Desiring more of God (2) Musings on the Spirit, humility and pride in an age of social media

narcissus-and-echo

In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.

I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.

That ‘norm’ includes the following:

  • being united to Christ by the Spirit
  • being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
  • a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
  • empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
  • For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

  • It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).

In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.

I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.

That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.

While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.

The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership).  Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’.  They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.

So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?

Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.

For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.

But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.

To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

What would you put top of the list?

For me, one word comes to mind:

HUMILITY

For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.

That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.

It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.

A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.

Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.

But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.

But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.

In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.

Narcissism has been defined as

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

And in psychological terms as

Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.

Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates,  the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.

If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

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Desiring more of God (1) are you a restorationist?

In IBI, we had a good discussion today in a class I’m teaching on different views of baptism in the Holy Spirit. The framework for the course is this:

The Spirit and the Christian Life

  1. Introduction: the neglected Spirit?
  2. The promise of the Spirit: The Spirit in the Old Testament
  3. The Person of the Spirit
  4. Jesus, the Kingdom of God and the Spirit 
  5. The Spirit and Mission
  6. The Eschatological Spirit
  7. The Spirit and the new covenant community (Baptism in the Spirit 1 Cor 12:12-27)
  8. The Spirit and the Christian life 1: beginnings
  9. The Spirit and the Christian life 2: the Spirit versus the Flesh
  10. The Spirit and the Christian life 3: Fruit
  11. The Gifts of the Spirit
  12. The Holy Spirit and modern church life: issues; challenges; hopes; conclusions

We were at no.7 today. We aim to make links to ‘head, heart and hands’ in reading, lectures and discussion. A couple of key question that cropped up today – and will again I am sure – are along these lines:

What experience of the Spirit should Christians ‘expect’ or ‘seek’ as possible / normal?

 What is our ‘role’ in seeking more of the Spirit?

I’ll take the first question as the focus for this post and come to the second one in the next post.

What would be your answer to the first question? What are the signs of the presence of the Spirit in a church? How would you describe the out working of the Spirit’s presence in your church experience? Is there a desire for more of God or is the Spirit rarely talked about or taught about?

How the first question has been answered historically has been critical in multiple spiritual reform movements within Christianity – whether Montanism in the 2nd Century AD or Charles Wesley’s doctrine of perfection or Pentecostalism’s search for NT restorationism, or Keswick ‘Higher Life’ theology or varieties of Charismatic renewal and so on.

And, of course, Reformed theology has its own answer to that question as to what a spiritually mature and healthy church looks like. It tends not to be radical or subversive to a long-established post-Reformation status quo – indeed it tends to be extremely cautious about such questions because they can be destabilising and divisive. It also tends to develop reasons for why it is unrealistic or undesirable to desire or wish to imitate the charismatic experience of the first Christians.

Those that answer question 1 with a sense of dissatisfaction in the current status quo will begin to pray, search and long for some form of spiritual renewal. They will want to see reform of current attitudes and practices that seem spiritually anaemic and lifeless. (I’m not saying such desires are not present in more established Reformed communities).

This is a restorationist impulse – a desire to have more of God’s Spirit. It’s typically born from a desire to recapture something of the life of the Spirit within the NT Church as described particularly by Luke (in Acts especially) and by Paul.

While at times an unholy mess, for example, the Corinthian church still exudes a vibrant presence of the Spirit. This is not just about the presence of charismata such as tongues and prophecy but by Paul’s pervasive assumption that the church will know and experience the visible tangible empowering presence of God among his (often sinful and divided) people.

Nor is a restorationist impulse limited to just desiring particular gifts of the Spirit. It is much more a search for an experience of and an empowering by the Spirit for all of life.

In this sense I am a restorationist – because it seems clear that it is this sort of experience that Paul (and Luke and John) take to be the Christian ‘norm’. And it is not clear (to me) that this ‘norm’ should not be expected or hoped for or prayed for today.

We might summarise the role of the Spirit in the NT along these (brief) lines: In the NT it is the one Spirit received by any believer at conversion who:

  • Empowers for mission
  • Grants wisdom and reveals God’s will
  • Reveals the cross and leads to conversion
  • Who communicates the power and presence of God
  • Who leads people to new life of sonship and faith
  • Who gives gifts as he wills

9780801047923Or as Max Turner puts in his terrific book The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts the Christian life in the NT is characterised by an encounter with the dynamic and transforming presence of God himself.

I love his phrase that the Christian life is ‘essentially charismatic in nature’. How often do you hear that in your church?

“We conclude that for each of our three major witnesses, [Luke, Paul and John] the gift of the Spirit to believers affords the whole experiential dimension of the Christian life, which is essentially charismatic in nature. The gift is granted in the complex of conversion-initiation. The prototypical activities of the “Spirit of Prophecy” which believers receive – revelation, wisdom and understanding, and invasive speech – together enable the dynamic and transforming presence of God in and through the community. These charismata operate at individual and corporate levels, enabling a life-giving, joyful, understanding of (and ability to apply) the gospel, impelling and enabling different services to others in the church, and driving and empowering the mission to proclaim the good news.” 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

You are what you love 3 (or how to develop your love life): Jesufied worship?

9781587433801In chapter 3 of Jamie Smith’s creative and thought-provoking book is called ‘The Spirit meets you where you are: historic worship for a postmodern age’.

The argument so far: we are what we love; our hearts need constant recalibrating and redirecting; we live in a culture of competing loves or ‘secular liturgies’; we need to train our hearts to keep them rightly directed at a certain telos – the kingdom of God. We can do this by counter-liturgies, embodied communal practices.

In the words of the boss ‘Everyone’s got a hungry heart’. springsteenThe question is what our hearts are hungry for. The Bible is full of this sort of imagery. Take Is 55:1-2

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Jesus uses similar language in the Beatitudes

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.

And in John 6:35

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

But we can’t, says Smith, necessarily think our ways to new appetites. What we currently desire has been acquired over time and has been habituated by routines and customs.

Changing desires takes practice. Counterformative practice. (61) Smith tells the story of his slow intellectual assent to the need to eat and exercise more healthily. But it was only with discipline, with others, with enforced new practices, that slowly his desires changed.

Old habits die hard. Change means submitting ourselves to practices that confront and change our most engrained habits.

Our sanctification – the process of becoming holy and Christlike – is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape (65)

Leaving aside the question of who on earth listens to a book on tape any more (!) Smith shifts to give some practical suggestions for spiritual change of appetites. And I really like the focus here because he links to the Spirit of God. He calls this ‘Habituations of the Spirit’.  Liturgical practices that the Spirit can use to retrain our loves. But Smith want to emphasise this is no lone process but happens best within the worship of the church.

He anticipates objections here. Liturgy is a bad word for many Protestants.  Worship is seen as little more than singing. But the response says Smith is to be properly liturgical. The point of liturgy is to create a space for the Spirit to meet with his people. Worship is about God, his activity and our response.

Liturgy gives form to our response to God’s love and grace. In classic Reformed language, Smith argues that even our response is made possible by God’s Spirit.

He’s critical of much contemporary evangelical worship which reduces participants to passive spectators, where humans are the only actors. This is worship as expressivism – we express ourselves and we are at the centre making worship happen. This sort of worship also usually happens in a context that is designed to make us feel comfortable and at home. So the church looks like a mall or a coffee shop.

But, says Smith, this misses how these forms are not somehow neutral – they are embedded in secular liturgies of consumption, desire for more, with me at the centre. And such human expressivism cannot grasp what liturgy is about – it seems to be insincere pre-planned and tantamount to earning God’s favour. The problem here says Smith is that they cannot see how they have put ‘us’ at the heart of worship rather than God.

He calls a lot of modern worship services little more that “Jesufied versions of secular liturgies.” The focus on experience reinforces the gospel of consumerism and makes Jesus one more commodity. Amen to that.

Traditional liturgical practices are not just old, they are rooted in a different understanding of worship. God is at the centre, we encounter him. It is top down rather than bottom up. Smith calls this the gymnasium where God retrains our hearts (77)

What he is saying here is that the form or worship matters. This is not about ‘style’ – this is not a discussion about ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ worship. Smith’s point is that historic liturgical worship, forged over centuries, has a depth, biblical shape and content that helps to form its participants. It connects us to the church catholic and reinforces oneness and unity.

This can all be summed up as expressivist ‘showing’ versus humble ‘submitting’.

He concludes

“The liturgy of Christian worship is the litany of love we pray over and over again, given to us by the Spirit precisely in order to cultivate the love he sheds abroad in our hearts.” (81)

I wonder what you make of this?

Where are you in terms of worship as primarily human expression ‘up’ to God, or humble submission around God’s revelation of himself ‘down’ to us?

Does the idea of a ‘Jesufied’ secular liturgy ring true to you about a lot of Christian worship services?

Is this an age thing? I am more and more with Smith. At times I imagine that I could happily be an Anglican. The older I get the more and more I love and appreciate the consistency, depth and richness of historic liturgy. And the more and more I find it difficult to cope with the unpredictable evangelical lottery of contemporary worship songs and services.

Having said all that, I’m not convinced as yet that even well practiced liturgy has the capacity to reform us in the way that Smith seems to be suggesting. There are a lot of dead churches who have been practicing a lot of good liturgy for a long time …

Comments welcome. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transforming post-Catholic Ireland

Over at her blog Gladys Ganiel has a summary of a book launch event ‘author meets critics’ (of which Gladys had invited me to be one) in TCD about her recent book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (OUP).

9780198745785

My sense from reading Gladys is that she is arguing that present religious practice in post-Catholic Ireland is an improvement on the past. Three big arguments of the book are that:

  • Increased diversity in the religious market gives increased space for personal transformation; space is created on the margins where people can work for religious, social and political transformation.
  • The prevalence of extra institutional religion counters hard secularisation theories: it exists as an intermediate space between pure individualism detached from church all together and institutional religious expression. Extra-institutional religion is not totally free-floating, it happens in relationship and community, often with a concern for social justice.
  • Gladys argues extra institutional religion has potential to contribute to reconciliation more than other traditional institutional Christian churches.

Stories of individuals told in the book ring true to the diverse, blurred and sometimes contradictory religious landscape of contemporary Ireland. They brought to mind some very recent conversations with friends

  • someone who while still involved locally in a church that he gives thanks for, describes himself as an ‘exile’ within the institutional church. It is an alien place; he is a ‘stranger’ in the midst.
  • two recent separate conversations with friends who both struggle with the irrelevance gap between church and their high pressure, competitive and intense worlds of work. Spirituality, for both, is found ‘extra-institutionally’
  • a friend brought up in a conservative Protestant denomination, with little or no natural contact with Catholicism, Irish culture or identity – now finding a richness and depth within Catholic spirituality and enjoying a silent retreat in a Jesuit centre near Dublin
  • friends who have journeyed away from the Catholic Church, drawn to a more personal, warm, inclusive and less sacramental expression of Christianity within an evangelical community church

How would you describe your relationship with institutional Christianity I wonder? Or, to put it another way, where most do you find authenticity, spiritual refreshment, spiritual growth and learning? Where most do you find space for building relationships across boundaries and opportunities to work for justice?

However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.

One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?

But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.

The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.

I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.

And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….

Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice,  care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.

In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?

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

Flesh versus Spirit 2

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?