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!

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

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.


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.


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.

Cheesman on conflict

ConflictGraham Cheesman is a friend and colleague and blogs once a month or so at Teaching Theology.

His posts are always worth waiting for; seasoned with grace and wisdom. This one is especially good and offers a practical and challenging framework for facing conflict. Graham’s context is a theological college. but much applies to any Christian organisation or church.

Recall that the report on conflict within churches in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland concluded that ALL the cases reviewed were to do with relational breakdown, not one was about  differences of doctrine.

Put differently: in Christian ministry, having a common set of beliefs, a common task, being efficient and productive, reaching goals and targets, being successful in fundraising, growing the church or organisation – none of this, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor 13, is worth much more than a Ryan Air trumpeted celebration for landing on time if there are not loving relationships at the core of all the activity.

Those relationships are not secondary to the work, they are the authentication of the work for they show the presence of the Spirit whose fruit they are.

This is why conflict is fundamentally a spiritual issue – for it revolves around issues like forgiveness, repentance, humility, showing grace, considering others better than ourselves, having the maturity to know ourselves with sober judgement, kindness, doing to others as you would have them do to you.

Over to Graham:

Dealing with differences

I doubt if it will come as a shock to anyone reading this that those working in our colleges do not always agree with each other and that tension sometimes occurs between staff.

People are complicated and every situation is different, but are there some basic rules that we can all follow to help us in such situations? Here are a few suggestions – OK, more than a few but life is more complicated than four simple rules:-

  1. If you are in leadership, do everything you can to lead within an open and trusting relationship with staff.
  2. If you are staff, recognise the complexity of the task of leading and recognise the authority of those who lead.
  3. Remember that the best decisions, especially in a time of conflict, are those taken together with as many people involved as possible, who then own the decision.
  4. Exhibit gentleness as a fundamental Christian virtue – both a beatitude and a fruit of the spirit – it must govern the way we speak to others and of others at all times.
  5. Acknowledge weakness and sin in all. We are not, any of us, wonderful people with perfect hearts who nonetheless occasionally make mistakes. We are all selfish, sinful, weak human beings and we therefore need to be humble with ourselves and forgiving of others.
  6. Say sorry when necessary. It is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness. Everyone knows you are not perfect, so why pretend to be?
  7. Strive for consensus, but if that is not possible, look for compromise, except on those things that damage the fundamental mission of the college.   Even God compromised with his people in the Old Testament.
  8. Be there. Spend time in each other’s offices; of those we agree with, but especially of those we disagree with. Leadership especially needs to be constantly talking with all staff on their own territory.
  9. Always thank God that you are working together for him in such an influential job as theological education, training the future leaders of his church.
  10. Model for the students the attitudes and processes of good, loving, co-operative Christian service in a team. If you can’t do that, better stop teaching them scripture.
  11. Respect must always be offered and be seen to be offered to all by all. In some situations, trust breaks down, but basic respect must survive – to those above you, below you and alongside you, at all times.
  12. Attend to the issue of communication, especially from the decision makers to all affected; from one department to the other; to all, about everything possible, in every way.
  13. Consider whether the structure of the college and in particular its leadership and decision making structure, needs to be changed.
  14. If you are in leadership, never simply tell staff off for their attitudes but deal with the issues.
  15. Remember that your unity is based on a common experience of Christ. You are in the same family together whatever arguments may take place within that family.

There is nothing more difficult than leading in a time of conflict, or being authentically Christian in a time of conflict.   However, when those in an organisation come back to a position of serving together with joy after a difficult period, this is a wonderful gift of God.

Struggling with conflict? Let the church help


OK, the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being cynical, but am pointing to the deep irony and failure of a Christian community called to reconciliation by the grace of God at the same time being a place of division, conflict, unforgiveness and hardness of heart.

A friend of mine, Joe Campbell, last year researched and delivered a report to the General Board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland related to conflict. It’s a public document which can be found here if you dig a bit (p.37 on).  In it Joe talks of the need for honesty and transparency around conflict, so it seems appropriate to talk about it here.

It’s a hard-hitting self-appraisal. Christians need to admit that conflict is endemic within church life and that it is nearly always handled poorly. Too many people I know have been hurt by the fall-out of conflict in church life to ignore the reality.

Some points that stand out to me:

1.Causes of conflict

60 cases of conflict were reviewed that had been referred to a formal conciliation process. (Far more conflict situations are handled locally and others end up in the formal judicial courts of the church). There were a variety of factors that had caused conflict in the 60 cases:

–   35 cases reflected tensions between a minister and some elders. All of these cases had been going on for a long time

– some involved conflict over church property decisions

– some involved mental health issues

– some involved individuals or families within a church congregation

NOT ONE involved points of theology. ALL of them revolved around breakdown in vital relationships

 2. Insights gained from Mediators

Joe talked with those involved in conciliation. Some points highlighted included:

Conflict seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. There is an enormous human cost to badly handled conflicts within Congregations. Spouses and children feel and see the effects’

“Mediators uncovered an attitude within our Church of confrontation, an unforgiving spirit and at times a deep desire among disputants to have their case heard by Commission of Presbytery or Judicial Commission. It seems we are a people more comfortable with rules than relationships.

3. Insights gained from interviewees

He also talked with people in churches. Again some comments that stand out to me:

– Treating conflict in a formal way early on was a typical response via rules and regulations

– None of those interviewed reported on any healthy supportive pastoral support for Ministers or Elders during tense times.

– The church’s systems for handling conflict “seem hidden to most members, overly bureaucratic, involving carefully written submissions even at an early stage of a process, and takes a long time. Several who have experienced commissions spoke of how they are just not user friendly, law based not relational.”

And the strongest finding I think was this one:

 “It seems clear from everyone I spoke to that conflict is viewed as  wrong, even sinful. It is kept hidden, sometimes ignored, spoken of in hushed tones, and too often leaves people feeling helpless, sometimes angry. Some try to spiritualise conflict seeing it as an attack from the forces of evil. A situation where victory must be experienced at all costs since God is on “my” side. We need somehow to see conflict as normal, since God in His great wisdom has made us all different. How we handle it will make it a bad and negative experience or a good and positive one. The establishment of a good and functioning service to help us handle conflict well, should be seen as a sign of health in our Church, rather than the dominant view as sickness. There were no positive experiences spoken, of conflict being handled well, producing change, new growth, more real relationships, and a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.

No positive experiences of conflict – at all – in a national denomination that exists to follow Jesus who happens to have rather a lot to say about love, giving up of rights and forgiveness.

Joe concludes with what is probably an understatement:

It seems clear that we as a Church need to recapture the attitude and skills obvious in several Biblical models of talking, listening, searching for solutions, praying together, and above all loving, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The report then makes many practical and wise recommendations in light of its serious findings which I hope are ‘owned’ and acted upon with intent.

Some personal comments and questions for discussion if you would like to join in:

– The report is in a context of a historic denomination that has accumulated lots of rules and bureaucracy over centuries. The comments about rules before relationships is fascinating and makes me wonder about the impact of Protestantism’s dominant judicial and abstract understanding of the atonement – but  better leave that for another day.

– Its findings are not surprising – but that in itself is scant comfort. They are shocking – or should be. Christians above all, should be best equipped to handle conflict in a transformative way – yet the complete opposite often appears to be the case. (But it should be said here that untold numbers of acts of grace and forgiveness that lead to healing are by definition ‘invisible’ – we only see the visible damage caused by relational breakdown).

– What do you think lies behind this evident failure to match faith with practice?: to fail to apply and live out the gospel of reconciliation in our relationships?

What are your reflections on church conflict and how it is dealt with?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A race well run (and still going ..)

Last Sunday morning at our wee church we had a farewell visit from Trevor Morrow and his wife Carys. Trevor is retiring after 32 years of ministry in our ‘mother church’, Lucan Presbyterian.

If you are from Ireland you won’t need me to introduce Trevor, so I won’t, save to say he’s one of the best known church leaders on the island.

Trevor spoke on 1 Corinthians 3:5 ff

‘What is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants …. I planted the seed but God made it grow”.

His theme was the joy and privilege of being a servant in ministry. Each are called to do their part but all is from God and all glory is due to him alone.

Paul says in verse 10 that whatever success he had as a missionary-pastor was ‘by the grace God has given me’. So neither will I do a hagiography. Trevor is a friend, is incredibly well thought of by many many people, and is a very gifted preacher so it would be easy to do so  – but it wouldn’t fit with the whole point of the sermon!

But there are two things I would like to say:

What is so encouraging about Trevor & Carys is not “surviving” 32 years of leadership in one place.

It is not just that there was fruitfulness in ministry though that is a very good and important thing.

It is certainly not that he was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland though that is an honour I’m sure.

It isn’t even that he is right about women in ministry

For me it is this:

1. I remember Trevor leading a communion service a couple of days before he was to go in for a life-threatening operation on a brain tumour.  His head was shaved in preparation. And he led it as normal, with joy and hope in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord. He didn’t say this, but it was clear that that joy and hope was just the same when facing death in a couple of days as when all was well in the world.

2. I’ve probably said this before, but the more I go on the less bothered I am about hype and the promise of the next ‘big idea’ that will be a key to ‘success’ in Christian ministry.

At the centre of the Torah (Deut 6:5) is the command to love the Lord with heart, soul and strength. Jesus says love for God and neighbour (who may be your enemy) fulfils the entire Law. For Paul (and for John), love is the hub around which all of the Christian life revolves.

Take Paul: his experience of the love and grace of God shapes his entire life. The love of God demonstrated in Jesus becomes the model for his ministry – a ministry of service for others.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:7-8)

Paul’s new communities of believers from multiple cultures and across Jew / Gentile boundaries are united within a new identity – the family of God. They first and foremost brothers and sisters in the Lord. And they are to love each other as family.

They can do so through the Spirit who is given to all. The Spirit’s primary work is love. The Christian life is essentially a corporate one.  ‘Spirituality’ is worked out in concrete day to day life with others. ‘Love builds up’. Being ‘spiritual’ is to love.

Love is future-focused – only love is eternal for it will never pass away, while faith and hope will (1 Cor 13:13)  Love fulfils the Law (Rom 8:4) and pleases God.

All this is to say why I put ‘surviving’ in quote marks above.

Christian ministry is not some joyless burden just to be borne til it can be dumped with a sigh of relief. Nor is to be marked by a trail of broken relationships and division. For it is a call to love and relationship with God and with others in the household of God.

A truly ‘spiritual’ and authentic ministry has, as its fruit, relationships of deep love.

So for me the most impressive thing on Trevor and Carys’ leaving is that there are many tears and a sense of grief, as well as thankfulness for they are deeply loved.

And this is how it should be. Or am I being naïve?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

On inappropriate sharing and spiritual progress

I don’t tend to blog too much about personal stuff – isn’t a middle-aged parent, teacher, elder, and man (!) supposed to have his life together? To have answers, not lots of questions? To be a model mature Christian, walking in faith with no great struggles or conflicts?

Occasionally in a class on the Holy Spirit discussing the Christian life or something related, I may say something like I struggle with anger, lust, greed, faithlessness, envy, worry or some such thing (the  list could keep going here but there is such a thing as inappropriate sharing).

More than once a reaction from students has been ‘Oh no, don’t tell us that. I thought when I get to your age I’d be over such things.’

Now this is somewhat amusing; amusing for its bluntness – like watching Up in the Air last night with my daughter where 23 yr old Anna Kendrick says about George Clooney, ‘Oh no I don’t think of him like that at all, he’s old‘. (no comparison with George Clooney intended!)

But it’s also revealing of an expectation that the Christian life should, or will, get easier. That at some point, we reach a plateau where we can relax a bit, dump a lot of baggage, rest from the fray, and walk easily ahead on a new level.

Now one reaction to this can be to wonder wherever did such an idea come from?

How can Christians, of all people, who are supposed to know a bit about the realities of sin and the daily need for God’s grace, ever swallow such hokum?

How, if we look at ourselves with ‘sober judgement’ and see the swirling mixture of ambitions, fears, resentments, self-reliance, judgementalism, pride etcetera, can we imagine that we will be free somehow of our very human and fallen nature in this life?

How, if we look around at the pervasive reality of fallen Christian leaders, can we be naive enough to think that those who are a bit older and more experienced are somehow less prone to spiritual failure?

Why are we so easily seduced by the idea that there is some sort of silver bullet to the Christian life? Is this longing what lies behind so much investment in some Christian circles of the necessity and possibility of a special transforming spiritual ‘event’ that will revolutionise your life for good?

But another reaction is to acknowledge that those students are right.

A mature Christian should show signs of spiritual transformation; there is something wrong about an adult who is still acting like a child.  1 Timothy 3 is pretty unambiguous about character qualifications for leadership:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

And recall that Timothy was ‘young’ – the issue is maturity in Christ not age per se. And mature believers are to set an example:

set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 1 Tim 4:12

And without making this post too much longer, the NT is pretty clear on what I think can fairly be called a high expectation of spiritual progress.

For Paul, the Christian knows the experienced reality of the Spirit. The ‘new age’ has dawned to which Christians belong – rather to the age of the flesh which is passing away (Roms 6-8).

What Jesus and the Spirit have effected, the believer is to participate in – to ‘walk by the Spirit’ and so not live to the flesh (Gal 5). Christians are to ‘put off the old man’ (Col. 3:5, 8, 9; Eph 4:22, 25-32; 5:3-5). And in such walking by the Spirit, the Law is fulfilled (Rom. 8:4).

So where does this leave me sharing my failures?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

what is theological education for? (1) Criticisms

David Castillo Dominici, Freedigitialphotos.net

I thought it worth keeping going with some thinking about theological education after Alister McGrath’s proxy contributions to this blog 😉

Well I think about it all the time – preparing, teaching, reviewing and discussing with students how courses are going is happening continually raises questions.

And they point to the special demands of teaching the Bible – whether in church or in a theological college. For such teaching must be holistic if it is to be worth much …

And by holistic I mean it needs meaningfully to engage the affective, behavioural and cognitive elements of learning. And that is some challenge – one that reaches far beyond most other forms of teaching.

I plan a couple more posts on this engaging with some reading ..

But first some quotes of criticisms of the way much theological education is actually done. These are drawn from a very useful article by Perry Shaw, ‘Towards a Multidimensional Approach to Theological Education’ in International Congregational Journal 6.1, (2006), 53-63.

“the only similiarity between Jesus’ way of training and the seminary’s is that each takes three years” (Joe Bayly)

“our schools train academics not Christian leaders”

“the centrality of the mind and cognitive learning in our theological institutions is rooted in a faulty Enlightenment-based epistemology where knowledge is seen as some sort of object that needs to be acquired.” …  And this myth  “ falsely portrays how we know and has profoundly deformed the way we educate.”

Knowing God entails “a type of knowledge that speaks less of acquiring a masters degree in divinity as it does of being mastered by Divinity.”

“Most of our institutions of theological education are appallingly anachronistic. We decry secular rationalism while affirming through the hidden curriculum the basic tenets of rationalism in our almost exclusive focus on the cognitive domain.”

 Comments, as ever, welcome.

Alister McGrath on theological education (1)

Last week I was over with a colleague at the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference near London. It had over 80 representatives from (I think) over 50 theological colleges all over Europe. Fascinating hearing what is going on in different contexts and encouraging to build relationships.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker. He gave 3 lectures over Thursday / Friday looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. We could only get to the two on Friday. The lectures will eventually be published (probably here), but here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the first lecture (I’ll do a second post for the second lecture).

These are my notes and personal impressions – NOT verbatim quotes!

As Christianity becomes more marginalised culturally, a significant challenge for theological educators is how to equip and help students think apologetically. The New Atheism, for example, provides such a challenge and needs a thought out response – not just from college professors and academics but from church leaders who can  provide a moral, theological, and rational argument and vision for Christianity.

If  the church chooses simply not to engage in such apologetics, then the Christian faith will be seen as for those with no mind or vision for life.  McGrath is deeply concerned about evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism in this respect.

So theological training has to be more than just giving students information with a few skills added. It has to be about character, thinking, engaging – to shape people and help them to think biblically and theologically about all of life …

At the heart of good theological training is personal transformation. And this takes time.  It is about developing wisdom. And such wisdom develops in relationships. Students need mentors and coaches not just teachers to impart information.

In later Q&A he had a few comments here on parallels with medical training. How there is increasing awareness and dissatisfaction with the highly functional form of medical training that equips a scientifically to treat disease, but may leave him/her useless in dealing with real people. Solid research is now pointing to the connections of spirituality and health. And therefore how medicine needs to be holistic as the treatment of the whole person, not just a heart valve (for example). And this has obvious implications for medical training.

Theology not just a way of thinking but a fundamental vision for reality – a wonderful vision. The task of the teacher is to communicate this big bible story in a way that excites, energises and thrills. To help students see the big picture of life and where they fit in with the wider purposes of God.

This is theology as inspiration not just education.

I was encouraged by this. We don’t have it all sorted by a long shot, but this ‘fits’ with the heart and vision of theological training at IBI. It is applied theology – applied personally, and to the Irish context. It seeks to be holistic, not just information transfer. It builds in reflective practice and tries to connect ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’.  It has a compulsory track for mentoring and apprenticeship within actual ministry practice. We have specific modules on engaging with thinking and trends in Irish culture.

And I think there is an increasing tension at play here. Prof McGrath talked of the need for time and development of wisdom. For some this will lead to the traditional full-time residential 3-4 years away in college. But pressures in the wider culture are making this more and more difficult. Students want control over their own learning. Many university courses are becoming fully modularised. You take bits and pieces when you can. Many cannot afford to take several years out from work. Training sits alongside work and ministry.  There are also significant advantages of studying while in ministry, without being removed from a ‘real life’ context.

The challenge is to have mentoring, coaching aspect built into whatever model is used – and for the student to keep and develop such relationships after training when they become even more important.

Comments, as ever, welcome.