing searchlight of love                          1 Cor. 12:31-13:13
15. The liberating power of love                             Galatians 5:1-23
16. Subversive love: Christian marriage               Ephesians 5:21-33
17. Love gone wrong: money                                   1 Timothy 6:2b-10

Conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of themes that emerged within the chapters, outlining a biblical theology of love and the central role of the church as a community of love within his overall redemptive purposes.

Theological, pastoral and missiological questions

Three strands of love and associated questions emerged during writing.

Divine love:

Is God really loving and utterly good? How can God love if he allows such suffering in the world? How is divine love compatible with divine judgement? Is God’s love unconditional? How does God show his love for the poor and marginalised? How is God’s love revealed at the cross?

Human love for God:

Can love be love if it is commanded? How do faith, love and the Spirit connect together? How can the love of money be ‘de-idolised’ within the church today? If love for God requires humility and submission, is Christian love a denial of life and our full humanity (Nietzsche)? How is love for God costly?

Human love for one another:

Why does the Bible overwhelmingly concentrate on love within the community of the people of God? Is loving enemies an impossible ideal? What does the Bible have to say about erotic sexual love? What is the relationship between knowing God and loving one another? What does a loving Christian marriage look like? How is love God’s most powerful ‘weapon’ in a conflict with powers opposed to his will? What is the relationship between love and future hope? Where are you being called to walk in the difficult yet life-transforming path of love?

My prayer is that this book will help to put love where it belongs – at the centre of Christian teaching, preaching, worship, ministry and individual experience.

The Message of Love (2)

This is the first of two posts about The Message of Love, which is published today

What is this book?

While many questions begin to emerge when the topic of God and love comes up, this book was not written as a theological textbook systematically addressing theological issues.

The genre of the BST Themes series is each book being a set of expositions of Bible texts relevant to the theme – in this case love. It is out of those expositions that a broader theology of love emerges, but this was not the primary goal.

I like this way of doing things because it is the way the Bible actually works. The challenge in writing was to let each text speak for itself and see where that led.

So each chapter is a stand-alone discussion, structured something like a sermon in that exegesis of the text leads on to contemporary application. I say ‘something like’ in that the BST series shows the academic ‘workings’ behind that process – something that should lie well in the background of a sermon if it isn’t to become indigestible!

So the book requires work from the reader. It will best be read with an open Bible alongside the relevant chapter.

The structure is a biblical theology of love via 17 chapters unpacking and applying key ‘love texts’ within the Bible. They are organised into 4 parts:

Introduction

PART 1: Love in the Old Testament (5 chapters)

PART 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ (4 chapters)

PART 3: Love in the life and teaching of Jesus (4 chapters)

PART 4: The Church as a Community of Love (4 chapters)

Conclusion

Each chapter makes its own distinct contribution to The Message of Love and can be read in its own right.

Why this book?

It might sound over-spiritual to say but I think that God put this topic on my heart some years ago and it wouldn’t go away. In reading, teaching and preaching the Bible it became clearer and clearer to me that not only is love a core (or perhaps the core) theme of the Bible, but it gets to the great question of who God is and what biblical faith in God is ultimately all about.

These are big and important questions. I also remember being challenged by listening to theologian Miroslav Volf speak in Ireland some years ago and encouraging Christian authors to write about things that matter – big issues that connect to people’s lives and the heart of God.

Love fits that bill for sure. There are very few people not interested in love. Our culture is ‘in love’ with love – indeed one philosopher says that love has become the religion of the West, it is worshipped and idolised while faith in other belief systems has crumbled. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’.

This means at least three things.

One is that the church needs to be thinking clearly about love. What is Christian love? What does it look like and how and where does it differ from and conflict with contemporary Western individualised and romanticised notions of love? Where has the church conformed to the culture and needs reform and renewal? This is a particularly urgent question in a consumer society that relentlessly forms people towards self-love. Where does love call the church to confront evil and sin, especially on behalf of those who have no voice to defend themselves? What does it mean to love our enemies?

A second is that, fairly or not, in post-Christendom it is Christianity and the church which are seen by many as opposed to love. The church is exclusive and judgemental, the God Christians worship is malevolent and bullying. Much of this criticism is grossly unfair but sadly far from all of it. It has always been true that the church, if it is to be authentic, needs to live up to its calling to be a community of love, but today that calling has a sharper missional edge. There is no ‘Christendom cushion’ giving the church a free pass because of its privileged place in society.

Third, related to the last point, if God is love; if love is the goal of the law and the first fruit of the Spirit; if love is to define everything a Christian does (‘do everything in love’ 1 Cor 16:14); if faith working itself out in love is ‘the only thing that counts’ (Gal 5:6); if the heart of the Christian life is remaining in God’s love by loving one another (John); if a Christian marriage is to be characterised by counter-cultural love (Ephesians 5); if discipleship means above all loving Jesus wholeheartedly – then there is no more important challenge for mission and authenticity than putting love where it belongs at the centre of all Christian teaching, preaching and living.

Well that gives a sense of what and why. The next post will give a flavour of some of the chapters and talk about some of the theological, pastoral and missiological implications of The Message of Love.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Message of Love (1)

Very pleased that this just arrived. Publication date tomorrow.

You can read a bit more about the book at this link

Book Launch at Irish Bible Institute, 22-24 Foley St, Dublin 1 on Monday 14 October at 6.00pm. Prof Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary is speaking. If you are in Dublin that day you are welcome! Do let IBI know so we can gauge numbers coming http://www.ibi.ie/events/themessageoflove

I’ll do a post or two about the book to mark publication.

Consumer culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetoric of Delight (8)

The final chapter of Mark Clavier’s book is called ‘God’s Orators’.

In it he engages particularly with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, written at the turn of history as the Roman empire faded and the Dark Ages beckoned. It would, centuries later Clavier, argues, as a work of rhetoric on Christian teaching and preaching, have an enduring legacy in the rebuilding a Christian world.

Fast forward to the early 21st century and Clavier sees us as facing another historical turning point. He references the pessimistic end of Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and his bleak prognosis for Western moral discourse (as with the fall of Rome, the barbarians are now in power; the resources for forming people of virtue have dissipated).

And so to Rod Dreher’s 2017 Benedict Option – in the face of culture wars that have been lost, churches should withdraw from those battles to form new communities where Christian virtues can be preserved. As with Benedict’s monasteries, Christians can best survive and flourish through strategic withdrawal to teach and propagate the faith within a hostile world.

Clavier (rightly) isn’t convinced by Dreher’s alarmism and lack of confidence. He refers to Hauerwas’s criticism of Dreher, that his withdrawal strategy is an illusion – there is no-where to withdraw to.

But Clavier does agree that we are at a significant juncture in the history of the church (in the West at least).

Unless the church can reclaim its identity from consumerism, it will become little more than an organization for those who make Christianity a lifestyle choice … For the church to prosper again it shouldn’t engage in a ‘strategic withdrawal’ but rediscover how to proclaim the gospel in fast changing circumstances. In other words, rather than withdraw into monastic seclusion, expending their energies trying to become pure communities (when has that ever turned out well?), churches should seek to become rhetorical communities that can contest the destructive rhetoric of our world. (128)

A nice line – if I suspect a controversial one for many – the church does not need another Benedict, ‘it needs another Augustine.’ (129)

So what does it look like for churches to become these alternative rhetorical communities of delight?

Clavier answers this question in dialogue with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching and The City of God.

In CT, Augustine unpacks the task and resources for Christian orators. Christian teachers are not the source of eloquence and wisdom – that belongs to God. Their vocation is to be formed into people through whom

‘… God may teach, delight and persuade the faithful to love him and their neighbours. In that sense, they’re sacramental: they and their words are the outward, sensible signs of God’s inward, invisible truth and delight.’ (129)

This is where Augustine is powerfully relevant to the church in any age. What is the overall goal of all Christian teaching and preaching? Of study of the Scriptures? His answer is unequivocal – love.

Anyone who thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (CT 1.36.40, quoted in Clavier 130).

Amen to that. This is true wisdom – building up the community of the church in the love of God. Love, not theological or scriptural knowledge is the goal.

But such teaching is to be done persuasively – drawing listeners in to the delights of God’s wisdom. Teaching is not to be dull and boring! Such speech makes Scripture inaccessible to all bar a (nerdish?) minority interested in theology regardless of how heart-numbing the teaching may be!

There are some wonderful (and challenging) principles of communication here. Good Christian teaching and preaching will move and delight the hearers. Such eloquence fosters understanding, it elicits a response of the heart as well as the mind. Augustine again,

A hearer must be delighted so he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so he can be impelled to action. (CT 4.12.27, Clavier, 133).

Instruct. Delight. Persuade. These are the goals of Christian oratory.

But ‘behind’ this oratory lies the character and virtue (we might say integrity) of the teacher. Augustine has searching words for any preachers and teachers today in how before speech comes prayer:

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has, and however much he has, derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so by praying for himself and for those he is about to address he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. (134)

And so Augustine’s Christian orator must excel in three areas:

  1. Study of the Scriptures ‘to discover the wisdom to teach others how better to love God and neighbour.’ (135)
  2. Know how to communicate eloquently.
  3. Be a person of prayer – only in prayer will the teacher be filled with God’s delight and the humility and love to build up others.

This is an exalted view of the ministry of Christian teaching. (Clavier notes that nowhere does Augustine limit it to the vocation of the priesthood).

So what does it look like for 21st ministry today?

Clavier sets out some boundaries:

It is not just a matter of advanced biblical studies – knowledge of the Bible, as if knowledge is enough. Rather

‘… it is primarily a matter of perceiving reality that’s rooted in Scripture and builds people up in the love of God and neighbour. (138)

Nor is it helpful to define Christian teaching too narrowly and individualistically. Yes ‘full-time’ ministry roles are important, but all believers are called to the task of teaching, delighting and persuading each other to pursue the love of God and neighbour.

Yes, Clavier says, the ministry of teaching is crucial, but

‘Teaching, however, must be something that characterizes every aspect of a church’s life. Formation isn’t just (or even primarily) information but rather the rooting of hearts, minds, and bodies in the imaginary, habits, and practices of the church. When people worship they are learning; when they pray, they are learning; when they serve others, they are learning … these activities aren’t extraneous to their beliefs but are forming them to be the kind of people who can love God and neighbour in a world that seeks to persuade them to love themselves.’ (139)

Such a church is not to be sectarian (my word not Clavier’s) – he calls for stewardship of creation and living for the benefit of others.

This is no Benedict Option, but a call to proclaim the gospel and contest ‘the destructive rhetoric of this world’ (141) – the false and unsustainable gospel of consumerism that is going one day to come crashing down.

The mission of the church is to demonstrate ‘to the world an alternative manner of living’ that people

‘experience in the very life of that church a wisdom and delight that’s unlike anything they’ve found elsewhere.’ (142).

Clavier acknowledges that some readers may be disappointed that he is not offering a roadmap of how to delight in God rather than destructive illusions of consumption, but to offer a ‘how to’ is to miss the point that delight and love can’t be prescribed.

St Paul gets the final word – his words sum up the purpose of mission and ministry

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

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As I said in the first post, there are significant areas of overlap with what Clavier is arguing and themes that emerged in my The Message of Love. Some of these include:

  • Love as the purpose of all ministry and mission
  • Discipleship as much more than knowledge, but a formation of the whole person – head, heart and hands.
  • The relevance of Augustine on love in dialogue with contemporary consumerism as that which seeks to capture our hearts (and this is not to say there are not serious issues with Augustine’s dualism when it comes to love, sex and the body in particular)
  • The mission of the church to be the church – in other words its primary mission is to be an authentic community of worship and love.
  • A strong theology of the world: the church’s mission not to be conformed to that world but to embody a different story to that of the world.  Clavier sounds pretty Anabaptist for an Anglican.
  • The need for humility if we are to love well.
  • The Christian life as communal – lived in relationship with others.
  • And the sheer good news of God – who is to be loved and delighted in

All this makes me like his book! It is also short and readable. Sure there are points you might want talked about more (particuarly the content of the gospel) but in a consumeristic, post-Christendom world he rightly is calling for the church not to be in negative, fearful, defence mode but rediscovering its calling to bear witness to the good news of God.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (7)

Chapter 6 The Church as a Rhetorical Community

I am pretty sure that you haven’t heard of your local church being described as a Rhetorical Community. Neither have I. So what does Mark Clavier mean?

To get to that, first some context. He argues, that despite all sorts of efforts by churches to be more culturally relevant over the last generation or two, the demographics (he uses stats from the USA) continue to show alarming decline, with millennials opting out in large numbers.

Such churches, Clavier says, have adopted the strategy of the market. They have ‘retooled’ themselves to meet the spiritual needs of their customer base. How’s this for a criticism?

Some strands of Evangelicalism, for example, have tried to adopt and reorient the practices of consumerism towards the gospel – in effect, repackaging the substance of the faith in forms developed by consumer culture. They present worship in more entertaining formats, draw from popular tastes in music to compose praise songs, and use the resources of marketing to develop brand loyalty. In a sense, these churches have created an alternative consumer culture where the presence of Jesus is pervasive; indeed Jesus himself becomes a kind of logo that assures shoppers that their goods and services are wholesome and permissible: a brand Jesus. (105)

Ouch.

He makes a telling point that the impact of consumerism reaches deep down to what issues preoccupy the Church.

Questions about identity, personal freedom, psychological wholeness, and personal spirituality have tended to eclipse traditional concerns about doctrine and salvation. (106)

He’s right – we need only to look at how issues of sexual identity and personal authenticity are tearing churches apart for an example. Themes like sin, the cost of discipleship and judgement don’t tend to sell too well (and I’m not saying that is where the gospel begins, but without them the gospel is incomprehensible).

Clavier brings in Stanley Hauerwas’ call for the church to a colony of Resident Aliens who transform the world, not be conforming to it, but by being a faithful alternative to it –  a community formed by the story of Scripture issuing in radically distinct ethics and way of living.

Clavier agrees with Hauerwas call to be Resident Aliens and that this is not a sectarian withdrawal from the world since there is nowhere to withdraw to. But he thinks Hauerwas does not go far enough. It isn’t that the church can’t withdraw because it is already surrounded, it can’t withdraw because it is already overrun by the rhetoric of consumerism.

And this brings us to the church as a rhetorical community.

For the church to reclaim its mission, therefore, it must first strive to be an intentional community of rhetoric that eloquently calls people to participate in its story of redemptive reality be appealing to their imaginations and their hearts. (107)

After discussion of Augustine, Charles Taylor, Oliver O’Donovan and JKA Smith, this is where Clavier is headed in terms of the mission of the church in a consumer dominated culture.

The church is called to be a formative community, that embodies an alternative to the destructive delights offered by consumerism.

The mission of the church, therefore, is fundamentally a mission of delight: to strive to be a formative community of rhetoric that can persuade the dispose Christians to pursue the love of God.  …. Broadly speaking, this is accomplished by beginning to think about how to proclaim Scripture, worship God, and love one another in ways that either delight or challenge anything that seeks to mask God’s delight. (121)

The church does this through communicating eloquently its own story, practices, habits and symbols with imagination and creativity in a way that resonates with people’s hearts. So Clavier wants to find a central place for art, music, architecture, story-telling, forms of liturgical worship, ritual and the ceremonial as ways to help people experience delight.

The goal is to develop habits that root believers in God, bind them together in community and develop a love for beauty. Children are to be inducted into the stories and habits of the church, engaging them imaginatively with the Bible and worship of the church. When it comes to children’s and youth work

Churches should long ago have given up on trying to out-entertain consumerism. (122)

It is only from such delight in God that Christians will make virtuous, moral choices that reflect God’s love. This is true freedom.

I really liked his description of the ‘outcomes’ (my word) of Augustine’s ‘earthly city’ (consumerism) and the ‘heavenly city’ (the city of God):

The earthly city’s self-love produces a reality manifested by a desire for glory that ends in violence, war, empire and perpetual restlessness. On the other hand, the heavenly city’s love of God produces a reality characterized by a humility that engenders communion, justice, happiness and peace. (119)

Is this all rather idealistic? How can it be enacted in day to day practice? These are some of the questions addressed in the final chapter.