The Message of Love is on its way!


Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA







Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian Life (5) Scot McKnight ‘ecclesial life’

Scot McKnight’s chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is on ‘the Ecclesial Life’. 

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Scot hones in on how deeply and profoundly Paul’s vision for the Christian life is a corporate one. He’s come at this angle through his Kingdom Conspiracy where he ties kingdom and church together more tightly than many, influenced by George Eldon Ladd’s kingdom as God’s dynamic rule, have been used to.

His agenda is to convince that Paul’s vision for the Christian life is one that needs to be recaptured and re-imagined by the church (the American church in particular is Scot’s focus). Why? Because American evangelicalism he argues has been thoroughly conditioned by the ‘old perspective’ – which despite strengths has led to some damaging distortions. Scot puts it like this;

The download for the American church about the old perspective’s approach to Paul entails these elements: Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul was a legalistic, works-righteousness religion; the God of the New Testament is a God of free grace, and we cannot earn our way with God since salvation is a gift; all humans are in need of grace and salvation, which come to us through Christ’s obedient life and sacrificial death; and the gospel relieves the existential crisis of guilt for the one who ceases striving and comes to rest in God’s all-sufficent grace. Some old perspectivists see the ultimate and universal triumph of grace, but they are still more or less operating out of an old perspective on Judaism and Paul. (127-8)

The implications of this framework for understanding the Christian life are these says Scot:

  • an individualistic understanding of Christian living (an Augustinian anthropology)
  • personal redemption, happiness now and eternal life when we die
  • living out of grace not works
  • mission is getting people saved
  • social justice tended to be secondary
  • ecclesiology tended to be an add on
  • an inherently supersessionistic approach to the OT and Judaism

The NPP starts at a different place. For Scot it goes like this:

  • Paul is not set over against Judaism – he is still a Jew (Acts 23:6) – a Jewish Christian / Christian Jew
  • He is articulating a re-framed theology of God’s people – Israel expanded to include Gentiles (he has a good conversation here about what is supersessionism – in some sense all Christianity is)
  • The focus of the NPP is primarily ecclesial, the Old Perspective was primarily soteriological
  • The conflict, for Paul, is one vision of Judaism (narrow, exclusive) over against another vision of Judaism (broad, radically inclusive) as that which fulfils and expressed the saving purposes of God.
  • Justification is not an accusation against Judaism’s works righteousness, but an inclusive framework that embraces all who have faith in Christ

Scot sketches a third alternative, advanced by Mark Nanos and others, that really what is going on with Paul is a developing theology for Gentiles. Where the Torah continues to apply in full for Jewish followers of Jesus, but is adapted and toned down for Gentiles: a sort of two covenant process. Many of Paul’s letters do not apply to Jewish Christians – they are for Gentiles. The contrast with the Old Perspective could hardly be more stark:

It doesn’t take genius insight to see that the post–new perspective has nearly turned the old perspective inside out and upside down. Instead of a law that had to be abrogated, we have a law that has to be followed (by Jewish and gentile believers); there is no thought here of a works righteousness but of a grace-shaped election formed through a covenant God made with Israel, and the whole Christian life is about the Torah and, for gentile believers, Paul’s teaching about how gentiles who are not given the Torah are to live. (136)

But Scot’s position is that the NPP is more historically accurate to what the NT teaches in light of a better understanding of first century Judaism. And that Paul’s over-riding concern was a theological and exegetical interpretation of the OT in light of Christ that grounds the people of God, Jew and Gentile, as the seed of Abraham.

The force of Paul’s radical vision is felt by gaining a glimpse of the highly stratified social hierarchies of the 1st century: Scot references the work of Peter Oakes on Pompeii, Richard Ascough et al on associations in the Greco-Roman world. Where hierarchy, status, reputation, gender, political connections – these were the lifeblood of Empire – and the small but proliferating Christian groupings (the ekklesia) were a political and spiritual threat to the established order.

It is Paul’s ecclesial ‘obsession’ that shapes his practice – the church is the locus of God’s mission –  texts used here are Colossians and Ephesians. This is light years away for so much individualistic and egocentric evangelical spirituality. It is also, Scot points out, a challenge to the segregated American church.

I wish here to say the really important thing: there is virtually nothing about inner spirituality, about personal spiritual formation, about individual transformation, or about everything that shapes so much of how we teach the Christian life in the American church. Of course, Paul expects them to be transformed and to get sanitized from the ways of Rome, but his focus is so ecclesial that all things individual are folded into God’s mission to form a new kind of community, the ecclesia. I want that to be emphasized: for Paul the church comes first, and the individual’s Christian life is part of the growth and sanctification of the local church. I don’t think Paul’s vision entailed getting individuals sanctified and therefore improving the church. It was groupthink before personthink. It was We before Me. (144)

And, as with many of the other writers in the book, Scot shifts to the Spirit as the origin and empowerer of this ecclesial vision. And this is not an inward pietistic my intimacy with God sort of spirituality – it is robustly other focused, within a risky boundary breaking community of ‘differents’.

And this is why love is at the core of the Spirit’s work and Paul’s understanding of the Christian life. See Gal. 5:6; 5:14; 5:22; 1 Cor 16:14; Col 3:14.The only way the church can work, the only way the Christian life can work, is through love. Scot closes with a brief 4 fourfold definition of love:

1. Love is rugged commitment – God’s covenant love. ‘Love decides in advance to be committed to someone whoever they are.’

2. Love is being ‘with’ someone: God commits to be with his people – in the wilderness and later in the incarnation and in the future in the new creation.

3. Love is advocacy for a person: ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’

4. Love is transformative – for the person’s good: God’s agenda is a holy loving people, fit for his kingdom.

Such love is often demanding and hard; it calls us to love those deeply unlike us. And it is, Scot concludes, in that fellowship of love that we learn to live the Christian life.

Why I’m for Women in Leadership

An overview article I wrote a wee while ago. Some resources at the end. Comments welcome:

Why I’m for Women in Leadership

The debate about ‘women in leadership’ revolves around interpretation of texts like1Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-23 and some others. A key question is whether the Bible contains fixed hierarchical gender roles based on a ‘creation-order’ blueprint. With limited space I can’t begin to discuss the details and so I’ve included a list of representative resources on both sides at the end of this article if you’d like to read around it yourself.

‘Egalitarians’ and ‘complementarians’ (more on those words in a moment) can agree on quite a bit: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross. So while I’m disagreeing strongly with ‘complementarian’ views here, I do want first to emphasise that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord who are sincerely wanting to submit to and obey the teaching of Scripture. I also hope we can have an ongoing and civil discussion.

Clarity over words

Words are important in this debate. ‘Women in Leadership’ is more accurate than ‘Women in Ministry’ because the questions revolve around if and how can women lead. I prefer the word ‘mutualist’ to ‘egalitarian’, the latter being a word that implies competing rights being bargained over. ‘Complementarian’ is both a mouthful and misleading in the sense that it is a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding complementary ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

‘The Spirit gives gifts to each one, just as he determines’

Egalitarians argue that hierarchy is part of the curse of Genesis 3, not a normative good pattern to follow. The overall thrust of Scripture is towards transcending patriarchy and effecting a restoration of unity and equality within the body of Christ; from creation and Fall to New Creation. Rather than perpetuate this fallen condition, the church should be reflecting the future hope of the New Creation in how men and women relate in the here and now.

You see this happening in the radically counter-cultural way that Jesus not only related to women but included them within the kingdom of God and called them to be his travelling disciples during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). This was unprecedented.

You see it in Luke-Acts and the remarkable outpouring of the long-awaited Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). No-where is there a hint that gifts are given according to gender, either in Luke or in Paul or Peter. The language is overwhelmingly inclusive to all the church, male and female.

Peter mentions the gift of ‘speaking the oracles of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). In Paul, the gifts in Ephesians 4:11 of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers and in Romans 12:3-8 which includes prophecy, teaching, exhortation and ruling are for everyone.

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 the gifts include apostles, prophecy and teaching. This fits with the fact that Romans 16:7 says (despite extraordinary attempts to deny this) that Paul had at least one female apostle (Junia) who is outstanding as an apostle, not as a woman. Priscilla is a Bible teacher to a man; she is called Paul’s co-worker – a term used for those partnering with him in the ministry of the gospel which included proclamation and teaching (and included other women as well). Phoebe is a diakonos (probably ‘minister’) and prostatis (‘leader’ is more accurate than ‘helper’) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

Paul is a liberationist in the Spirit, but he is also a wise missionary. The texts in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy are best understood as correcting local problems in worship and church order where women’s inappropriate behaviour had the potential to discredit the gospel. In other words, Paul adapts his instructions to the patriarchal culture of the Graeco-Roman world; he does not enforce permanent hierarchical male-female relationships within the new community of the Spirit, the body of Christ.

Problems with Complementarian practice

Just as Paul engaged with this question in cultural and missiological terms, so must Christians today. To enforce patriarchal hierarchy within the church in our Western culture is not only unnecessary, it misconstrues the liberating arc of the biblical narrative, has marginalised the God-given gifts of countless women causing much angst in the process, and damages the church’s witness to the inclusive nature of the gospel in the process.

To use a title of one of the late and great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce’s most famous books, Paul was an Apostle of the Free Spirit. The tragedy of ‘complementarianism’ is its focus on imposing universal law and artificial restrictions within the body of Christ. Near the end of his life Bruce commented that “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah” (from Scot McKnight in the Blue Parakeet).

For example, I was talking with a woman recently who told me of her coming to faith as an adult. She’d had significant experience in business and held responsible leadership positions. She began attending a local evangelical church, full of enthusiasm to serve and thirsty to learn more of God and his Word. But after some time she found herself increasingly bewildered and surprised to be told she would never be able to do certain things since they were only open to men. Her confusion arose from a profound mismatch between her experience of the inclusive gospel followed by marginalisation and restrictions simply because of her gender. Outside the church she had freedom to use her abilities and gifts as a person regardless of gender. Inside the church, her gender became a barrier and obstacle to using her gifts and being herself.

Complementarian thinking also leads to all sorts of inconsistencies and distortions as a supposed biblical ‘blueprint’ is applied in practice within church life (and marriage). Some say we can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is. Even though they admit the obvious fact that many women are outstanding Bible teachers and are gifted for leadership, they can’t exercise those gifts because God says so.

Claire Smith pretty well says this in a new complementarian book called God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women. She says ‘the ability to do something does not come with the right to do it.’ And so just because a woman is a gifted Bible teacher does not mean she should preach. This begs all sorts of questions. Is she gifted by the Spirit of God or not? If she is, is she only allowed to preach to women or is this not actually preaching? (Smith does not say). Neither does she say why this restriction should apply apart from it is what God’s word says. She adds that such a woman should not feel envious of others (men) who can use their gifts to preach and lead. So not only can she not preach (even though she is gifted), to want to do so puts her on the path to envy. No wonder woman are hurt and silenced by this sort of argument.

Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”. You can see the problem here. Despite complementarians affirmation of women’s ‘full equality before God’, it is logically impossible to affirm that a woman is at once spiritually and ontologically equal to a man and at the same time eternally subordinate within a faith that is innately ‘masculine’. It is more consistent to argue, as Augustine and some other Church Fathers did, that women have inferior roles because they are inferior!

Other inconsistencies of application are numerous. Some complementarians end up with detailed lists of what women can and cannot do. Professor Howard Marshall describes the complex dos and don’ts at the end of Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth as resembling Rabbinic Judaism. Some churches silence women altogether. Some have women who can preach occasionally (to do so regularly would confer too much ‘authority’ on her). Some women can teach and preach and plant churches – but as long as she is a missionary in a far-away place. Other churches insist on head-coverings for women and some (Susan Foh) argue for the church to regulate women’s length of hair! Some allow women elders as long as the ‘head pastor’ is male. Others have women on a leadership team but only male elders. Most allow women to teach impressionable boys (and girls) but draw the line at men. Anglicans have ordained women priests but many seem to have all sorts of problems with women bishops. Some don’t allow women to teach at mixed-gender theological colleges, others do. Some encourage women (like Claire Smith) to write books full of teaching that are read by men, others prohibit all teaching by women to groups of men in various contexts.  Complementarian practice is a mess.

Why I’m for women in leadership

Egalitarianism can be summed up as being ‘for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.’  They believe that the biblical texts point to the equal place of women in all aspects of the new covenant community of the people of God. People, men or woman, are to be recognised by the church to positions of leadership according to giftedness bestowed by the Spirit who gives gifts to whosoever he chooses – men and women alike.

There are a number of reasons I’m on the egalitarian side of this issue.

The first is that I’m far more convinced by the biblical arguments around the relevant texts.

The second is the large numbers of serious evangelical Bible scholars and thinkers who are making good arguments for egalitarianism. I see this and give thanks as an example of semper reformanda – the ongoing reform and renewal of the church by the Spirit of God.

The third is that I believe the church and its mission is desperately impoverished without both male and female leadership.

The fourth comes from experience. It is incontestable that many Christian women are just as intelligent, gifted, godly, and mature as many Christian male leaders. I’ve lost count of the number of women students who have had all the necessary qualities for leadership and yet have had no encouragement or opportunity to express those gifts. There is something badly wrong with this situation.

It’s appropriate to give the last word to a woman, Cherith Fee Nordling,

Our human dignity, value, and status are no longer based on these distinctions and their privileged status in the old order … because in Christ these distinctions do not define human personhood or position. Privilege is given and exercised for the building up of the whole community, whether by men or by women. This does not entitle women to roles any more than it takes them away from men. All service is cruciform, all service is a gift to be given. (from The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology)

Patrick Mitchel

Some Resources

Lis Goddard & Clare Hendry, The Gender Agenda: discovering God’s plan for church leadership. IVP, 2010. This takes the form of an exchange of emails between two women debating either side of the argument. A readable ‘way in’ to the issues.

Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church. IVP USA, 2003. A very well written and researched book:  an egalitarian who agrees that the husband is head of his wife. Searching analysis and critique of Piper and Grudem.

Alan F Johnson (ed.), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: compelling stories by prominent evangelicals. Zondervan, 2010. Personal stories of ‘conversion’ to an egalitarian perspective by people like John Stackhouse, Howard Marshall and many others.

Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms. IVP Academic, 2007. Academic. Mixed views on a range of topics including a detailed egalitarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 by Howard Marshall and an interesting chapter by Henri Blocher on a way forward.

Claire Smith, God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, Matthias Media, 2012. A series of Bible study chapters on key texts from a complementarian perspective.

Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway, 2002. An exhaustive summary of strongly held complementarian arguments updating his and John Piper’s earlier book.

James Beck and Craig Blomberg, Two Views of Women in Ministry. Zondervan, 2001. Answer and response format between 4 contributors. Quite technical.

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2010. A popular retelling of how to read the Bible through an egalitarian lens.

R T France, Women in the Church’s Ministry: a test-case for biblical hermeneutics. Paternoster, 1995. A thoughtful and wise exegetical study by an outstanding NT scholar and gracious Christian, recently gone to be with the Lord (and a former teacher of mine).

Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s letters. Zondervan, 2009. The fruit of a lifetime’s work. An indispensable textbook. Egalitarian.

Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: marriage and Women’s ministry in the letters of Paul. Hendrikson, 1992. Lively, readable and egalitarian from a well-known NT evangelical scholar.

For a host of resources on the Web see:

Christians for Biblical Equality

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

For a nice example of civil debate see these two self-critical pieces by Sarah Sumner and John Koessler criticising the weaknesses in their own side:

And if all this reading is too much like hard work, have a look at these short videos on women and the family and then women and the church by NT scholar Ben Witherington who has written and spoken extensively on this topic from an egalitarian perspective.

Claiming the G word

This is a 3 part post on Christian overuse and misuse of the word gospel that I’ve been mulling over for a while.

It is offered not in a snide critical way, but out of an increasing sense of sadness at the divisions within evangelicalism (‘gospel people’ to quote John Stott) over the very word that gives them their name.

Reading some literature from a Christian organisation a while ago I couldn’t help noticing the frequency of the word ‘gospel’. It was everywhere.  I counted over 50 appearances used in about 20 different ways. For example:

‘gospel message’, ‘gospel-centred churches’, ‘full-time ministry of the gospel’, ‘the work of the gospel’/’gospel work’/’gospel workers’, ‘gospel partnership’, ‘growth of the gospel’, ‘the gospel speaks to the heart’, ‘the blessings of the gospel’, ‘gospel commitment’, ‘bringing the gospel to x’, ‘y being passionate about the gospel’, ‘proclaiming the gospel’ , ‘everything we do has the gospel at the centre’ – and so on.

Now I’m all for the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). It bears fruit and grows as it is taught and learnt (Col 1:5-6).  It is a message that, by the grace of God, has changed my life.

But I have a few problems with this sort of claiming of the ‘G word’ for just about every aspect of Christian activity. Here’s the first reason why:

  1. Indiscriminate use of the G-word devalues its meaning

As has been blogged about plenty of times here, the gospel has a specific meaning.  John Dickson has a wonderful chapter on ‘What is the Gospel’ in his equally wonderful book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission. In it he offers this summary of the gospel.

“for Paul is the news of Jesus’ royal birth, authoritative teaching and miracles, sacrificial death and burial, glorious resurrection and appearances to witnesses. It is the whole story of the Messiah, establishing him as Lord, Judge and Saviour in God’s kingdom.”

Or you don’t have to take his word for it; try D A Carson,

” … from a comprehensive theological perspective the gospel is the good news of the coming of Jesus – who he is, his mission, above all his death and resurrection, the inauguration of the final eschatological kingdom even now, and all that this means for how we live as individuals and as the church, the eschatological people of God, in fulfilment of all the promises God made in the scriptures that led up to Jesus.”

Or Michael Bird

“God promised in the Scriptures that he would renew creation and restore Israel. The gospel is the good news that God has made these promises good in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. Jesus died and rose for the purpose of atoning for sins and through faith in him and his work believers are reconciled to God. The new age has been launched and God has revealed his saving righteousness in the gospel so that he justifies and delivers from the penalty and power of sin and death.”

Or Scot McKnight in his recent book The King Jesus Gospel (not a quote)

1 Corinthians 15 is the early and prime example of ‘gospel’ in the NT. And this gospel is best summarised by Jesus the Messiah bringing completion to the story of Israel. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the consummation of the kingdom to come. This is, Scot argues, the message the 4 gospels tell; it is the gospel of Paul; it is the gospel Peter preaches in Acts, and it is what Jesus himself preaches – he repeatedly puts himself at the centre of God’s purposes for Israel.

Now you can come back at me and say I’m just plain wrong, but I suggest that this NT understanding of gospel above is not what is in mind behind the indiscriminate use of the G-word in the sort of literature I was reading.

It’s my strong suspicion that those who most vehemently claim the G word tend to have a pretty specific summary understanding of what gospel equals. And that is something close to an evangelistic summary presentation of how to be saved like this (actual example):

  1. [Bad News] We have a serious sin problem
  2. [Bad News] We cannot solve our sin problem by our own good works
  3. [Good News] God has a solution to our sin problem
  4. [Good News] We must accept God’s solution by faith

I’m not saying this isn’t true as far as it goes. But you don’t need to have Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation to notice that ‘how to get saved’ formula [what Scot McKnight calls a ‘soterian gospel’] is rather a long way from the New Testament’s rich understanding of the Good News. It tends to reduce the gospel down to little more than shorthand for anything to do with evangelistic activity. It’s detached almost completely from the story of the Bible – a story which has the coming of Jesus the Messiah of Israel as its climax.

To equate this with ‘the gospel’ is like comparing a kids colour by numbers picture of the Mona Lisa with the finished masterpiece.

In other words, indiscriminate use of the word ‘gospel’, rather than demonstrating fidelity the good news, actually starts to devalue the G-word. Ironically, it does the opposite of what is intended.

Next post is on how the use of the G-word can become an exclusionary weapon.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The King Jesus Gospel (3): my ‘gospel journey’

In The King Jesus Gospel, it seems to me that Scot is really appealing for an individual and church culture to be shaped by a biblical theology. The gospel is God’s good news. The ‘mission of God’ works itself out in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the makes sense of and fulfils the whole biblical narrative. It is not to be reduced to an atomised sort of systematic theology that focuses in on one (admittedly crucial) point in that story and boils it down to being about one thing – personal salvation.

So Scot’s argument is for people to ‘move on’ from simple (perhaps simplistic) understandings of the gospel to a more holistic biblical framework – especially to see how the story of Jesus can only be rightly interpreted through the lens of the OT and the story of Israel. And as this is done, the text ‘comes alive’ in lots of ways as layers of meaning are uncovered.

Now at one level this is simply good exegesis done within a framework of biblical theology and it comes with time – time to read, learn, be taught, and grow in appreciation of the layered symbolism and numerous inter-related biblical themes swirling around the NT – which is after all an extended theological reflection of the OT in light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

But for this approach to flourish at a personal and church level, there needs to be an intentionality about teaching and unpacking and learning the story of the Bible. I think this is the thrust of what he means by building a ‘gospel culture’.

A personal note here of how this has worked out in my experience: I’ve been a Christian over 30 years. I give thanks for a beginning and nurturing within a warm hearted evangelical community – a community and a theological way of being that I remain actively (and not uncritically) committed to. I haven’t emerged from a narrow fundamentalist upbringing and felt the need to reject my past.

But the more I have gone on as a Christian the more and more the Bible has ‘come alive’ to me as I’ve appreciated more and more how each part fits within the overall narrative of ‘the mission of God’. It’s an approach to the gospel, Gospels, Jesus and the whole biblical story that I’ve found both exciting and liberating.

Exciting because it has helped me better understand the whole biblical narrative and how the gospel is glorious good news right down at the personal level and right up to the cosmic level. It has helped me better put together creation, fall, Israel, Messiah, cross, resurrection, kingdom, church, Spirit and new creation and has, I hope, helped a lot of my preaching and teaching.

And so multi-layered is this narrative that the NT writers seem to fall over themselves in offering different images and themes to explain its significance.

Liberating because it has helped me see afresh how Jesus is the good news. I taught a class on Christology last term and it has hit me afresh how relentlessly and joyfully Jesus-centered the NT is (while never detaching this from his relationship with the Father and the Spirit).

Despite my positive evangelical upbringing, the gospel was still pretty much a deductive argument made about our sinfulness and God’s holiness. You have broken God’s holy law = you are a sinner = Jesus died your death = decision for Jesus = forgiveness of sins = new life of loving God and loving others (especially through evangelism).

But somewhere the Jesus-centered narrative of the Bible (Israel, kingdom, second Adam etc) gets diminished (not denied), as does the Jesus-centered purpose of the gospel (to conform his disciples into his likeness through the Spirit), as does the King Jesus-centered eschatological ‘end of the story’.

Do you agree that too much of evangelicalism unintentionally sidelines Jesus?

What has been your ‘gospel journey’?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The King Jesus Gospel (2) Building a gospel culture

In the final chapter of The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight proposes some ways the church can develop what he calls a ‘gospel culture’.

i. Become people of the story: letting the story of Jesus become our story. That Christians live and shape their lives (their individual story) around the mission and identity of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and risen Lord.

ii. This means engaging and reading and soaking in the Gospels, and gradually seeing more and more how the story of Jesus is built upon and fulfils the story of Israel. He also suggests adopting a church calendar in that it is structured around the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus.

iii. Seeing the rest of the NT as a continuing story of Jesus in and through his body, the church. And being an active part of that story within Jesus’ church.

iv. Engaging with the ongoing story of Jesus through his church in history – knowing and valuing the Creeds, the great Reformation confessions, or more modern ones like Lausanne Covenant and Manila Manifesto – dunno why 2010 Cape Town Commitment not mentioned, esp since Scot loves it.

v. Engaging with, resisting and countering other false stories that claim too much. Contemporary stories like individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism and so on.

vi. Embracing the story personally: to be shaped by the gospel story is to believe, repent, and be baptised into the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. It is to be converted and empowered by the Spirit. This gospel culture summons people to a life of prayer and a love for and embrace of Christ’s church. A gospel culture will be marked by the kinds of things Jesus does – other directed service and love.

What do you make of his suggestions?

Seems to me that a pretty key question is how different or distinct in actual praxis is this ‘gospel culture’ from a ‘soterian culture’?

If your Christian faith has been re-shaped by the sort of gospel culture that McKnight describes, what has this looked like in practice? What difference has it made?

(I hope to reflect on my own ‘gospel journey’ on Monday.)

Edit – forgot this bit

And just to show that I’m not an uncritical acolyte 😉 – one thing I think a greater emphasis could have been given to is eschatology. Our place in the story is to look forward to its culmination. Christianity is eschatology. The church essentially is an ‘eschatological community’. How many churches think of themselves like that?! Why not? Because of a failure of seeing themselves within the bigger story – this time the ultimate story of God’s eschatological purposes. Therefore this future looking hope needs to be built into the fabric of any ‘gospel culture’.

The King Jesus Gospel: a review (1)

Scot McKnight’s new book is The King Jesus Gospel: the original good news revisited

Scot kindly dedicates the book to the team at IBI and number of other places where he gave lectures that became the basis of the book.

If you are a (the) dedicated reader(s) of this blog you might remember that I did an 8 part series on Scot’s Lectures on ‘The Earliest Christian Gospel’. So a lot of the ground was covered there. But it’s interesting to see how he developed the final argument.

Basic premise: From the Reformation on, popular evangelicalism developed a ‘soterian’ gospel and an associated salvation culture, tending to reduce down the gospel to an individual existential plan of salvation, detached from the OT and the story of Israel. It also tends to disconnect salvation from discipleship. The gospel becomes abstract, propositional, logical and un-biblically ‘de-storified’

1 Corinthians 15, Scot argues, is the early and prime example of ‘gospel’ in the NT. And this gospel is best summarised by Jesus the Messiah bring completion to the story of Israel. The gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection, ascension and the consummation of the kingdom to come.

This is, Scot argues, the message the 4 gospels tell; it is the gospel of Paul; it is the gospel Peter preaches in Acts, and it is what Jesus himself preaches – he repeatedly puts himself at the centre of God’s purposes for Israel. And, Scot proposes, this is the gospel that you find in the Creeds – much more the story of 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 than a four point plan of individual salvation.

In other words, to gospel is to tell the story of Jesus. The aim of evangelism is to lead people to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Discipleship follows, a life of loving obedience and service to the Lord.

The gospel is at heart therefore a christology that calls people to respond to Jesus. And that response is about salvation from sin and from God’s judgement, entered into by faith, repentance and baptism.

Scot’s big concern is that we need to develop a more Jesus focused, narrative ’gospel culture’ as opposed to a ‘salvation culture’ that can be little more than ‘sin management’ (quoting Dallas Willard).

 Some Comments:

1. On a personal note, I think seeing the gospel as primarily christology is right – the NT is a form of extended christological reflection on the Jesus and the saving significance of his life, death, resurrection and that he is reigning as living Lord. Scot is closely connecting gospel and salvation, but he wants to prevent them merging. This will make some people uneasy (Trevin Wax for example, see link below) in that too sharp a distinction is being made. Perhaps Scot’s ‘push back’ is strong, but maybe it needs to be given the overwhelming fusion of NT gospel with ‘plan of salvation.’

And, again personally, I have found that ‘preaching Jesus’ feels evangelistically ‘right’. In my wee 90 second talks on Mt 21:28-32 this week on Spirit Radio I’ve tried to do this – it all comes back to our response to Jesus. Preaching last Sunday I went with Matthew 21:1-17 and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. This is a great example of Jesus’ own ‘preaching’ of the good news about himself. In one block of text, he proclaims himself king; cleanses the Temple, the dwelling place of God; demonstrates the healing power of the kingdom come; and assumes praise for himself only due to YHWH alone. And the implications flow naturally from this – the astonishing claims of Jesus call for response. It is this sort of proclamation of Jesus as Lord, Messiah and Saviour that McKnight urges the church to recover.

2. There are already plenty of conversations out there on this book, not least at Ben Witherington’s blog where he interviewed Scot at length, here on Daniel Kirk’s Storied Theology and here at Euangelion by Scot’s colleague at North Park University, Joel Willets. Daniel Kirk raises some questions about the continuity between a 1 Cor 15 gospel and the Creeds; Ben Witherington has some telling tweaks and critiques. Maybe others will weigh in with reviews, but I think it’s fair to say, so far, that neither is really contesting the case Scot is making about the biblical content of the gospel. There are strong echoes of what N T Wright, John Dickson, Darrell Bock and others have been unpacking in what Scot says. Trevin Wax has a good 2 part review where he unpacks his agreements and concerns.

I think evangelicals of all hues should be taking this book seriously. It begins with and works out from the great gospel texts of the NT. As part of the process of Semper Reformanda, we should continually be willing to reshape our beliefs and praxis in light of Scripture.

3. One thing I kept noticing was how Scot does keep integrating christology and pneumatology within the overall good news narrative. At first I thought he’d downplayed this, but on a re-reading he really doesn’t – it keeps cropping up. It’s the Spirit who repeatedly makes real the victory won at the cross and resurrection; there has to be a central place in any ‘gospelling’ for the presence and power of the Spirit.

4. I can see some responses dismiss this book as Scot raising up and then demolishing a straw man of the ‘soterian gospel’. ‘We don’t teach that’ people will say, ‘it’s a caricature’. Well I’ve been around long enough to know that it isn’t. A de-storified and, at times, individualistic ‘trust in Jesus and your sins will be forgiven’ gospel emphasis is endemic within popular evangelicalism. The emphasis is on what Jesus can do for you and the benefits of salvation. This sort of gospel presentation does not really need the OT at all. Its focus tends to be ‘transactional’ in terms of what happened at the cross.

Now don’t get me wrong – what happened at the cross is central to the message of the NT; it’s everywhere. I get students to write papers on this. And what happened there is all to do with atonement, the forgiveness of sins and salvation from death and judgement. But the cross is not only about good news for the individual; it is cosmic in scope – the redemption of all creation (Col 1.20). So where the benefits of the cross are detached from the story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God, the risen Lord, what is left is Willard’s de-storified ‘sin management’ equation.

5. This is why I find Scot’s ideas at the end of the book about building a ‘gospel culture’ helpful. He means by this that in ‘gospelling’ and in our lives, we need to become people of the story. I’ll turn to his ideas on this in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

One.Life (14) Cross.Life Resurrection.Life

The final chapter of One.Life is Cross.Life. Resurrection.Life

The heart of this chapter is how the cross of Jesus, “where Jesus bore the pain and sins of others, became both a place of redemptive power and a model of discipleship.”

And the model of discipleship is the cruciform life

“a life that offers itself in every direction as a lamb on the altar of God.”

And Scot goes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the model of a cruciform life: ‘Whenever Christ calls us his call leads to death’.

What does it mean to ‘die’ as a Christian? Or, in other words, what does it mean to take up the cross daily?

And from the cross Scot ends the book with the end of the Bible – the resurrected lamb who is the lion of Judah, the Lord.

He has the last word, not death.

We’ve been thinking about this in our church community a lot this week – Jesus is the Lord of Life, the life-giver, ‘the resurrection and the life’. To believe this requires faith – faith in the face of death, and a faith that rests squarely on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And it is the resurrected lamb gives his followers hope to press on with the

And that life Scot encourages to have this shape:

i.                     Prayer – is the way to die to self and follow the Lord.

ii.                   Listening to God – read Scripture, listen

iii.                  Commit to kingdom work locally

iv.                 Build in a daily pattern of prayer / recitation (Jesus Creed)

v.                   Tell others of the kingdom vision of Jesus

One.Life (13) Love.Life

Chapter 13 of Scot McKnight’s book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Love.Life

In this penultimate chapter, Scot turns to the place of love at the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him.

He has a nice summary of the 4 imagined ‘Gods’ in Americans’ minds:

1.       Authoritarian God (32%)

2.       Critical God (16%)

3.       Distant God (24%)

4.       Benevolent God (23%)

[What happened to the other 5%?!]

Scot argues that if under ¼ of people think of God in loving / benevolent ways then we need to re-hear what the Bible says about God.

And it was for precisely these reasons (a mistaken views of God) that prompted Jesus to tell a famous parable about God’s identity – the parable of the Lost Son.

Scot does a nice job of retelling the story of the two brothers for American college life. One a selfish waster who has dishonoured and despised his father, the other responsibly obedient.

At every point in the story, Jesus sabotages expectations of how the Father (God) will act.

The Father doesn’t follow the rules of 1st C Jewish culture. He isn’t supposed to give the son his inheritance, he isn’t supposed to stand waiting for his son to return, he isn’t supposed to run to him and embrace him, he isn’t supposed to celebrate and he sure isn’t supposed to restore him to ‘son’ status.

Jesus tells the story to turn his opponents’ ideas of God upside down. And the sting in the tail is that they are the ‘older son’ who resists the picture of the Father that Jesus has drawn.

God’s love and grace are offensive.

And a lesson of the parable is that each one of us has to ‘come clean’ before the Father just as the younger son does – an attitude of deep repentance, humility and utter delight at being accepted by the Father.

The paradox is that the more we are honest with ourselves and with God, the deeper and more heartfelt our repentance will be – and the deeper our experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness.

This is what confession is and this is what the love of God is – he accepts us back.

If I remember right, John Stott says this somewhere:

“the depth of our discipleship depends on the depth of our repentance.”

As usual, he’s right.

So to Scot’s closing words:

“The kingdom of God is designed for those who will tell the truth about themselves, turn from their sins and turn back to God, by banking on God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s gracious welcome and the open seat waiting at the table in God’s family.”

I wonder if evangelical Christians are the ones most likely to be like the older brother?

That we can easily hold a pretty good opinion of ourselves? We serve others, we are committed to community, we study the Bible both personally and academically, we give money, we engage in mission, we go to prayer meetings, we read Christian books, we preach grace  ….

But all too gradually the place of confession and repentance within personal and church life can get displaced. Not deliberately of course; more by omission than conscious rejection.  But it can be marginalised nevertheless – in the hymns we sing, in the absence of corporate and personal confession, in our growth orientated ‘success culture’ .

Comments, as ever, welcome.