Thursday, April 23, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 32: Christ For Culture in a Post-Christian World

Issues Facing Missions Today 32: Christ For Culture in a Post-Christian World

Just how should Christians engage culture in a post-Christian age?  This is the question of mission to the Western world.  This brief consideration of the question will begin with H. Richard Niebuhr’s work on this subject and then proceed to three suggestions.

H. Richard Niebuhr and His ‘Christ and Culture’ Paradigms

For over sixty years, now, academics have appealed to or started with the five paradigms of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to discuss the question of the relation between the Church and culture.[1]  Niebuhr thought any one of the paradigms could be derived from Scripture and articulated theologically, but he clearly preferred the ‘Christ transforming option.’  The following chart offers a brief way to represent his categories.

Christ Against Culture

Christ Above Culture

Christ Transforming Culture

Christ and Culture in Paradox

Christ of Culture
Church opposes and lives distinct from culture
Church controls culture
Church works to transform culture
Life in the Church and in society are somewhat distinct
Culture controls life in the Church

The word ‘transformation’ has become the way in which everyone speaks about his or her way to engage society and culture.  Thus, one of the major problems with Niebuhr’s categories is that each paradigm can be represented as a way to transform culture, not just the one getting the lucky label ‘Christ Transforming Culture’.  Anabaptists, for example, would most naturally be placed in the ‘Christ Against Culture’ category.  However, their view may offer the most hopeful way to transform culture and not be cast simply as a way to disengage with the wider culture.[2]  Living ‘against the grain’ may offer a ‘Christ for Culture’ alternative to Niebuhr’s five paradigms.  As E. R. Dodds argued in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Christianity won out over the other European religions in its first few centuries for the following reasons:[3]

  1. It was exclusivistic, offering a dogmatic faith within a syncretistic culture;
  2. It was socially inclusive, being open to all economic groups, races, and not just to men (as Mithraism) but also women, children, and slaves;
  3. It raised the stakes, offering life in Christ or eternal damnation;
  4. It offered a loving community of mutual concern.
 Another problem with Niebuhr’s categories is that they are not all options Biblically—and neither are the various options within each paradigm that some have adopted in Church history.[4]  This is not just a matter of the exegesis of particular texts in Scripture but also a matter of having some understanding of hermeneutics (how we use Scripture) and Biblical theology (how the diverse authors and writings of Scripture over time fit together coherently).  One cannot merely slap a text onto a model and claim that it is Biblical.  Most significantly, the move from God’s people as a theocracy in the Old Testament to a Church throughout the world in the New Testament, and the new identity of God’s people as shaped by the cross of Christ, lead to a radically different use of and approach to particular Scriptural passages.  As Christians, for example, we would feel uncomfortable with the exilic prayer of Israel in Babylon that concludes with

Psalm 137.9 ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’

precisely because Jesus said,

Matthew 5.44 ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Three (Related) Suggestions

As Christianity (which originated in the Middle East as a fulfillment in Jesus Christ of the hopes of Israel) finds itself the despised parent of Western culture, it needs to engage in all seriousness the question of how it will relate to its wayward child.  This is a very large discussion, to be sure.  I will, therefore, offer only a few of the many things that need to be suggested in a longer reflection.

            A Minority Identity

First, as John Howard Yoder began to teach Evangelicals in the 1970s, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a ‘majority.’[5]  These forty years later, most Evangelicals in the United States have still not made this shift in their thinking.  They still want to grasp the levers of power, defend territory as ‘Christian’, hope to appoint Christians to high office, ‘retake’ the schools, pray confessionally in public places before diverse audiences, insist that Christmas is their holy day and not the major retail holiday of Western capitalism, and support military troops no matter the war or the cause simply because ‘God and country’ go together like pancakes and syrup.  Once we realize that Christians are not a majority (as European Christians know full well!), that this really never was the case, and that this certainly will not be the case going forward, we will be free to offer that counter-testimony to culture that finally, really engages culture and, therefore, may actually bring some degree of transformation—as in the early Church.  Once we realize this, then we begin to understand that in discussions of social issues, the word ‘we’ means ‘we as Christians,’ not ‘we as citizens of this or that country.’  This is no more anti-patriotic or against culture than Paul, who could understand ‘we’ to mean ‘Christians’ while still speaking of being subject to those in authority through paying taxes, showing respect, and honouring those to whom honour is owed (Romans 13.1-7).  (Na├»ve patriotism will, of course, be criticized repeatedly by people who want more for their country than the status quo.)  Paul, who was ultimately beheaded by the Romans, could say in his lifetime,

1 Timothy 2.1-2 ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.’

Prayer for those in high positions is not an endorsement of what they do but a prayer that they do what is right and not make life too difficult for believers.

            Ministry to Culture (‘Christ for Culture’)

Second, precisely by understanding ‘we’ as a minority group distinct from culture, believers can minister to culture more significantly.  Medical personnel, for example, might see themselves as citizens of a given country, but their ‘office’ as healers commits them to help persons on either side of a conflict.  Christians, likewise, have an ‘office’—or, better, a role—in the world as ones through whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to all peoples, including enemies.  The further removed culture is from Christianity, the more Christian justice and righteousness, defined by Scripture and the witness of the Church through the ages, will look foreign, impractical, and even unjust and unrighteous.  But it will, for that reason, stand out more starkly in the culture.  As Paul says, ‘When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible’ (Ephesians 5.13)—meaning that Christians should take no part in the darkness of their culture but expose it for what it is.  The early Christians intentionally and inevitably engaged the world while being careful not to take ahold of the world’s wiles or ways.  Jesus said,

John 17:15 ‘I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.’

Maintaining Convictions and Practices

Thus, third, by understanding their identity in Christ as a unique identity, distinct from the cultures of the world, Christians can maintain their convictions and practices more intentionally.  This does not (except in cases of severe persecution) entail life as some obscure sect hiding from the wicked society but it may well mean living as a light on a hill and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.13-16).  Paul, too, warned believers not to be ‘conformed to this world’ precisely because, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ—the mercies of God—it was now possible to be ‘transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Romans 12.2).  Early Christians saw this transformation as a foretaste of the resurrection from the dead, for already they began to live the new, Christian life.  They could say to one another, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (Ephesians 5.14).


The Church’s mission is not a saving message to individuals that can easily fit into whatever culture there is.  It is often a radical clash of cultures precisely because it entails Christians identifying themselves over against culture as a minority group, seeing their role not as a separation from or domination of culture but offering Christ for culture, and maintaining their own convictions and practices.  Pagan sacrifices to other gods and spirits cease, injustices are called out, the ways and means to achieve good ends are upended by the cross,[6] and society is not strong-armed into God’s Kingdom but God’s people witness by their confession of faith and community (their ‘economics’ and ‘politics’) what God’s in-breaking Kingdom means for the culture of their day.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1951).
[2] See, e.g., Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995).
[3] E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (1965).
[4] Readers might pursue this point by reading Donald Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
[5] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
[6] See, for example, Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

Monday, March 30, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 31: Post-Christian Culture and Changes in the Workplace

Issues Facing Missions Today 31: Post-Christian Culture and Changes in the Workplace

In this post, I would like to compare the challenges facing Christians in the workplace around AD 200 and today.  Both contexts involve Christians living as a minority group within a larger society.  The former period is represented in the writings of Tertullian, who advised Christians how to live in a pre-Christian society.  Does Tertullian give us some food for thought as we increasingly realize in the West that we live in a post-Christian society?

The Christian author, Tertullian, addressed the issue of how the minority Christian group should maintain its convictions in the pagan workplace.  He wrote in an era of idolatry and persecution.  In On Idolatry, Tertullian discussed certain types of work that he believed Christians could not do because they involved a compromise of their faith.  While some occupations were acceptable to Christians, others were clearly not.

Obviously, Christians were not to participate in idolatry.  Yet certain areas of work not directly a matter of idolatry would nevertheless involve supporting idolatry.  Christians were not to make idols, and any new believer insisting he or she had no other means by which to live was to be dismissed from Christian community for being complicit with idolaters (ch. 5).  Tertullian lists other examples of work that persons should not do.  The builder should not construct an idol’s house.  Painters, marble masons, bronze workers, engravers, carvers, and gilders all had jobs that potentially involved complicity with idolatry (ch. 8).  Imagine a builder building a house and being asked to construct an area in the house for the household god, let alone being asked to build a public shrine to a god or goddess.  Another example of a ‘minister of idolatry’ for Tertuallian was a person handing wine to another sacrificing to some god (ch. 17).  Persons can, he argued, engage in work that could in theory expose someone to idolatry if in fact they take care to avoid this.  One might, for example, avoid procuring animals for idol sacrifices or avoid assigning persons to clean temples or oversee tributes given at the temples.  And a person might avoid putting on entertainment related to idolatry.

Tertullian also examined whether a Christian might have anything to do with the military.  While a soldier might be involved in idolatry through oaths and sacrifices--and therefore Christians should have no part in this--he also ruled out any Christian’s involvement in the military because it involved killing (ch. 19).  In another work, On the Crown, Tertullian stated that Christians could not be soldiers because the Lord proclaims that all who use the sword will perish by the sword (ch. 11).  This was not the belief of Tertullian alone in the first three centuries—before the Emperor Constantine encouraged Christian participation in the military.  In fact, the early Church was decided pacifist (see George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service).  Once the Church was accepted and approved, even becoming a majority force within the government’s activities, concerns such as Tertullian’s faded.  Thus began the long era known as Christendom in Europe and the Americas.  Another area where Tertullian found Christians facing a compromise of their faith was in taking loans.  Christians, Tertullian stated, should not borrow money from non-Christians because pledges were made in the name of the pagan gods (On Idolatry, ch. 23).

During the period of Christendom, when the West imagined (it regularly failed) that it lived by Christian rules of justice, Christians took on some activities that no Christian of the first three centuries would have considered options for believers, such as military service.  In the present period of post-Christianity, believers and unbelievers are having to work out new lines and ways of disagreement.  The rules are presently focused on Christian ethics more than Christian faith.  Christians are not being forced to deny Christ and sacrifice a chicken to the Emperor!  But they are finding direct challenges to their moral convictions, including challenges from state and federal governments.

All this is happening at a time when the primary moral virtue championed by the Enlightenment, freedom, is subtly being replaced with a postmodern ethic of tolerance and non-discrimination.  The progression is logical, but also antithetical.  One might, for example, argue that protecting a person’s freedom goes hand in hand with being a tolerant society that discriminates against no one.  That logic existed up until the recent past because of the Enlightenment.  In a postmodern context, however, an ethic of tolerance trumps personal freedom.

So, for example, a ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ became federal law in the United States in 1993.  The law restricts laws that ‘substantially burden’ a person’s freedom to act according to his or her religion.  Because the Supreme Court restricted the act to laws that the federal government made, not states,[1] a number of states have passed their own ‘RFRA’ laws.  This week, the state of Indiana became one of a number of states to pass such a law.[2]  The law in Indiana intends to extend the federal law to the state's law (although some have tried to argue that it is different--I do not believe that it is).  The federal law in 1993 was virtually unanimously approved by all parties, but the present Indiana law has been vigorously opposed.  The reason for this opposition is that the Indiana law has been seen as a way in which persons or businesses might refuse services to homosexuals.  So, people might argue, because I do not want to, in Tertullian's words, put on entertainment for a celebration I disapprove of because of my religious convictions, I should not be compelled to do so.

The development from 1993 to 2015 seems to be that freedom has, for many, been replaced by not only tolerance but an activist interpretation of what tolerance entails: persons must tolerate others (actually, certain others).  In such a world, Tertullian’s Christian builder would be required to build pagan temples, or the Christian metal worker or wood worker would be required to fashion idols if customers requested them to do so.  American society is presently asking whether the government should enforce a certain practice of ‘tolerance’ by compelling the baker to bake cakes, the photographer to take pictures, or the florist to prepare flowers for homosexual weddings.

The governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, asks in response to opponents of his state’s new law, ‘Is tolerance a two-way street or not?’  Another way to ask this question is whether individuals have freedom, particularly religious freedom, or whether society can compel persons to act against their convictions in order to ensure a particular practice of tolerance.  In antiquity, Christians were periodically required on pain of death to sacrifice to the emperor.  Many Christians were martyred. Christians also found themselves, as Tertullian explains, having to disengage from various types of jobs because of their Christian convictions.  The similarity today is that Christians are once again having to determine which jobs are not open to them in the wider society and are once again being persecuted for refusing to perform certain acts required by the government to which they are opposed because of their faith.  The difference is that pagan society was protecting its religious tradition against Christians, whereas today religion itself, of any sort and particularly Christian, is viewed as the enemy of the so-called tolerant society.

Another issue arises in the present debate in American society.  The understanding of religion is largely that it is a matter of private belief--like a philosophy--without implications for practice and activities.  The privitization of religion was largely what made the deistic version of American religion work in the public square: people could hold whatever thoughts they wished--even speak about them publicly (freedom of speech), but all that was just a private matter of belief.  This is not, of course, religion--not of any sort.  What Christians are being expected to do in the present climate is to keep their beliefs to themselves while engaging in all the activities of society at large.  However, beliefs are not convictions if they do not make a difference in one's actions and practices.

Just how Christians are to proceed in this climate is complicated.  Yet one thing is clear: compromising our faith is not an option, even if society will not protect our freedom to live according to our convictions and will insist that we perform certain acts against these convictions.  The challenge that we ourselves increasingly face is to begin to sort out what professions are no longer open to believers.  We have lived a cozy life with the larger society and governments for centuries.  In some cases, exceptions to our faith were allowed, even encouraged.  The pressure to make compromises is increasing quickly in a post-Christian society.  Now, the difference between the Christian life and the larger society is increasingly more obvious.  This will—it already has—led to rethinking what it means to be a Christian in such society.

Instead of asking in such a climate, ‘Would it not be better if the President were a Christian?’ we might now find ourselves asking if a president, a commander in chief, can ever be a Christian.  We might begin to discover that views of justice and morality sympathetic to the Christian faith will never receive majority approval in a democracy.  We might ask whether the mission of the minority Christian community is to take the Gospel rather than guns to the world.  We might need to ask whether our jobs are directly or indirectly supporting an agenda that actually opposes the commandments of God.  Can Christian colleges continue to take federal loans and have government work-study programmes if the government forces the colleges to act against their Christian values?  Should Christian counselors mute sharing their Christian convictions in the counseling context lest they be perceived to be abusing the authority they have as counselors?  Can faithful Christian pediatricians join pediatric practices that include doctors who perform abortions?  More and more, Christians are having to realize that their faith limits their options in business in a post-Christian world, and perhaps they will begin to see that what they had deemed acceptable in a pseudo-Christian world really never was an option for Christians in the first place.

Christians may find themselves disagreeing over some of the conclusions reached on these issues.  I, for one, tend to side with Tertullian.  Jesus prayed, 'I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one' (John 17:14-15).  Christians do need to ask how to live according to this prayer, to live in the world but not of the world.  This is particularly important in a climate where even the ethic of freedom championed in the Enlightenment—an ethic that brought some protection—is now undermined by a pro-active ethic of ‘tolerance’ that, ironically, excludes Christian convictions and practices while particular, non-Christian social agendas are advanced.

[1] The case stipulating this was City of Boerne vs. Flores in 1997.
[2] Indiana General Assembly Senate Bill 568.  Online (accessed 30 May, 2015):

Friday, March 20, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 30: A City on a Hill; But Jack Fell Down and Broke His Crown

Issues Facing Missions Today 30: A City on a Hill; But Jack Fell Down and Broke His Crown 

Three news items regarding the Church and its mission this month stood out as examples of churches giving up their position of being a city on a hill for the nations.  Each is a Jack or Jill tumbling down the hill, leaving behind the water of life above in order to have fellowship with the world below, giving up its witness.  The path taken by three churches caving to cultural pressures does not seem to be a lonely one, however.  I will simply report the stories to the extent that I know about them and then juxtapose an alternative, Biblical vision for the witness of God’s people to the world.

The first story comes out of San Francisco, a city that shares some of the notoriety that was once the dishonor of ancient Corinth.  As we might imagine John would have written to the church (cf. Rev. 2-3), ‘To the angel of the Church of San Francisco, write, “Stand fast in the city of sexual permissiveness.  I know that some of you have yielded to her sins.  Repent, I say.  But to everyone who stands fast and does not falter, I will give permission to eat of the tree of life.’

It is, then, no wonder that we hear a sad story about a church in San Francisco this past week, a church caving in to the culture, choosing to remove the stumbling block of righteousness that it might have fellowship with the world.  The Religion News Service announced on 16 March that a ‘Prominent San Francisco evangelical church drops celibacy requirement for LGBT members.’[1]  Fred Harrell, Sr, the senior pastor of City Church (of the Reformed Church in America) stated the church’s new position in a letter: ‘We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining’ (March 13).  Apparently, walking in the ways of the Lord is an example of discrimination.  Harrell further explained that the church’s new ethic was adopted for communal (not Biblical) reasons.  He wrote,

‘Imagine feeling this from your family or religious community.  If you stay, you must accept celibacy with no hope that you too might one day enjoy the fullness of intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical companionship.  If you pursue a lifelong partnership, you are rejected. This is simply not working and people are being hurt.  We must listen and respond.’

The article points out that City Church has followed the logic of two other ‘Evangelical’ churches in removing the requirement of celibacy for homosexual members—Grace Pointe Church in Nashville, Tennessee and East Lake Community Church in Seattle, Washington. One might also mention the same decision at World Vision last year, although the organization reversed its decision a short time later.  The Religion News Service article closes with a quote from Laura Turner, City Church’s communication’s coordinator: ‘Telling LGBT people they have to change before they can become Christians is leading to depression, suicide and addiction and we won’t do that anymore.’  We have here two alleged reasons for these decisions: exclusion undermines community, and calling sinners sinful can lead to suicide.

Whatever one wishes to say about these arguments (and they do beg for a response!), what is missing in the discussion, at least as it is here presented, is any reference to Scripture.  Therein lies the great mistake in designating these churches ‘Evangelical’ at all.  Of course, a leopard might imagine itself a lion, but it is still a leopard.  An essential part of any definition of ‘Evangelical’ is that theology and ethics are Biblical first and foremost.  Careful scrutiny of the Scriptures, and then setting them aside for more compelling concerns about community and psychology does not qualify as Evangelical—that is, in fact, an exit from the Evangelical movement.  Not a few bizarre, even heretical teachings can be found in the Evangelical movement (e.g., the Prosperity ‘Gospel’), but what binds the lot together is that all believe that they are following Scripture.  There are disagreements among Evangelicals over doctrine and, to a much lesser degree, over ethics, but all make their arguments from the Scriptures.  There have been attempts by all sorts to explain away the Biblical passages addressing homosexuality, but the arguments flare up for a minute and burn out just as quickly, only to be replaced by other vain attempts to mute the Scriptures and the convictions of the Church for over two thousand years.  Undoubtedly, some Evangelicals will be confused by all this—even convinced by it for a time—but they will have to reckon soon enough with mistaken exegesis if the Bible is truly their authority.  With City Church, however, we have a setting aside of Biblical authority in order to cater to the pressures from a post-Christian culture.

A second story in the news this past week also had to do with homosexuality.  A majority of presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church, USA—a denomination of just under 2 million in the United States—voted to excise words from the Book of Common Order that had previously defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.[2]  The Book of Common Order will now permit homosexual ‘marriage’ with the following, open-ended wording:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family.  Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.  The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.

In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society.  In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

This is different from the City Church story because the denomination has been on the decline for decades as Evangelicals and others leave.  Finally enough people upholding Biblical truth have departed the denomination that those remaining can change theology and ethics from the historic teachings of the Church.  Like City Church, there is no mention of Scripture.  Whereas City Church is trying to attract people from the culture by setting aside Biblical standards, the PCUSA is already the culture. It is a chameleon of culture, a kind of religious expression of the liberal American culture.  In doing this, the PCUSA is, of course, not alone.  Nor is America alone among Western countries with this cultural pressure.  The PCUSA now officially joins the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (‘Evangelical’ being a word for Lutherans, not having anything to do with what everybody else means by the word!), and the Episcopal Church—all declining denominations that have adopted the culture’s values and jettisoned Biblical authority.  They are proud owners of the ruins of what once was a city shining on a hill.

A third story this month came on 6th March, when the vicar of St. John’s, Waterloo in Southwark had the grand idea to hold a joint service with Muslims.  According to the story reported by Madeleine Davies for Church Times, the vicar, Canon Giles Goddard, concluded the service with an attempt to identify the God of Christians with Allah.  He said, ‘Allah, God, is always with us and always around us, and is within us….  So let us celebrate our shared traditions by giving thanks to the God that we love, Allah, Amen.'  The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, quickly investigated and corrected the breach of polity, and Canon Goddard was led to apologize for allowing Muslim prayers in a consecrated church.[3]  One wonders if anyone thought the theology might be in error as well.

Each of these headline stories this month represents the increasing pressure of culture on the Church in the West to conform to its values.  Yet the Biblical vision for God’s people is not conformity to but witness to the world.  Isaiah, the 8th century prophet of Israel, spoke oracles against the sinful nations and against sinful Israel for her conformity to the sinful nations.  His vision for what God expected of his people was of a city on a hill to which the nations streamed to learn the ways of God.  He says,

Isaiah 2:2-3 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Ethics is mission.  If we dilute God’s righteous requirements to attract those who will have nothing of them, we may have community—even large churches—but we will not only have turned off the lights on the hill and silenced God’s revelation of himself through us to the world. We will also have tumbled down the hill to become one with the world. 

Let Evangelicals—all orthodox Christians—rather say with Isaiah, ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!’ (Isaiah 2.5).  Only then, as Jesus says, will we, his disciples, be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a city on a hill that cannot be hid (Mt. 5.13-14).

[1] See article by this title by Kimberly Winston.  Accessed online (20 March, 2015):
[2] See Melody Smith, ‘Presbyterian Church (USA) approves marriage amendment,’ March 17, 2015.  Accessed online (20 March, 2015):
[3] Madeleine Davies, ‘Canon Goddard apologises for Muslim prayers in his church,’ in Church Times, 18 March 2015.  Accessed online (20 March, 2015):

Monday, February 23, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?

Issues Facing Missions Today 29: What is Biblical Marriage?


Reflection on the creation stories of Genesis 1.1-2.3 and 2.4-25—which are, of course, intended to be read together—helps us to understand a Biblical view of marriage.  Three key aspects of marriage emerge from the stories.  Marriage is between complementary beings of the same human species that form a permanent union: male and female.  Marriage is for the purpose of procreation and flourishing within creation.  And marriage involves the responsibility of exercising authority within the order of creation.  Each of these points can be explored with reference to the understanding of being created in God’s image in Gen. 1.26ff.  Moreover, in light of the cultural confusion regarding marriage in Western countries, that marriage so understood cannot apply to homosexual unions any more than sexual unions between humans and animals is a clear corollary of what is stated in the Biblical account of creation. Yet, to claim that marriage is not a social construction but must be understand in terms of God's purposes in creation has become in the West an opportunity for the Church to make the missional proclamation that God is Creator.

The Image of God and Creation:

In Gen. 1.26ff, being created in the image of God has to do with two things: multiplication for the flourishing of God’s creation and the stewardship of God’s created order by those given responsibility.  As these two functions involve male and female working together, a third aspect of being created in the image of God needs to be appreciated: the necessary unity of male and female.  Multiplication is not possible without the union of male and female.  Neither can produce offspring without the other.  With this understanding of being created in God's image, we have three key parts to any understanding of marriage: (1) the 'one flesh' unity of male and female; (2) multiplication for the flourishing of the species, and (3) oversight of God’s created order.

The first creation story (Gen. 1.1-2.3) emphasizes the binary roles of God’s good creation.  The work of the first three days of creation involves separations of the realms for what will later be created.  Only with these separations will fruitfulness and multiplication be possible and chaos be avoided.  There are the separations of (day 1) the day and night, (day 2) the waters of the sky and the waters of the earth, and (day 3) the dry land and the waters.  The text of Genesis elaborates at this point to emphasize that such binary distinctions permitted the vegetation of the earth to flourish (Gen. 1.11-12).  Vegetation needs daylight, rain, and earth.  Without such separations, the world is chaotic and cannot flourish.

The next three days of creation focus on authority/oversight of certain rulers related to each of the first three days of creation.  Thus, (day 4) lights are made to populate the day and night separation, and a sun is created to rule the day and a moon to rule the night on the fourth day of creation.  Then (day 5), the creatures that dwell in and rule the realm of the waters on the earth are created and commanded to multiply and flourish.  Complementing these fish and sea creatures are the creatures made to rule the realm of the sky--the birds. Finally, (day 6), land creatures are formed to occupy the land realm of the third day of creation.  Then, to rule over all the occupants of the different realms, God created humankind.  These six days of creation, moreover, have their complement in the one day of rest, the Sabbath.

Marriage: Union, Procreation, Authority

Being created in God’s image entails an understanding of the flourishing that derives from marriage.  This flourishing begins with the union of male and female.  It continues with procreation—the multiplication of the species.  And it further entails the right exercise of authority according to God’s purposes.


First, marriage entails a unity through complementarity of binary authorities, just as in the rest of creation.  Only such an understanding of unity makes multiplication possible, and only multiplication of the species makes dominion of the rest of creation possible.  Any other attempt at unity apart from the coming together of male and female will fail: multiplication is impossible, and the right rule of God’s ordered creation is impossible.  Instead, the species would die out and the order of creation would turn to chaos.

In the microcosm of the family, for God's purpose in creation to be accomplished marriage must first be understood in terms of the complementarity of male and female.  They are both created in God's image.  They both have authority.  Their differences allow for their unity.  This is a point made especially in the second creation story, where it is said that the cleaving of male and female entails becoming one flesh (Gen. 2.24).[1]  For Jesus, this fact argues against divorce (Mt. 19.4-6).[2]  For Paul, this points to the fact that sexual immorality with prostitutes is sin (1 Cor. 6.16.[3]  Both Jesus and Paul insist, on the basis of Gen. 2.24, that marriage is permanent.  And, in Eph. 5.21-33, Paul argues that this passage points to the respect of the wife for the husband and the love of the husband for the wife within marriage.  If a person does not abuse his own body, the one-flesh union of husband and wife should also produce the same love and respect seen between Christ and the Church.  Paul makes this point in a larger context in which he is explaining the reign of Christ’s peace and the unity it brings in various relationships (between God and humanity, 2.1-11; Jews and Gentiles, 2.12-3.10; within the church, 4.1-6.9; and in the face of spiritual warfare, 6.10-18).  Within the church is the family relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, and masters and slaves (5.21-6.9), and these are all places where strife may erupt but where Christ brings peace.  The first two relationships are not social constructions but part of God’s intention in creation: male and female in marriage, parents and children as the fruit of marriage.  Thus, marriage is a result of God’s intention to produce unity through complementarity.[4]


Secondly, marriage allows multiplication through procreation to take place--an essential part of creation.  Again, complementarity is required for there to be sexual union that results in offspring.  This understanding of the purpose of marriage explains why Jesus says that there is to be no marriage in the resurrection (Mt. 22.30): in the life to come, there is no further mandate to multiply.  This does not reduce sex to having children, but it does explain where the emphasis lies: marriage is union between a male and a female.  Thus, a Biblical view of sex makes clear that it is not to be pursued with others outside of marriage.  This also explains why the Old Testament reports sexual union outside of marriage when the wife is barren for the purpose of procreation (as with a handmaid or a deceased brother's widow).  Sex also has the purpose within marriage of being the way to address God-given sexual desire (1 Cor. 7.2-5).


Thirdly, coming together in the union of male and female and then multiplying by having offspring leads to consideration of another function of marriage: the exercise of oversight and authority according to God’s order in creation.  The primary focus of the Genesis story of creation in this regard has to do with the authority of human beings created in God’s image over the rest of creation.  Yet it is not a stretch in an essay on marriage to focus on the authority parents exercise over children to raise them up in the way they should go according to God’s purposes.  Children need to be raised, not just left to find their own way, and the ability of a couple to raise their children in the right way is an example of their exercise of right authority in God’s creation.  This function—exercising a role of oversight—reflects being created in the image of God.  In fact, Paul says that someone should not be given the authority or responsibility to exercise oversight in the church if he lacks control over his own household--that is, if the children are not submissive and respectful (1 Tim. 3.4).  Whether in the family itself or in the church as a family, proper oversight is a function of being created in the image of God.

False ‘Marriage’

These three things--(1) unity of male and female; (2) multiplication; and (3) raising children--explain why certain other sexual acts are considered sinful in Scripture.  Bestiality, homosexuality, premarital sexual acts, and adultery are all outside of marriage.  Such acts cannot constitute marriage in the Biblical sense.  First, they represent precisely the chaos God overcame in His act of creation.  Homosexual or bestial sexual acts make as much sense as having no distinction between day and night, sky and water, land and sea.  Homosexual unions make as much sense as having two suns (or two moons) instead of a sun and a moon or no distinction between the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air.  They are simply wrongly ordered unions.  Secondly, homosexual unions cannot result in the mandate to multiply and flourish upon the earth as a species.  Thirdly, since they reject proper ordering, they cannot result in proper oversight and authority, they constitute a failed stewardship of creation.  They are no context in which to raise children in the ways of God precisely because they are a rejection of creation authority itself.


In conclusion, Jews and Christians have a clear teaching on marriage from the creation accounts in Genesis 1.1-2.25.  I have, to some extent, explained how such a view is consistently maintained in the Old Testament, Jewish Scriptures and by the early Church, as reflected in the New Testament.  The Biblical view of marriage is based on an understanding of creation itself and of being created in the image of God.  Jews and Christians who follow the teaching of Scripture insist, therefore, that marriage is not something we can define however we wish but only in terms of what God intended in his creation.  Biblical marriage entails a permanent union between a male and a female, the multiplication through procreation of our species that we might flourish, and an authority or stewardship over the order God established in His creation.  This third point leads to an understanding of marriage that entails an understanding of family that entails the oversight over children that parents give in their role as God’s image-bearers.  For various reasons, others might come under parental rule in the family—what we might consider an ‘extended family’.  Oversight, in fact, extends to all of creation, not just authority in the home.  Yet it is an authority that entails stewardship according to God’s purposes in creation; not an authority to exercise over against or independently from God’s purposes.  The lure of the serpent in Genesis 3 was precisely the lure of exercising divine authority like a god rather than under God’s authority.  The serpent enticed Eve to disobey God’s command and become like God in the exercise of independent authority.  Thus a disordered rule—say, of two men living as though they were husband and wife—is, first, a rule of chaos in the mixing of things that should be separated; second, a sexual perversion that cannot result in offspring; and, third, an abuse of God-given authority by ruling apart from and against God’s order in this world.

Can this argument be made outside the community of faith that understands Scripture as God’s Word?  To some extent, the argument can be put forward without the assumptions of a faith community.  Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher in the 1st c. AD, for example, put forward a similar argument.  He was neither Jewish nor Christian but argued on the grounds of what was ‘according to nature’.  However, Paul, in his day, held out little hope of making such arguments apart from persons first coming to faith.  He states that the minds of persons who have denied God as the creator of this world are sufficiently confused that they will think things obviously unnatural to be natural (Rom. 1.18-28)—as, indeed, we hear argued in our day as well.  The redefinition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex unions in the West in our day actually goes against the convictions of cultures throughout time.[5]  We are faced with a confusion of the created order that appears to go beyond what the early Christians experienced.  Indeed, the West typically lacks those who might make general arguments such as Epictetus did,[6] it included Jews and Christians who disregard Scripture or who readily twist its meanings for their own ends,[7] and it argues not according to how things are but according to how they wish things to be.[8]  Truth is now thought to be constructed, and tolerance of diversity has become intolerance of the truth.  In such a context, Biblical marriage cannot be mandated, and the laws of the land will not support it.  However, Biblical marriage can now become a counter-cultural witness, and practicing it can now become a part of the Church’s mission.  By it, Christians proclaim, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.’

[1] Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
[2] Matthew 19:4-6 4 He [Jesus] answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'  5 and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?  6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh."
[4] Paul—and his audience—assumes complementarity here.  His point is that Christ establishes the unity that God intends in every sphere of creation.  He does not argue that egalitarianism will accomplish unity.  In the case of husband and wife, though, he establishes that God created male and female to be ‘one flesh’ through marriage and that Christ makes this possible.
[5] This is not to say that the pre-Christian world of Greece and Rome did not know of such things.  Same-sex marital unions were, however, unique enough to attract comment.  (One example might be the second satire of Juvenal.)
[6] However, there is an excellent article that explores social and legal arguments in particular and considers a wide range of issues in the public debate on marriage that I can recommend.  See Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan T. Anderson, "What is Marriage?", in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 2010): 247-287.  Online: file:///C:/Users/rgrams/Downloads/SSRN-id1722155.pdf.
[7]  The same day this was written, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly restated the Church's view on marriage: it is 'between one man and one woman for life and sexual activity should be confined to marriage, that's in the Church of England's laws.'  [See Emma McKinney's 23 February, 2015 article 'Archbishop of Canterbury on gays: 'Who am I to judge them for their sins, if they have sins?' in Birmingham' in the Birmingham mail.  See:]  Sadly, however, when pressed on what he thought about homosexuality, he stated that he 'struggled' with his views on the matter and was trying to 'listen' to what the 'Spirit of God is trying to tell us.'  Of course, listening to the Spirit is what we all want to do.  But to suggest as much in this context appears to mean that he has so far failed to see what the Spirit has said in Scripture and what the Spirit-led Church has understood throughout its history.  It suggests that the Spirit may be invoked as a theological gambit to engage in endless dialogue over against Scripture and orthodox theology.  This was only confirmed in the same interview when the Archbishop, Justin Welby, further stated the following regarding homosexuality: "I see my own selfishness and weakness and think who am I [to] judge them for their sins, if they have sins."  He then added that we should not demonise, dismiss, and hate one another.  Such a statement appears to be an instance of believing that sin as it is clearly stated in Scripture must now be viewed as a sin of hating others.  This is actually a fairly typical waffling on the issue which is possible in a political and postmodern world.  Yet it is an impossible position to hold for a teacher of Scripture or a representative of the historic Christian faith.
[8] In the case of the current US government, the argument is, predictably, based on the Modernistic, totalizing argument of liberation and natural rights.  Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced on 23 February, 2015 the appointment of Randy Berry as his envoy to promote LGBT ‘rights’.  Intellectual colonialism is the imposition of perspectives by a powerful nation using its resources on weaker nations to force them to submit and acknowledge its superiority.  How ironic that this is done in the name of ‘liberation’ or ‘human rights’.  See the article by Associated Press reporter Josh Lederman, ‘Kerry Names Randy Berry as First Global Envoy for LGBT Rights,’ online:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry

Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry


Part of my role in ministry, which especially includes theological education and involvement with mission groups, has entailed figuring out how to minister through an intentional community of disciples of Jesus Christ.  This has been a life-long pursuit, and I’m fully aware of the challenges this side of Paradise!  In this brief blog post, I would like to highlight several distinctions that might help others—including myself and my colleagues.  This is not formal research, and it is not much based on some body of literature.  It is mainly born out of my own experience and thoughts.

I would like to frame these thoughts around a distinction I first came across decades ago in Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.’s A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics.[1]  Long suggests that there are three ways in which to consider and pursue moral change: the institutional, operational, and intentional community.  I have found these useful when considering issues not only in ethics but also for ministry and missions.

The Institutional Model

The institutional model is well represented in the residential seminary, the institutional Church, a large law firm or business, and so forth.  Part of its appeal is often, in fact, its physical structure and campus.  An institution develops bureaucratically, with its committees and clearly written statements of quality assurance and procedures.  Authority is located in certain offices, and members of the institution relate to persons in their official positions.  Pay scales are variegated to reflect the status of the office a person holds, and there is typically a large discrepancy in pay between the chief executive officer and the secretary.  In my experience, the theological seminary that I have worked for in the US from time to time well represents this model of organization.  Some professors are paid more than others, administrators may be paid more than professors, and some serving the institution may be paid close to minimum wage.  This model produces a lot of reporting—when applied to public schools, as it usually is—students are frequently tested and teachers have to fill out a lot of paperwork to keep a paper trail for an investigating committee to follow to be assured that students have personal educational plans and that measures have been taken to implement them.  Mission committees that relate to their supported missionaries by having them fill out forms about goals and performance are moving in an impersonal, institutional direction.  

The institutional model is difficult to change, and people sometimes find that they are viewed as employees or workers contributing to a great system.  There was once a president of a seminary that began his brief tenure in that position by telling his faculty that they are just employees of the seminary.  Churches that experience growth into mega-church sizes perhaps inevitably gravitate towards the institutional model.  The institutional model is concerned about what is effective, but at times it struggles to make this a priority over what is expected.  Either way, what is morally right frequently dissolves before effectiveness and expectations.  At times, individuals are ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good of the institution—the word ‘restructuring’ is often used for this.  Establishing residential institutions to train ministers can be a way of shaping persons in community, but the costs often outweigh the benefits, and proper training for ministry cannot be done by separating people into an academic institution that then struggles to give its students some slight exposure to actual ministry during their years of study.  An institution can, alternatively, be non-residential and engage the church in its ministries more in the training of students.  However, non-residential institutions struggle to develop meaningful community among the students, who are shaped more by the local church—which is fine, unless that context is actually unhealthy.

The Operational Model

The operational model is somewhat more descriptive (although not in every aspect) of mission organizations.  By ‘operational,’ Long means that the means of moral change is what is effective, not what is official.  In military terms, one might think in terms of the sleek, clandestine, highly trained operations force over against the air craft carrier.  Or one might think of James Bond, the secret agent—someone operating outside the rules, guided by what is effective more than anything else.  Missionaries often fit into a more operational model as well, although with a clearer sense of right and wrong than Mr. Bond!  They are given freedom to assess the situation on the ground and take appropriate action.  This is why they often chafe at the expectations of written reporting by supporting churches, mission agencies, or field directors and much prefer face-to-face reporting—although even that is difficult for the ‘operator’.  Reporting itself requires being ‘pulled out’ of the ‘field of operation’ in order to do so.  Missionaries struggle immensely with bureaucracy—and it they do not, they may be ill-suited for mission work.  When churches want to peg missionaries in terms of a precise form of work that they do, a precise place where they work, or some other such specific definition, this can undercut the reality the missionary experiences, which may involve starting new works, going to new places, forming new partnerships, and so forth.  What is needed is not so much an accounting of work done but a confidence in the person himself or herself—that he has the skills, calling, heart, and is rightly equipped and enabled to be effective.  Of paramount importance in evaluating someone in an operational model for ethics or mission is effectiveness, a slippery term that can be defined in various ways.  (Was Billy Graham’s mass evangelism more effective than the faithful witness of a believer in a country hostile to the Gospel who had only a few converts?  It depends on what we mean by ‘effective’!) 

Theological education is going through a crisis as problems arise with the institutional model—as in much of higher education.  Online education, which ten years ago appeared to be easy and sleazy, can now produce more effective educational experiences (not just teaching of content and methods) than many classroom experiences.  Professors are finding that online forum interaction can produce better interaction than in-class discussions, for example.  Technology of various sorts can improve the presentation of content and methodological material and give students the opportunity to review the lecture material as often as necessary.  (There are other aspects of education, though, that online education cannot easily address, particularly where personal interaction is necessary.)  The institutional model of higher education is terribly expensive, and Christians are rightfully concerned about the social formation taking place at secular institutions.  Online education is presently deconstructing residential, institutional approaches to education, has the potential to bring down the costs of education (provided it is not delivered by an institution!), and can improve the quality of instruction.  On its own, though, it lacks key components of ‘education,’ particularly when this involves collaborative learning, acquisition of skills on the job, and character formation—all significant for ministerial training.

The Intentional Community Model

Long’s third type of a means to moral change is the intentional community model.  This model has been explored through the ethical writings of Stanley Hauerwas perhaps more than any other—although we need to say that John Howard Yoder was greatly influential for him.  The intentional model focuses on significance of a community in bringing about change.  This should be the story of the local church in a larger social setting.  Hauerwas is fond of saying, ‘The church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.’  The oldline denominations, operating out of an institutional model, have concerned themselves with having a social programme that it supports.  Picture the difference between a wealthy Episcopal church concerned to have a programme to help the poor on the other side of town, rather than the Pauline church in which are found home owners, the poor, and slaves as part of the same community in Christ.

In the history of missions, there are many examples of intentional communities.  Some were dead-ends, out of which no ministry flowed, whereas others were both vibrant communities that made a significant difference by the nature of their very existence and the ministry that bubbled up out of the community into the surrounding areas.  Jesus himself first banded together a group of followers and took them as a micro-community into the villages and towns for ministry.  They were a travelling, ministering, missional community, learning together, ministering together, and developing spiritually together.  What we have proposed to do in our approach to mission work is to establish such intentional communities in various areas.  To describe this would be difficult, since description reduces what is experienced to speaing of programmes and types of relationships.  I am reminded of my dear professor, Gordon Fee, saying that one cannot watch worship (he compared this to pornography!): one can and only should experience it. 

Intentional communities can be awful experiences—this should not be absolutized as a perfect alternative to institutions and operations.  Families are intentional communities.  Paul’s churches—the ones who received his corrective correspondence—were intentional communities.  And his own missionary team was an intentional community.  Some intentional communities define their existence around community itself—always a mistake—rather than their relationship to God and their purpose of following his call into mission.  Community is the means, not the end itself.  We’ve seen movements of intentional community that have been hopelessly abusive, with dictatorial leaders exerting their personal power over miserable members—intentional communities can become cultic, even.  Thus, getting the focus, balance, and relationships right in intentional communities is very important.  That focus can only come if people in positions of oversight understand their roles not as leaders exercising authority (as in the institutional model) but as persons in more specific roles (teachers, pastors, e.g.) with responsibility (a different word from authority, mind you) to help others and the community itself flourish—and all this under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

Almost invariably, as intentional communities form, some individual or individuals emerge as leaders with personal power.  They intentionally try to ‘shepherd’ the ‘sheep’ in the community along their ‘paths of righteousness’—their own foci not related to the purpose and function of the ministry. They coerce and cajole, try to exert communal pressure on others, call everyone to engage in a certain task that is not really what the community is all about and then shame persons for not participating, and so forth.  All this can only be avoided if people keep their focus on what they are really about, not the personal agenda of the emergent community ‘leader’, and, a Christian would add, keep their focus on glorifying God in all that is said and done.  Even so, coercion and manipulation must be opposed at every turn in every intentional community.  One way an intentional community moves in such a direction can be contrasted with the institutional model.  Pay levels distinguish people on the institutional model, whereas an intentional community model is more likely to determine pay levels in terms of the sizes of families.  A mission agency, as opposed to a seminary, is likely to have a pay scale in which an elderly director is paid less monthly than the family of five that has just joined the mission.

If ministerial training were to start with a model of intentional community, its focus would be more on retreats, communal living, formation of character, ministry together, and relationships that include teachers.  This last point needs expansion.  In the institutional and operational models, education is personal: one studies to attain a degree that certifies a person has reached a certain level of training (institutional model) or can perform to a certain level of competency (operational model).  The intentional community model of learning understands that people are gifted differently, and one person who struggles academically or who simply lacks sufficient education can still function well by being in the same community as someone who is highly capable academically and knows the Scriptures well.  The teacher is a resource to the student—or the pastor, or evangelist, or prophet—in the community.  Education in community relies much more on trusted teachers who know the tradition, who are academically capable, and who are role models for others in the community.  Teachers, moreover, function collaboratively in the community—and this should involve disagreement in the process rather than affirmation of what has become a politically (communally) correct position on a matter.


The specific thoughts in this post are clearly somewhat random, but they are intended to try to flesh out three fairly distinct models of going about education, ministry, and missions.  The three models are the institutional, operational, and intentional community models.  My primary purpose has been to explain these three models for ministry.  Others may also find them useful to form the ongoing discussions they have as they are involved in mission and ministry.  I also hope that particular examples given—out of personal experience—will prove helpful to some.  Finally, I hope that the examples offered show where there are some strengths and dangers in each of the various models.  While my own focus is on developing ministry out of an intentional community, my own personality is likely more comfortable with the operational model: none of us likely functions fully in only one of these models.  Problems arise when we confuse matters, such as when weekly written reporting becomes a tool used to check on others in an intentional community, or when a 'chief administrative officer' in an institution tries to function as though the institution were an intentional community.  And so the conversation might go, using these categories, for others involved in ministry together.

[1] Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).